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10 Days in the Den of Niger Delta Militants

The very first day this reporter arrived Warri on a special assignment on the militants/soldiers face-up, some Warri-based journalists introduced the reporter to a cyber…

The very first day this reporter arrived Warri on a special assignment on the militants/soldiers face-up, some Warri-based journalists introduced the reporter to a cyber cafe at the 3rd Marine gate in Warri as the safest place for a journalist to send his reports from, as most other cafes in the town wered believed to be patronized by the militants who are concerned with the type of reports journalists were sending out about the crisis.

Tompolo, an Ijaw man from the creeks, to easily establish his camps with an all-Ijaw followership without any objection from the local community that he belongs.

Pa Saturday Dokubo is an elder that lived all his live in the creeks. He blamed the government of Delta State for creating an avenue for Tompolo to gather a lot of powers and influence in the creeks. He said the activities of Tompolo, as the sole employer of labour in the creeks, were known to both the state government and the Warri South-West local government.

“Rather than check his excesses by reporting him to the police to explain the source of the dangerous arms that he used in arming his boys who have been using those arms to terrorise people in the area, the state government went ahead to appoint Tompolo as the state Chairman of waterways security. As I speak to you today, he is still holding that position.  This is a person that acquired illegal arms that he is using to terrorise everybody in the creeks, you now say okay, let him take charge of the entire creeks. That means you have given him licence to kill and to continue to do what he wants.

“Since he was given that appointment, all his boys that you call militants that were covering their faces in the past when they want to rob, kidnap people, rape girls and women or beat the innocent that have disagreement with, now operate publicly under the guise that they are working for the waterways committee chairman. So, we see the state government as the sole authority that worsens our case here. Ordinary commercial canoes conveying market women and travellers must pay tax to his boys before they are allowed passage in the creeks,” he said.     

Pa Dokubo lamented that most of the youths in the area were clamouring to join MEND because they felt it is the surest way to make quick money, especially as very few of the youths, from the creek goe to school. Them majority of them are proud members of MEND while those that could not be recruited by MEND or fell out with the leadership of the group operate on their own. However, youths from the area that refused to take to crime, have fishing as their major occupation.

A retired civil security who worked with one of the oil companies operating in the area, Mr. John-bull Eselemo, blamed some oil workers and politicians from the region for what is happening. He said most of the oil workers working with the multinational oil companies operating in the area are the ones giving the militants information about the presence of an expatriate that should be kidnapped or a ship and the time it will come so that they can hijack it.

“When I hear people talking of oil bunkering and the government is saying they want to stop it, I always laugh. Do you know how they do the bunkering? When the pipes are broken, the militants will be siphoning the oil from the broken pipes for months unobstructed. Have you ever asked yourself why the oil companies don’t block the leakages or stop the pumping of the oil immediately? When you find out those behind oil bunkering in this country and their foreign collaborators, you will know that the boys are merely being used.

“You know, in this area, whenever these oil companies want to employ staff, the community must be informed and certain positions must be made available for the community to fill in candidates. Those candidates that benefit from the system and gained such employment are the ones giving the militants such information. We watch the youths from here as they go and kidnap these expatriates and pass to their camps with them. From here you see the oil workers coming to give the militants information. Everybody that lives in the creeks sees those that come to visit the militants and go back.

“Look, even the soldiers are not exempted. They also come around in their boats, park, go and drink, smoke and play with the militants before this war started. These same militants were the ones the politicians used during the 2007 elections. During the election period, this place was like heaven. No noise, no trouble and no sound of guns because all the militants were there doing election duty. If not because these Hausa soldiers that you call JTF have come, the soldiers in Warri cannot do anything. They all knew themselves and were doing a lot together,” he said.

Mr. Eselemo, who lived close to Camp 5, said he was in his house on May 13 when the militants returned from an operation, singing, dancing and shooting guns in the air. He said it was in the evening that he learnt that the militants were celebrating because they hijacked a ship and kidnapped some people, including soldiers. He said the celebration lasted throughout the night and continued the following morning.

“I did not go there to see things for myself because I never liked what they are doing. Two days later when the soldiers came with helicopters, some on foot and some in boats, I am telling you even the dead was afraid that day. I never thought I will survive it. I didn’t know when I ran out of my house to Kulukuluma. When Kulukuluma could not contain us because information reached us that the soldiers were coming there, I did not wait to tell my host that I was going. It was after four days that I saw my wife. But nobody was killed in  our community,” Eselemo had said.

Though armed soldiers were seen at strategic places in Camp 5 and Okerenkoko, they seem to have little or nothing to do with the movement and normal activities of the people around the place. However, the few engine boats and canoes that paddle between one community and the other in the area are thoroughly searched by the soldiers. Young men between the ages of 18 and 40 years are subjected to questioning and, in some cases, being searched to know if they were carrying arms.

At Oporoza, Okerenkoko and Camp 5 visited by this reporter, all the alleged Tompolo and the militant buildings touched by the military were seen. All the buildings belonging to Tompolo and the militants that were attacked and destroyed by the military had blue roofs on them. It was not clear if the blue roofs had any special meaning to the militants or if it was just a mere coincidence.

At Camp 5, which was serving as the headquarters of MEND in Delta State before the crisis started, two giant generators supplying the militants with electricity were seen. But the soldiers had carted away all the computers, files, documents and had destroyed the table and chairs that were used by the militants as office furniture during the attack. Apart from the militants’ camps and Tompolo’s guest house that were badly affected by the military incursion of the area, the only building that can be said to have been badly damaged was the palace of the Agadagba of Gbaramatu Kingdom, Akatekpe Ogeh Gbaramatu 111.

At Kurutie, Yeye and Azama where Sunday Trust visited, only shrines, suspected hideouts of militants and their places of abode were ransacked by the soldiers. But no building was destroyed by the soldiers, though there is serious apprehension among the people in the area. The few women and children still seen around the creeks do not like mixing up or talking to strange faces who, they suspect to be government agents.

Though the reporter could not see where bunkering activities takes place in the area, it is alleged that bunkering of crude oil was taking place largely in the creeks around the place more than anywhere else in the region. Ships belonging to foreign merchants enter Nigerian waters illegally, siphon the stolen oil and pay the militants in both cash and arms.  Such ships enter the creeks and depart unchallenged by the Nigerian Navy that claimed to be providing security at the nation’s waters.

The militants in several online statements issued by MEND’s spokesperson, Jomo Gbomo, said they were fighting for the emancipation of the Niger Delta region, which, they said, has suffered decades of neglect by successive administrations. The militants said there target was to liberate the people of the area and ensure the development of the region.

“The entire oil that this country relies on comes from this region. The money that they make from oil is taken to Abuja from where the money is partly stolen and partly used for the development of other regions that do not even produce the oil. We shall stop the carting away of our oil money to other regions. We have suffered years of neglect and oppression and that must stop,” one of the statements read in part.

But Chief Krapo Anthony of Delta Forum in Warri, said the militants were not fighting the cause of the region. “You cannot claim to be fighting in the interest of the people and be exploiting the people. Is it by kidnapping people and using their arms to rob and enrich them that they will liberate us. Go and see the N800 million built by Tompolo in Warri that they were showing on television yesterday. How can you convince me that such a man is fighting for me,” he said.

The military incursion

The commander of the JTF in the Niger Delta, Major General Sarkin Yaki Bello, whose soldiers have been having gun battle with the militants for some weeks now said the soldiers are not at war with the militants. He said the crisis started when the militants laid ambush and attacked his soldiers in the creeks on May 13. Two of the three gunboats belonging to the soldiers were sunk. The vessel they were escorting that contains 20,000 metric tonnes of PMS (petrol) was hijacked and the captain along with the four other crew members, were kidnapped. A Lieutenant and 10 soldiers were missing in the process.

The soldiers, in a counter attack, stormed the creeks with a view to rescuing their missing soldiers. Though none of the missing soldiers was found by the troops, the soldiers have succeeded in recovering the hijacked ship carrying the petrol, another ship earlier hijacked that was carrying fish, rescued and freed four Nigerians, 22 Ukrainians and 15 Filipinos from the custody of the militants. But opinion and community leaders from the region accused the soldiers of using excessive force on the militants that allegedly led to the killing of several civilians.      

“We had the picture of wherever we wanted to bomb clearly. We were convinced that that place deserved to be bombed before we launched the attack. We did not use bombs anywhere during the attack. We used cannons and rockets which were entirely different from bombs. That is to tell you how careful we were in the execution of this military duty. What we have done has been done in the best military tradition and in accordance with any international law you can think of.

“We used 7.62mm special. We used 12.7mm and we used automatic grenade launchers on the gunboats. These are gun boats that have been here all the time that have even been overwhelmed by the militants on several occasions. There was no any deliberate targeting of a place or person who should not be targeted. We targeted and got places and people we aimed at getting and that was why no civilian was hurt,” said General Bello.

The Commander said the JTF deployed a lot of intelligence techniques that they used to gather information on all the militants’ camps in the creeks before descending on them. He said a lot of care and professionalism were put in place to ensure that civilians were not brought under target. He said the efforts put in by the soldiers yielded the desired results as no non-militants were attacked.

“We at first, wanted to know where Camp 5 was. It was not just knowing it, but for a pilot to be able to, under operational circumstance fly directly to the place, hit his target and return back. He needs a clear picture of that place. We tried as much as possible and got the intelligence we wanted and played the visual tape of the place. We saw Camp 5 and saw where the headquarters of the militants was. We saw the blue roofs our target was very clear to us before we took off. We were able to see Tompolo’s house clearly before we went up. We identified it with the blue roofs.

“Immediately I was told that our gun boats were attacked in the creeks near Warri on May 13, the first thing I did was to place all my troops on red alert, thinking the attack was planned to take place simultaneously in different places. It was not our aim to destroy, but to rescue. The Filipinos we rescued at Camp 5 told us that when we launched the attack the first day, many of the militants there were either killed or injured but that those that survived the attack took the corpses and the injured away,” General Bello said.      

We have been able to gather a lot of information in Camp 5. We have got a lot of documents at Camp 5 as well as Aso Rock, which is what they call the house of Tompolo’s in Oporozo. In the first place, at Camp 5, we have been able to understand and gather information to show the nature of the place and know that it was truly a militant camp despite the weapons we were able to get from that region.

On the discovery, the soldiers were able to make at the militants’ camps in the creeks, General Bello said, “We have been able to get documents that have revealed, and even pictures, that have shown the number of recruits past and present and even the number of people that perform duty there. We have a duty roster which we got from Camp 5, which is concerning troops pay and duty roster. The various duties that are been performed, the various arms and ammunitions that were signed for on a daily basis, just like a quasi-military outfit.

“The various people who supply foodstuffs and how they were paid and from which part of that kingdom they came from are all contained in these registers. I would have loved to give you the details of the names, payments made and everything, but that will compromise our security. Investigation is still going on with a view to getting these people and finding out more about the running of Camp 5. You can see that this is a payment list where some people (militants) were paid allowances of N30,000 each, some N35,000 each, amounting to N1,380,000 with dates and everything.

“We also have a roster here that shows the number of ammunitions that each person signs with the rifle he signs and they are posted on duty to Camp 5 and other places around Camp 5. The numbers of people that guard ‘Aso Rock’ for day, afternoon and night duties, are all here with the number of people that guard it. This one is for security postings. It also shows their intelligent men posted to places on both morning, afternoon and night for intelligence gathering. Even the people that supply fire woods and diesel to the camps have their names and record of payments here.

“They also have drivers, cooks; generator man, secretaries and some of them are even called Soldiers on this register. It is a well organized quasi-military establishment. You can see that these are soldiers with guns. You can see all of them with their names and numbers. Some have signed for 90 bullets, others 55 bullets. Yes, all of them are militants,” he said.

The commander said they have also gathered some very interesting military documents from the camps. Some brochures of highly sophisticated military weapons from countries he wouldn’t want to mention. Some are manuals being distributed to soldiers when they are on training. They have got them and are studying them. They also discovered a cyber cafe at Camp 5 where a lot of mails were sent to Journalists. He said the computers are large and because they lack the capacity to study them, he has sent them for further and proper examination and analyses. 

“Also during our search in Tompolo’s house and the building near to it which they said was the king’s palace, in the palace of the king we were able to discover some disturbing pictures and other documents. In the king’s palace we got this picture of an old woman hanged by the neck which we analysed as a sacrifice. The pictures were found in the palace. Sadly, we were able to also find the uniform of one of our missing soldiers, a Lieutenant, with bullet wounds on the legs of the trousers and stains of blood on the uniforms at a shrine in Okerenkoko. We also found the rifle of one of the missing soldiers in the shrine. The body (corpse) was not there.

“We have also discovered some exchanges between a journalist and Tompolo. The journalist wrote to Tompolo and addressed him as ‘The President of Men’ care of Mr. Gbomo Jomo and he sent a magazine to him that had a lot of security implications. I don’t want to mention the name of the magazine or that of the journalist,” he said.

On the source of funding of the militants from the military perspective, General Bello said it was through illegal bunkering. From what I have been able to see in Warri axis, bunkering activity is unique compared to what you have in other parts of the Niger-Delta. The level of oil bunkering going on here in Warri axis around Camp 5, Okerenkoko and around the Gbaramatu kingdom is terrible. From the clear picture I have been able to see on the amount of bunkering activities going on in Delta state, I think is more than the bunkering going on in other parts of Nigeria put together.

“I believe with the influence Tompolo wields in that region, one of his sources of funding is from bunkering. In any case, I had an occasion to debrief a foreigner, a European that was kidnapped and kept at camp 5 and some of the information I got from him were revealing. I was in Port-Harcourt when I interviewed him in 2008. He (the European) told me that he was actually kidnapped by the militants and taken to camp 5. I asked him if the militants were connected to some foreigners and he said, yes.

“He told me that where he was kept was close to a radio room (radio message room). One day he was hearing the militants’ radio or Tompolo’s radio talking to a foreign ship and the radio operator was telling the foreign ship to come nearer, that they had the stock (crude oil) for him. He even knew the nationality of the captain of the ship talking to the militants from his accent. I cannot, for obvious reasons, disclose it here. There is a lot of oil bunkering going on there and it is a common fact that there are a lot of foreign partnerships. It is also a common knowledge that he is the most well endowed militants’ leader in terms of resources in the region. He has more boats, more arms, and more wherewithal than any militant leader. These are common knowledge,” he said.    

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