NIGER DELTA AVENGERS: THE RETURN OF FULL-BLOWN MILITANCY

By ADE ALADE, LAGOS, PAUL OSUYI, ASABA, FEMI FOLARANMI, YENAGOA, TONY JOHN, PORTHARCOURT and MURPHY GANAGANA

RATHER than hope for a boom in oil prices to lift Nigeria out of its present financial conundrum, the nation ap­pears to be slipping into the old era of bombing and gunfire boom in the oil rich Niger Delta region. The development may spell economic doom for the most populous country in Sub-Sahara Africa.

This gloomy challenge is com­ing barely seven years after Niger Delta militants accepted a Presiden­tial Amnesty Programme (PAP), dropped their arms, in order to pave way for peace and hitch-free oil ex­ploration in the creeks.

Like a storm from the blues, a new militant group, Niger Delta Avengers, NDA took the region by surprise when it announced its for­mation on February 3. It launched a website and social media page, which it uses to publish statements of its activities, including its Febru­ary 10 blow up of the Bonny Soku Gas Line which carries natural gas to the Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas plant and an independent power plant at Gbaran. This was followed by a major destabilising attack on the Forcados 48-inch export pipe­line at the Forcados export terminal. The attack, among others, have no doubt had a devastating effect on the country’s oil revenue projection in the 2016 budget. Besides, the ac­tivities and statements of the group have led to restiveness in the region, a signpost of a return to the pre- 2009 militancy level. Curiously, no known face or name has claimed the leadership of the NDA apart from one Col. Mudoch Agbinibo who has been signing press releases on behalf of the group. Security agents howev­er, believe that Mudoch is a pseudo name and faceless like the notorious Jomo Gbomo of the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta, MEND, fame.

As this background, Saturday Sun went all out to unmask those behind the faceless group that has within a space of four months, shaken the economic bastion of the na­tion. Their real motives, beyond the 10-point demand they have made public were also unearthed, in addi­tion to unraveling the group’s modus operandi among other intriguing de­tails.

NDA as amalgam of aggrieved ex-militants

The latest brazen and simultane­ous attacks on oil and gas facilities indeed has shown a resurgence of militancy in the Niger Delta. Folow­ing its formation on February 3 and the launch of series of attacks to register its presence in the oil rich creeks, the recent statement by Pres­ident Muhammadu Buhari that he would treat pipeline vandals as Boko Haram terrorists seemed to have provided the tonic for the renewed wave of hostilities by the avengers.

The Niger Delta Avengers looks more like an amorphous, ad hoc group comprising a blend of ex- Niger Delta militants who embraced the offer of presidential amnesty by the late President Umaru Musa Yar’adua, and some unrepentant militants. On the face value, it ap­pears it presently has no structured leadership, but operates in a guerrilla fashion with no known operational base. Meanwhile, the group possess­es high-tech equipment including underwater and surface long-range weapons that could be used to blow-up pipelines effortlessly, thus taking the security forces unaware. The group’s website: http://www.nigerdelta­avengers.com contains scanty in­formation about it, visitors to the site can only go with press statements on the group’s warnings and attacks on oil facilities.

Its activities are suspected to be funded by some financial heavy weights with political motives, which they hope to achieve by crip­pling the nation’s oil revenue.

Although the NDA claimed to be enemies of the ex-militant leader, Government Ekpemupolo a.k.a Tompolo, Niger Delta watchers are however, divided on his possible involvement in the renewed attacks. Even a statement by Tompolo dis­sociating himself from the group is seen as a facade and a diversionary ploy in some quarters where specu­lations are rife that he (Tompolo) is using the ‘boys’ as a cover up and to deflect attention from him.

Comrade Sheriff Mulade, Coor­dinator of Centre for Peace and En­vironmental Justice (CEPEJ) while not completely exonerating Tompo­lo, stated that those perpetrating the sabotage might be taking advantage of Tompolo’s travails in the hands of the Federal Government to carry out  the attacks and turn round to blame him. Mulade is a native of Kokodi­agbene, an oil producing commu­nity in Gbaramatu Kingdom, where Tompolo also hails from.

“It has been linked to him (Tom­polo) but he has debunked it. There are also those who are seeking po­litical relevance in Delta State and outside the state from the present administration, so they can take ad­vantage, use the opportunity to do all these. It is not new to us because during the Niger Delta crisis, many of these persons were involved in il­legal bunkering and pipeline vandal­ism but it was attributed to the Niger Delta crisis, so you may not be able to pinpoint who was involved.

“Now, because the man Tompolo must be pulled down by his ex-militant colleagues, by his politi­cal opponents, do not be surprised that at the end of the day, he may be involved in some, and may not be involved in some. People may take advantage that he had done this, let us also send some boys to do that,” Mulade said.

According to Mulade’s findings, NDA “is an aggrieved group, which perhaps may have perceived that their benefits are monopolized by their leaders and therefore resorted to violence to draw attention to themselves and possibly be invited to discuss their own terms and get their proper benefits.

I learnt Tompolo denied being part of the NDA in reaction to in­sinuations that he was behind them. I think we should believe and com­mend him for being bold enough to publicly denounce the activities of the new group.”

Also spokesman of the Ijaw Youth Congress (IYC), Eric Omare who deplored the attack, said it was not justifiable on the part of Niger Delta Avengers to have em­barked on the “destruction of oil facilities because Chief Govern­ment Ekpemupolo, alias Tompolo, denounced the group.

“I think Tompolo did the proper thing by coming out to inform the entire world that he was not part of the NDA when there were insinu­ations to the effect that he was be­hind them.”

But a source in the creeks linked Tompolo with the crime, arguing that he was using the NDA as a front and possibly to divert atten­tion of the Federal Government that is bent on prosecuting him using the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).

“Whether the boys come out to exonerate him or not, or even de­claring war against him is not the issue. What I see there is that this action is targeted at frustrating the government, and for me, it is di­versionary. No matter how hard he tried to convince Nigerians that he has nothing to do with NDA, Tom­polo definitely has some questions to answer. He is the acclaimed lord of the creeks, he should know the boys, if he claims they are not his agents,” the source said.

Unarguably, the present crop of agitators under the aegis of NDA does not seem to be after individual financial bargains but to frustrate the government by crippling the economy.

Findings also revealed that the NDA militants might have failed to embrace the amnesty programme of the Federal Government in 2009 when they probably doubted government’s sincerity at the time, hence the renewed attack is aimed at seeking attention.

According to Comrade Mulade “some of them were afraid that the amnesty programme was a trap, set to arrest, and prosecute them. Oth­ers did not know that there would be benefits accruing to them.”

From MEND to NDA

When the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) emerged with its agitation in 2006, not very few in the Niger Delta knew that those behind the militant organisation were a mixed bag of intellectuals and crude ele­ments. It did not take time before the unveiling of the brains behind the organisation showed that it had its tentacles spread to Ondo, Delta, Bayelsa, Rivers with Government Ekpemupolo generally regarded as the General Officer Commanding (GOC). As GOC, Tompolo was not only dreaded, he was respected. In his true element, he can be mag­nanimous. It was not surprising that when he embraced the amnesty programme, MEND lost its bite.

For close observers of the evolu­tion of agitation in the Niger Delta region, the entry of Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) had all the trap­pings of the old MEND, but being spear-headed by a group of mili­tants believed to be loyal to Tom­polo with the aim to bring the Nige­rian economy to its knees.

Although Tompolo had denied severally, any link between him and the group which even attracted a threat from the latter demanding an apology, talks in intelligence circles and among ex-militant lead­ers point to Tompolo camp as those who have formed the fulcrum of the new onslaught in the Niger Delta region.

Spokesman of the defunct Ni­ger Delta Liberation Front (NDLF) General Mark Anthony had in a statement thrown a challenge to the NDA to show themselves if they are not cowards while Eris Paul a.k.a Ogunboss, leader of the Upper House of defunct MEND had also alluded to the fact that those behind NDA cannot hide. The brains be­hind the militant group have simply ignored them.

A very reliable militant leader in Delta State that the coordinated attacks, the well composed press statements claiming responsibili­ties for the attacks and issuance of ultimatums are a well-known style deployed by the defunct MEND which has only resurrected.

“We who are ex-militants know those behind NDA. They can’t deceive us. Check out the strikes and where it happen? They did not happen in Tompolo’s strong­hold. So, strange people would go to that area and blow oil installa­tions in Tompolo’s backyard, and nobody would raise a finger? I can tell you that the NDA is made up of Ijaw people with base in Delta and Ondo. They also have a foot in Rivers State where they recently hijacked a vessel. It is only in Bay­elsa State that they are yet to re­cruit men but they are working on it. And this led to the attack on the military check point where arms and ammunition were stolen. All the threats and warnings issued to Tompolo were just a strategy to di­vert attention from the real reason behind the new wave of agitation. The agitation would be linked to IPOB through their man in Rivers, to give it more bite”

A journalist who does not want his name in print, but has followed the agitations in the Niger Delta since 1999, said the conditions given by NDA to the Buhari-led government betrayed the sentiments that have also been expressed by Tompolo since his running battle with the Presidency and the EFCC began.

“It is not simply coincidental that some of the grievances ex­pressed by Tompolo before now, especially, with regards to some chieftains of the All Progressives Congress( APC) are somehow re­lated to the conditions for peace, given by NDA. There is some­thing fishy”

More groups join forces with the Avengers

If the federal government thinks militancy in the Niger Delta is gone with the 2009 presidential amnesty programme, then it is far from the reality on ground in the oil rich region where other mili­tant groups are not only springing up but joining forces with the Ni­ger Delta Avengers (NDA).

Findings show that among the groups supporting the NDA is the Niger Delta People’s Demo­cratic Front (NDPDF), which is led by Precious Iyoyo (a.k.a Gen­eral Playboy). Though, the two groups, as was gathered, have not fused, the latter is totally in sup­port of the former’s activities and modus operandi.

This was disclosed in an exclu­sive interview with Saturday Sun by the NDPDF’s leader, Iyoyo, who preferred to be addressed as General Playboy. Recently, he said the struggle for Niger Delta emancipation was a commit­ted agitation, irrespective of the groups they belong to.

General Playboy and his group, who refused to be addressed as ex-militants, said they were fight­ing a joint war, and individual groups’ interests were secondary. He emphasized that, leaders in the Niger Delta struggle have not met the Avengers, but they gave them 100 percent support for what they (Leaders) have seen them do.

He said: “What the Avengers are doing is well and in order for Nigeria to sit up. Though, we, the Niger Delta leaders in the struggle, have not known them, my group and I, in particular, give them 100 percent support.

“What I want you to know is, where the Niger Delta Avengers stops, we continue. And where we stop, the group continues. This is to tell you that we are all in one spirit. The group is doing a perfect job and there is no going back.

“Bear this in mind, other people cannot be benefiting from our re­sources, owning oil blocs out of our expense, while people of Ni­ger Delta remain impoverished.

It is not done anywhere. Aveng­ers’ activities are in line with ours because we want Federal Govern­ment to address very topical issues in the country.

“Looking at the conditions for the struggle, we cannot rule out the re­source control and the liberation of Biafra. Freedom of Biafra is a vital issue which Federal Government is playing politics with, coupled with the incarceration of the leader of In­digenous People of Biafra (IPOB).

“It is painful what we are seeing in Nigeria since the present admin­istration came on board. In fact, I have to tell you that the worst of former President Goodluck Jona­than ‘s administration, is the best of President Muhammadu Buhari. In fact, what conditions the Niger Delta Avengers has given Federal Government, the truth remains that we are tired of Nigeria and its lead­ers. That is why we are supporting Biafra sovereignty.

“Take note, attack on oil installa­tions can never stop in Niger Delta because it is unimaginable that the goose that lays the egg is emascu­lated, even to the extent of being asked ‘what can you do?’ We can­not take it any longer and any at­tack on any of us, is attack on all. The war declared by Federal Gov­ernment is not a threat to us. But, Federal Government should know that this is 2016, and not 1967 civil war.

“Look at the issue of Fulani herdsmen killing people even down in Southern region. Federal Government should know that their presence in the region is annoying. Our colleagues in another group have given them ultimatum to va­cate the Niger Delta region. We support and stand by that order. Enough is enough.”

International connection

Investigations also revealed that there is an international dimension to the NDA activities as their website is being operated from abroad giv­ing an inkling to the fact that there are international collaborators who are dissatisfied with the incumbent administration in the country as it af­fects the Niger Delta region. This is further strengthened by the fact that some high profile suspects in the probe of past officials of the Jonathan government over corruption allega­tions, but have strong links with the ex-militants have escaped abroad while a large number of ex-agitators are also on various rehabilitation pro­grammes across the world.

Security chiefs are already hav­ing sleepless nights because of the activities of NDA since oil output has been reduced after the bomb­ing of Chevron facilities in Delta State. The latest threat of two-week ultimatum to owners of oil blocs to vacate the region or risk destruction of their facilities should not be taken lightly according to an ex-militant leader. According to him, “NDA has the capacity to destroy just like the old MEND if the military does not buckle up.”

“Unlike before when MEND start­ed and there was no much money to run its affairs, now the people behind NDA have money and international connections. They have the finan­cial resources to surpass MEND but where there would be problem is the manpower to execute their plans. But this also can be acquired with money. So the military must move fast and curtail them because already, half of oil output has been hampered by their activities”, the source warned

From its latest statement, it is clear that NDA does not want to limit itself to the conditions for peace and the crippling of the nation’s economy as its ultimate plan is to trigger seces­sion with the launch of a currency, flag, passport, ruling council and dec­laration of a territorial control.

Between their demands and motive

While NDA has come out with multiple demands which they insist must be met if peace was to return to the troubled region, sources within the intelligence community be­lieve strongly that the group is only out to champion the cause of their paymasters especially some of the high profile persons currently being investigated and/or prosecuted by the federal government through the EFCC. It is argued that a substantial number of those facing corruption charges, either as top officials of the Goodluck Jonathan administration or leaders of the then ruling PDP, have strong links to the Niger Delta militants. A top security source told Saturday Sun that “their (NDA) goal at the moment is to arm-twist the fed­eral government to drop corruption charges against some of their friends, leaders and paymasters who have graft charges hanging on their necks. Any other demand already put in the public domain by them especially the recent 10-point ridiculous demand is a mere façade and diversionary. We are deconstructing their moves and statements to be able to get their line of thought.”

Notwithstanding the thinking within government and the security circle, the group has sternly warned oil multi-nationals and foreign inves­tors to prevail on government to meet their demands as their business inter­ests in the country would be the first target of more attacks.

Among others, NDA wants the immediate implementation of the report of the 2014 national confer­ence or the country would break up, insisting that ownership of oil blocks should reflect 60 per cent for the oil-producing people and 40 per cent for others.

They also asked Buhari, the De­partment of State Security (DSS) and former Bayelsa governor, Timipre Sylva to apologise to the people of the Niger Delta region and the family of a former governor of the state, late Diepreye Alamieyeseigha for intimi­dating and harassing him to death “because of his party affiliation.”

Stressing that the nation’s only maritime university in Okerenkoko must start the 2015/2016 academic session immediately, the militants requested that the Minister of Trans­portation, Rotimi Amaechi apologise to Ijaw nation and the entire Niger Delta people for his “careless and reckless statement about the siting of the university.”

According to them, Ogoniland, indeed, all oil-polluted areas in the Niger Delta must be cleaned up and compensation paid to all oil-produc­ing communities. While sympathis­ing with the Indigenous People of Biafra, (IPOB), the NDA demanded that the leader of the group, Nnamdi Kanu, be released unconditionally as a court had ruled. It said that the Ni­ger Delta Amnesty programme must be well funded and allowed to con­tinue to function effectively.

Faulting Buhari’s anti-corruption campaign on the grounds that it is skewed in favour of his political as­sociates, they held that members of the All Progressives Congress (APC), who have been indicted in any corruption case should be made to face trial like members of the Peo­ples Democratic Party (PDP).

In a new twist, the NDA, in a state­ment on Thursday said that their goal is the actualisation of a sovereign state of Niger Delta. While congratu­lating its militants for the impact their attacks on oil facilities had already achieved, the group said “Once again, on behalf of all the command­ers of the avengers strike teams, we congratulate our loyal and gallant soldiers who put human lives before their targets. On behalf of the Niger Delta people, we say congratula­tions as we have crippled the Nigeria economy by 50%, by the grace of God we will make it 100% if our de­mands are not met soon.”

Projecting into the months ahead, they vowed that “By October 2016, we will display our Currency, Flag, Passport, our ruling Council and our Territory to the world. To the United Nations, we are not asking for much but to free the people of the Niger Delta from environmental pollution, slavery, and oppression. We want a country that will turn the creeks of the Niger Delta to a tourism heaven, a country that will achieve its full potentials, a country that will make health care system accessible to ev­eryone. With Niger Delta still within Nigeria, we can’t make that pos­sible.”

They called for global support for their goal of a sovereign state. “So,  we are calling on Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General, United Nations and all Heads of the government of the five Permanent Security Council members to come to the aid of Niger Delta people. We are calling on world leaders to come to the Niger Delta to see the atrocities committed by the Nigerian government”, they added.

Govs panic as military onslaught looms

With full-blown military onslaught imminent, governors of states where the militants have been causing maximum damage to the nation’s economic lifeline especially Delta, Bayelsa and Rivers, have been seri­ously agitated and uncomfortable with what might be the consequence of such face-off on local communi­ties and their residents. As a result, Governor Henry Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa State has condemned, in very strong terms, the recent un­provoked attack and killing of four security personnel in Nembe Creek and three Naval personnel in Foropa community in Nembe and Southern Ijaw Local Government Areas of the state and other parts of the Niger Delta region.

According to him, such unwar­ranted attacks on the nation’s secu­rity personnel were putting the state and the region in bad light. As part of the steps to check the activities of militants, he summoned and held a meeting with community leaders, elders and other stakeholders. “Ter­rorism does not favour peace, neither can democracy express itself through violence,” Dickson emphasised.

The governor’s condemnation came on the heels of President Mu­hammadu Buhari’s order on the military to go on a manhunt for the perpetrators and clamp down on all security threats in the Niger Delta re­gion. Dickson stated that the killings were also putting the innocent ones in the state and the Niger Delta region in danger.

While warning that the govern­ment of Bayelsa State does not want a replay of the Odi massacre in 1999, during the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, where only the innocent people suffered the brunt of the military invasion, the governor called on community lead­ers and other stakeholders to check the activities of youths in their do­mains.

Military set for onslaught

That not withstanding, the De­fence Headquarters (DHQ) has vowed to employ all available means and measures within its Rule of En­gagement (RoE) to crush the Niger Delta Avengers, which has recently engaged in the bombing of oil instal­lations in the region.

The military, in a statement by Acting Director, Defence Infor­mation, Brigadier-General Rabe Abubakar said it is not unaware of the emergence of the Niger Delta Avengers who have vowed to cripple economic activities through pipeline vandalism, oil theft and kidnap of expatriate workers in the Niger Delta region.

According to the military “The Defence Headquarters (DHQ) is not unaware of the emergence of a group in the Niger Delta region who have vowed to cripple economic activi­ties through pipeline vandalism, oil theft and kidnap of expatriate work­ers in that region; it will not hesitate to deploy every available resources to deal decisively with any threat to economic lifeline of the nation.

“The military will employ all available means and measures with­in its rule of engagement to crush any individual or group that engages in the destruction of strategic assets and facilities of the government in the Niger Delta or any other loca­tion and they will stand to regret the consequences of their actions. The whole world has seen what they are causing in terms of economic terror­ism against the nation and would be treated as criminals in line with the laws of the land.

“While the military and other se­curity agencies would continue to put in place more proactive measures within the creeks and other places to fish out those responsible for the hei­nous crime, it will remain focused and assure oil companies and law abiding community members of their safety and protection of their sanctity

“The DHQ advises the commu­nity leaders, traditional rulers and the general public to cooperate with the security agencies to ensure the appre­hension of the culprits for the interest of our great nation; as no individual or group interest is above national interest of this country.”

Taking a toll on a weak economy

Within a space of 24 hours last week, the militants launched an at­tack on Chevron’s Valve Platform on Wednesday, May 4. It carried out other attacks on the Chevron Well D25 in Abiteye and gas lines feeding the Warri and Kaduna refineries, be­longing to the NNPC, on Thursday, May 5. The attacks, it was gathered, also affected major pipelines with di­rect link to the Abiteye, Alero, Dibi, Otunana and Makaraba flow sta­tions, which feed the Chevron Tank Farm in the area. Recounting the impact, an oil industry source hinted that the destruction would also have severe impact on the crude line feed­ing the Warri and Kaduna refineries respectively and would further de­plete power supply across the coun­try. Chevron, in a statement, Friday last week, by its spokesperson, Isabel Ordonez, said approximately 35,000 barrels per day of its net crude oil production in Nigeria was being im­pacted by the incident.

The group had on February 10 soon after its formation blown up the Bonny Soku Gas Line carrying natural gas to the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas plant and an indepen­dent power plant at Gbaran. This was followed by the attack on the Forcados 48-inch Export Pipeline at the Forcados export terminal.

As a result, the 2016 national bud­get just signed into law by President Muhammadu Buhari may suffer a major cash flow set back from oil revenue as prices shed $5 per barrel a fortnight ago, while output dropped further due to Chevron facility bombing just before the budget was signed Friday last week. The federal government based the budgeted rev­enue on oil production of 2.2 million barrel per day but oil industry reports after the second attack on oil installa­tions indicated that output would be around 1.6 mbpd or even less.

Also, the budgeted oil price benchmark of $38 per barrel came with the expectation that in the event of a production shortfall, which had been consistent since the beginning of the year, a premium of at least 20% on the price benchmark which gives about $45.6 per barrel, would make up for the losses arising from output shortfalls.

However, oil price receded to $41 per barrel, or less than 10% premi­um on budgeted price benchmark as against $46.1 per barrel peak re­corded in the previous week. The federal government is losing about $8 million per day on oil price re­versal, while the production slump has resulted in a revenue loss to the tune of about $22.8 million per day. The total loss from date to year end on annualised budgetary provisions would be $7.16 billion or about N1.4 trillion, if the oil price fails to re­bound sometime down the year and production level remains depressed. The N1.4 trillion revenue shortfall would wipe out about 80% of the to­tal N1.8 trillion earmarked for capital expenditure, CAPEX, in the budget, thereby rendering the reflationary thrust of the budget ineffective from the outset. The International Mon­etary Fund (IMF) recently said the average price for the year would be $41, with occasional downward and upward swings, meaning that the losses to price reversal would likely remain.

Latest data from April Monthly Oil Market Report, MOMR, of the Organisation of Petroleum Ex­porting Countries, OPEC, showed that Nigeria’s crude oil production fell by 67,000 bpd in March from 1.744mbpd to 1.677mbpd, with Ni­gerian industry experts saying that April did not do better, while last week’s attack on Chevron brought down output to about 1.637mbpd. With the defiant posturing of the mil­itants and threats of further attacks, it appears the output challenges may even get worse, especially as the Nigerian security agencies appeared handicapped to arrest the situation.

Already, reports indicate that other major oil producers like Shell and Mobil may have began plans to shut-in production locations in volatile ar­eas, following the threats. Apparent­ly aware of the implications of these sudden developments last weekend while signing the budget, President Buhari said: “We are working night and day to diversify the economy so that we never again have to rely on one commodity to survive as a coun­try.”

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