Samuel Ese reports in Yenagoa how the Niger Delta region has remained Nigeria‘s golden goose due to the abundance of crude oil and gas deposits which has been the justification for various strategies adopted by the military to protect oil infrastructure in the wake of pipeline vandalism, illegal refining and crude oil theft among other violent crimes.
Full report; The Joint Task Force (JTF) deployed by the Federal Government to ensure security in the Niger Delta christened Operation Pulo Shield was terminated in June 2016 and renamed Operation Delta Safe; hitherto headed by an Army officer, it was assigned to an officer of the Nigerian Navy.
Stakeholders have hailed the change as a strategic move as the region is predominantly riverine and having a naval officer as head would invariably make for better policing of the many rivers and streams due to his superior knowledge of aquatic environments.
In his maiden press briefing in Yenagoa at the Joint Force Headquarters, Pioneer Commander of Operation Delta Safe, Joseph Okojie, a Rear Admiral, said Operation Pulo Shield whose mandate was to shield oil installations was restructured to provide security for the entire region and the expanded mandate across nine coastal states required maritime expertise.
When on November 18, 2016, then Acting Director, Defence Information, Rabe Abubakar announced the appointment of Apochi Suleiman, a Rear Admiral as Okojie’s replacement, he explained that the change became necessary to “inject new capability to contain the prevailing security threats and provide the much needed stability in the region.”
This was at a time of renewed agitation and insurgency occasioned by incessant attacks by militants resulting in declining oil production output which fell as low as 0.9b million barrels per day (bpd) from nearly 2.6 million bpd.
It is however debatable if the reduced crude oil production coupled with dwindling crude oil prices at the international market triggered the recent recession and associated foreign exchange shortages.
Shortly after assumption of office, on December 10, 2016, Suleiman disclosed that new strategies were being introduced to improve operations to contain attacks on oil facilities and troops asserting that the military were in the region to protect oil facilities and check criminality.
On the new strategies, Suleiman stated: “In my short time of assumption of duty on November 16, 2016, I have tried to sustain and improve on the pace which has yielded some successes. Just a few days ago, troops in Cross River encountered militants in a gun duel around Ikang axis and arrested one of the militants and recovered a large cache of arms and ammunition.
“I must commend the efforts of my predecessor Rear Admiral Joseph Okojie, and will fall back on my experiences as Flag Officer Commanding (FOC) at the Central Naval Command in Yenagoa.”
He warned that he would not condone unprovoked attack on the military by communities in its area of responsibility saying, “The last attack on the military men on duty killing some in cold blood is regrettable and condemnable and when our men went after their killers there was public outcry.
“This is a note of warning that any community that attacks our soldiers should be ready for the consequences, we shall not tolerate any community that habours criminals, we are not here to invade any community, but we are after criminals.
“Any community that habours criminals has lost its immunity, any further unprovoked attack shall be resisted with every resource at our disposal and we shall remain within our mandate,” Suleiman said
In time, as part of wider operations to safeguard the region, Operation Delta Safe extended its activities beyond protecting oil facilities to the nooks and crannies of the region and on July 3, 2017 raided a local firearms manufacturing workshop at Arhawarien community in Ughelli South Local Government Area, Delta State where various types of light firearms discovered.
Al-Hassan Grema, Commander of Sector 1 of JTF told newsmen that three suspects were arrested after a shootout and items recovered included 13 short barreled, five double barreled and 10 locally pistols all locally made as well as three live cartridges, an empty cartridge and two rounds of 7.62 mm special ammunition.
Looking back, John Agim, Acting Director, Defence Information recently said that oil production, according to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) has risen to an average of 2.5 million bpd and attributed the rise in oil output to the strategic approach of the JTF.
Agim recalled that prior to the establishment of the outfit on June 24, 2016, oil production had dropped to 900,000 bpd while stressing that force had pursued its mandate in line with the strategic directive of Chief of Defence Staff, Gabriel Olonisakin and made modest achievements in restoring peace to the hitherto restive region.
He enumerated some of the achievements as enhanced safety of lives, rise in crude oil production, recovery of arms and ammunition, seizure of stolen crude, destruction of illegal refineries and arrest of oil thieves while others were successes in prosecution, profiling of suspects and persons of interest and conduct of in-theatre operations.
Agim explained that JTF had cleared the Niger Delta region of identified militants’ camps, whose activities threatened national security while the threats have been effectively neutralised.
Giving statistics of of its operations, JTF spokesman, Ibrahim Abdullahi, disclosed that from activation of Operation Delta Safe in June 2016 till July 2018 it, has conducted 16,807 patrols, recovered 1,477 arms of various calibres and 23,483 ammunition, seized 24 ocean going vessels, 1,601 boats, 198 barges, 258 outboard engines, 133 tanker trucks, 349 vehicles, 95 generating sets and some 6,958 sundry items facilitating illegal activities.
Abdullahi further disclosed that a total 1,819 illegal refineries, 6,027 storage tanks, 13,663 drums and 17,300 jerrycans were destroyed during the period under review while ‘metallic operation’ which is essentially the use of swamp buggy equipment to destroy illegal refineries was introduced.
In his words: “The JTF has been carrying out massive metallic operations using swamp buggies against illegal refineries all over the joint operation area. This new strategy was recently deployed by Commander of Operation Delta Safe, Rear Admiral Apochi Suleiman, in our operations in April 2018 and it makes it difficult for them to reassemble and resume operation after raids.”
Speaking on the effect of the repositioned military, a community-based group, Niger Delta Peace and Development, in June 2018, applauded the JTF for ensuring stability and addressing restiveness in the area.
Chairman of the group, James Julius said enhanced security in the region was responsible for a rebound in oil production noting that the effective operations of the JTF have checked renewed agitations that reduced oil output before 2016.
Julius stated: “The present Commander of JTF, Rear Admiral Apochi Suleiman, has been achieving results and has proved to be a round peg in a round hole; his deployment at a time there was renewed restiveness was apt and strategic. For the past eight months for instance, there has been no reported incident in the region.”
Julius said though the Federal Government has repositioned the region in terms of security, there was urgent need to change the perception of international investors that fled the region as a result of militancy and sustain the interest of investors coming back in droves due to the prevailing peace and security.
Marco Rondo, outgone General Manager, District, Nigeria Agip Oil Company (NAOC) during a visit to JTF, on May 12, 2018 had commended the Joint Force for curbing restiveness and providing a peaceful atmosphere for uninterrupted oil production.
Rondo said that the operations of troops against militancy and oil theft, had stabilised the operations of the oil firm and reduced incidents of oil theft across its operations in Rivers and Bayelsa.
NAOC had on March 22, 2013 shut its activities at oil fields in Bayelsa, from which it produced about 40,000 barrels of crude oil daily, over high incidence of oil theft and disclosed it was losing about 7,000 barrels of its crude production daily to oil thieves, a development it described as not sustainable.
An indigene of Southern Ijaw Local Government Area of Bayelsa State, David Ebiya told newsmen that after two years of its activation, Operation Delta Safe is making residents feel safer and urged the military to sustain the existing peace in the Niger Delta region.
Recently, African University Students on July 25 under the auspices of League of African Development Students (LEADS Africa) bestowed its African Patriotic Personalities Award on Suleiman and commended the JTF leadership for providing security for increased oil production.
Speaking at the investiture ceremony in Yenagoa, leader of the group, Morgan Gabriel noted that JTF were crucial to the economic growth and development of Nigeria and the African continent and that the economy exiting recession was due to the conducive operational environment occasioned by Suleiman’s leadership.
In his response, Suleiman noted that the award coming less than two months when the JTF received a similar honour was a morale booster to him and the troops saying “This is a call for greater commitment to duty and the results of our operations are being noticed even though we work behind the scenes. We shall remain dedicated and resolute in our fight against oil theft and criminality in our area of responsibility.”
JTF Commander, Apochi Suleiman (front row, 2nd left) leading troops to inspect an underground storage pit at one of the illegal refinery sites in Warri South LGA, Delta State during a raid