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By BEN Dunno, Warri
After months of calm and normalcy, tension has returned to Niger Delta communities with residents gripped by palpable fear of impending resumption of hostilities between militants and the Nigerian armed forces.
The people’s anxiety stems from the recent declaration by the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) of its decision to opt out of a year-long ceasefire agreement brokered by Pan Niger Delta Elders Forum (PANDEF) in Abuja on November 1, 2016.
The Avengers’ declaration on November 3, coincided with the annual inspection tour of naval formations across the Niger Delta region by the Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) Vice Admiral Ibok-Ete Ibas, who likewise responded in strongly-worded statements of the readiness of the military to tackle the threat.
Less than 24 hours after the naval chief’s visit, men and officers of the Nigerian Navy ship, NNS Delta, in conjunction with the Nigerian Army and Air force started massive deployment of military hardware such as fighter- jets, surveillance choppers, gunboats and naval personnel to the coastal areas of Delta State, including Gbaramatu kingdom in Warri South West Local Government Area. The development has triggered panic among indigenes many of whom are yet to fully recover from the tribulations of the invasion of Gbaramatu Kingdom by soldiers in the past and they have started fleeing their communities.
Saturday Sun investigation revealed that many of the indigenes had begun to leave, while many others have their baggage packed and poised to flee at the first sign of trouble.
Reasons for fleeing
Residents of the coastal communities, especially, those in the Gbaramatu axis, were seen leaving their homeland in droves to avoid becoming casualties of military operations.
Grace Dimene, a 38-year-old mother of five, was seen offloading her personal belongings from a canoe she paddled with her children all the way from Kokodiagbene community in Warri South West Local Government area of Delta State. She told Saturday Sun she had to move out with her family, as they could no longer bear the intimidating presence of military personnel in her community.
She said: “We had a very sad experience in our community last year when the military launched ‘Operation Crocodile Smile’. Many of our people, especially women and young ones, were trapped as soldiers took over the entire place with gunboats and surveillance choppers making it difficult for us to go about our daily businesses. We were subjected to starvation during the period as we were almost denied access to marketplaces. At a point, we ran out of foodstuff and many of us had to go begging for food from those who had enough to feed their families. It was a terrible experience for three weeks. No one will pray to go through such again in a lifetime. That is one of the main reasons I moved out before the situation worsened.”
Seventy-six-year-old grandmother Rose Timinimi, an indigene of Gbaramatu Kingdom, had already abandoned her home, because of fear of a repeat of the experience.
Though, not directly oppressed by soldiers during the operation, her children were subjected to harrowing experience, especially, the males who were mistaken for militants by soldiers desperately seeking Avengers’ members, she said.
Her last child, an 18-year-old undergraduate of Mechanical Engineering at the Niger Delta University, Yenagoa, Bayelsa State was wrongfully arrested on his way to school on a Monday morning after spending the weekend with the family in Kurutie
To Andrew Peretuobo, 27 –year-old graduate of Delta State University, staying behind in the community at this critical period “is like committing suicide with your two-eyes open.”
Peretubo, who studied law, said: “What do you expect any right thinking person to do at this point? Stay behind in the community and claim all is well when you see stern-looking soldiers taking over everywhere with sophisticated equipment? Those soldiers are looking for able-bodied youths within the age bracket of 17 to 50. I am within that category. There’s no way I would remain there. Thank God, I have relations in the cities of Warri and Effurum. I will go and hangout with them for a while until the situation improves in the area.”
For Ebi Ekpebide, past experience showed how heavy military presence in the areas often led to dwindling businesses due to relocation by a large percentage of the local populace. “Besides my wellbeing, my business is more paramount to me. I would not allow anybody, not even the Nigerian soldiers, to come between me and my source of livelihood,” said the 29-year-old.
At the Naval Engineering College, Sapele, the Chief of Naval Staff did not mince words in sending a warning signal to the Avengers to expect a very tough military resistance to their latest threat to resume hostilities in the region. He described the threat as an affront, which the armed forces would not take lightly.
“Operation Octopus Grip” Phase Two launched on Wednesday, November 8, 2017, brought an armada of 11 gunboats to the Delta creeks, in addition to the fleet already deployed weeks back.
But, Chief Godspower Gbenekama, the spokesperson of the Gbaramatu traditional council, warned that military presence in Gbaramatu and other parts of the Niger Delta region could only escalate crises.
“While we’re still appealing to the agitators, the military should back down so that we can sustain the peace while the Federal Government embarks on one or two projects in the region.”
The paramount ruler of Gbaramatu Kingdom, Oboro Gbaraun II, Aketekpe (Agadagba), lamented that the military had turned Gbaramatu into a regular battlefield. He warned against acts of sabotage by persons or groups who may wish to take advantage of the present situation to bomb oil installations in his domain in order to provoke the military against his people.
Reasons for military Operations
However, Commodore Habib Usman, Operation Tactical Command (OTC) Operation Octopus Grip, said the operation was to sharpen the skills of the personnel on riverine operations in order to rid the waterways of all forms of criminalities and “not meant to intimidate anyone.”