Barely one week after the Nigeria Army launched its ‘Operation Crocodile Smile’, a special military exercise designed to flush out militants from the creeks of the Niger Delta, tension is mounting as the militant groups and residents of the oil-bearing communities appear uncomfortable with the massive deployment of troops to the region.

The operation, which was flagged off in Sapele, Delta State, has so far claimed the lives of five suspected militants, led to the arrest of about 23 other suspects and the recovery of different arms and ammunitions from the militants.

Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen Tukur Buratai, who commissioned the operation, described the militants as criminals who must be crushed in order to secure the oil and gas installations located across the maritime zone of the country. But the deployment of the troops and the classification of the militants as criminals have provoked fresh anger among the militants some of whom had embraced the dialogue and peace option in recent weeks.

Sunday Telegraph gathered that some of the militants groups have interpreted the adoption of the military option by the Federal Government, when many groups have decided to seek peace, as an act of intimidation and unnecessary display of force.

The Iduwini Volunteer Force ( IVF), one of the militant groups that has agreed to lay down its arms and support the peace process , has strongly condemned the deployment of troops in the creeks of the oil rich region, describing it as the height of insincerity on the part of the Federal Government and the security agencies. Leader of the group, Commander Johnson Biboye, who spoke with Sunday Telegraph in a telephone interview, said it was disheartening that at a time when the ‘freedom fighters’ were beginning to listen to the traditional and political leadership of the Niger Delta on the need for peace, the Federal Government decided to deploy troops to the region.

Biboye warned that the current situation in the Niger Delta was a delicate one that should be handled with great caution and that peace cannot be achieved through military force. “The massive deployment of troops in the name of ‘Operation Crocodile Smile’ will do nobody no good. The Federal Government cannot ask groups like ours to make peace in the area and yet deploy troops. We believe that the ongoing military operation is in bad faith and will certainly endanger our lives, that of our families members and other innocent people in the coastal communities.

“It is the height of insincerity on the part of theFederal Government, especially when groups like ours have stuck out our neck to campaign for other freedom fighting groups to embrace the peace process. It does not speak well of the efforts of our leaders who are risking their lives to get peace,” he said.

A source close to one of the groups confided in Sunday Telegraph that a number of other militants were beginning to have a second thought about the proposed peace process being spearheaded by some traditional and political leaders from the region. There are fears that the build up of troops, raiding of riverine communities, harassment of the inhabitants of the communities as well as the arrest and killing of suspected militants, might trigger a worse reprisal in the form of serial bombings of strategic oil and gas installations including the oil export terminals .

“We are talking about peace but it appears the Federal Government is not really interested in peace. If it is not intimidation and an attempt to seize our oil resources by force, how else can you describe this build up of troops around our communities?

It is clear that President Muhammadu Buhari is not interested in peace in the Niger Delta. If that is the case, then the boys who are still angry at what is happening in Nigeria will not fold their arms. I can assure you that it will be like Armageddon by the time the next phase of the battle begins,” the leader of one of the groups said.

However, a former Provost Marshall of the Nigeria Army, Brigadier General Idada Ikponmwen ( rtd), had appealed for restraint on the part of the militant groups, assuring that the proposed dialogue between the Federal Government and the Niger Delta Leaders Forum would still hold and all the grievances of the militant groups would be addressed to restore lasting peace to the region.

Ikponmwen observed that while the military had a constitutional right to defend the territorial integrity of Nigeria, he was convinced that President Muhamnadu Buhari was committed to the proposed dialogue aimed at restoring peace in the Niger Delta, adding that the alternative to dialogue could have grave consequences.

In a similar vein, the Chancellor, International Society for Social Justice and Human Right (INSSJHR), Chief Omenazu Jackson, urged the Federal Government to thread with caution in its planned use of force against militant groups in the Niger Delta region. He said the use of force should become an option only when dialogue had failed. He stressed that mostly innocent people would end up as victims should the Federal Government launch any attack in the region.

“The thinking all over the world is that serious issues are solved through dialogue, and not the use of force. There are issues troubling the country, not only the ones concerning the Niger Delta region. The Nigerian society is grumbling, there are complaints here and there. And there are genuine reasons for these complaints. The current situation in the Niger Delta is part of the complaint.

I am against the attacks on oil installations in the Niger Delta by militant groups, but to achieve a lasting peace, the Federal Government has to take the option of dialogue. “It is only when dialogue does not work that troop can now be sent to the creeks.

The platform for dialogue would help the country to breathe deeply, see what our problems are, and make moves to solve them,” Omenazu said. Also speaking on the matter, Prince Dan Mbachu, president of Africa Global Development for Drastic Change (AGDDC), which promotes peaceful coexistence and development in the Niger Delta, said that deploying troops to the Niger Delta was like adding petrol on fire, which he said would negatively affect the country.

“While I strongly condemn the actions of the militants, I make bold to say that two wrongs cannot make a right. What would it profit the Federal Government in using force when the option of dialogue is waiting to be used? Who does not know that there are some historical challenges in the Niger Delta?

Former Niger Delta agitator, High Chief Ateke Tom, through his spokesman, Ifeanyi Ogbonna, declined to comment on the matter, saying he has nothing to say on the matter. “There is no comment on this matter. There is nothing to say about it.”

For the Presiding Archbishop of Commonwealth Covenant ChurchInternational, Archbishop Moses Kattey, the Federal Government should not be in a hurry to use force in the Niger Delta, but should calmly find the root of the agitations across the country in the interest of national stability and peace.

“We know what we passed through before the amnesty of 2009. There was a war in the Niger Delta between militants and soldiers. We don’t want that to happen again. Some are clamouring for the country to be restructured so that states or regions control their resources and pay taxes to the Federal Government.

“By so doing, states will develop at their own pace. That is the way people feel federalism should operate. We have a situation where herdsmen are attacking villages and communities, and people are being killed. I think the Federal Government should also look for solution to that problem.”

Similarly, the chairman of Kokodiagbene Community in Warri South-West Local Government Area of the state, who doubles as the Coordinator the Centre for Peace and Environmental Justice (CEJEP), Comrade Sheriff Mulade, condemned the ongoing military option to address the renewed militancy in the Niger Delta region.

He said it was an attempt by President Muhammadu Buhari-led All Progressives Congress (APC) to start treating the region as “a conquered territory in a united Nigeria.” He accused the security personnel of complicity in the region’s questions and aiding illegal oil bunkerers but arresting innocent indigene of the area to cover up. He said, “They are the ones escorting smugglers and oil bunkerers with their crude laden ‘Cotonou boats’.

They even know those behind pipeline vandalism and how oil theft has been flourishing in the region. It is callous to start using military force on the goose that is laying the golden egg.” Col. Joe Achuzia (rtd.), a warlord during the Nigerian Civil War, suggested caution on the part of the Federal Government.

According to him, where two elephants fight, the grass suffers.

He said the casualties would not only be the two parties in the confrontation, the innocent indigenes and residents would get their fair share. “While killing innocent citizens is not the military exercise, the Federal Government should exercise caution in addressing the Niger Delta crisis. Military force should not be considered. Peace is better than war, because in war, parents don’t know their children, neither do children know their parents. Military option will not uproot the root of bitterness,” he opined.

-The Legal Adviser to the Ijaw National Congress (INC) and the first female Commissioner in the defunct Bendel State, Barr. Chief (Mrs.) Veronica Bamuza- Mutu, who justified the agitaton of the militants but condemned their approach, wondered why the Federal Government abandoned the area for decades and now deployed military men to further annihilate the indigenes.

She said; “Past governments merely granted amnesty, shared money and contracts for those that laid down arms, but regrettably neglected the devastation and degradation of the area, its people and customs and culture.

“The people (oil bearing communities) are truly suffering, no portable water, no electricity, no reasonable houses and their children cannot attend good schools, whereas this is the region where the country acquires its mainstay. This is bad.”

Chairman of Inikorogha community in Warri South West Local Government Area, Comrade Christopher Ejoh, said: “As we speak, we are seriously pained by what is going on around Gbaramatu Kingdom and it environs. We condemned in its entirety these attacks and want to appeal to the perpetrators to stay away from our communities. Federal Government also should know that military force would not answer the Niger Delta questions but will only defer it,” Ejoh said.

The spokesperson of a factional militia group, the Niger Delta Greenland Justice Mandate, Gen. Aldo Agbalaja, said the Federal Government has prepared to preside over genocide if it should unleash military force on “already beaten, battered, squeezed and impoverished people of the Niger Delta.

“We had earlier warned against the ongoing victimisation and harassment of defenseless people of the region, especially in the creeks, but rather than heed, the Nigerian military has increased its presence and makes life more difficult for our peoples. They are still arresting and killing our people on the basis of mere suspicion. But as we all know, this can’t continue. President Buhari should stop wasting his time.”

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