CHRIS EZE,in Yenagoa, writes on the security challenges, especially deadly sea piracy, confronting Bayelsa State, explaining that, unless the authorities do something urgently to stem the slide, the situation might even get worse.
Again, Bayelsa is in the news, albeit for the wrong reasons. Only recently, the state hit striking headlines following the exploits of a young Bayelsan, Daniel Diongoli, popularly known as Idyl, who emerged winner of the 2017 Voice of Nigeria, Season 2 Music Reality Show. It was a feat, which all Bayelsans, home and abroad,were (and are) proud of, especiallycoming a few years after another Bayelsan, TimiDakolo emerged winner of a similar competition.
However, the other event for which Bayelsaalso hittitillating recently headlines would have no reasonable Bayelsan associate himself with it except, of course, the criminals, the pirates who had laid siege on the waterways in the State, painting them red with the blood of innocent sea travelers.
The recent barrage of pirates’ attack on the waterways in the state was one too many.About two years ago, members of the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria, (MWUN) BayelsaState chapter had embarked on an indefinite strike over the incessant attack of pirates on their members on the waterways.
It took a series of meetings with and assurances from the officials of the state government before the union was persuaded to return to work. The effect of the strike toldheavily on the socio-economic activities in the State because Bayelsa State is a riverine state, with over 80 percent of the state covered by water while a paltry 20 percent is land.
Consequently, experts believe that the fastest way for the growth and development of a state like Bayelsa lies in developing its potentials in the marine subsector
Till date, many communities are still inaccessible by road, except by sea. So,anything that disrupts movement of people through the sea tends to ground socio- economic activitiesall over the state aseven the supply of agricultural produce, which are usually moved from the hinter land to the cities, is cut off, hence resulting in high cost of the few available ones.
So,when militants suspected to be pirates attacked a military houseboat at Letugbene in SouthenIjaw Local Councilof the State late August this year,killing a soldier and a civilian, and then followed with another attack on September 22, on a tugboat at Ekebiriin the same Southern Ijaw Local Council killing a police officer, a personnel of NSCDC and a civilian, the people of the state feared that the bad days were back.
There was yet another attack on Monday, September 25 on a passenger boat along the Brass waterways where two persons were killed and many others injured. As if all this was not enough, the criminals struck again on the same Brass-Nembe Road on Wednesday, September 27and hijacked a passenger boat.
It was learnt that the pirates who branded sophisticated weapons shot sporadically into the air before seizing the boat. The driver of the boat and his colleagues were later dumped in the creeks while the pirates drove their boat to an unknown destination.
Speaking on the incident, Chairman of the Bayelsa State Chapter of the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria,LlyodSese who confirmed the incident said there is high rate of unrest caused by pirates on the waterways. Sese called on relevant authorities to come to the aid of commuters on the waterways as the attack on boat users has now become a daily affair.
A youth leader from Brass Local Council, Honorable Robert Desmond also strongly condemned the incessant sea pirate attacks on the Nembe-Brass waterways. In a press statement, Desmond described the acts as not only senseless but also inhuman and wondered why a group of Bayelsa youths would be terrorizing their own people.
Desmond berated the state government for treating the sea pirate issue with levity and tasked security personnel to be on alert. He said Bayelsans, particularly the Brass-Nembe people are in dire need of marine security.
He called on law enforcement agents to apprehend the ringleaders and destroy every network as well as dispossess them of every arsenal they may have, in order to bring respite to the Nembe-Brass people.
Desmond who is also the Founder/Grand Patron of the New Face of Brass Local Council further admonished the sea pirates and their sponsors to desist from the heinous crime, lamenting that it is impeding the development of the area.
As expected, the renewed onslaught of piratesagainst the waterways has led to a lull in maritime activities in the state. When The Oracle Today visited the Yenagoajetty on the Brass-Nembe route, many boats were seen parked with very few passengers available to board.One of the officials of the Maritime workers who would not want to be mentioned lamented the adverse effect of the activities of pirates on their means of livelihood, alleging that the government does not want to help them.
He noted that while the state government has provided patrol vehicles for the state anti-crime outfit, ‘Operation Door Akpor’, that patrolsYenagoa and environs, the government has neglected the marine component, leaving sea travelers and those doing business on the waterways to the mercy of criminals and pirates.
The MWUN official also carpeted the security agencies, accusing them of complicity in the activities of the pirates. He alleged that security operatives know the camp of the pirates along the waterways, but appear reluctant to rout them.
According to him, the Naval Base in Brass, FORMOSSO, whose duty is to patrol the waterways on regular basis,does not engage in such exercises.
He further alleged that politicians are also culpable as they help to sustain the criminals by patronizing them during elections after which they retire to their camps in the creeks to wait for another election year.
It often baffles observers why Bayelsa, even as the smallest state in the Niger Delta, has always maintained a top spot in crime-related activities-from kidnapping to cultism, and now piracy. It is on record that during the Amnesty Programme, Bayelsa youths formed the bulk of the beneficiaries resulting in the state now having many ‘Generals’ who did not go to war!
Yet, there may not be respite soon even in pirates attack and other criminal activities in the state if the threats from the Ifalibobou Revolutionary Movement (IRM), a former militant group, are anything to go by.
The former leader of the group, Gen. KeithySese recently revealed that the pockets of violence and militant activities ravaging communities in Bayelsa state are the handiwork of his former loyalists who were shut out of the Third Phase of the Amnesty Programme of the Federal Government for ex agitators.
Sese, popularly known in the creeks as Nomukeme attributed a recent killing of Joint Task Force (JTF) personnel at Foropa Town in Southern Ijaw Local Government Area to the activities of his former followers who he said have vowed to frustrate the ongoing peace efforts in the Niger Delta until they are accommodated in the amnesty programme.
He lamented that only 26 out of about 3,000 members of his group who accepted amnesty were granted the privilege to be documented in the third phase of the federal government’sAmnesty Programme, stressing that the group has protested against the marginalization in several ways to no avail.
Apparently alarmed by the activities of pirates in the waterways in the state, the Force Marine Officer, ChineduIwuozor, (Superintendent of Police) had visited the state earlier in the year and vowed to reposition the marine section of the Force in Niger Delta to achieve greater efficiency in the area.
He made the commitment while addressing members of the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria (MWUN), Bayelsa chapter.
Iwuozor told the maritime stakeholders that the Inspector-General of Police, Idris Ibrahimis eager to ensure greater marine safety in the area.
He assured of the preparedness of the force to provide better service delivery across the states of the federation where maritime activities are taking place, adding that more gunboats would be acquired to enhance patrol on the waterways.
The officer said the NPF is currently addressing the issue of manpower by mobilizing officers from other departments into the marinesection, adding that they would undergo special training for the tasks ahead of them.
According to him, the marine officersare also being sensitized to be more pro-active and more pre-emptive, given the present areas of security threats recorded in recent times
He thanked members of MWUN for their previous support to the marine police department and called on them to further collaborate with the police by sharing timely and relevant information for effective security of the waterways of Bayelsa.
The leadership of MWUN had used the opportunity to intimate the marine police officer with the security challenges on the state’s waterways on a daily basis.
“The rivers and creeks of the state have become very unsafe for any meaningful business activity in the marine sector to thrive because of incessant attacks from sea-pirates on members of the union and innocent travelers,”MWUN’s state chairman, Lloyd Sesesaid.
Sese, however, stated that MWUN members are hopeful that the marineofficer’s visit would pave the way for total policing of Bayelsa’s waterways and save the travelling public from sea pirates’ attacks.
Unfortunately, the visit has not translated into providing facilities to fight the menace of pirates in the state. Spokesman of the state police command, AsinimButswat, (DSP), said what has happened since the visit of the marine police officer is training and retraining of officers.
“If it has to do with training and retraining, that one is on course. Our men have been going for training and retraining. If it has to do with additional facilities, it is still in the pipeline. We are seeking more gunboats and boats to patrol the waterways,”Butswat said.
The police spokesman lamented that the terrain of Bayelsa makes policing the environment rather challenging.
“You know, the terrain in Bayelsa is largely riverine. And it is not just riverine, but creeks, narrow creeks scattered all over most especially in Southern Ijaw axis,” he noted.
He said though they have deployed the marine police at Koluama axis, Brass-Nembe, Sagbama, among others, the number is not enough to cover the entire waterways of the state.
He, however, said they are enjoying the synergy between the police, JTF, Civil Defense and the Navy to police the waterways, adding that no suspect has been arrested in any of the attacks in recent time.
The police image maker maintained that the best way to address the issue of insecurity on the waterways is synergy not only with sister agencies, but with the communities.
“We always encourage workers in the maritime domain to partner with us to volunteer useful information to us because they are also working in the river always; fishermen, sand diggers, partner with us and give us information so that we will be able to checkmate movement of some certain persons along the water ways,” he said.
According to him, Bayelsa State government has banned the use of boats fitted with 200-horsepower and above engines so that it will be easier to catchany boat involved in criminal activities on the waterways.
People, he added, are also not allowed to travel on waterways by 6 am or 6 pm.
“These are the measures we have put in place to checkmate activities of sea pirates on the waterways and they have yielded positive results if not for some few incidents that occurred some few weeks ago,” he stressed.
But swat used the occasion to offer some safety tips to the traveling public, saying: “They should avoid odd hours on the waterways. And they should equally avoid using speedboats they don’t know right from the waterside when they want to enter.
“They should make sure that boats they want to enter are authorized; they are people they know so that they will not enter a boat that will lure them to the trap of the pirates,” he added.
The PPRO further assured that the Operational Order the command has set for the ember months is very elaborate and effective, stressing that the public would notice improved security on the waterways “for this period”.
Pirates’ attack has elicited reactions from various stakeholders. The Bayelsa State government through the
Commissioner for Information and Orientation, Jonathan Obuebite, while condemning the spate of attacks, described it as pure act of criminality, deliberately carried out to rubbish the security and peace efforts of the government by some disgruntled elements operating under the guise of sea pirates.
On his part, the Special Adviser to the Governor on Security, BomaSpero Jack described the attacks as “callous and wicked”. While sympathizing with the families of the deceased for the loss of their loved ones, the Special Adviser expressed government’s commitment to putting in place more security measures to curb the challenges affecting the waterways.
Spero Jack called on members of the public to see security as everybody’s’ responsibility and work collectively with the police and other security agencies to make the society a better place.
He, however, assured that the Bayelsa State government is working round the clock with the security agencies to reduce crime rate to its barest minimum as well as unravel the perpetrators and deal with them according to the law.
He said plans are in top gear to make the marine component of ‘Operation Door Akpor’ more effective to tackle sea piracy, illegal bunkering and other related criminal activities being carried out on the state’s waterways.
In their joint statement condemning the attacks, the state chapter of Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), and the Environmental Rights Action/ Friends of the Earth (ERA/FoEN)described the activities of sea pirates on the state waterways as too alarming, adding that even fishing folks and traders sailing on local market boats and other travelers on speedboats are not spared.
“At times like these, the security agencies are expected to do more to protect lives and property. Unfortunately, security agencies have become victims too, suffering casualties in the course of carrying out their assignments.
This scenario is going from bad to worse and very troubling. Unless something is done to curb the trend, not only will the much needed development be denied our rural communities as contractors and investors will avoid the environment, the local economy would also be seriously affected in terms of reduced commercial activities, including fishing and farming activities. And our people will not only starve, cost of living will also soar and poverty will become more entrenched. These criminal activities are alien to Ijawland and very unacceptable no matter who the sponsors or perpetrators may be.
“We condemn in strong terms the attacks and killing of innocent civilians and security men in our environment and call on all those engaged in the act to rethink and stop the barbaric, criminal acts in the interest of humanity,” the statement read in part.
The statement, which was signed by the state chairman of CLO, Chief Nengi James and Head of ERA/FoEN in Yenagoa, Alagoa Morris urged the government and security agencies in the state not to leave out communities in fashioning out effective strategies to bring about lasting solution.
“All critical stakeholders should be involved, including community structures, retired military/security personnel, etc. There is need to identify the most vulnerable spots and ensure regular and effective patrolling by well armed security personnel in properly equipped marine crafts fitted with up to date communication gadgets,” they suggested.
The statement urged government to engage the youths in more positive ways “so,instead of the Bayelsa Volunteers whose activities are largely unknown to most members of the public, a more robust and effective vigilante should be formally established to assist and complement the efforts of security agencies in bridging very important gaps, by way of critical information gathering and locating hideouts of those perpetrating the heinous crimes which is portraying the state in bad light.”
“Communities should be able to identify strangers in their environment and monitor activities of all. Government should support community vigilantes with monthly stipends and necessary working tools,” they stressed.
“We call on the federal government’s interventionist agencies—the NDDC and Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, the state government and JTF to work in synergy and establish Coast Guards in Bayelsa State. The Coast Guards should be given sufficient training and be armed like the Civil Defense to bridge the lacuna in our waterways, while the vigilantes also carry out security-related services in our communities, including the state capital and environs.”