At least 3,000 soldiers have so far been deployed in the Niger Delta as Nigeria’s security agencies ramp up the war against militancy in the region, the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai, disclosed on Tuesday.
This came as Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) on Tuesday alleged an attempt by the military to cover up the death of 16 soldiers in Delta State, four days after ‘Operation Crocodile Smile.’ was launched in the region.
The army chief spoke in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State, just as the military moved to douse the tension occasioned by the massive movement of troops in the region, assuring communities in the area that the ongoing military exercise codenamed, ‘Operation Crocodile Smile,’ was designed to protect them.
Buratai’s comments yesterday were made against the backdrop of allegations that the military had embarked on harassing and brutalising innocent residents along the coastlines, an accusation that the security forces have always refuted.
The CAS, who spoke at the Government House when he visited Governor Seriake Dickson, told the communities to remain calm, stressing that troops involved in the exercise understood the rules of engagement and would strictly adhere to them.
He added that the visit was necessary as part of the operation’s confidence-building, maintaining that the current exercise was meant to equip the soldiers with required skills to ensure the safety of the maritime environment for Bayelsa and other states of the Niger Delta.
The army chief, who was accompanied by other military commanders including the Commander, Joint Task Force (JTF), Operation Delta Safe, Rear Admiral Joseph Okojie, said the exercise was part of the amphibious training activities of the military.
“I am leading a cream of delegation of the Nigeria Army as part of our amphibious training (Operation Crocodile) activities in making sure the maritime environment is safe for Bayelsans and Nigeria at large.
“The exercise has mustered about three thousand troops and equipment,yet we want to assure you that we are people-friendly. We want to appreciate the support you have given to the Nigerian Army,” he said.
He added that the military remained committed to the protection of the country’s territorial integrity from external aggressors, stressing that the Atlantic Ocean remains part of the territory that must be secured and protected from interferences.
“The task of the army is to defend the territory from external aggression. The Atlantic Ocean is not an exemption in this regard. Training and continuous training in the region will help the men to actualise the task of defending the territory.
“These projects also come with humanitarian services like health, education and civil works. The Nigerian Army is people friendly and have always emphasised that the number one rule of engagement is to ensure that lives and properties are protected,” he said.
The army chief was said to have also approved the establishment of a brigade in Yenagoa following the request of the governor, who appreciated the military for their selflessness in discharging their duties.
Dickson, who commiserated with the army over the death of some soldiers in a boat mishap that occurred in the state, urged them to adopt dialogue as a means of fighting criminality in the region.
Meanwhile, the JTF yesterday, denied invading some communities in Southern Ijaw destroying houses, beating up residents and carting away speedboats.
Spokesman of the JTF, Lt Cmdr Thomas Otuji said that there was no iota of truth in a report that soldiers invaded Peremabiri community, noting that the outfit has remained professional in all its activities in the creeks of the Niger Delta.
Meanwhile, the NDA said the incident was aside the untimely death of four fine soldiers in the creeks of Bayelsa noting that over 20 soldiers had died so far in the military exercise.
According to a statement signed by the spokesman of NDA, Mudoch Agbinibo, the deceased soldiers in Delta State were the first casualties of the exercise disclosing that they died along River Ethiope, four days after it started.
It however expressed its condolences to the families of the deceased and President Muhammadu Buhari, Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces over the death of “the fine soldiers.”
“The high command of NDA and the entire membership on behalf of the good people of the Niger Delta offer our condolences to the families and Mr. President, Muhammadu Buhari, on the soldiers murdered in the ongoing military operation cum exercise codes named “Operation Crocodile Smiles.”
“Mr. President from available facts, the untimely deaths of these four fine soldiers in the creeks of Bayelsa and another 16 that was recorded during the first four days of the exercise along the River Ethiope, in Delta State but was earlier covered up is nothing more than act of murder.
“Their death is due to negligence, administrative greed and a corruption within the military constructed and perfected by the ascendant APC political class (conflict merchants we have mentioned times without numbers) from the Niger Delta and some Abuja paid and bought up interest,” it alleged.
The militant group alleged that the military exercise was unfortunate since it was designed by some military top brass to amass wealth under the guise of making efforts to quell militancy in the Niger Delta region.
“It declared: Mr. President, the worrisome dimensions about the ongoing reorganization and restructuring of the unending security operations in the Niger Delta is where two of your head of security apparatus are boasting to the minister of defense that, they have your hears. They assured him, it is now their turn to bloat their pockets and that they can talk you to even borrowing money to sustain the insecurity in the region, which the honourable minister of defense concurred to before the ongoing exercises.
“We have earlier advised against timing, strategy and objectives of the show of military might and the deployment of military hardwares to the Niger Delta suddenly when there is certainly cessation of hostilities for peace talks to commence. But the top hierarchy of the Nigerian military led by Lt. Gen. Buratai was only after his pecuniary monetary gains and that of some Akpakpa- Ajudaibo Champagne intelligence chief who is desperately arm-twisting the peace processes continuously.
“The advice is that all lives matters! Why are you in a hurry to train over two thousand military personnel for just 4 to 14 days on amphibious military exercise to occupy the Niger Delta region when the Niger elders and stakeholders are awaiting your response for peace talks?,” it asked.
NDA recalled the amphibious exploits of the Ijaws during the civil war, though fought without military training, to win the war for Nigeria.
It asked further: “Have you forgotten the exploits of our great fathers during the infamous Nigerian Civil War in amphibious warfare without any military training? Is it because they were volunteers as such the success was credited to Late Lt. Col. Benjamin Adekunle and Lt. Col Olusegun Obasanjo instead of them?
“Mr. President, as a veteran of that fateful war, you know that after all failures, the amphibious warfare and successes was under the command of Lt. Gen. Isaac Jasper Adaka Boro of blessed memories, the pride and face of the 3rd Marine Commandos (3MCDOS) constituted of able-bodied Ijaw warriors voluntarily.
“They were not given any formal military training prior to that great contribution to the unity of Nigeria, but they succeeded because they were amphibious by nature.
“Mr. President, the truth be told, we are the “Great White Sharks” of the Atlantic when it come to marine warfare! “Operation Crocodile Smiles” is ironically, a simulative military operation cum exercise for waters less than 2 fathoms in depth orchestrated by the top hierarchy of the military to undermine any genuine disposition from your government towards restoration of tranquility in the Niger Delta and to exhaust your security budget for the year, except you are thinking otherwise towards peace in the Niger Delta too”, it added.
It reiterated that the Ijaws and the people of the Niger Delta had been in that region times immemorial stressing that they had resisted any attempt of exclusions in the control of their God given resources, from the Portuguese and British colonial trades and periods to date.
“We are ever ready to continue that resistance even without guns and ammunitions,” it maintained.
NDA therefore urged President Buhari to set up a commission a high powered panel to investigate all processes that led to the ongoing military operation and exercise in the Niger Delta tagged “Operation Crocodile Smiles” and all the ongoing cover-ups of military mishaps that have led to more than 20 deaths so far.
“Mr. President, in practical terms crocodiles do not have any capacity to swim close to the water depth, small tiger sharks swim and play around not to talk of the depths of the great whites, the heart of the nation’s economic where we have overmastered. The mission ongoing in the Niger Delta is a brainchild of orchestrated military corruption at your face Mr. President.
“Operation Crocodile Smiles is nothing but a conduit pipe for military contracts, political profiteerism and patronages designed for the stress of your administration’s scarce resources,” it concluded.