Are all stories from war zone true when the media rely heavily on sources that are parties to the crises? Advanced technology through the use of phones and emails to obtain information has facilitated speedy news gathering from every corner of the earth but none is more credible than eye witness accounts from independent sources. Some reports are either exaggerated or underreported by media practitioners for lack of direct access to the flash spots and mostly due to their fear of venturing into risky adventures.
This writer recently had an opportunity of travelling, on special humanitarian assignment, to Warri South West Local Government Council in Nigeria where the Nigerian military engaged the Niger Delta militants in arms raids after the latter’s abduction of some military personnel. The media have reported large scale destruction and casualties from the fracas, based on information obtained from members of the affected communities or from the militants themselves, especially from a group called, Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND) that has continued to claim responsibility for pipeline vandalisation, hostage taking and other similar outbursts signifying criminality.
The opportunity to travel to the creek was provided when I joined a team from Nigeria’s National Emergency Management agency (NEMA) which is statutorily empowered to manage disasters including distribution of emergency materials to victims of natural and man-induced disasters and assist in the rehabilitation of the victims. It is also mandated to liaise with State Emergency Management Committees to assess and monitor the distribution of relief. In addition it coordinates the activities of all voluntary organisations engaged in emergency relief operations in all parts of the federation.
As at the time the crisis began the Director General of NEMA, AVM Mohammed Audu-Bida, a retired airforce general with military experience in humanitarian and rescue missions in Iraq and Liberia among other countries was in the USA for an official summit. But interestingly as an emergency officer who is regularly in touch with his principal officers for any untoward development in the country, directed the deployment of a team comprising staff from Abuja, Enugu and Port-Harcourt zonal offices. Against all odds, the team moved into the area to assess the situation for humanitarian interventions.
In the first day of our arrival there was no shooting wheresoever though the people in the communities ran away on sighting us until we were able to convince those courageous enough about our humanitarian mission. We let them know that NEMA does not discriminate against distressed people as only security personnel can determine criminals from innocents. After a lot of persuasions and healthy interactions, they accepted our overture. We started to reach out to the community leaders, youth leaders, women and children to assure them of the government commitment to guarantee their safety. The ordinary people of those communities looked innocent, humble and friendly from the negative impression created on them by various criminal activities being reported about the citizens. Though the officials of the local government were not available until a day after when we met a Legislative Leader of the council, Mrs Rose Tulu who took us round to meet some of the displaced people.
As much as there were anxieties in the air, the ordinary people we saw were in high spirit. In fact some social services were uninterrupted including the schools except the general hospital in the council which was deserted a day before our arrival when it was alleged that some soldiers forced the people and the doctor away. We also saw some men enjoying themselves with kegs of local palm wine, while other businesses went on.
Since the displaced people were scattered in different locations, we had to close a primary school to establish the first Internally Displaced People Camp (IDPC)which had a strategic proximity to most of the affected communities. We ensure foodstuffs were immediately provided while reassuring the people of their safety.
It was after we created a temporary office within the camp that teams from the Red Cross and Doctor-Without-Border came in and we held a meeting to assess the situation and on how to provide succour to the people.
Since in an emergency, speedy actions are required for effective humanitarian services, thus computers and phones became the office and documents to receive directives and carry out orders which facilitated a quick provision of bags of rice, beans, gari, salts, tea and cans of cooking oil. We also constructed emergency toilets. Unfortunately NEMA trucks from Enugu conveying mattresses, blankets, rubber mats, clothing, disinfectants, buckets and children shoes were arbitrarily intercepted by some security personnel on the highways which delayed the arrival of the relief items.
We were informed by the community leaders that 25 communities were affected with most of the displaced people being reluctant to move to the designated camp for fear of reprisal attacks. We received a shock when we received a report that a woman who was leaving her hideout to meet us delivered a baby in the bush. Arrangement was made for her treatment and provision of the materials she needed.
Because of the sensitivity and urgency of our assignment, Audu-Bida cut short his oversea assignment and flew to Warri to assess and supervise distributions of additional relief materials to the displayed and distressed people. Some of the women in the camp pleaded with NEMA boss to intervene in ensuring that the Joint Task Force allow them access their remote communities which were blocked by the military. They said that as much as NEMA’s gesture of providing relief materials and social amenities is a welcome development, home to them would always be the home than life in the camp or any other hideout.
He also met Barrister Kingsley Otuaro, the Chairman of the Delta State Relief and Rehabilitation Committee and his members, and held a consultation with the community leaders, including the Chairman of the council George Ekpemupolo, who is said to be a brother to the most wanted man, Chief Government Ekpemupolo alias Tompolo. George who looked lanky and worried had emerged from his hiding to express his worry on the plight of his people.
Based on the discussions, our team led by NEMA Boss visited the headquarters of Joint Task Force (JTF) to appeal for adequate security for the displaced people as the agency may open up more camps if necessary in areas worst affected by the crisis. He particularly sought the assistance of the task force to guarantee supplies of relief materials to displaced people in various communities and ensured the safety of lives and properties. He said being a retired general in the Air-Force himself, NEMA would not interfere in the mandate and rescue operations of the taskforce in their current mission, he urged them to ensure that innocent victims were not caught in the cross-fire. He stated that the concern of NEMA was not about just distributing the materials but to ensure that the displaced peoples were secured and reunited with their families as soon possible.
The Maritime Component Commander of the Task Force who received the NEMA delegation, Commodore Azubuike Ajuonu, while appreciating the efforts of NEMA in reaching the displaced with relief materials said that the military would not shift its position in the search and rescue operations until they locate the missing officers and men of the Nigerian Army that were abducted by the militants. He added that it was unbecoming and regrettable that Nigerian soldiers who risk their lives to protect the nation’s integrity were being hunted by criminal gangs in the Niger Delta just because the army had been tolerating them all these while. He said the excessive criminality of the youths through kidnapping, sea-pirates, blackmail, extortion and killing of innocent Nigerians and foreigners was embarrassing the nation and its people which must end.
The Task force was later magnanimous enough to concede to NEMA’s request as relief materials were delivered through a special committee comprising journalists, police red cross, SEMA and volunteer women to creeks of Gbaramatu Kingdom, especially in such communities as Opedebobor, Dobiyo, Ogborodo, Azama, Oporoza, Enekoroa, Igoba, Krutie and Kunukuruma. The committee used jetties in the various communities.
The government of Nigeria has shown concerns, including the Office of the Vice President Goodluck Jonathan that supervises NEMA in ensuring that innocent lives are protected and catered for adequately. Unfortunately we cannot verify and authenticate figures of casualties except that of the displaced people, who mostly come to the camp to eat, get relief materials and go out again.
I discovered to my bewilderment beautiful mansions built in the midst of some shanties, which I learnt were owned by individuals, some said including the militants. Warri is a big town, including its surrounding communities that have impressive road networks and other social infrastructures. I learnt contractors for projects in any areas must pay special fees to some leaders and special levies to area boys who behave like militants or the projects that would benefit the community would be abandoned whether mobilisation fees paid or not.
It was not surprising that the name of the most wanted militant is Chief Government Tompolo, because every gunrunner and person in possession or illegal arms in this part of the country here is a government and lord who can charge illegal levies arbitrary. I won’t confirm the alleged complicity of government officials and even some security personnel in making the so-called militants daring combatants by creating reciprocal relationships for selfish motives which now seems to consume the integrity of our nation. I am not authorised to deny baseless allegations or confirmed fictitious figures of casualties and level of destructions. But most of the information in the public domain are naked propaganda which are mostly exaggerated by parties in the conflict.
This article by Yushau A. Shuaib was originally published in Economic Confidential June, New Nigerian June 2, Nigerian Tribune June 7, Vanguard June8, Daily Sun June 9, Daily Independent June 11, Champion June, The National Life June 13 and Leadership June 14, 2009