12 Jul Hunter’s explosive encounter with Special Task Force Boss
Some 25 months into the Niger Delta crisis, it was becoming obvious to some key politicians in Nigeria and diplomats that the use of force was not producing commensurate results. With many barrels of oil shut in, many oilfields abandoned by oil workers in search of safety, the oil-dependent economy was starving.
And with rampant kidnapping of foreign nationals even in the cities, the international image of the country was being eroded. Hunter believed something would give on government’s side; it was just a matter of time.
Before it did he still had places to see and people to talk to. He also knew from the refinery experience that some bad boys may still be monitoring him, so he watched his back carefully.
Back from the refinery, he had returned to the flat he shared with Sokku in the heavily guarded part of town. He left the place early for his next assignment at the headquarters of the Special Task Force (STF).
He didn’t get prompt attention but he waited patiently to be escorted in for this particular interview. He had managed to score a journalist’s coup. All his earlier requests for an interview with a representative from the Special Task Force had been rebuffed or ignored.
He even asked for statements or quotes, but the responses never went beyond, “no comment.” His fortune finally took a turn for the better. With the escalation of the crisis and the proliferation of militant groups, the STF could no longer appear to be silent, distant, and aloof. It had to make some kind of gesture to assure citizens that it was taking charge of the situation.
To do this, the STF’s Commander finally agreed to speak with Hunter. The interview was, of course, better than the usual preordained, one-size-fits-all statements. In most cases, the STF’s media coordinator handled all media requests, but the stakes were suddenly higher. It delighted Hunter that he was about to be granted an audience with Major-General Atti Guba, the man at the top of the organisation.
Hunter assumed that the Commander was aware of his assignment, as word of such things often made its way through certain circles. Hunter only hoped that he and the Commander had mutual good intentions – to bring an end to the violence in the Niger Delta, to restore the environment, and to develop a long-term economy that would allow residents to become fully self-sufficient.
At exactly ten o’clock in the morning, a smartly dressed army sergeant entered the reception area.
“Mr John Hunter,” he announced in a strong, forthright tone.
Hunter stood. He was about to offer the sergeant his hand but he could tell by the man’s posture and facial expression that he was determined to follow military protocol.
“I’m John Hunter,” he said.
“This way, sir.”
The sergeant spun on his heels, and Hunter followed into a modest office on the third floor of the building at the outskirts of Warri. As soon as he stepped through the doorway, the young sergeant saluted and disappeared.
“Good morning, Mr Hunter.”
Major-General Guba stepped out from behind his desk offering his hand, which Hunter took. He was tall, with a firm, stout build. He had a full head of hair that somehow made him look too young to hold his position, but Hunter noticed sharpness in his eyes that revealed intelligence and experience.
“Thank you for agreeing to see me,” Hunter said.
Guba nodded and smiled. “Please be seated, sir,” he said as he motioned Hunter to a chair.
Hunter took his seat and powered up his digital recorder. “Warri is relatively peaceful now,” he said.
“Thank you,” Guba said. “As you know, we were set up to stop the heavy inter-ethnic clashes in this area.”
Hunter nodded. “Even so, Major-General,” he said, “We must face the facts. The primary motive behind most government actions in the area is the security of the oil. Protecting the oil and gas resources, as well as the operation of the oil companies in the area, takes precedence over all other things.”
Guba flashed a smile. “Government has always intervened anywhere there are violent ethnic or sectarian crises.”
Hunter waited for the Commander to elaborate, but when that didn’t happen, he continued himself.
“In April 2006, you used gunboats at Kereko,” he said. “The use of such artillery suggests the importance of obliterating your target.”
Guba drew in a deep breath. “Obliterate is a very strong word, Mr Hunter.”
“Doesn’t it fit?”
“No,” Guba said, “I don’t believe it does. You make it sound as if the STF had engaged in saturation bombing or random shootings. That was hardly the case. The STF only destroyed the specific barges that were seized from illegal oil bunkerers in the area.”
Hunter smiled. Whether or not he was aware of it, the Commander had actually acknowledged the oil issue after all.
“So, oil does come up in the equation,” he pressed.
Guba indulged in a sardonic laugh that seemed to express more exasperation than humour. “Why not?” he said. “It would be foolish for any nation to allow its vital resources to fall into the hands of militants, thugs, and criminals. As a journalist you must know the effects of the crisis in the Delta on socio-economic activities in the country as a whole. The security situation in the Delta has deteriorated, lives are being lost and Nigeria cannot produce its greatest export to its highest potential.”
“How bad is this situation?” Hunter asked.
“We are now producing approximately one-point-four million barrels of oil each day,” the commander said. “This is unacceptable. Just recently, a single company could produce one million barrels per day. For all practical purposes, oil production in the Western Niger region has come to a complete standstill. Attacks on flow stations and pipelines have caused large oil spills, which have not only wasted resources, but have damaged the air and the water in the region.
“Restoring production has been difficult. It has become nearly impossible to access these sites during the crisis to repair damaged areas and perform routine maintenance. If that weren’t bad enough, the attacks, ambushes, and kidnappings have made it unsafe for employees to do their jobs or for residents to live in the area and avoid being caught in the crossfire. Many businesses are cutting their losses and pulling out of the region, and do you know who suffers for all that, Mr Hunter?”
“I will assume it isn’t the oil companies,” Hunter said.
“The oil companies sell a product the world needs and they will always manage to sell it — even if they need to charge obscene prices,” Guba said. “The real victims are the Nigerians who are sitting on top of this mountain of gold and are unable to reap its benefits.”
“Economic strife almost always results in political turbulence,” Hunter commented.
“The power struggle has been disastrous for the region,” Guba said. “Most of the communal clashes in Warri have centered on the struggle for socio-economic and political dominance of its adjoining maritime areas. Three major ethnic groups – the Ijaw, the Itsekiri, and the Urhobo – were jockeying for position. At first, the incidence of fighting was sporadic, but then they become more prevalent.”
“Have there been any moments of peace?” Hunter asked.
“There have been moments of quiet, but I wouldn’t call it peace,” Guba said. “It was more like the calm before the storm. The longer these quiet periods lasted, the greater the explosions when they finally ceased.”
“As in 2003?” Hunter asked.
The Commander nodded. “That was a terrible time,” he said. “Early that year, the ethnic skirmishes escalated to a horrific level. The scale of destruction was so devastating many economic and social activities ground to a halt, leaving the residents of the region with no resources or services. The creeks and waterways mutated into battlefields between the Itsekiri and Ijaw. Both groups had acquired sophisticated high-powered weapons, and they used them against each other, as well as on anyone who tried to put down the assaults. Attacks on soldiers and naval patrols on the waterways were rampant. Most police precincts in the feuding communities were destroyed, which rendered law-enforcement personnel helpless.”
“And they are destroying their own homes,” Hunter said.
“Precisely,” Guba declared. “These battles resulted in the wanton destruction of so many lives and so much property. No one was safe from the violence, and thus people who had lived in the area for ages – even families that had been here for several generations – were displaced and forced to run for cover. You perhaps wouldn’t have come to Warri then.”
“It was that bad?”
Guba nodded. “Beyond that, there’s the pipeline vandalism and disruption of oil production,” he said. “Let’s be real, Mr Hunter. It’s very easy to vilify the oil companies because they are so big and wealthy, and also because their home offices are usually in other countries. We have no personal connection to them, so they become perceived as this collective faceless corporate enemy. Still, can we blame them for shutting down their local operations under these circumstances? I certainly can’t. If I were a businessman, I wouldn’t expose my employees to this violence or abdicate my fiduciary responsibility to my stockholders. Shareholders must be protected from reckless business practices. If they don’t continue to invest, a company cannot continue to produce – and its employees cannot continue to earn their wages. I cannot condemn or censure any company that chooses to relocate its offices.”
Hunter didn’t see any points here he could argue against. “I have been on this story for weeks now,” he said. “There doesn’t appear to be a silver bullet solution for the problem, does there?”
The agreeable tone in Hunter’s voice allowed Commander Guba to reduce his defensive posture. He sighed and relaxed his shoulders.
“All the tools for violent activities have been witnessed,” he said. “There have been countless assaults. The kidnappings of oil and gas company staff usually target foreign workers, which doesn’t bode well with the governments and militaries of their home countries. Such crimes just create new enemies.”
“Do you think you could convince the groups to concede part of their ethnicity and join together as Nigerians?”
“That is a message we at the STF have tried to convey,” he said, “but not enough people appear to be listening. There has been a general insecurity and feeling of hopelessness amongst the people. It’s so bad now that nobody can conceive of the fact that it can actually get worse.”
“Given all this strife,” Hunter said, “why is so much of the STF’s attention being focused on oil bunkering? One might think there were other more pressing problems that deserve the most immediate attention.”
Guba shook his head. “You don’t understand, Mr Hunter . Everything is relative. The unwholesome activity of illegal oil bunkering is responsible for an estimated crude oil loss of approximately two hundred thousand barrels per day. That’s a considerable amount of oil, and it is worth a considerable amount of money. Do you know who collects that money?”
“I assume they are people the government deems to be criminals,” Hunter answered.
“They are criminals,” Guba insisted. “They are thieves.”
“They don’t see it that way,” Hunter said. “As far as they’re concerned, the oil is in their ground, and they are merely reclaiming their property.”
Guba rolled his eyes. “Let us please put aside their self-serving logic for a moment,” he said. “The people who collect the money from the stolen oil are not spending it on schools, hospitals, housing, or food.”
“How do you think that money is being spent?” Hunter said.
“Can you not guess?”
“I would rather not.”
Guba shrugged. “We have good reason to believe that most of the proceeds derived from oil bunkering are used to purchase weapons – the same guns and explosives that have significantly escalated the violence in the Niger Delta. Do you know what that means? It means that the militants have a bigger weapons’ budget than the Nigeria Police. This was one of the foremost reasons the STF was formed and sent to the Niger Delta in the first place.”
Hunter understood the dilemma, but he didn’t understand the STF’s response. “I still don’t understand the justification for the use of gunboats,” he said. “The area is strategically vital to the country. Destroying it seems counter-productive to the government’s objectives. The assaults have also claimed the lives of many innocent residents. How do you justify killing hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent people for the purpose of killing a handful of criminals?”
Guba shook his head. “I don’t agree with your inflated numbers regarding civilian casualties. Have people gotten caught in the crossfire? Yes, I’m sure some have. Hundreds? Thousands? No, sir , I do not believe that. We are fighting and targeting the criminals directly – and we have paid a heavy price for it, too. Since its inception, the STF has been the target of numerous unprovoked attacks against its troops from militants, illegal oil bunkerers, and other miscreants who are not operating in the best interest of the residents of the Niger Delta. These attacks were strategically conceived to acquire weapons for criminal activities and to portray the oil economy as vulnerable. Many soldiers have perished. Sadly, when soldiers are killed on their locations, nobody condemns their murders. It’s as if soldiers are not Nigerians. A total of seventy-eight STF personnel have been slaughtered while serving their country in the Niger Delta.”
“Soldiers assume a certain risk when they agree to serve, Hunter said. “Many would view military casualties as occupational hazards.”
Guba’s eyes narrowed and his jaw tightened in anger. “Are you suggesting that soldiers are expendable, that their lives have no value? Perhaps you would like to voice that opinion to their families. That is most unfair to come from a journalist like you.”
Hunter sat back for a moment and drew in a long, deep breath. He had no intention of offending the Commander, and he didn’t want their discussion to be cut short.
“I have a serious concern,” he said. “I’m afraid that if things continue this way, large numbers of civilians will be exterminated by genocide. Does this worry you as well?”
Guba appeared incensed by the question. “What do you take us for?” he said, his voice rising.
Hunter quickly held up his hands, begging for calmer tones. “I’m sorry, Commander,” he said. “It was not my intention to get on your wrong side. Let us redirect the discussion. Please give me a rundown of some of the STF’s achievements.”
The Commander lowered his guard a bit, although Hunter could tell that he had no intention of dropping it completely. “One of our proudest achievements is a cessation of inter-ethnic conflicts,” he said. “We managed to negotiate a ceasefire that led to the opening of waterways so that resources and services could reach the residents of the region. We are also greatly involved in expanding peace-making initiatives.”
“Have you experienced success in that area?”
Guba shrugged. “That depends on how you define success. For me, complete success entails the statement of agreements and a signed treaty that leads to a long-lasting peace. That still appears to be some way off. We have, however, managed to convince some representatives of various groups to come to the table and lay out their demands. I feel their willingness to speak to us demonstrates a willingness to make the necessary concessions that will hopefully benefit everyone in the region.”
“What other achievements have given the STF a sense of optimism?” Hunter asked .
“We have reduced the number of illegal oil bunkering operations and also enhanced oil production,” the Commander said. “You must understand, Mr Hunter , that one of the most potent threats to law and order in the Niger Delta is illegal oil bunkering and pipeline vandalism. Most of the militant groups are alleged to be involved in these criminal activities, mostly because bunkering is a very lucrative business. Part of the STF mandate is directed at fighting illegal oil bunkering. We have made many arrests, and these individuals were handed over to the Economic and Financial Crime Commission for prosecution. Similarly, several barges, wooden boats, and four tugs boats and surface fuel tankers have been confiscated by the STF. The stolen crude oil recaptured so far holds a value of nearly ten billion naira. Had we not impounded that oil, the militants would have had six billion dollars to spend on weaponry.”
That would be one hell of an arsenal, Hunter thought. “Are all the illegal bunkering operations run by Nigerian militants?” he asked.
“No, there are international bunkering operations as well,” Guba said. “Just recently, fourteen Pilipino nationals were arrested by STF troops after allegedly loading nearly one hundred and fifty metric tonnes of crude oil from a pipeline.”
“Does the STF really believe it can halt the entire illegal bunkering business?” Hunter asked. “It sounds like a giant game of Whack-a-Mole. You knock one down and another one springs up somewhere else.”
Guba sighed. “These criminals are very crafty,” he said. “We created an effective blockade of the major waterways and entrances, but the illegal bunkerers devised a new method of utilising stolen crude oil. In their desperation, they resorted to refining and selling petroleum products locally. If this practice isn’t eradicated, it also poses a serious danger to both lives and properties. That’s why efforts have been put in place to destroy the crude local oil refineries, and thus far, we have destroyed approximately three hundred illegal refineries. Right now, the STF is winning the illegal oil bunkering and pipeline vandalism battle.”
“It’s great to win a battle,” Hunter said, “but do you really think you can win the war?”
“All we can do is keep our guard up and make sure we have the best intelligence regarding illegal operations,” he said. “In conformity with the STF mandate to ensure a secure environment for oil operations, the force deployed troops to protect various oil platforms. These deployments have secured most assets that rightfully belong to the oil companies.”
Hunter double-checked his digital recorder and saw that it was still capturing this conversation.
“Something is missing in this country,” he said. “If the locals can build oil refineries, why aren’t the country’s four refineries currently working? Why are we importing all our petroleum products?”
Guba paused for a moment as if to ensure that he addressed Hunter’s question as accurately and appropriately as possible. He finally blew out a tired sigh. “I suggest you discuss that with the Petroleum Minister,” he said. “Regardless of the product, there is no excuse for criminal behaviour.”
Hunter nodded. “You do realise that your battle is made even more difficult by the number of retired military officers and highly placed politicians who are barons in the crude oil theft operations,” he said.
Guba’s brow suddenly became furrowed. “What do you mean?”
“There have been many stories about this,” Hunter said.
“Have there been?” Guba said.
Hunter noticed a nervous tinge in his voice.
“Yes, Sir,” he told him. “I will give you one example. In fact, one report mentioned Retired Commodore Tinkan.”
Hunter tried to read Guba’s eyes after a few seconds of silence had passed.
“We investigate all reports,” Guba asked.
“Has the STF considered engaging in a dialogue with the militant leaders?” Hunter asked. “Have you considered making that recommendation to government?”
Tension filled the room as another few seconds of dead air passed.
“I assure you, Mr Hunter, we are looking at all options.”