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Bakassi strike force: Government’s failure to honour agreement stirs anger in Cross River State

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Nigeria lost the Bakassi Peninsular to Cameroun at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2002, and as a result of the implementation of the subsequent 2006 Green Tree Agreement (GTA), it pulled out of the peninsular. The lowering of the country’s flag at Archibong Town, near Ikang in 2008, drew tears from solders and the civilian population in equal measure. When the final signing of the agreement on August 14, 2008 drew near, the militants threatened thunder and brimstone if the ceremony was performed in Abana, the then Bakassi Local Council Headquarters.

By the time the country’s flag was lowered at a new venue — the Peregrino Hall, Government House, Calabar in 2008 — where the then Attorney General of the Federation (AGF), Mohammed Adoke Bello, formally signed away Bakassi to Cameroun Republic, so many unanswered questions and unresolved issues emerged.

It was these that eventually gave birth to arms struggle and militancy, which gradually made the Gulf of Guinea unsafe for seafarers, while pirates had a field day. The Gulf of Guinea constitutes the maritime area located in the western part of the African continent. Countries here include those bordering the Atlantic Ocean that is, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroun, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Sao Tome and

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Principe, Angola, Congo, among others.

Ene Benjamin Effiom, also known as Gl or Simply, from Efut Esighie Community in Bakassi Local Council of Cross River State, who commanded the Bakassi Strike Force (IBSF) mobilised his people and spearheaded the arms struggle in a bid to ensure that the right thing was done in accordance with the GTA.

For years, BSF terrorised surrounding creeks and the Gulf of Guinea, where over 28 countries operate and made it unsafe, while some of their comrades-in-arm made life miserable to residents of the state through kidnapping and sundry violent crimes.

Even when the Operation Crocodile Smile (OCS), which was at the behest of the Nigerian Army intervened, the violence continued and lives were lost on both sides, as the BSF showed its displeasure for the failure to honour the GTA and all promises made by the Federal Government to the people of the area.

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At different points in time, they called on the United Nations (UN) and other actors that packaged the GTA to come in and ensure that all issues raised and agreed upon, including resettling the displaced people of Bakassi, and giving them back their means of livelihood, were implemented to the letter.

After series of interventions, the BSF on December 17, 2018, gave peace a chance, surrendered their arms to the military, and endorsed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) drawn up by the government. Surrendered firearms included, General Purpose Machine Guns (GPMG), rocket launchers, hand grenades and AK 47s. The GPMG and launchers constituted majority of the surrendered arms at the state government-organised amnesty programme.

But a year after both parties signed the dotted lines no aspect of the MoU has been implemented. Expectedly, the failure to implement this agreement has led to renewed tension and anxiety in the state.

“Today marks a memorable day in the life of the BSF of which I was the leader; a day that the security agencies have won the battle and we have won our freedom, and passed the message of our peoples’ sufferings and agitation to relevant quarters of the world, even though the problems have not been totally addressed,” Effiom the ex-militant commander said at the ceremony at the Old Ikang Secretariat.

He continued: “My boys and I are now ex-agitators (some of whom are awaiting release from various detention facilities to join the amnesty programme) appreciate this overture, and have laid down our weapons, never to go back into armed struggle/insurgency, but to remain law-abiding citizens and pass any of our grievances through allowable, lawful means and medium. We shall stick to our commitment in the MoU and expect that the safety of my boys and I are guaranteed. Cross River and Akwa Ibom States are tourism destinations, and it is important that their environs remain secure; our experience in the creek over the years shall also help whenever we are needed,” he said.

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The Commander Operation Delta Force, Rear Admiral A.O. Suleiman, in his remarks at the event, warned the ex-militants against going back to their old trade, saying, “we promise that we are going to use you as a pond to mop up the remaining in the creeks, and I advise you against going back to the creek because we shall not relent in our effort to ensure that we pursue anyone that reneges to the last hole. We have resolved in our action to ensure that there is peace for business to thrive and our promise stands. If you conform to the rules and regulations on ground, you shall not see us. We have no right to pardon you because the offences you have committed still remain offences, still remain a crime against the state.

“It is the duty of the state governor to do his own bid. Mine is to come and collect these arms, profile you and continue to interact with the state governor. If there is any tendency for anybody to return to his old ways, we have resolved to pursue you again. We are not going to be tired in our efforts. This is not a threat, but a promise. This is what we have signed to do; we do not plead and we do not negotiate. We advise you to continue to be law abiding.

“As the MoU has been signed, I expect every aspect of it to be followed to the letter. And if you call me Your Excellency and say, “Rear Admiral, can I see you. I have done this and that, but these boys are doing what they used to do before, I will be divinely in a position to come and take action on anybody who is back to his old home, but if you do not do that, it will be very difficult for me.”

Governor Ayade, while commending the Federal Government for cooperating with the state in putting in place the amnesty programme said: “The BSF originally designed was not a criminal thing. We know Ene Benjamin Effiom; he is an indigene of Cross River State. Indeed, he is from the specific location where we are building the Bakassi Deep Seaport, which is part of the philosophy that informed his need to his town.

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“Bear in mind that for a young man struggling in the waters of Bakassi, naturally alternative methods of reaching out to government may have been tied to a point of failure, while he and others watched helplessly to see his ancestors’ grave being ceded without a plebiscite or a referendum. The loss of our oil wells, the attendant pains and hardship that characterized the state since it happened without corresponding commitment from the Federal Government were also excruciating.

“It is our prayer and hope that the Federal Government will support Cross River State in ensuring that we sustain their livelihood. You are aware of the allocation of the state, the challenges and the debt burden; therefore this is an extra burden on my security vote, as there is no special fund allocated from the Federal Government for it. In this circumstance, we have no option than to return to the Federal Government and to see how this can end,” he said.

Unfortunately, despite all the promises, one year after the BSF pulled out of the creeks, nothing has come the way of the ex-militants. Already some of the camps vacated by the BSF militants have been taken over by some other shadowy groups that are already causing lots of menace in the state’s waterways, and the Gulf of Guinea generally, thus posing a great threat to business and international trade.

The former BSF leader told The Guardian that there has been a severe breach of the MoU and the promises, as the government failed to keep to the terms of the MoU. He said: “Since we left the creeks, the place has been left open for all forms of criminal activities to happen, while we remain here waiting for our re-integration, which has not come. May I declare that, my boys and I have nothing to do in the creeks any longer or involved in any arms conflict or hostilities. So, anybody caught should be dealt with in accordance with the law. But to justify that, I appeal for the Federal and state government’s intervention in the Amnesty programme.

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Effiom continued: “It was the Federal Government, Cross River and Akwa Ibom State governments that worked out the amnesty package. In the MoU signed, some agreements were classified, while others were not. After the disarmament the two states and the Federal Government were supposed to arrange a re-radicalisation programme for the boys for two weeks and after that start the reintegration programme and then place them on a monthly stipend aside the empowerment programme. But as we speak, theses actors have not been able to keep to any of the promises.”

On how he has been coping with his boys since the actors have failed to honour their words, Effiom stated: “It has not been easy and the boys are even accusing me of betraying them; collecting money from the state and the Federal Government and abandoning them, which is not true. I have tried my best to calm them and also make them to understand how some government policies work because these are people that do not understand how government works; they believe in rapid action. At a point, I had to sell some of my personal belongings to settle some of these boys, so that, they would show some understanding pending when the actors will comply or engage them. But if the MoU is not adhered to I would not be able to control the boys, especially now that I am no more bearing arms.

“Since nothing is happening, I am appealing to the Federal Government, as well as the governments of Cross River and Akwa Ibom States to intervene, by implementing the terms of the MoU for the sake of peace in our states and the nation,” he said.

Effiom, denied the allegation that some of his boys have gone back to the creeks, saying any body that is found there should be dealt with in accordance with the law.

“I will advise those who still believe in arms struggle to drop their weapons and take up their cases in civil manner. They have the right to agitate, but I will not advise anyone to take laws into his hands. Let me also use this opportunity to call on youths of the Niger Delta in particular, and that of the nation in general to lay down their arms, whatever may be their grievances. Let them see how they can settle their grievance in a diplomatic way.”

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Ayade while receiving the Commander of the Joint Military Task Force, Operation Delta Safe (ODS), Rear Admiral Akinjide Akinriade, during a courtesy visit on him recently, deplored the Federal Government’s refusal to admit members of the BSF into its amnesty prorgramme after the state government facilitated their surrender of arms for the military.

Ayade said: “It was even at the instance of your own (military) request that we came to the ultimate conclusion that we needed to grant amnesty. Sadly, shortly after the disarmament and demobilisation exercise, the burden now rests wholly on the shoulders of Cross River State. As you are moving into the rehabilitation and reintegration phase, here we are being called upon, yet again, to provide the financial support for it to be achieved.

“Let me send you a message to the National Security Adviser and indeed to Mr. President that the people of Cross River State are watching with keen interest how other people who were granted amnesty in other states are the responsibilities of the Federal Government, and how our people have been allowed to gradually regress to where they are left to embrace peace.”

Irked by the federal and state governments failure to meet their part of the MoU, which was signed on December 17, 2018, the ex-militants recently stormed the Calabar in different buses and motorcycles to protest the non-implementation of the MoU that they signed. They were, however, stopped from proceeding to the Governor’s Office by security agents.

One of the ex-militants, Ekpe Eyo Ekpe, who spoke with some newsmen said: “We have to see Governor Ben Ayade because he was the one, who promised to do things for us and nothing has been done for over one year. If we do not see him today, we will do something that will pain him personally, so that, he can do what he promised us.”

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Another ex-militant, Etemma Asuquo said: “Since December 2018 we left the creek, we have not been exposed to any training or paid any stipend. We want to know why we are being treated this way because the ex-militants from other states are enjoying amnesty and paid N65,000 on monthly basis. So, what is our benefit for the lost of our oil wells? Right now, there is nothing in our community; no schools, roads, companies and good houses. The Bakassi Deep Seaport, which was to be built so that some of us could be employed, is yet to come on board. We could have sold the arms and ammunition we handed over to government to make good money, but we surrendered all to the state and the Federal Government for peace to reign.”

Commenting on issues raised by the ex-militants, the Senior Special Adviser to the Governor on Media and Publicity, Mr. Christian Ita, said the Federal Government is expected to incorporate the ex-members of Bakassi Strike Force into the Presidential Amnesty Programme (PAP), because amnesty is a Federal Government Initiative although the Cross River State government facilitated it last year,

“We have cried out that our resources are lean and we will not be able to shoulder that huge responsibility. We have done all that we needed to do with the Federal Government for the ex-militants from the state to be incorporated in the PAP, but nothing has come out from our efforts. The governor has been making appeals and is still appealing for the ex-members of Bakassi Strike Force to be captured in the Niger Delta Amnesty programme.

Speaking on the fate of the ex-militants, who were members of the Bakassi Strike Force, the Head of Media of the Presidential Amnesty Programme (PAP), Mr. Murphy Gana Gana said: “They are not eligible. The amnesty programme captured only 30,000 beneficiaries and we have phases one, two and three. Some states like Akwa Ibom, Cross River and Ondo are calling for their people to be enlisted in the programme too, but at the moment, only the President has the right to include anybody in the programme.”

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