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Peace returns to Gulf of Guinea as Bakassi Strike Force surrenders

By Anietie Akpan, Calabar
30 December 2018   |   4:27 am
With the laying down of arms and acceptance of a Cross River State government–brokered amnesty programme by the dreaded Bakassi Strike Force (BSF), led by Benjamin Ene...

Some repentant agitators

With the laying down of arms and acceptance of a Cross River State government–brokered amnesty programme by the dreaded Bakassi Strike Force (BSF), led by Benjamin Ene, aka “G1” or Simply, there are strong indications that at last, the Bakassi waters and indeed the Gulf of Guinea may now be free of sea pirates, and sundry criminal elements.

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 Principe, Angola and Congo.

Maritime insecurity has been a very big issue in the Gulf of Guinea for years now. For instance, in 2016, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) recorded 53 piracy attacks or attempted attacks in the Gulf of Guinea. This represented 28 per cent of worldwide attacks– including 36 for Nigeria. The Gulf of Guinea also accounted for more than 50 per cent of the global kidnappings for ransom. A total of 34 seafarers out of the 62 kidnapped worldwide happened in this region, which is regarded as a high risk area, and which also attracts high war insurance premium.

In 2017, 10 incidents of kidnapping involving 65 crewmembers in or around the country’s waters were reported.  Thirty-six of these cases of piracy with no vessels hijacked occurred in the Gulf of Guinea. Globally, 16 vessels reported being fired upon last year –including seven in the Gulf of Guinea.

For years, the BSF dominated the Bakassi creeks, and made the Gulf of Guinea, which over 20 countries operate in very unsafe.

Ashore, the ex-militants made life miserable for residents of the state through kidnapping and many other crimes that they perpetrated, all of which led to loss of many lives.

In the peak of their criminality, they sacked the local government and traditional administrations in Akpabuyo and Bakassi local councils and put in place a parallel government until “Operation Crocodile Smile” of the Nigeria Army restored law and order.

Nigeria lost Bakassi to Cameroun at the International Court of Justice in 2002, and as a result of the implementation of the 2006 Green Tree Agreement (GTA), the country pulled out of Bakassi.

The lowering of the country’s flag at Archibong Town, near Ikang in 2008, drew tears from soldiers 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.

Consequently, the venue of the exercise was changed to Peregrino Hall, Government House, Calabar. There, Nigeria represented by its then Attorney General of the Federation (AGF), Mohammed Adoke Bello, formerly signed away Bakassi to Cameroun Republic.

Sadly, the thousands of families displaced by the ceding of the oil-rich peninsular to the Cameroun, became the source of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) in the state, which till today are yet to be duly resettled.

It was the despondency of the active youth population among the displaced persons, that supplied the initial manpower for the militant group, which forced the Federal Government to send in troops, and the subsequent launch of the “Operation Crocodile Smile” in the state by the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen Tukur Buratai, on September 7, 2017.

Before and after the military operation, clashes between the militants and the army never ceased completely, resulting in loss of lives and increased criminality in the Gulf of Guinea, as the BSF continuously fought against the loss of Bakassi.

But in a gesture that looked like giving peace a chance, the militants on Monday, December 17, 2018 pulled out of the creeks and surrendered their arms to the state, in an exercise administered by the Nigeria Army. Members of the BSF escorted by the military drove into the old Ikang Secretariat in Bakassi at about noon amid cheers from large members of the public that had gathered to witness the ceremony preceding the final amnesty programme put together by the Cross River State government.

One after the other, they walked in and surrendered their arms, which comprised General Purpose Machine Guns (GPMG), rocket launchers, hand grenades and AK 47. The GPMG and the launchers constituted the majority of arms surrendered by the militants in the state government-organised amnesty programme.

They agitators, who proceeded to sign documents after turning in their arms, looked weird, and glad in worn-out combat gears. While their faces were painted with white, red and black chalk, their heads and legs were tied with red and white ribbons suspected to be charms for protection.

With this laying down of arms, stakeholders and analyst insists that the United Nations and other actors that packaged the GTA owe it a duty to ensure that all issues raised and agreed upon in the agreement are implemented to the letter.

Ene, the BSF leader after turning in his weapons, alongside about 200 of his boys, suddenly became a celebrity, as male and female commissioners in the Prof. Ben Ayade-led administration jostled to take photographs with him.

Decked in a white T-shirt and black trousers, he said: “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.

“I and my boys who 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 myself, as an ex-agitator, and that of my boys is guaranteed. Cross River State and Akwa Ibom State 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.

Ene continued: “We had remained in the creeks fighting daily and dying for our cause, although our struggle was borne out of the failure of past Nigerian governments and the international community to demonstrate the minimum level of responsibility and other obligations spelt out in the Green Tree Agreement. We viewed the ceding of our home as a great betrayal by the Nigerian state that sold Bakassi in the first place without our consent as a people. We have today resolved to give peace a chance, and to call on all to do same.”

While explaining the rationale behind surrendering the arms, as well as, addressing the allegation that not all arms were surrendered, he said, “I will not fight for ever, there is always a time to give peace a chance, and I thank God that finally peace has been achieved…I will urge security agencies to do their necessary investigation and if they discover that I am still in possession of any arms, let the law take its course. My message to others who may want to take to armed struggle is for everyone to pursue his or her cause through diplomatically organised processes because it has not been easy …”

The Special Rapporteur (Bakassi Militancy), Chief Bassey Ndem, in his remarks said, “In 2013 and 2014, the waters around Bakassi and the Gulf of Guinea were listed as the second most dangerous waters in the world by maritime authorities and Lloyds of London. It was estimated that international naval patrols, handling of merchant ships and providing them with armed security personnel were costing $785m extra to shippers and maritime operatives yearly.

“BSF was a major contributor to the insecurity in the region. The fact that Cross River prides herself as a tourist destination and new hub for industrialisation rests squarely on the perception of the state as safe, peaceful and with low crime rate. All these were threatened by the activities of the BSF. The Federal Government eventually decided to confront the BSF by deploying the Joint Task Force (JTF) and the rest as they say is history.”

Tracing how the amnesty programme came about, Ndem said, “On three occasions since 2012, the BSF wrote to the Federal Government indicating its willingness to lay down arms and be integrated into the Presidential Amnesty Programme that was on going at the time. Three times, their offers to lay down arms were ignored, and today amnesty has come to pass, but please, JTF, note that the work is not over. Nature abhors a vacuum and now that the BSF is leaving the waters, other groups operating outside may be tempted to come in…Already, Cross River State is bearing the brunt of refugee crises that requires serious national and international interventions.

To the BSF he said: “After seven years of living in the creeks; sleeping with one eye open, and burying your comrades-in-arms, you are tasting the fragrant air of freedom. To whom much is given, much is expected. The benevolence of the federal and state governments should not be mistaken for weakness, and you must act. Be seen to act and be strictly law-abiding. Henceforth you are expected to be model citizens, using legitimate means and processes to make your voices heard.”

The Commander, Operation Delta Force, Rear Admiral A. O. Suleiman, warned the ex-militants not to go back to their old way of life, saying, “we promise that we are going to use you 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 any one 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, yvou shall not see us. We have no right to pardon you because the offences you have committed still remain offences, still remain crime.

“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 it’s a promise. This is what we have signed to do; we don’t plead and we don’t negotiate. We advise you to continue to be law-abiding.

“I also plead with the state governor, don’t invite us to look for these boys if you don’t fulfill your own consideration to them. 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 don’t do that, it will be very difficult for me.”

Governor Ayade, while thanking the Federal Government for cooperating with the state said, “the BSF originally designed was not a criminal thing, not a gang. Benjamin Ene is known to us, 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.
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 tried to a point of failure while he and others watched helplessly to see his ancestors grave being ceded without a plebiscite, without a referendum. The loss of our oil wells and the attendant pains and hardship that characterised the state since it happened without corresponding commitment and effort from the Federal Government were also excruciating.”

Ayade pointed out that, “in human nature, when all avenues for negotiation fail, people attempt alternative measures. So, there is a morality in the claim because they deeply feel the loss of Bakassi, which was unfair. The ceding did not follow due process; it did not have the ratification of the National Assembly; it did not respect the position of the Constitution that spelt out the conditions, under which a territory of Nigeria can be ceded. The GTA, which formed the basis for the actual implementation was not followed; the implementation of the GTA not honoured; no monitoring and nobody is caring, and the wellbeing of the people of Bakassi was not factored. Therefore, it was a social disconnect between the agitation by the people of Bakassi for proper resettlement, and the need for the Federal Government to ensure peace. This conflict, disagreement, lack of a table of unanimity to address them degenerated to this level of arms rebellion.

“In an attempt to defend your father’s land, protect your uncles, in-laws and all those that the GTA did not respect, the consequence of your action has given them more harm than good. I thank you for coming out of hiding, and as I look at you I feel pained, I feel a sense of shame, defeat, failure as a governor that it took me this long to be able to bring my brothers out of the creeks to say come join us, let’s build Cross River State. You are welcome home. As we welcome you, we welcome you with all sincerity, with every fibre of my being, I promise to keep to the content of the MoU. If I give my words, I will give my right eye to honour it, and I am known for it.”

The governor continued: “I know the details of the obligations, I read through it as a lawyer, I did my recommendations, and I am sure they were duly amended. So, for everything that is there and you have a very articulate lawyer as well, we have had meetings to agree on where we are today, and so he knows that I will honour the obligation. The process of reintegration and ultimate resettlement is quite complex. We have to take you through a period of training. So, on behalf of the government of Cross River State, we are going to admit you into the amnesty programme through a ceremonial programme.

“On my part, I will do all I can within my powers to ensure that you have a guaranteed source of income, a livelihood because I know so much about the sociology of crime, and so much about the challenges you face. It is my responsibility that I will support you to the best that I can because it is my role…on condition that you do not return to your old role because we shall join hands with the Federal Government and raise all the issues that you have raised; all the issues surrounding the GTA, including all the other agitations that are specific to Bakassi, specific to the issues of the ceding Bakassi and the need for the Federal Government to focus on the Bakassi Deep Sea Port. So if we have our Bakassi Deep Seaport working, we will easily need 65, 000 of you people coming together to be busy as dockyard workers. So, the Federal government must recognise that the Bakassi Deep Seaport is a critical solution to the challenge we have at hand because if the whole of them are gainfully employed, and are earning good salaries and working very hard, nobody will like to live in the creeks. I plead with you, in the name of the God that we all serve, let your hands be stained with blood no more; let your hands be clean. Ask God to forgive you all your sins and purge you of the past so that your children, grand children and great grand children will live to have a better life and happiness. We are going to ensure that we engage you…go in peace and sin no more.”

Ayade pleaded with the Federal Government saying, “as you look at the content of the MoU, there are certain obligations and responsibilities that come under your purview, it is our prayer and hope that you will support Cross River State in ensuring that we sustain their livelihoods. You are aware of the monthly allocation to the state, you are also aware of the challenges, and the debt burden of the state. Therefore, carrying this extra burden on my security vote, there is no special fund allocated from the Federal Government for security, it is from the same allocation that you manage security. In this circumstance, we have no option than to return to the Federal Government to engage in a discussion to see how to end this.

“If you look at the world today, the Gulf of Guinea has the highest insurance premium on any shipment. In Nigeria, I don’t know of any vessel that is owned by a Nigerian that exports or imports crude or refined products. All these vessels are foreign-registered vessels, and the security or insurance premium is so huge. So, we lose so much money to foreign vessels occasioned by the activities of the erstwhile BSF. Keeping them out of the creek is a significant milestone, therefore the premium they charge on insurance on vessels passing through the Gulf of Guinea must come down.

“If the Federal Government can articulate today’s activity, and put a strong note across to the international maritime authority, I am sure the reduction in the cost of exported and imported goods, including refined products… Most importantly, the Federal Government owes us an obligation within the ambit of law, logic, and morality to that which is fair because it could not cede Bakassi without sitting with the people of Bakassi to discuss their fate; without providing an alternative for them; without providing accommodation for them; without providing alternative livelihood and without making a deliberate effort. If all of those efforts were there, indeed, they have never manifested.  Please the Federal Government must support us to ensure that this amnesty programme works so that the BSF does not return to the creeks.”