BY JIMITOTA ONOYUME
Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai has continued to take proactive steps to build bridges of peace across the entire Niger Delta region, a move that has largely been responsible for increase oil production since he assumed office as Chief of Army Staff July 2015.
There have been improved civil/military relations across the region. When the army came up with Operation Crocodile smile in 2016, panic initially greeted the exercise across the region because many feared that the army was set to engage militants in the region in what they said could be an epic battle.
Before the army rolled out the operation there was significant drop in crude oil production occasioned by incidents of oil theft and militant attack on oil facilities.
At one of the flag off ceremony of the operation, the army chief told journalists in Delta state that the exercise was intended to revive the oil economy.
“We hope that the economy will come up again and the facilities and the infrastructures in terms of the oil and gas will be protected and the people around will go about their normal businesses without fear of any attack.
“We hope that this will other investors to come around and that those companies that have already declared force majeure,” he had said.
Immediately after the flag off ceremony, the army followed with what it code named “show of force” , on major roads in Port Harcourt, Rivers state in September that year as part of activities lined up for the Crocodile smile.
Tongues wagged , as many spoke of the might of the Nigerian army I recalled seeing the movement of heavy military weapons , artillery , on Marine base area of Port Harcourt that day. I heard onlookers screaming , :“ hope the army has not come to level down the Niger Delta with its operation crocodile smile ?”.
But contrary to the fears, the Operation Crocodile Smile has boosted civil/military relations in the region. Part of the exercise included donation of note books to selected primary schools across states in the region.
The army had wanted to add medical outreach for some schools in 2017 when it re commenced the exercise but this angle was twisted negatively by some , alleging that the army wanted to inject school children with monkey pox disease.
It took Spokesman of 6 Division of Nigerian Army, Colonel Aminu Illyiasu to clear the air, stressing that the army had not even gone to any school with its medical outreach programme.
He said the wicked allegation about monkey pox should be dismissed as mere rumour.
The rumour caused panic in several schools as parents rushed to withdraw their children from schools, some even stopped their children from going to school for days until they were convinced it was a rumour.
Lieutenant General Buratai has continued with Operation Crocodile smile since it was launched in 2016. In 2018, during the exercise, soldiers mobilized to clean the popular Effurun market in Warri, Delta state.
Bewilders traders said when they saw soldiers at the market that morning , their initial response was to start closing shop to rush to safety until they were assured by the soldiers that they were for peace, to clean up the market as part of civil/military relations.
Under Lieutenant General Buratai the picture of the army in the Niger Delta is a people friendly military institution. The people are relaxed to assist the army with necessary information to help it achieve its task of reducing oil theft in the region
Several artisanal refineries have been crushed by soldiers with support from locals who were displeased with the magnitude of pollution brought by these oil thieves on their water and environment.
The strategy of building bridges of peace in the Niger Delta introduced by the army chief has reduced cases of clash between the army and youths in the region. A militant leader , “General Scorpion “, said militants had not had any reason to resume hostilities in the region since there had been no provocation from the military.
“ There has to be provocation for there to be counter action. We have not seen. Some of us even call the army to come and help save our communities from the activities of illegal bunkerers.”, he said.
“ We are not happy with the pollution of our water and environment by these acts. So we occasionally call the army to save our community. We do this because of the healthy relationship we enjoy with the soldiers “, he added.
Lieutenant General Buratai helping to consolidate gains of amnesty program
According to the militant leader, provocations from soldiers were partly responsible for some of the actions by militants in the past. But under the current Army Chief , soldiers had been very responsible even though there had been few cases of provocations by some in some of the riverine communities.
“ Despite the few cases of provocations by soldiers I can say that the soldiers had been very responsible under the current army chief. When we had reasons to protest in our communities against oil firm we did without harassment from the soldiers guarding the facilities. “, he said
Continuing, he said there were even occasions were communities shut down flow stations, occupied them for some hours over matters of failure of the companies to live up to the Memorandum of understanding signed with the communities and there were no harassment from the soldiers.
“ They ( soldiers ) would tell our community women and youths not to destroy facilities, they should make the protest peaceful. Our people will make their points peacefully and leave without any shot from the soldiers. I give it to Lieutenant General Buratai “, he said.
Some other militants said the army under the command of Lieutenant General Buratai will be commended for the success of the amnesty programme proclaimed for ex militants by late President Musa Yar Adua in 2009.
They said the civil/military relationship between the army and the region had deepened gains of the presidential amnesty programme in the region.
“You can see that there had been no serious militant attack on oil facilities in the region since Lieutenant General Buratai assumed office. His approach is paying off. The carrot and stick approach “, one of them said.
The army boss has also brought military formations closer to the people in the region with the establishment of 6 Division and creation of 2 Brigade in Akwa Ibom, 63 Brigade in Asaba, Delta state and 16 brigade in Bayelsa state. The foregoing brought its gains to the region.