Since Nigeria lost the oil-rich Bakassi Peninsular to neigbouring Cameroun, the relocated people of the area have had to contend with all shades of misery.
As if the malnutrition, lack of decent accommodation and medicare, unconducive living conditions and the very painful loss of ancestral homestead were not enough to guarantee pathetic living, insecurity, exacerbated by the upsurge in activities of newly-formed militant groups, have all succeeded in making a bad case worse for the people.
The Bakassi people are not alone in this new-found woes in their new home, Akpabuyo Local Council, part of which the new Bakassi Local Council was carved out from is equally in the throes of pains as militants run something akin to a parallel government in both council areas.
Curiously, Calabar, the state capital, which was famed for its calm, friendly ambience as well as green and serene environment, is now under intermittent sound of gunfire released by daredevil armed robbers, who take delight in robbing in broad daylight. The situation in Akpabuyo and Bakassi council areas is so dire that the council chairmen rarely go to work for fear of being kidnapped. Because of the intensity of insecurity in Bakassi, the council workers and the council chairman now operate mainly from Calabar.
One-time Deputy Speaker of the state House of Assembly, and a community leader in Bakassi, Chief Dominic Aqua Edem, is not mincing words in urging the government to come to the people’s aid as a result of the prevailing air of insecurity in the area
“The government must intervene because the primary responsibility of government is that of ensuring the welfare and security of the people, and the situation we find ourselves is quite deplorable.
“You are aware that kidnapping, cult-related activities and such vices are going on and nobody is safe. As a result of all these, investments are affected in the area. But we thank God that the government is doing something about it in the area of security, and I do hope that the situation will improve for the better.”
Edem, himself a kidnap victim added that, “the activities of militants go beyond Bakassi town to all riverine communities of Bakassi, Akpabuyo, Calabar South and even Calabar Municipality, where they operate from. This is what is happening right now, but we believe that the government is going to do something about it.”
Obviously embarrassed by the activities of all these clandestine groups, especially now that the state capital is within their grip, the state government has taken steps to beef up security in the three worst hit councils, even though a lot still needs to be done.
In Calabar for instance, stop and check points have been introduced at strategic corners. On the way to Bakassi also, security cordons have also been introduced.
From Atimbo in the outskirts of Calabar, a security check-point is mounted by soldiers and personnel from sister agencies. But driving through the isolated swampy forest, through the Atimbo Bridge, on the way to Akpabuyo last week, there is absence of security presence until one gets to Ikot Offiong Ambai. This thus leaves a distance of about four kilometres from Atimbo vulnerable. Beyond there, few other check points have been introduced to further boost the people’s sense of security.
With top politicians in the state enjoying some security cover from government security agents attached to them, a civil servant had to abandon the house he won at the Civil Servants’ Housing Estate in Akpabuyo, and relocat to Calabar, when the militants became brazen in their conduct and started demanding for money from some residents.
A resident of the estate, who craved anonymity said, “The militants came demanding for money from him, but he did not have. He, however, promised to pay them on a later date. It was after that episode that he relocated his family to Calabar. When the militants returned to find out that he had relocated, they vandalised his apartment in annoyance. This is the sort of things that we see here.”
Two weeks ago, another victim of the militants, had gone to settle land matters he had with his kinsmen before the “militants’ court.” There, he was asked to pay a fine of N10, 000 as he was not ready with all what they demanded from him and pleaded for an adjournment.
A civil servant in Akpabuyo who gave his name as Peter, alleged that, “Even the owner of Arthur Jarvis University, which is currently under construction was recently harassed by the boys (militants) and his SUV was vandalized when they could not identify him at the site of the project.
Peter, who further alleged that some investment owners in the area now patronise the boys in order to keep safe and go about their activities without hindrance said, “so, I ask, if there is no parallel government, why do people go to them for the settlement of one matter or the other? The government and the police commissioner should not deceive us.
“When the governor recently said, ‘We know all the militants who are now parading and taking full occupation of Bakassi,’ what was he referring to? We should face the truth and tackle the matter headlong and equally see to the genuine demands of the militants as they claim to be freedom fighters for the emancipation of Bakassi people.”
A village head, who has abandoned his domain in Bakassi and now operating from Calabar South Local Council, also admitted that, “What is going on here is not what the government will dismiss with a wave of the hands. Militants, cultists or armed robbers have taken firm control of our day-to-day activities. You can imagine a situation, where our people prefer to take local matters to the militants for settlement because they believe they will get justice fast.”
The monarch, who pleaded anonymity added, “Anybody who is telling you that the militants are not running a parallel government there (in Bakassi) is telling you lies. It is not enough for the security agencies to come and put up a show here and go away, let them come and stay here then you will understand what I am talking about. They have taken over my court and the administration of the village. These boys now operate both in the creeks and on land.”
He confirmed that, “Yes the Bakassi Local Council chairman does not frequent here for fear of kidnap. Ask her the number of times she has come to work here in Bakassi. A group of young boys from nowhere, go about extorting money from petty traders as what they term their revenue points. If the government feels all is well in Bakassi, why is it that the revenue collected has so drastically been reduced. We should not deceive ourselves in the name of playing politics.”
He expressed joy that the government has taken steps to beef up security in the troubled areas noting, “I just hope this would be sustained, otherwise one day, militants will move into the council secretariat and take over the building. Already, they have taken over the housing estates meant for Bakassi returnees”.
“Oga, the situation here is very bad, and that is the reason we seldom go to work in Bakassi. Because of the militants, we stay in Calabar, where we work from because we cannot risk our lives. Even our revenue collection has dropped drastically as the militants now collect revenue,” a staff member of Bakassi Local Council who simply gave her name as Arit, volunteered.
She continued, “Our chairman even told us that any staff member, who goes to work in Bakassi does that at his/her risk because such a person would pay the ransom, if captured.
A non-indigene who has been living in the Ikot Offiong Ambai area of Akpabuyo for over six years added, “This place is very peaceful. We are not disturbed except these boys, who sometimes go out asking for one form of settlement or the other. I have actually heard of the existence of the militants, but I have not encountered them. I hear they go to Calabar and cause trouble there and come back.
“The main problem is that some of these boys go about extorting money from people and I believe these are the boys that facilitated the emergence of some politicians, who have resurfaced to ask for settlement.”
Another staff of Akpabuyo Local Council, who also declined to have his name in print, however, admitted that the militancy situation in Akpabuyo, “Is not as serious as that of Bakassi. For instance, on the issue of revenue, our chairman has given out revenue points to politicians who do not even remit any revenue to the council. While politicians do this on one side, militants are also doing theirs especially in Bakassi, even though they only disturb us here once in a while. I’m sure the chairman settle them regularly, but their demands are just too much hence they chairmen especially that of Bakassi stay in Calabar and work from there.”
Okon Edet, a motorcycle operator shares Peter’s view stressing, “Yes the militants are here, but I don’t know if they are the ones collecting money from us. Daily, monies are collected from us for tickets to operate, but the tickets are not given and I know that these people are not council staff. They are boys who go about harassing us and collecting money in the name of protecting us. We pray that the state government should come to our aid because when we fail to comply with their demands that we pay for tickets without being issued with receipts, some of us are beaten and our bikes impounded.
“These boys are very dangerous and they even have a cell in the area, where they detain people. Sometimes they push us into cages meant for dogs during interrogation, and they force us to call our relatives to bring money. To show that they are patronised by politicians, they would tell us, “If government people settle us who are you?”
For nearly two years, both civil and traditional authorities in both Bakassi and Akpabuyo council areas have been weakened. And the rising tide of kidnappings witnessed in the state is also attributed to the burgeoning activities of these outlaws.
The secretariat of Akpabuyo and Bakassi council areas have long been deserted by elected officials as well as civil servants deployed to work in the areas for fear of being kidnapped or attacked by the militants. A trip to the area last week showed that only few workers were on their duty posts in Akpabuyo as the Ikot Nakanda Headquarters of the council witnessed scant human presence. At the Ekpri Ikang, where Bakassi council area is headquartered, the place looked abandoned, even though few people were seen loitering around.
Both Bakassi and Akpabuyo council chairmen, Mrs. Edisua Usang Iso and Dr. Patrick Ene Okon, now operate from Calabar and some business people have closed shop as a result of fear, as the militants have also rendered the state judicial organs and traditional institutions in the two councils impotent, because they have taken over the functions of those organs of government.
When his comment were sort over the situation in his domain, the council chairman of Akpabuyo, Dr. Patrick Ene Okon, declined to comment on the matter while his counterpart in Bakassi, Mrs. Edisua Usang Iso, admitted that militants were operating in her council area.
She, however, stressed that their activities do not affect the running of the council even though “the council has lost substantial revenue due to their activities…What the Federal Government should do is to grant amnesty to the militants and incorporate them into the Presidential Amnesty Programme for Niger Delta militants.”
She denied abandoning the council secretariat for close to two years, saying other council officials have been going to Bakassi whenever it was necessary.
Bakassi Strike Force (BSF), Bakassi Freedom Fighters (BFF)
The two main groups of militants operating in the Bakassi and Akpabuyo creeks are the Bakassi Strike Force (BSF), and the Bakassi Freedom Fighters (BFF). But there are also pockets of unidentified militant groups operating under different names.
Only recently, BSF reacted to media reports linking it with the mayhem visited on residents of the two councils and other parts of the state. It dissociated itself from the said crimes.
Leader of the group, “General” Simply Benjamin, in a message made available refuted the claims that Bakassi Strike Force has been behind the series of kidnappings, robberies and others that have led to Bakassi and Akpabuyo indigenes fleeing to Cameroon.
“Not so long ago, I expressed my willingness to work with Federal Government, the question then is how can I be seeking for peace and turn round to cause problem, of what use will that be. I cannot use such sophisticated weapons in my possession to go and steal or rob or kidnap ordinary citizens. It is a total misconception,” said the leader who his lieutenants call “Humble Lion.”
He blamed the pockets of violence, robbery and kidnapping on “cultists elements who were used for elections by politicians and later dumped, adding that with the current state of the country’s economy, the attendant “hardship has plunged many of them into crime. I am not a cultist but a freedom fighter. Once more, I wholeheartedly express my willingness to work with the Federal Government.”
Last month, the BSF at Esuk Mba Beach in Akpabuyo, embarked on a rare display of sophisticated weaponry, while charging the Federal Government to equally consider them in the amnesty programme.
On that occasion, they declared total solidarity with the President Muhammadu Buhari-led Federal Government saying a roundtable negotiation was the way forward and not violence and “we are calling on Mr. President to look our way by extending the olive branch to us by way of amnesty and also rehabilitate our people and our land, by ensuring proper resettlement of Bakassi people. We are ready to work with the Federal Government.
He added, “You will agree with me that Akwa Ibom and Cross River States are part of the Niger Delta, yet we have been completely sidelined from the amnesty scheme and other empowerment programmes put in place for youths of the Niger Delta. Yet, it would interest you to know that it was in Obubra, Cross River State that the demobilisation camp of the Niger Delta militants was hosted, when states such as Bayelsa, Rivers, Edo and Ondo refused to host the rehabilitation camp for the militants.
“After the Federal Government handed away our oil-rich Bakassi to Cameroon, we as inhabitants were neither consulted, neither was proper compensation and resettlement process instituted. To make matters worse, the Cameroonian forces after taking over our lands began to molest, intimidate and imposed heavy taxes on us, which became entirely unbearable. Therefore, when it became obvious in spite of several petitions that the federal and state governments were not interested in protecting us, and even the United Nations…we had no other option as indigenous youths of the land than to rise to defend ourselves from oppression and injustice from Cameroonian forces.”
On their part, the BFF three weeks ago stormed the Governor’s Office Complex along Leopard Town Road, Diamond Hill, Calabar, where they threatened to bomb oil facilities and other critical infrastructures of government.
The group, which alleged to have a contractual agreement with the both the Federal and state governments, handed both an ultimatum to settle their indebtedness, failure of which they would unleash mayhem.
Interestingly, this incident, which occurred in broad daylight led to the blockage of the major road leading to the governor’s office for over three hours, during which vehicular traffic was diverted and members of the public left panicky, even though they were not armed.
The militants insisted that both the federal and state governments reneged in their agreements over the payment of their monthly allowances, which amounted to “ill-treatment meted out to us.”
Leader of the group, which some members claimed to be part of the Federal Government’s Amnesty Programme, “General” Franklin Duduku, stressed that the militants would bring everything to a standstill at the expiration of the ultimatum, and that they were communicating with their colleagues across the Niger Delta states for a possible show down. He alleged that the state government has not paid them the agreed N1.5m monthly allowances for ten months while the N65, 000 the Federal Government was paying to each of them has not been forthcoming in the last five months.
Duduku, who was represented by Clarkson Dauerighe said his boys were given “only a paltry N50, 000 by an unnamed government official to facilitate their transportation back home, and an official who addressed us promised to settle the arrears soonest… If they disappoint … we’ll give them an additional one-week of grace. This is a warning. If by the upper week they don’t give us the money as they have said, we will shut down the whole Niger Delta. This is a national consensus as all of us from Bayelsa to Cross River states, are being owed.”
The State Security Adviser, Mr. Jude Ngaji, who commented on the development said, “They (militants) went to Government House to drop a message for us to take to Abuja, and I called their boss, General Franklin, who said he has called them in Abuja and they are trying to facilitate payment.”
Ngaji said what happened, “Is not about the state government, but the Federal Government because it is the Federal Government that is with their money as they have not been paid for two months and they are demanding payment.”
Armed Robbers On The Prowl
Another thing that residents of the state are battling to come to terms with is the soaring wave of armed robbery. The Ndidem Usang Iso Road in Calabar Municipality has been a very busy spot for daredevil criminals. That neighbourhood has under siege thrice within one week. Between July 5th, 6th and 8th, different shops and some business concerns there were robbed.
All these happened just weeks after a third republic Senator, Patrick Ani, was kidnapped. This incident was only 16 days after five foreigners and two Nigerians were kidnapped by suspected militants along Idundu Bridge on the way to Akpabuyo on June 22. All the kidnapped persons have however been released.
Conscious of the existence of militants and sundry criminal elements in parts of the state, Ayade, on a couple of occasions in the recent past has vowed to rid the state of criminal activities with the assistance of the Federal Government.
For instance, on July 8, Ayade during a media briefing confirmed the occupation of Bakassi by militants saying, “We are coming after them. We know all the militants who are now parading and taking full occupation of Bakassi. We would free the people of Bakassi.
In a further confirmation of the multi-dimensional sufferings of the people of Bakassi, the governor said, “The people of Bakassi have seen enough pains. Lands taken, oil wells taken, reduced to want in spirit, body and economy. We cannot afford also to create a perilous nightmare for the same people. It is one time too many that the people of Bakassi must go through all of these pains”.
While the governor spoke, robbers were having a field day at the Ndidem Usang Iso road not too far away from where he was speaking. But Ayade, who declined taking questions from newsmen after he spoke added, “I use this opportunity to call on the Federal Government to please look into the jurisprudence of taking of our oil wells, to please look into the issue of what is fair and just. That Cross River State cannot afford to continue to be a state that would go cap-in-hand begging. It is a rich state, a state with good heritage and we need the support of the Federal Government to overcome this trying moment.
“The three kingpins that I know, we have identified their homes; we have the convenience of their armoury, we have a clear picture of their modus operandi and we are working on a massive attack. I speak as the United States would do. They let you know that they are coming for you and they will come after you”.
As a way of sending a strong message to sundry criminal elements, including kidnappers and armed robbers, the following day, Ayade and service commanders in the state embarked on “Operation Show of Force” across major streets in the Calabar metropolis.
Ayade later explained that the exercise was a deliberate measure to let the miscreants know that his team was in absolute control of the entire situation.
“We are out here as a show of force to demonstrate that we are in absolute control and we are going to keep Calabar totally safe,” he said, adding that, “We have done a complete surveillance of all the possible routes, all the water areas through which these criminals escape. We know who they are, the security and intelligence reports have shown clearly the people who are behind all these activities and I can assure the people of Cross River State that Calabar is indeed peaceful and they should go about their legitimate businesses peacefully.
“We are also embarking on a door-to-door search, and cordoning off of Calabar to ensure that nobody exits without a thorough search,” he informed.
He further stressed that: “I am sure that with the number of combat vehicles, with the armoury that they (criminals) saw on display today, including military officers and the combined team of Operation Skolombo all on duty, it tells you that Cross River State is an action state and we can’t afford the agony of having any tension anymore.”
He promised to make adequate budgetary provisions, reduce spending while transferring some of the overheads to guarantee sufficient ammunition as well as other security and logistics support.
“We have responded fully to this challenge and I’m sure that we have seen sufficient signals that we are totally in control and fully in charge. The truth of the matter is that, if we have crisis in other states, visitors will probably still go there because of their oil and gas installations, but if we lose our tranquility, if we lose the name and heritage of Cross River State as a peaceful state, then we are gone. That is why I will give my right hand to protect that name, that integrity and warmth that we are known for,” he added.
He also assured residents and visitors to the state, particularly investors of their safety urging them to go about their legitimate businesses.
Obviously embarrassed by the rising spate of insecurity in the state, and determined to put an end to it, the state government is soon to set up a homeland security outfit to complement the efforts of existing security agencies in the state.
Ayade who made the disclosure last week while receiving the French Consul-General, Laurent Polonceaux, in his private residence in Calabar, said this was part of the state’s proactive approaches to sustaining peace and security.
He explained that the concept of the Homeland Security Service, which will be an entirely non-arm bearing outfit, would be a complete departure from the traditional methods of policing. He said the outfit when operational, would provide employment to 3, 000 youths, and will concentrate, but not limited to providing intelligence data and services to the
Nigerian Police; profiling of visitors coming into and leaving the state, including carrying out services such as neighborhood watch.
The governor who said his government would rely on the French government for technical and other logistics support for the outfit added: “With the visit of the Consul-General of France in Nigeria, and with the useful deliberation we have had, with regards to the security challenges facing the Niger Delta at this period, and looking at how Lafarge can do business much better in a less security tense atmosphere, it becomes imperative for us to create a security architecture that can protect Lafarge and extend other services to other citizens and visitors to Cross River State.”