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RELEASE OF HOSTAGES: Sighs of relief in the creeks

Posted by By Emma Amaize, Regional Editor, South-South & Sam Oyadongha, Yenagoa on 2006/02/04 | Views: 460 |

RELEASE OF HOSTAGES: Sighs of relief in the creeks

BETWEEN May 29, 1999 and January 10, 2006, no smaller than seven cases of hostage-takings by armed youths took place in Bayelsa State.

*Battle of wits to rescue hostages
*Our most trying period, by Jonathan
*The nightmare is over, by villagers

BETWEEN May 29, 1999 and January 10, 2006, no smaller than seven cases of hostage-takings by armed youths took place in Bayelsa State. The sitting governor of the state, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan who was a deputy governor then was one of the key government officials who negotiated the release of the captives in five of the instances in question, and none lasted for more than five days. The long-established practice was to rally with the leadership of the communities or clans where the hostages were being held and entreat them to talk to their children.

In the words of the governor: “We approach the youths of the clan, we approach the women leaders and by the time all these groups start moving in, those who have held these people will be weak and of course, they will now be persuaded and they will release the people.”
But this time around, it was another ball game entirely. The authentic location of the militants and the hostages was not identified and no community or clan agreed that it saw a sketch of the militants not to talk of its province being their hideaway. It took longer than expected before contact was made with the kidnappers.

The hijack affair was cloaked in mystery and the parleys so open to doubt that even the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger-Delta (MEND), January 29, made public its plans to free the four foreign oil workers who were held hostage for 19 days in the mangrove jungle of the Niger-Delta, no one was, if truth be told, sure of what was going to come to pass, given the kidnappers’ unbending posture since the episode unfolded.

Finally, the hostages were unconfined as promised, January 30, despite the fact that it was not as uncomplicated. In fact, officials of the Bayelsa State government and their agents who were involved in the exercise went through a baptism of sorts. They were sent on a wild goose chase to the neighbouring Delta State. The state government was almost swindled by impostors who claimed to have one tie or the other with the militants. They came in different guises and taxpayers’ money was burnt on logistics.

For many nights, those involved in the rescue efforts had sleepless nights. They worked round the clock. But, how precisely did the much-sought reprieve come and at what asking price? Who met the lion in its den? What were the political intrigues at play and where do the whole fixation leave the hot-blooded region? Saturday Vanguard, as typical, tells the story.

Jonathan’s baptism of fire

For the Bayelsa State governor, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, the period that the hostages lasted was his first baptism of fire. It was not surprising that on that January 30, he radiated warmth and happiness. Even President Olusegun Obasanjo, for the time being, discarded what he was doing at Aso Villa, paced about the quarters with a certain look of invincibility and obvious relief.

Jonathan knew the storm he weathered for 19 days, beginning January 11 when four expatriate oil workers: Micko Nichev, Harry Ebanks, Nigel Watson-Clark along with Patrick Landry from Bulgaria, Honduras, Britain and United States respectively, working for Tidex and Ecodrill, an oil servicing company to the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) were abducted by militants in the Niger-Delta to January 30 when they were finally released to his government.

The governor would not approve the request of the company to allow the workers to go to Warri first and change the outfits they wore since they were abducted. He insisted on personally taking them to President Olusegun Obasanjo whom he had phoned previously to break the good news immediately the hostages who were airlifted from the riverside Sagbama, landed the Creek Haven, Yenagoa at about 6.00am.

On the part of the hostages who were held incommunicado in the mangrove swamp by their captors, their liberation was like a day-dream. In actuality, the militants did not treat them harshly. But their hopes practically vanished as daylight gave way to hours of darkness and vice versa for the two weeks and five days the devil literally played host to them. For some moments on the last day of their captivity, they thought the much-awaited hour had come when the band of soldiers shepherded them into a speedboat to then an unknown destination. However, it was all smiles of relief when the journey turned out to be their formal handover to a delegation of the Bayelsa State government.
By 8.40 am, two hours, forty minutes after they were flown to Government House, Yenagoa by the Dr. Igali-led team, the governor was airborne with the hostages in yet another helicopter, marked NAF 5N AYA for the Presidential Villa, Abuja en route Port Harcourt International Airport, Omagwa.

The men behind the scene

There are claims and counter-claims as to how the hostages were eventually freed. A top security official confided in Saturday Vanguard that the kidnappers whose identities had been unmasked, surrendered the hostages after some of their sponsors and foot soldiers were arrested and momentarily released the foregoing week with a time limit to get their colleagues holding the oil workers to liberate them or face military bombardment. But more than that, the youths felt too that they had made their points and were also promised that their complaints would be loooked into.
However, information pieced together by this paper and which was corroborated by a highly-placed official of the Bayelsa State government, indicated that the leader of the state government’s team that in point of fact, facilitated the release of the hostages is a campaigner and former chieftain of both the Ijaw Youth Congress (IYC) and the Ijaw National Congress (INC), Chief Joshua Benamaisia.

To get to the militants’ den was no tea party. The farthest some of the members could go was Yenagoa, the state capital, for no one would dare go the creeks where the kidnappers were, to negotiate with them, and using military might lead to bloodshed. The hostages could even be killed and the whole endeavour defeated.
The leader of the Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC), Chief Bello Oboko, who the Commander-in-Chief gave the marching orders to talk with the abductors after an Ijaw elder recommended him, penultimate week, had a feel of it. He plunged into the fray and soon got tangled as he feared what would happen to him if he got the kidnappers to release the hostages without extracting a promise from Obasanjo that they (the kidnappers) would not be arrested. More often than not, one gets to a point of no return when you are under pressure from Obasanjo before you remember that your flank is open.

The gist is that the special committee could not do what it was ill prepared for. In the words of the Bayelsa governor who headed the committee: “Immediately this incident happened, the Federal Government set up a committee headed by the governor of Bayelsa state, that is my humble self, the governor of Rivers who was represented on that committee by the commissioner for information while the governor of Delta State was represented by the Secretary to the State Government, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan. The Ondo governor too was represented by the commissioner for works. Of course, all the security services were also represented. The committee worked hard but maybe because the people came from different backgrounds, that committee was not effective.”

Jonathan summoned a meeting of Ijaw elders from the six states. At this meeting were Ijaw leaders including Chief Edwin Clark, president of the INC, Prof Kimse Okoko, former military governor of the old Rivers State, King Alfred Ditte-Spiff, the Minister of Police Affairs, Alaowei Broderick Bozimo, Minister of State for Petroleum, Dr Edmund Daukoru, first class traditional rulers from Bayelsa, Delta and other areas. It was at this meeting that a committee of six persons was set up “to serve as an intermediary between the government and the boys involved in the hostage-taking.”
And while the government’s team worked hard to get to the root of the deadlock, Aso Rock also got across to its own allies too to intervene. FRED IWENJORA reports that Mr. Timi Alaibe of the Niger-Delta Development Commission (NDDC) was one Bayelsa indigene who was also deeply involved in the rescue efforts.

As soon as he was also ordered to join the train, Alaibe used his grassroot contacts and friendly relationship with the youths to make inroad, and get the kidnappers to soften their position. Like others involved in the rescue efforts, Alaibe was as ecstatic with the release of the foreigners. Though he would not want to speak about his involvement, one of his associates said: “He (Alaibe) is a man whodo not want to join others to make noise or claims as to who did what in getting the hostages released.

“Of course, he is very pleased that the foreigners are out, but would not want to make loud claims. Posterity will judge everyone and his or her contributions. The most important is that the hostages are out.”

No physical contact with kidnappers

Clearly, from the manner they executed the plot that kept the nation on edge for weeks, the militants were no novices in the business. They were not after money and did not ask for money to release the hostages. Chief Benamaisia used his ingenuity as an activist through link men to get to the kidnappers. They were told that their continued holding of the hostage would cost the Ijaw nation a lot of devastation. The team appealed to the emotion of the boys and evoked the Ijaw blood in their veins to realise the horror that would befall their kinsmen if they refused to let go. Without the Ijaw team, it would have been impossible for the Federal Government to reach the boys directly and that would have made the release of the hostages a lot more complicated. Saturday Vanguard also gathered that throughout the negotiations with the kidnappers, they never revealed their location to the Ijaw negotiating team.

Phony groups

Like some fast people are wont to do in such a situation, many groups tried to cash in on the situation in the name of one militant assemblage or the other to make money from the government. According to the Bayelsa governor, “initially, when we could not locate where they (militants) were, when we could not establish a good line of communication, we involved so many groups. Some might be fake, they would come and tell you some stories and asked to be mobilised for transport. Of course, they would ask for transport, accommodation, speedboat hiring and things like that. So, when you aggregate all these for the over 30 groups that we used initially before they were streamlined to five because we were also weighing the kind of information they were bringing compared to those of other groups, then we started seeing those who were not serious. The only group that was serious was that set up by the Ijaw leadership. They were consistent from the beginning to the end. The others we noticed that they were not serious, so we swept them off and we concentrated on the five.”

The release proper

Bayelsa government sent the Secretary to the State Government, Dr. Boladei Igali and his group to Warri to take delivery of the hostages on the appointed date after series of other postponements by the captors. Even if the hostages were kept in Delta state, they used all kind of decoy to shake off security agents and while Dr. Igali was already in Warri for the release of the suspects, he got another message to proceed to the border town of Sagbama, separating Bayelsa and Delta on the Forcados River to receive the four oil workers.

According to the governor, “...the people who we were negotiating with asked us to go to Sagbama. And exactly between 5 a.m. and 5.15 a.m. or thereabout, they (kidnappers) came in two speed boats, one of them stayed in the middle of the River, one of them came close to the shore and the people (hostages) were asked to jump out of the boat and immediately they sped off in the water. But we were indeed happy that the people were finally released.”

Food supply and the kidnap video

It was not so clear how the militants who relocated the hostages from one place to the other in the first few days of the operation got their food. But it was learnt that through some contacts, food and cigarettes were brought to them. How these middlemen took food to the kidnappers in their den without being discovered by security agents beats the imagination.

But it was learnt that the security agents were on land threatening the kidnappers while they were in charge of the creeks. They (militants) ate the same food with the expatriates and generally, treated them well. And contrary to the thinking that the coloured liquid in the jar of bottled water seen in the still photographs of the hostages that were published before their eventual release was soft drink or fruit juice, it was actually river water, which the oil workers were made to taste to understand the pains the Niger-Deltans were going through.

Governor Jonathan who originally fell for the fruit juice trap observed: “The first time we were given some still photographs of the four hostages and in front of each of these hostages, I saw some bottles of bottled water with coloured liquid inside. Initially, I was even thinking that they squeezed some juice and put inside the bottles. Then later, a day before the release, they brought a video clip of the hostages. It was from the clip I saw that what was in that bottle was either tap water or river water because each of the expatriates came to speak in that video, holding the bottle up, saying that the oil companies have operated in the Niger Delta for over 40 years and this is the water the Niger Delta people are still drinking, and called on the Federal Government and the international community to help and solve the Niger Delta problem.”

Networking and propaganda

MEND knew the power of communication in their crusade and this, they utilised for the 19 days that the hostages were in their custody. They went into the creeks with sophisticated telecommunication gadgets that made the outside world a global village easy to reach from their hideout. They had some of their colleagues operating under cover on the spot at Yenagoa, Lagos and Abuja, from where contacts were made and decisions taken on what e-mail messages to send to the media for publication.

From day one, it was agreed that the foreign media should be used, and they got the phone numbers and e-mail addresses of some of the media outfits and their correspondents before setting out. In fact, soon after the kidnap of the oil workers, their colleagues anonymously contacted some of the foreign media and their representatives. Their reason for the choice of the foreign media was obvious. They wanted international attention for their case and did not want a local media practitioner to blow the lid on them. However, their confidence grew with some local media when they saw that they were treating the matter as dispassionately as possible. From this stage, the kidnappers started sending them e-mails and talking to their reporters on phone.

Ransom or logistics

Some people claimed that between N60 million and N120 million was paid as ransom to the kidnappers before the hostages were released. MEND maintained that its action was not for money and that it did not demand money from anybody. Governor Jonathan on his part said, “very frankly, the people never asked us for ransom.”
He admitted that quite some money was spent on logistics “but we did not give money say, this is for the hostages... We spent money on logistics but we never paid any ransom and definitely couldn’t have used Bayelsa State fund to pay ransom because Bayelsa State government is not Shell. They were not working for us. If ransom were to be paid, it should have been Shell and Tidex and not Bayelsa.”

What’s the deal?

So far, the Federal Government has not owned up that it reached any agreement with the different groups it constituted to discuss with the militants. But MEND which indicated that the hostages were released on humanitarian grounds claimed that “our movement and the Federal Government of Nigeria have reached substantial agreement on our fundamental demands for the Niger Delta people if the latter characteristic-to-type does not renege”.

In a statement signed by its field commander, Tamuno Godswill and director of operations, Onyinye Alaebi, the group said their pertinent demands were: (1) immediate and unconditional release of Alhaji Asari-Dokubo (2) immediate and unconditional halt and release of Chief Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, the “governor” of Bayelsa state who is undergoing political trial and persecution (they do not want to see Alamieyeseigha for now as a former governor of the state) (3) immediate and unconditional release of a youth leader, Mr. Joshua Macaiva who was purportedly arrested in Bayelsa state in 2004 for protesting against inhuman activities of oil multinationals at Lokpobiri (4) immediate and unconditional demilitarisation of the Niger Delta... and (5) immediate payment of $1.5 billion compensation approved by the National Assembly to Bayelsa State for environmental degradation due to oil exploration activities in the region for over four decades by the SPDC.

They reiterated in the statement that “our activities are not pecuniary and ransom-based” and “we shall receive no money from any quarters.” The group urged the international community, the US and UK governments in particular to advise the Nigeria government “to stop planned attacks on Ijaw communities...”

Dr. Jonathan said the key issue the militants raised was development of the Niger Delta and they mentioned Okerenkoko community in Delta State among others through the intermediaries of the Bayelsa government, asking: “How can that community which oil field produces oil more than any other in the whole of West Africa have nothing to show for it and development is going on in some other places and none there?” According to him, “they (kidnappers) said they didn’t do it for money but wanted to protest.”

Kidnappers’ den

Every Nigerian is interested in knowing where the kidnappers kept the hostages that the security agents were not able to locate them for 19 days. Before the hostages were eventually released, January 30, a top security official told Saturday Vanguard “we have reasons to believe that the kidnappers were taken refuge with the hostages at Okerenkoko community in Delta state”. Okerenkoko leaders came out stoutly to deny the allegation.

And the returning villagers heave a sigh of relief

Until the January 30 release of the hostages, the fear in the region was that the Joint Task Force (JTF) on the Niger Delta, headed by Brigadier General Elias Zamani, which lost its men in the Benisede flow-station attack, would attack some communities, suspected to be the den of the militants, just like it happened in Odi and Odioma communities where the military were deployed in the wake of youth-related crisis some years ago.
Today, many of the villagers who fled following the death of the soldiers, kidnap of the oil workers and vandalisation of oil facilities, are beginning to return to their homes. Saturday Vanguard discovered that at Ojobo, Opokushi, Obotobo and other towns in Ekeremor Local Government Area, life was returning to normal.

As they come back, heaving a sigh of relief, they were also thankful to both the Federal Government for not ordering the military into action, but also thanked the militants for sparing the lives of the hostages.

“I must thank both parties (government and militants) for the maturity each side showed,” says Chief James Binebi, an Ijaw leader. “That we avoided bloodshed and still got the people (hostages) out was one remarkable achievement. Now, our people who ran away in the fear of what might have happened, are beginning to come back to their homes.”

Pere Dombraye was a boat driver who earlier told us that he had abandoned his business to avoid being caught in any crossfire. He told this paper: “We thank God that this thing is a bit over. We don’t support (hostage-taking) but we ask government to come to the aid of our (Niger-Delta) people. That is the only way this thing can stop. We praise the boys (militants) that they released these people. By doing that, they were able to help our people because we know that this government would not have kept quiet forever.”

From Bilabiri to Azamabiri, Orobiri, Mbiama and many other villages in the Niger-Delta creeks where trouble loomed, there is a sigh of relief that the fate which befell Odi and Zaki Biam (Benue State), two communities destroyed by the military as a result of the killing of soldiers and policemen, would, afterall, not be theirs.
Yet, even as they return, the villagers are still apprehensive, no thanks to the heavy security of military personnel in the region.

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