25 July 2015, Abuja – Indications emerged on Friday that President Muhammadu Buhari would probe the Joint Task Force in the Niger Delta as part of the drives to fish out oil thieves under the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan.
Buhari, at an interactive session with Nigerians in the Diaspora at the Nigerian Embassy in Washington DC, the United States, during his four-day official visit to the country, accused some officials of the immediate past administration of stealing one million barrels of crude oil daily.
He said, “We have started getting documents where some of the senior people in government, former ministers, some of them operated as much as five accounts and were moving about one million barrels per day on their own. We have started getting those documents.
“I assure you that whichever documents we are able to get and subsequently trace the sale of the crude or transfer of money from ministries, departments, Central Bank of Nigeria, we will ask for the cooperation of those countries to return those monies to the Federation Accounts.
“And we will use those documents to arrest those people and prosecute them. This, I promise Nigerians.”
The Presidency and military sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Saturday PUNCH that Buhari’s intention to probe Jonathan’s administration would be extended to the JTF in the Niger Delta.
They said the JTF leaders during Jonathan’s administration as well as the current leadership would be interrogated with the aim of fishing out the oil thieves’ collaborators among its rank and file.
The Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Mr. Femi Adesina, said the government was aware that if crude oil could be stolen in that magnitude established by the President, it could either be through connivance or through directives.
Adesina said that in an era of impunity, a directive could just be given and the commodity would be stolen.
Asked if the government would beam its searchlight on the JTF, the presidential spokesperson said everybody involved in the connivance would have questions to answer.
The JTF, which is composed of troops of the army, navy, airforce and the mobile police, was set up in 2004 to restore order in the Niger Delta.
It has metamorphosed from “Operation Flush” to “Operation Restore Hope” to the current “Operation Pulo Shield.”
It was set up to prevent oil theft, illegal refining of petroleum products and other criminal activities in the Niger Delta’s 3,014 creeks and waterways.
But there have been allegations that oil theft under the past administration was done under the watchful eyes of the JTF personnel and other agencies involved in security in the Niger Delta.
Backing the proposed probe, the Civil Liberties Organisation in Akwa Ibom State urged the Federal Government to dismantle the JTF.
The state CLO chairman, Mr. Clifford Thomas, said if the JTF personnel were found culpable, they should be punished, including their civilian collaborators.
Thomas told one of our correspondents in Uyo on Thursday that there were four sets of people that might have connived with the JTF to commit the heinous crime.
He said, “Those involved in the oil theft in the country include the military men and their boys; the politicians who aided them; the civil servants, especially those in the Nigerian Labour Congress stream, and the private profiteers (the businessmen), who are parts of the entire process. No ordinary Nigerian from all indication partakes in the mess.
“These are the criminals; they have been doing the illegal business for time immemorial. These people have been perpetuating the criminal activity against the Nigerian masses and the government.”
Thomas, however, expressed the CLO’s readiness to support Buhari in the fight against corruption in the country.
He said, “The CLO will support Buhari to ensure that all those who stole the public fund that should have been enough to build 200 industries in Akwa Ibom State and other parts of the country are punished and the money recovered.
“All the people involved in the crime, whether they are former ministers, clerics, civil servants or businessmen should be brought to justice.”
The CLO chairman urged the Federal Government not to accept plea bargaining from financial crime offenders.
“The government must recover everything they stole and still send them to jail,” he said.
In the same vein, a social commentator and rights activist, Dr. Jackson Omenazu, said it would be difficult for anybody to deny that operatives of the JTF were not involved in oil theft in the Niger Delta.
Omenazu, who is the Chancellor of the International Society for Social Justice and Human Rights, explained that there was no way oil theft would have continued in the region if the security operatives were diligent enough.
He said, “It is correct and evidence abound that the JTF operatives are involved in oil theft. I have witnessed even where the lower rank and file get money from oil deals and buy more than 15 vehicles.”
A rights activist and Coordinator, Environmental Right Action, Mr. Alagoa Morris, said multinational oil companies were also culpable in oil theft in the Niger Delta.
“It is sad to note that while the JTF operatives still compel us to raise our hands before passing wherever there is a flow station in the creeks, criminal activities such as sea piracy, illegal bunkering and kidnapping take place in the creeks.
“As for oil theft, that is a crime which the JTF and oil companies are also culpable. Even the JTF personnel will agree that they are part of this crime in two ways: aiding and abetting and setting vessels loaded with crude oil ablaze, leading to further degradation of the already battered region’s environment.
“As for the protection of lives and property in the Niger Delta are concerned, I see the JTF showing seriousness only when the officers and men are attacked. It is only then we hear how JTF would chase the criminals or alleged perpetrators to their hideouts and either kill or arrest them.”
A public affairs analyst, Mr. Igoni Davies, suggested holistic review of the JTF’s activities to minimise the oil theft.
He said, “The government’s efforts to protect major oil installations are not achieving the set goals and for the menace to be minimised, there should be a holistic review of the activities of the security agencies patrolling the waterways, particularly the oil and gas region.”
Efforts to get reactions from the JTF Commander, Maj.-Gen. Emmanuel Atewe, were futile as his mobile phone rang out. The commander also did not respond to a text message sent to his mobile phone.
But, the Coordinator, Joint Media Campaign Centre, Joint Military Task Force, Lt.-Col Ado Isa, said the JTF was not aware of any plan by Buhari to probe the outfit.
Isa said as far as JTF was concerned; it was operating within its mandate.
He said, “The JTF was established to maintain security and to fight against oil theft and other illegalities in the Niger Delta.
“Niger Delta consists of nine states and it has five sectors. We have a mandate and we operate within the mandate. The JTF declared zero tolerance for oil-related theft within the waterways.
“JTF is everywhere. It has made many arrests and those arrested were prosecuted by relevant prosecuting agencies. There is no way the JTF personnel will connive with ministers or others to perpetrate illegalities.
“But where JTF men are found culpable in any criminal activity, such person should be severely punished to serve as a deterrent to others. The one allegedly involving past ministers, JTF has nothing to do with that as we have no business with exporting crude oil.”
He said the JTF recently impounded 2000 metric tonnes vessel laden with thousands of litres of illegal products.