BY SAM OYADONGHA
The putrid stench of decomposition was the ugly reminder of lives that once bubbled.
For all of four days, their bodies could not be located.
Rotting away in the dingy creeks of Azuzuama community, Southern Ijaw Local Government Area of Bayelsa State, the bodies were already even no longer identifiable – apart from the anatomy which portrayed them as men.
The recovery, last Tuesday, of the bodies of 11 of the 12 policemen who were attacked by suspected militants in the creek of Bayelsa State, penultimate Friday, put to rest the speculation that the cops could still be alive.
The bodies were recovered four days after the attack. Miraculously, last Thursday, the twelfth policeman thought to have been dead, re-appeared.
They were heading to that community to provide security at the burial of the late mother of an ex -militant leader, Kile Selky Torughedi, aka Young Shall Grow, and Senior Special Assistant, SSA, on Marine Waterways Security to the Bayelsa Governor, when their boat was ambushed.
16 policemen were said to have been in the boat at the time of the incident.
Four escaped along with the boat driver. The police said 50 cops were deployed for the mission and they were supposed to be making the trip in a convoy of many boats led by a gunboat.
Then the deceased policemen’s boat, according to the police, was left behind after developing engine fault thus making them easy prey for the attackers.
Sunday Vanguard learnt that it took so long to recover the remains of the slain policemen due to the difficult nature of the narrow waterway connected by several creeks. However, the collaborative effort of the Joint Task Force (JTF), code named Operation Pulo Shield, with the police in the search and rescue operation paid off, leading to the recovery of the corpses.
One of the victims, a senior inspector, was identified as Joseph Ofujuni.
He was said to be due for retirement in December after putting-in 35 years of service.
Another was identified as Sgt Jack, Constable Ebebi Lucky.
The identities of others could not be ascertained.
One of the survivors was identified as Sgt Clinton Ambayi.
Though journalists were not allowed to see the corpses, which were evacuated into bags by officials of the state ambulance services on arrival at the Bayelsa State Ministry of Transport jetty before they were conveyed to the Federal Medical Centre (FMC) morgue, the place was filled with the stench of decomposing bodies.
According to an eyewitness, the boat conveying the policemen did not develop engine fault, as claimed in some quarters, before they came under attack. It was gathered that the attack occurred along the creek of Lobia II community also in Southern Ijaw LGA.
Their assailants were said to have positioned at a jetty along the narrow creek thereby putting them at an advantage to take out their exposed targets.
The policemen were apparently taken unawares by the gunmen who rained bullets on the boat.
While the gunmen pumped bullets into the hapless policemen, a boat allegedly conveying another team of assailants joined in the firing to ensure none of the victims escaped. The policemen and their boat were said to have been riddled with bullets which left some of the bodies torn apart and making it difficult for them to float on the surface of the river after 24 hours.
But the boat driver miraculously escaped unhurt as he dived into the river. Sgt Clinton and two others, it was learnt, also escaped by diving into the water even as they were given a hot chase by the assailants.
The boat conveying the policemen, according to a source, was not a police boat but was chartered for the occasion.
“It was fitted with double 75 horse power engine as against others that left the FMC waterside for the journey to Azuzuama that fateful day using 200 and 150 horse power mercury double engine”, the source added. This, it was gathered, made the boat carrying the 16 policemen, more than its capacity, to lag behind in what should have been a convoy movement of all the boats heading to Azuzuama for the burial of the late mother of Torughedi.
“When boats are moving in convoy and one of them is lagging behind, the practice is for others to go back and check what was amiss, but, in the case of the boat conveying the police in this convoy, none turned back to know why,” a security operative deployed to the FMC waterside to receive the remains of his slain colleagues on Tuesday lamented.
The atmosphere at the FMC waterside was tense with relations waiting anxiously to catch a glimpse of the remains of their loved ones who though had left for work that fateful Friday with the hope of returning home at the close of work, but never made it back alive.
Some of them didn’t even have an inkling that they would be ordered to proceed to Azuzuama. They got to work that day and were told about the event.
It turned out to be a journey of no return.
The killing not only triggered fresh panic in the oil industry but also left Bayelsa State Police Command and sister security agencies stunned.
Though the tragic incident was not the first time police operatives would be consumed in such a large number in one fell swoop in the creeks of the state; but it was the worst violence seen in the once troubled area since the once rampaging Niger Delta agitators agreed to embrace the Federal Government amnesty.
It was, however, learnt that the ambush, which claimed the lives of the policemen, may have been the fallout of alleged disagreement among members of the once united confederates of the defunct South Wing MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) over amnesty proceeds; this claim could not be verified given the recent upsurge of pirates’ attacks in the creeks and waterways.
The serene Azuzuama settlement, tucked away in the deep mangrove, it was learnt, was the bastion of the South Wing MEND, an affiliate of MEND, led by Torughedi, popularly known as the ‘Young Shall Grow’ in the days of militancy in the oil rich region.
The leader of the group later renounced armed struggle like his other confederates to embrace the Federal Government amnesty making Azuzuama and its waterways one of the most peaceful in the predominantly riverine state.
This diminutive ex- militant leader was said to have been having problems with his ‘boys’ who accused him of abandoning them. He was said to have relocated to Yenagoa after embracing the Federal Government amnesty leaving behind his former confederates. His aggrieved ‘boys’ were said to have vowed to extract their pound of flesh from him whenever he returned to Azuzuama.
This scenario was like a tinderbox waiting to explode. The ex- militant leader lost his mother and it was her burial he was reportedly going to attend in spite of advice from his close confidants that he should stay away.
He reportedly approached the Bayelsa police authorities in Yenagoa for protection during the burial ceremony. He was obliged.
Sadly, the policemen were heading to Azuzuama when they were ambushed by the gunmen along the waterways.
The attack coincided with the threat by MEND, penultimate week, to resume hostilities in the Niger Delta following the imprisonment of its leader, Henry Okah, in South Africa over his roles in the 2010 independence day bombing in Abuja and another incident in Warri.
Though the tragic incident occurred between 4pm and 5pm penultimate Friday, several attempts to get the state police boss, Mr. Kins Omire, to confirm the incident in the early hours of Saturday were futile as he said he was in a security meeting.
It was not until about 9pm that a visibly troubled police boss, at a media briefing, confirmed the attack on the policemen. Omire, who insisted that the cops were still missing and could not be declared dead until the final outcome of the search and rescue operations, said the armed men ambushed the policemen and made them soft targets.
He noted that the attack was launched by some aggrieved ex-militants while the “missing policemen” were stranded on the waters following an engine problem with the speed boat conveying them”.
The police boss said, “50 policemen set out on the assignment to Azuzuama. On their way, one of the boats developed engine fault. A Joint Task Force gun boat was moving ahead of them. They were isolated and became soft targets. Intelligence reports have shown that those involved in the armed attack were hoodlums within an ex-militant group that were supposed to be enjoying amnesty.”
Omire denied the claim of wrongful deployment of the slain policemen to Azuzuama community to provide security at the burial ceremony of the late mother of ‘Young Shall Grow.’
According to him, though the killing of the policemen was unfortunate, the deployment of the policemen was authorized by him and done to provide security to high profile visitors expected at the burial ceremony of the late mother of the ex-militant leader.
The police commissioner said the deployment followed due process and the” disabled nature of the boat conveying the dead policemen made them easy targets for their killers”.
He explained, “As I speak to you, some policemen are still in the community. It was the disabled nature of the speed boat conveying the affected policemen that made them soft targets. We had lots of gunboats and security personnel in the area. As I speak with you now, the entire Azuzuama community is condoned off.”
According to him, out of the 50 policemen deployed to the Azuzuama community, the 12 declared missing include two inspectors, four non-commissioned officers and six constables.
“The police have launched a high powered investigation headed by an Assistant Commissioner of Police, Mr. Tuesday Asayamor.”
However, MEND and General Adaka Boro Jnr group, about 48 hours after the attack, struggled to lay claim to the killing of the policemen. In their separate e-mails, the MEND and the Jasper Adaka Boro group insisted that the killing was an outcome of a gun battle between their foot soldiers and security men. MEND, however, claimed the killing occurred on Saturday instead of Friday as confirmed by the police and indigenes of the community. The Bayelsa police boss dismissed the claim that MEND was responsible.
In the MEND statement, the spokesperson, Jomo Gbomo, claimed that the killing was a confirmation that the penultimate week threat of violence was real and had started.
“For dismissing Hurricane Exodus as an “empty threat” by the Nigerian security forces, heavily armed fighters from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), at about 17:00 hrs, Saturday 06, April 2013, intercepted and engaged government security forces in a fierce gunfight lasting over forty (40) minutes at Azuzama, Southern Ijaw, Bayelsa State, Nigeria,” the email said.
“The clash, which happened in the river, left over fifteen (15) security forces dead as we also lost two (2) of our fighters in the battle.
“We hope this encounter will serve as a lesson to the Joint Task Force (JTF) from making careless utterances that cannot be backed as we remain resolute in our resumption of hostilities.”
“All oil companies and the public are advised to ignore the false sense of security been peddled by the JTF as well as the false comments from a “Comrade Azizi”, who claims to be the spokesman for the group. This person is not known to MEND, does not speak for MEND and his utterances and style do not reflect our plans and actions.”
In its claim of responsibility for the killing, the militant group, led by General Jaspa Adaka Boro (Jnr), insisted that the killing of the policemen was a clear warning to their ex- leader, Torughedi.
According to the group, “What happened yesterday (Friday) was a warning to ‘Young Shall Grow’. We have been sidelined in NNPC, Bajero security jobs because of him. We want the Federal Government, the Bayelsa government and other stakeholders to come to our aid. If they refuse, we will blow up the flow stations in the region. It is an armed struggle. We have just started. The Federal Government should tell him (Young Shall Grow) to empower his boys. We are not afraid.”
In the meantime, the killing, it was learnt, is causing fear within the ranks of ex- militant leaders in Bayelsa.
It was gathered that ex-militant leaders, including Eris Paul, popularly known as Ogunboss; Ebikabowei Victor-Ben, known as Boyloaf; and Pastor Reuben Wilson, known as General Pastor; have beefed up their own security to forestall any attack.
Wilson, who spoke on the development, said the killing of the policemen was a dastardly act and condemnable, saying it could happen to any ex-militant leader in the state due to the alleged involvement of some in the deduction from the allowances of their followers.
According to him, the media should dismiss the claim of responsibility for the policemen killing by MEND.
He said, “Our lives are in danger when visiting our areas. Anything can still happen to another leader. But I don’t think I have any problem with my boys.
“We that are freedom fighters in Bayelsa are saddened that such incident happened in Bayelsa State. We want to state that the purported MEND claim is false. MEND is not involved and the Amnesty Office is not involved. This is a pure misunderstanding between a leader and his boys. The killing is an attempt to rubbish the Amnesty Programme of the Federal
Government.” Wilson, who is also the president of the coalition of ex-militant leaders for peace under the aegis of the Leadership, Peace and Cultural Development Initiative (LPCDI), said, “When we accepted amnesty, the Federal Government made lots of promises to the leaders.
Because of the failure on the part of the Federal Government, the leaders were deducting the allowances of the boys. But if the Federal Government reached out and treat the leaders with respect and fulfill the promises, I don’t think any leader will make such illegal deductions.
“For the leaders, I want them to reach out to their boys. Most of the leaders should talk to their boys and let them know what is happening. At times, the leaders provoke these boys to violence by abandoning them. They should interact and have regular meetings with these boys because they know their capabilities and strength in the handling of weapons.”
Meanwhile, Governor Seriake Dickson has vowed to collaborate with security agencies in the state to ensure the arrest and prosecution of the perpetrators of the dastardly act.
He described the death of the policemen as tragic.
Dickson, who spoke in a statement in Yenagoa, stated that government will do everything humanly possible to bring the culprits to book, emphasizing that steps were already being taken to comb the nooks and crannies of the state to apprehend them.
He stated that government cannot fold its arms and watch people take the law in to their hands for whatever reason stressing that government will not relent until acts of criminality and lawlessness are completely eliminated in the state.
“We will not rest on our oars and we will make the environment very, very uncomfortable for criminals and perpetrators of other related offences to operate”, the governor said.
“For the umpteenth time, government is warning our youths and their collaborators, who take delight in kidnapping, maiming and taking the lives of innocent and law abiding citizens, to turn a new leaf or have themselves to blame, because nobody will be spared”.
Dickson renewed his call to parents and guardians to prevail on their children and wards to desist from acts that could jeopardize government’s efforts at achieving enduring peace and accelerated development of every sector of the state’s economy.
Also the leaders of the Action Congress of Nigeria(ACN) in Bayelsa State and the pro-democracy group, the Ijaw Peoples Development Initiative (IPDI) condemned the killing of the 12 policemen, describing the attack as barbaric and criminal.
According to the ACN, in a statement by its Publicity Secretary, Comrade Christopher Abarowe, the killing is unfortunate, sad and a serious threat to the security situation in the country. The party calls on the state and Federal Government not to treat the attack with dismay but be more proactive and decisive in handling the security challenge facing the nation”, the ACN said.