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Saturday, 16 July 2016

It’s better to run than die in our own homes –Residents fleeing from pipeline vandals




Friday, June 24, 2016 entered the lexicon in the history of Igbo Olomu, a border community between Lagos and Ogun states, when suspected pipeline vandals, said to be Ijaws, invaded the community and its environs, and killed no fewer than 20 persons in one night.
The gunshots that kept the residents awake throughout the night left a torrent of tears in almost every corner of the community the following morning, as some landlords, visitors, residents and local vigilantes had been massacred. It was a historic bloodbath by the vandals.

By the time the vandals were done with their killing spree, several children had become orphans; women had become widows, a number of men had lost their wives while newly-weds could not find their new partners. Beyond the killings, reports say the vandals took along some corpses as they retired into the creeks.
After the attacks, most of the residents who survived the attack fled the community, including those who had just moved into their houses, while some lost their lives in an attempt to escape, including children and parents.
“One of my neighbours, an 18-year-old lady seeking admission, who was fleeing to Ibadan for safety, had an accident and died instantly,” a distraught resident, who identified herself as Felicia, told Saturday PUNCH on the phone.
The reason the vandals wreaked that much havoc was not farfetched, reports say they were angry that some Yorubas in the community reported them to security agencies, leading to the killing of some of their members, and ultimately preventing  them from carrying out their illegal bunkering activities. Thus, they had sworn to kill as many that came their way.
Since then, the residents have had to flee for their safety.
Speaking from her hideout, Felicia said, “I don’t see myself going back there, and even if I will, it’s not anytime soon and definitely not with my children. I’ve been telling my husband I don’t want to go back because we heard they want to chase the Yorubas out of that place.
“Before now, we used to hear such violence at Ishawo and Oke Ogo; how Ijaw people have been terrorising people around there, but this got to us and shook our community, because we saw many people dead. It was a gory sight, my brother.
“It’s been three weeks since the incident happened but till date, it feels like yesterday. The memory still haunts me and my children still complain about the same thing because we saw blood and many corpses when we were leaving. I’ve never seen such a thing in my life before.
“My children have been out of school since then and my business has suffered, but life is more precious. I have so many perishable items in my shop but they are all gone now, and that is if they have not looted the shops, like they have always done, using military uniform.”
Perhaps one of the things Felicia and her children had yet to come to terms with is the fact that they had been forced to leave the comfort of their home to squat with relatives, simply because they live close to a national asset; pipelines.
“It’s sad that we are forced to squat with relatives. I live in one room with my six children now, while my husband had to go and live with his sister, since living close to pipeline has suddenly become a plaque,” she added.
Felicia is just one of many residents living close to pipelines, who have been constrained to abandon their homes and scurry for safety due to the invasion of their communities by vandals who seem determined to stop at nothing to scoop fuel through the pipes that convey petroleum products from one part of the country to another.
When our correspondent visited the community, it had become a shadow of itself and one could walk minutes before coming across another person. The tension created by the invasion had yet to abate completely as people were still moving their belongings out of the place, while those around moved about with fear of being killed or maimed.
“As I’m speaking to you now, I have said my last prayer because we no longer know who is who. Though we have few military officers on ground, the security is still very poor,” a resident who had come to pack his belongings told Saturday PUNCH.
When asked why he waited till then to move out of the area, he said he had been looking for money to move his belongings, saying he had spent all his savings on finishing the house, which took him four years to put up.
He explained, “We moved into the house few months ago, as you can see (pointing to the house) it is still new.  My wife and I already spent all we had to make it habitable, especially because of the children. So, we were still settling down and trying to pay back the loans we took, when these men of the underworld came striking.”
“Moving into our own house was something we looked forward to; we borrowed and starved ourselves of food when necessary just to put the house in order, but now, we have to go. I’m taking my family to my sister’s house where we can reside until normalcy returns. I mean I have not even enjoyed the house. I don’t know where we are going in this country. I’m fed up.”
While our correspondent walked through the area, Mr. Gbade (surname withheld) spoke harshly on the phone for minutes, lamenting what had become of the community. He later told Saturday PUNCH that it was unfortunate that the community that used to be lively had suddenly become a ghost town.
The 47-year-old who appeared a little nervous said, “Even me, I don’t live here for now. I came to switch off our electric meter to avoid fire disaster because we all left in a hurry. This is a community with over 36 community development associations, and a population of about 127,000 people. Presently we don’t have up to 40,000 people around in the whole of this area, and I can tell you that they are all living in fear.
“For some time now, even before this last incident, the slightest sound would always leave us in panic and we regularly heard gunshots. We want government to do everything to solve this problem by deploying more security personnel into the area to give residents some confidence. Why should people build houses they cannot live in because of pipelines that  convey something the whole country benefits from? That is not fair.
“As it is at the moment, if you see one person now, it may take you up to 15 minutes before you would see another person and as it is now, we don’t even know who is who among the people here as there are a lot of strange faces around.
“Presently, there is no king here, so the administration of the community is in the care of each CDA and the hands of God. We are only trying our best. There is threat to life and property in this area and this has created a lot of fear in the minds of the people. Everybody is running up and down. Sometimes, we wish there is no pipeline around us so that we can live in peace like others.
Gbade, who said he had lived in the estate for years, said it had been difficult identifying people who died. “I was involved in evacuating corpses after the tragedy and I can tell you that we heard of victims who just got married, some who just moved into their houses and those who started the community. We are all living in fear of these Ijaw boys who are capable of striking anytime.”
Meanwhile, findings showed that unlike what obtains in the Niger Delta area, a number of these communities that had come under attack by vandals, invoked the wrath of the militants by reporting their activities to security agencies. It was equally observed that some of the affected areas are new sites that are closer to the pipelines.
Pipeline vandalism, a national tragedy
It is noteworthy that in the past, pipelines were found only in the bush, and buried underground. But as development began to spread gradually, people started living close to this all important national asset, and such residents often get in trouble anytime security agents move in to stop vandals.
The vandals often descend on the residents when they feel the residents reported them to security agencies, like the case of Igbo Olomu. This menace has turned many house owners to refugees, and this experience is the same in several communities across the country, including Arepo, Warewa, Ibafo, Totowu (all in Ogun State), Ikorodu, Navy Town, Atlas Cove and Badagry, in Lagos
It is no gainsaying that hundreds of lives have been lost to the activities of pipeline vandals, hundreds have been displaced, many have sustained injuries, while billions of naira have equally been lost in revenue to the government.
Arepo, a rapidly growing community in Obafemi/Owode Local Government Area of Ogun State, is one community that has witnessed many deaths and kidnapping, while many residents have been forced to abandon their homes.
Just three weeks ago, suspected vandals killed an Assistant Superintendent of Police in the popular Voera Estate in the community.
By the time PUNCH correspondent visited the area, some residents had abandoned their plush homes. For example, on Association Road, no fewer than five luxury houses have been abandoned by their owners, while another resident was kidnapped on Michael Ekpo Street, on whom a ransom of N4.2m was collected by the vandals. And those are just few of the killings and kidnappings that have become regular occurrence in Arepo.
When our correspondent visited the community on Tuesday, some houses were still deserted by their owners, while some residents affirmed that they had been living in fear. One of them said it was regrettable that the vandals who used to terrorise residents close to the pipelines had moved into the centre of the town as they now kidnap and kill people in the middle of the town.
In a similar development, on June 8, 2016, no fewer than five persons were killed by suspected vandals who had invaded the community to kidnap some persons, after which they escaped through the creeks. The following morning, some residents again abandoned the homes they must have laboured to build to avoid being killed.
Totowu in Igbesa area of Ogun State is another community that has suffered in the hands of vandals. Just few weeks ago, seven persons were killed by suspected vandals in the community, after a vigilante group apprehended some of their members.
In a retaliation, the vandals in their numbers invaded the community and started shooting sporadically, killing and maiming the residents.
While the dust raised by this had yet to settle, the vandals, who were still angry that the apprehension of their members had disrupted their illegal activities, again set a trap for some of the residents and attacked them while returning from their places of work.
They attacked two boats heading to the community and dispossessed the passengers of all their belongings, and beat them like drum, while one of the passengers, in a bid to escape, jumped into the water and died. His corpse was found floating days after.
The community had become a ghost community since then, as people left in their hundreds.
When Saturday PUNCH visited the community, it was as deserted as can be imagined. Schools had been shut while doors to many houses were shut.
When our correspondent traced one of the victims to his house, it was a harvest of sympathy. On entering his expansive sitting room, he hid his face behind his son who sat on his laps. He tried to avoid eye contact with anyone because of his swollen face, but it was evident even from the distance that he was hurting deeply.
Mr. Emmanuel, 37, tried to smile to welcome sympathisers trooping in their numbers, but his torturous experience in the hands of his attackers in the evening of Tuesday last week still haunts him terribly. He tried to cuddle the boy, whose face had also become reddened out of endless cries, but his own emotional strength was failing him too.
The silence in the sitting room was resonating loudly and all of them, including his wife, their other two children and sympathisers all wore a gloomy look.
“They took everything away; my money, ATM cards, phones, complimentary cards, office documents and even beat me like a baby. What kind of country is this?” he queried as he broke the silence.
He told his guests that as of the time he left his office at Apapa where he works as a clearing agent, and headed home, he had no idea he was walking into the trap of the vandals.
He said he was in constant touch with his wife and up until around 8:15pm that he boarded a boat at Egan in Igando area to Totowu, he assured his wife and children he would be home in few minutes, as the journey would only take 10 minutes.
But shortly after they took off, the vandals who were freely patrolling the area moved in on them and dealt with them the way they would never forget.
He explained, “I entered a boat at Egan and we were 17 passengers. There was also another boat with 17 passengers and the boats sailed together because it was late; around 8:30pm. In the middle of the journey, suddenly, two boats emerged from the creeks and approached us. As they approached we saw that the 10 of them were fully armed, I was already shivering. I said my last prayer because they pointed gun at us.
“They stopped us, robbed the two boats and dispossessed the 34 of us of our belongings. They took everything. I mean nobody was left with a pin. They took away my documents, including the bill of lading for about 13 containers that I was tracking, because I’m a clearing agent. They beat me mercilessly.
“After taking our belongings, they pounced on the sailors and beat them to stupor. One of us, who feared that we might be killed, jumped into the water and died, because we later saw his body floating on the water. Everything happened between 8:30 and 9pm. The vandals went back into the creeks after the operation.
“I could not get home that night until the following morning. If these militants will not let us be, the best thing would be to leave this area, even though we built the house by ourselves. But someone should not die because he built the house himself.”
The residents told Saturday PUNCH that during  the vandal’s invasion, a policeman who was returning from work and was about entering a boat to go home was also killed by the vandals. They said they had become volunteer vigilantes to protect themselves from further invasion.
A resident, Tony, said, “We have been living in perpetual fear because we don’t know when next they would invade this place. It is now a bad thing to live close to pipeline in this country, because the same thing happened when I was living at Ijegun. Since the incident happened, getting to work has been difficult because the boat operators no longer operate.
“We have hired some members of the Odua Peoples Congress to help us out.”
As Emmanuel would confidently say, “95 per cent of the residents have left and it’s as if there is no police in Ogun State because they don’t have any presence here.”
Another survivor, who would not want her name in print, said her husband had concluded arrangement for them to leave the community as it had become unbearable. “Is it not better for us to live in a rented apartment than die in our own house prematurely,” she said.
One attack, huge losses
Many lives have been lost to the activities of these vandals, but the economic loss to the country is equally worthy of note.
The Minister of Petroleum Resources, Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, had said about two months ago that the country loses about 800, 000 barrels daily to pipeline vandalism.
While the vandals in the Niger Delta area siphon both crude oil and refined products, those in other parts of the country where there are no refineries siphon refined products.
About a year ago, the NNPC said a total of 16,083 pipeline breaks were recorded within the last 10 years, adding that while 398 pipeline breaks representing 2.4 per cent were due to ruptures, the activities of unpatriotic vandals accounted for 15,685 breaks which translates to about 97.5 per cent of the total number of cases.
It added that the corporation had incurred over N174bn in product losses and pipeline repairs in the last ten years.
Speaking on the development, the spokesperson for the NNPC, Garba Deen Mohammed, lamented the dimension pipeline vandalism had taken, saying it had become a national problem.
He added, “It is not living close to the pipeline that is the issue, it is the attacks. However, there are policies about how close people could be to such installations. They know what the danger is and they should abide by the law. The President has also urged the vandals to give peace a chance.”
But the spokesperson for the Ogun State police command, Muyiwa Adejobi, contended that the attacks in recent times were not pipeline vandalism but militancy. He said the police would ensure the security of the hinterland.
He said, “The modus operandi of these people connotes militancy, not vandalism. Vandals destroy pipelines, steal crude oil and escape, but what we have now are militants. They would come from the creeks, attack communities, shoot sporadically, kill, maim, destroy, steal and go back to the creeks.
“We will make sure we suppress their activities to the creeks so they won’t come out and attack our people. The fears people have are borne out of psychological projections. There is peace in the areas now.”
He also called on the people to support the efforts of the police by exposing the militants.
Efforts to get the spokesperson for the Lagos State police command, Dolapo Badmos, to comment on the development failed as she didn’t answer her call.

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