There was outrage at the police stopping of a meeting of the general assembly of Pan Niger Delta Elders Forum (PANDEF) in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, yesterday. PANDEF leaders said the action was dangerous because it would send a bad signal that the government does not appreciate the role the group has been playing to rein in militants and other aggrieved groups in the volatile Niger Delta region.
As early as 7:00 a.m. police operatives from the Rivers State Command barricaded Birabi Street leading to Hotel Presidential, Port Harcourt, venue of the aborted meeting, and prevented delegates, including monarchs and human rights activists from accessing the place.
The security agents said they were directed by the Police High Command to disrupt the meeting following a threat by a new militant group, Reformed Niger Delta Avengers, to blow up critical oil installations if the PANDEF meeting went ahead.The Guardian learnt from sources in the PANDEF that the primary agenda for the general assembly was to approve the group’s constitution and hold an election.
PANDEF Secretary-General, Ledum Mitee, who condemned the action of the security agents, said there was no justification for the disruption of the meeting where issues affecting the region would have been discussed.
“It sends a very conflicting message because on 1st October, the president was commending the leaders of Niger Delta for their constructive role in ensuring peace in the region. And now, less than a month after that, there is a clampdown on the leaders of the Niger Delta. I don’t think it is the best approach,” he said.
On the claim that the meeting was aborted to protect national interest, Mitee explained that PANDEF did not pose any security risk to the nation. He said that the aborted meeting, which had helped to stem the attack on oil pipelines and other critical national assets by Niger Delta militants was to discuss issues of common interest to the people of the region.
“In fact, it is more in the national interest for PANDEF to meet and discuss than to stop PANDEF from meeting. When people talk of national interest, you are talking about the interest of the nationals and we are the nationals of this country. So national interest cannot just be one thing that you call as such when you want to clamp down on the citizens. If you are talking of national interest, you are talking of the interest of the nationals, and members of PANDEF are nationals of this country,” Mitee said.
But amid the standoff between the police and members of PANDEF, some leaders of the group decided to retreat to the suite in the hotel where they held a caucus meeting with elder statesman, Chief Edwin Clark.
PANDEF’s youth wing leader, Mr. Famous Daunemigha, confirmed the caucus meeting. He claimed that the Reformed Niger Delta Avengers who the security agents alleged threatened to attack oil pipelines was a non-existent group.
“We just ended the meeting. They tried to frustrate us, but we later went in and had a meeting. We don’t know who wants to frustrate us; it is just that security apparatus said some militants were threatening. I have told the military personnel that as far as I am concerned, those who made the statement threatening PANDEF are laptop militants. The RNDA is a laptop group, we don’t know them and we don’t recognise any of the members,” he said.
In his reaction to the disruption of the meeting, Clark said the attempts to stop such a high-level gathering of leaders of the Niger Delta region was unacceptable and a very disturbing precedent and flagrant denigration of the nation’s constitutional guarantees of the right of peaceful assembly and free movement.
“This is more disturbing when it is known that meetings of this nature by leaders of other geo-political zones such as Arewa Consultative Forum, Afenifere, Ohaneze Ndigbo and the likes have never in the history of the country been subjected to such humiliation and show of high-handedness.”
He said that PANDEF considered the action of the government insensitive. He noted that at the height of resumed militancy in the Niger Delta in 2016, and its negative impact on the national economy which saw the fall in oil production to an unprecedented low of 800,000bopd, it was the timely intervention of PANDEF that ensured the return to peace and stability.
“This brought about a surge in production of oil to the present level of 2.35million bpd and free flow of gas to our power plants and industries. This at present price brings in over $115 million (about 36 billion Naira) daily,” he said.
Meanwhile, the National Leader of Pan Niger Delta Peoples Congress, Dr. Charles Ayemi Botu, has accused some elders in the group of wanting to use PANDEF as a platform to launder their image.
Botu, who is the king of Siembiri Kingdom, said that the same militant groups that confirmed legitimacy on PANDEF to represent them in negotiation with the government had passed a vote of no confidence in the leaders of PANDEF.
“The boys, as I read, threatened to resume hostilities in the region if the meeting held yesterday because they don’t have confidence in the E.K. Clark-led PANDEF leading the region. The Reformed Niger Delta Avengers, RNDA and other agitators made it clear that they have lost confidence in the Clark-led PANDEF. It is shocking that PANDEF went round soliciting support from states. I am the leader of the newly formed Pan Niger Delta Peoples Congress (PNDC) with support from all genuine Niger Deltans.”