Last week, a scheduled meeting of the Pan Niger Delta Elders Forum (PANDEF) was aborted security operatives who cordoned off the Hotel Presidential, Port Harcourt venue of the meeting. From Port Harcourt, NATH OMAME Jr. reports.
The cacophony of voices that trailed the publicized General Assembly of leaders of the Pan Niger Delta Elders Forum (PANDEF), scheduled to hold at Hotel Presidential on Thursday, October 26, played out on the morning of the event. At 5.am, security operatives drawn from the Police and the Department of State Security (DSS), cordoned off the venue of the meeting. Police operational vehicles were parked in front of the two main gates leading into and out of the Hotel Presidential.
Made up elders, leaders and some traditional rulers in the Niger Delta, PANDEF has been operating under the leadership of interim leaders led by First Republic Minister of Information, Chief Edwin Kiagbodo Clark. The botched meeting, it was learnt, was called to, among other matters, review the constitution and elect officers to lead the group. Clark has been the interim chairman of the association.
The security operatives prevented hundreds of those who had come for the meeting from entering the venue. Members of the group who came in groups by chartered buses were seen standing beside the buses they came in for the event. Human rights and civil society advocates, including traditional rulers were also not allowed intothe Hotel Presidential premises. Visitors who had come to see guests lodging in the hotel were directed by the security operatives to go through the back gate.
Former Governor of AkwaIbom State, Obong Victor Attah, co-chairman of PANDEF was absent at the meeting and no reason was given for this. There were murmurings before the expanded meeting slated to be held in Port Harcourt, that there were divisions in the group, bothering on style of leadership. Some militants’ in the Niger Delta have also accused the group of working solely for the interest of the group rather than for the general good of the region.
Chief Clark said most of those invited for the meeting, were lodged in Hotel Presidential and that the meeting went on, nonetheless, even with the presence of security men around the venue.
“We were able to hold the meeting because most of our members were booked into Hotel Presidential. Those of us in the hotel were about a 100. So, we squeezed ourselves in our rooms and along the corridors to hold our meeting. We are still wondering why the government did what it did,” Clark said.
He stressed: “The action of the security operatives is very disturbing. It is unacceptable to us. It sets a bad precedent. It is a fragrant affront on our constitutional right to assemble peacefully as a people. It is worrisome because meetings by other leaders in other geo-political regions have not been aborted by security agencies in this manner.”
Leader of PANDEF in Rivers State, Chief Anabs Sara-Igbe accused the federal government of being insensitive and unappreciative of the efforts of the leaders,pointing out that the action could stir up problems in the region.
For her part, Ms. Ankio Briggs, an environmental rights activist and member of PANDEF suggested that the group should admit more people into their fold.
She explained that many ethnic groups in the region are not happy about the activities of the group because they feel that the association as currently constituted does not adequately represent their collective interest in its deliberations with the federal government.
Secretary-General of PANDEF, LedumMitee, who said there was no justification for the action of security operatives in cordoning off the venue of the meeting, maintained that the group called the meeting to discuss issues affecting the growth and development of the region. He added that the leaders of PANDEF had intervened last year to stop oil and gas as well as other critical national assets from being attacked by aggrieved Niger Delta militants.
“The action of security agents sends a very conflicting message because on October 1, the president was commending leaders of Niger Delta for their constructive role in ensuring peace in the region. And now less than a month after, there is a clampdown on the leaders of the Niger Delta. I don’t think it is the best approach,” Mitee said, adding:
“In fact, it is more in the national interest for PANDEF to meet and discus than to stop PANDEF from meeting. When people talk of national interest, you are talking about interest of the citizens of this country. So, national interest cannot just be one thing that you can call as such when you want to clamp down on citizens. Members of PANDEF are nationals of this country.”
Mitee, however, resigned as the secretary-general of PANDEF on the eve of the meeting.
“I have resigned as secretary-general of PANDEF. I resigned on principle. I just felt I should leave. I was at the meeting and saw that the place has been barricaded. I don’t know much about what happened after I left. I told them I had to leave as secretary-general of the body. I felt I could no longer continue. I felt I could no longer function and I left. I am a person who does things on principle. We hold the hopes and aspirations of many people unborn. So, we have to be very careful,”Mitee said.
Prof. Lucky Akaruese, a prominent member of PANDEF who condemned the action of security operatives said he left when he was not allowed into the venue of the meeting by armed security operatives that had sealed off the venue, asking members to leave as the meeting would no longer hold as scheduled.
President Youth Wing of PANDEF, Famous Daunemigha also insisted that the meeting of the body held despite efforts by security operatives to abort it.
“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 the 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,” Daunemigha said.
“The RNDA is a laptop group and we don’t know them, we don’t recognise any of the members.We had our meeting and we had resolutions. We are a strong platform and if some people are trying to misbehave, we will not join issues with them.”
National Leader of the Pan Niger Delta Peoples’ Congress, His Royal Majesty, Pere Charles AyemiBotu, Paramount ruler, Siembiri Kingdom, claimed that people of the Niger Delta had rejected PANDEF led by Chief E.K Clark.
He fumed: “Chief Clark is using the platform to launder his image after the collapse of the last administration where he was foster father to former President Goodluck Jonathan. The same militants that conferred legitimacy on PANDEF withdrew it and warned that the meeting should not hold else they would resume hostilities in the region.
“The youths have asked PANDEF leadership to step aside yet they are grandstanding. The leader of the group, Chief E.K. Clark wants to use the body to launder his image after the Jonathan era. He should quietly go to Kiagbodo, his country home, to rest in retirement and offer advice. The boys had threatened to resume hostilities in the region if the meeting held 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 E.K Clark-led PANDEF. It is shocking that PANDEF still went round soliciting for support from states.I am the leader of the newly formed Pan Niger Delta Peoples’ Congress (PNDC), with support from all genuine Niger Deltans. We are going to ensure that the region grows into another Dubai.”
Police Public Relations Officer, Rivers State Police Command, DSP NnamdiOmoni, stated that security agencies received security reports that some groups that were against the leadership of the group had planned to cause mayhem at the venue of the meeting and the security agencies acted in the interest of the public to prevent a breakdown of law and order.
“We acted on intelligence that some people were planning to foment trouble at the venue of the meeting which would have put the lives of innocent people in the state at risk. So, the security acted in good faith. We embarked on a massive deployment of our men to the venue of the meeting and we did what we did to maintain public peace,”Omoni said.