A detachment of police and military officers disturbed a planned peaceful protest by members of the Agip Indigenous/Landlord Contractors Association (AILCA) at Nigerian Agip Oil Company's (NAOC) gates in Port Harcourt, Rivers State on Tuesday.
The frustrated members, who have been owed more than two years’ worth of contract payments, were drawn from communities in all Niger Delta states.
The contractors traveled from various states to converge at Agip Junction along mile 4, the axis of the popular Ikwerre Road in Port Harcourt, as early as 6:30 a.m. to begin a march to the company's headquarters around the area.
They were there to protest alleged neglect, environmental degradation, non-payment of their contract debts, inaccessibility of the company premises to recover debts owed to them, and the refusal of Agip to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with their host communities.
The frustrated contractors had also planned to publicly expose what they called the anti-community activities of the company's Managing Director (MD), Massimo Insulla, and to demand that he must go. This was vividly captured on the white t-shirts and caps they were wearing for the demonstration.
They accused Mr. Insulla of treating them poorly, arguing that he should be reassigned to Italy.
However, the planned protest was not carried out, as men of the joint security force in the state insisted that the march would not go on in the state despite the group's claims that the GOC of the military and the State Commissioner of Police (CP) were duly informed of the planned march.
No fewer than 15 police Hilux vehicles and battalions of soldiers, police and Civil Defence officers were deployed at the Agip Junction to ensure the protesters did not disrupt the company’s operations. The development caused a serious traffic jam on the dual carriage roads adjoining the junction and other linking routes around the area.
The incident happened during morning rush hour between 7:00 - 8:00 a.m., preventing workers and school children from accessing their directions. The security men condoned off the lane leading to the company's gate from both human and vehicular movements, except for members of staff of the company.
Narrating the incident to journalists from the corner they were driven to, the technical committee chairman of the group, Livinus Opuaka, said, "We came here this morning to hold a peaceful protest against Agip; to highlight and draw the attention of the management to address us on the issues of grievances we have against them.
"We were barely distributing our protest materials, putting on our t-shirts and caps and arranging our placards for the march, when all of a sudden we saw military men in the company of mobile police officers and Civil Defence officers, armed men and several police trucks everywhere surrounding us, dragging and hitting us, insisting that we would not carry out the protest.
"The Nigerian military acted on the instructions of the Managing Director of Agip, Massimo Insulla, for all we know, yet we informed the GOC of the Nigerian Army, the Inspector General of Police and his representative in this state, the Commissioner of Police, before we came here. We are not doing anything illegal. The current CP of this state, Ahmed Zaki, is aware of this matter with Agip and has also tried to intervene, but Agip will not comply.
"Look at how they manhandled somebody,” he said while gesturing to a protester covered in dirt.
“I was thrown into dirty water,” the protester said.
Mr. Opuaka continued, "The question is, is it the destruction of pipelines the way forward in demanding our rights? Can't we come by way of the peaceful march to drive home our rights? Are they now insisting that violence is the best and quickest way to resolve problems? Honestly, we are confused now; we have exhausted all peaceful avenues, we are now incapacitated at this point, but we are not tired. We are their landlord, they are operating in our lab and communities. Agip is the most stubborn multinational company in this country, especially due to Insulla's leadership."
Addressing reporters shortly after being dispersed, the National President of the group, Clement Adamnegbe, said, "The protest is about the neglect of several years, environmental degradation, and lack of commitment by Agip's management. It was meant for a call for the removal of the MD of the company, Insulla, for being anti-community."
Asked what they demanded from Agip, he said, "A lot of things, but all of our demands are our rights in accordance with the provisions of the Local Content Law of 2010 regarding international oil companies’ relationships to host communities. Most importantly, we want the payment of host communities’ contractors’ debts of several years and months to be cleared, proper cleanup of oil-impacted sites in our various communities, as well as signing of a memorandum of understanding with communities as a way to develop communities and their people."
Mr. Adamnegbe accused Agip of deliberately avoiding signing the agreement with the communities where they have operated in the past six years, adding that the company has frustrated the payment of contractors for jobs they have completed.
He called on Acting President Yemi Osinbajo to intervene in the situation by directing Agip to release the contractors’ job agreements and issue them credible identification cards enabling them to access the company to pursue the processing of their contract debts. He further urged the acting president to address other issues threatening the relative peace achieved in the Niger Delta region.