Buhari, war and the Niger Delta
It is mystifying that President Muhammadu Buhari has chosen to capriciously shatter the prospect of peace in the Niger Delta through his massive deployment of troops and weapons in the region. The deployment came at a time the agitators for socio-economic justice in the oil-producing region, especially the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA), have agreed to dialogue with the government.
The agreement came after much hesitation apparently because the agitators understood the remorseless penchant of successive governments to treat the issue of the ecological disaster and economic deprivation spawned by oil exploration in the region with disdain. Despite their doubts, the agitators have expressed their sincerity by suspending the bombing of oil facilities.
Of course, we should have known that Buhari considered war in the region inevitable. For while apparently leaving the option of dialogue open, Buhari has consistently threatened that he would deal with the Niger Delta agitators the way he crushed Boko Haram insurgents. Buhari may have drawn inspiration from the strident calls from some northern leaders for him to bomb agitators like Boko Haram insurgents. By their position, these northern leaders have lumped up the agitation in the Niger Delta in the same cauldron of misguided religious and blood-thirsty ideology of Boko Haram insurgents.
So what is unfolding in the Niger Delta is only a manifestation of a coveted agenda of Buhari that has escaped the veneer of pretensions to foster peaceful dialogue to resolve the problems of the region. Buhari only wanted the agitators to lay down their weapons so that he could deploy his own in the region.
The fact that the agitators have declared a ceasefire has rendered the option of war patently chauvinistic. What is needed is for the government to continue with the option of dialogue. Buhari’s acceptance of the option of war amounts to blithely glossing over the fact that there are issues in the Niger Delta that need to be responded to appropriately. These are issues of socio-economic injustice in the region. Here are a people whose oil wealth has been used to develop other parts of the country while they have become impoverished. This has been the situation for over five decades.
The nation and its leaders have not deemed it necessary to engage in a comprehensive agenda to improve the environment, except some sporadic and facetious efforts. Now, the oil funds from the region are now being used to search for oil in the northern part of the country. If oil is found there, would the northerners allow people from the Niger Delta to be the prime beneficiaries? Would they allow them to be those that would lead supervisory agencies and dictate the terms for intervention in those areas where oil is produced in the north?
In the midst of a recession that has sent millions groping for economic survival, the overarching expectation of the citizens is that the government would find measures to give them hope and rescue them from poverty. And war in the Niger Delta is not one of them. Rather, it is an avoidable distraction. The resources to be used to prosecute a war in the Niger Delta should be used to improve the economy and end the starvation of the citizens. By unleashing bombs and other weapons on the region, the government would cause more ecological and human destruction.
But if Buhari insists on a war as a means of dealing with the agitators, it is incumbent on his troops to make a clinical distinction between those who are complicit in the destruction of oil facilities and those who have been eking out an honest but hard living. It must guard against wiping out innocent communities in a manner that would provoke the dreadful memory of the Odi massacre. The soldiers who have taken over communities in the Niger Delta must note that there was no common agreement among the communities to sponsor agitators that would blow up oil facilities.
In the euphoric quest to vanquish the enemy, Buhari should not lose sight of the fact that it is not only the region and its people that would suffer. For after the troops have bombed the region and killed all the agitators, the government may still need money to develop it. Worse still, as has just been demonstrated with the drowning of four soldiers who were part of the Operation Crocodile Smile, the government would lose troops in this senseless war and continue the avoidable depletion of the military in the last five years or so which began with the decimation of poorly equipped soldiers in the anti-insurgency war in the North East.
Buhari had a spectacular career in the military that climaxed in his emerging as a general. So he is eminently qualified to understand the implications of declaring a war. But we are intrigued by the simplicity of his assumption that a war in the Niger Delta would be a walkover. How is Buhari so sure that the war would not be prolonged by external forces that have interest in the oil of the Niger Delta? Indeed, there is the danger that Buhari may be playing into the hands of forces that have predicted the breakup of the country.
Even if he succeeds in routing the agitators and turning the region into a wasteland, Buhari must know that he has not won the war. For as long as the issues that have led to the agitations have not been resolved, a new generation in the region would rise to ask the same questions. After all, most of these current agitators were not born when Isaac Boro began asking the same questions in 1966. Even as recent as the 1990s when Ken Saro-Wiwa was asking the same questions, some of the agitators were not born.
It is therefore clear that what the region needs is not the galling haste that Buhari is demonstrating now. Rather, Buhari should stop this agenda of war and encourage negotiation. If Buhari is really sincere about his claim to serve the country selflessly, he must not be afraid of dialogue. As underscored by his refusal to consider the recommendations of the national conference that produced a template for peace and development of the country, Buhari’s avowed sincerity to serve the nation has been found hollow. But before him, through the Niger Delta crisis, is another opportunity to redeem himself. However, Buhari may only prove his critics right that he cannot change; he cannot do what is right for the nation. He may thus be fixated on the liquidation of the Niger Delta as his ultimate legacy.
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