Williams: 2015 And Niger Delta Militants
FORMER militants of the Niger Delta, who are now repentant, having embraced the amnesty offered by the late President Umar Yar’adua are back in the news, or have recently enhanced their visibility in the public space, courtesy of the forthcoming general elections. To say that they are back in the news does not capture it correctly; there has been no time they haven’t made headlines.
For the time being, they are said to have threatened to dismember Nigeria if president Goodluck Jonathan, their Ijaw brother, does not win the presidential election. That piece of news was first posted on some faceless online platform on Saturday, January 24. According to the report, the former militants had met with Bayelsa State Governor, Seriake Dickson, in Yenagoa, and resolved to return to the creeks should Jonathan not be returned for a second term.
As a newsman, my initial reaction was to discard the item, as there was no statement by the conveners of the meeting to give credence to the report. Just the body language was all the news peddlers needed to concoct the story, which fitted perfectly into the mood of the moment.
By Sunday, January 25, that news item had gained prominence in major media platforms, but it was still more of reporting what we’ve always expected ex-militants to say, rather than the substance of what was said. Since then, the campaign trend was forced to shift from other matters, like the alleged Buhari certificate scam, INEC’s preparedness and other weightier subjects to the threat from the Niger Delta. It became the major issue in town, drawing comments from fellow warmongers from other parts of the country, as well as highly placed individuals, including former defence minister, Theophilus Danjuma, who demanded the arrest of Asari Dokubo, Tompolo, Boyloaf and the others. I wonder why he did not also ask for the arrest of the host governor, Dickson.
The point here is not whether the boys said exactly what was attributed to them at that particular meeting. Indeed, from their antecedents, they are capable of doing and saying worse things, but stakeholders should avoid the temptation of seeing these elections as the final solution to all the challenges that plague Nigeria. After the elections, the scales will fall off our eyes and we shall confront those old realities politicians would prefer to hide from. After the elections, we shall go back to the drawing board to confront the fact of falling oil price, falling value of the naira and how to deal with a rickety economy.
Those are the realities that should shape how people react to this passing phase of elections. Whether Nigeria likes it or not, those former militants will still be there after the elections. Whoever occupies the presidency after May 29 will still have to deal with issues of the Niger Delta, because that is where Nigeria’s economy is buttered. That is the home of oil and gas and until other sources of revenue, like agriculture and solid minerals are developed, we still have to deal with the former militants for the survival of this economy.
Even the colonial overlords admitted that the Niger Delta was a vulnerable region that required extra care to deal with. They set up commissions to work out measures to develop the zone. That was before oil became a major income earner for Nigeria. The activities of oil exploration and production have ravaged the zone and caused severe environmental challenges for the people.
On her part, the Nigerian State had been unable to deal fairly with the Niger Delta. The military governments since 1967 were particularly hostile to the zone that bears the golden egg. The climax of such insensitivity was during the regime of Gen. Sani Abacha. He sent an army of occupation to lay siege to the Niger Delta and traumatised the region. Ogoni people bore the brunt of that internal colonisation. Till date, the people have not recovered from the despoliation of their environment and the mental siege.
In this democratic dispensation, Obasanjo refused to drop his military habit in dealing with the zone. Instead of robust engagement with leaders and the youths, he said he was going to apply carrot and stick approach. He went on a wild adventure to Odi for reprisals, but was stingy with the carrot end. He failed to rein in the boys and stop them from causing a sizeable number of barrels of crude to disappear. Overtime, the impact affected the economy as government earned less.
It was the government of Umaru Yar’Adua (of blessed memory), that man of peace that demonstrated humility and good nature in the management of the Niger Delta palaver. Yar’Adua was the one who saw through the hollowness of using military tactics in dealing with the Niger Delta situation. He conceived the idea of amnesty and promised the militants to return their guns in exchange for peace. In collaboration with his vice, Goodluck Jonathan, they brought the boys out of the creeks and collected their guns. A camp was opened in Obubra, Cross River State, where not less than 20,000 repentant militants where rehabilitated, preparatory to trainings in various skills.
Today, many have been trained and more are still undergoing training in different locations locally and oversees. The advantage of it is that there is relative peace in the oil industry for optimal operations and it resonated in the high profits netted by government until the recent decline in price of crude. Even if crude drops to less than $20 per barrel, the next government cannot afford to trifle with the Niger Delta boys because there is no alternative yet to oil as the mainstay of our economy.
While it is not the ideal for militants in the Niger or warmongers elsewhere to threaten to dismember Nigeria for whatever reason, stakeholders should also realize that Nigeria as a country is yet to attain an ideal state where citizens no longer feel so alienated as to threaten to rock the boat. Power sharing in the country has not been equitable. The Niger Delta people cannot understand why the Northwest is so famished for power at the centre after it had produced more leaders than any other zone.
And the response to that is in different grades for different groups and persons. If others are a little bit civilised not to threaten war, those who do so should be understood, and perhaps, pardoned. For the first time in decades, the Niger Delta boys are just feeling to be a part of Nigeria. One of them, President Jonathan, has just been lucky to access government and his people do not feel they have had enough of it for there to be a gang up to snatch it. It is not as if Jonathan has the brashness to treat his zone any different from the others; it is not as if his people have faired better in the last six years. But it gives a psychological thrill to have your person at the helms of affairs, especially when you have been so deprived; more so in a polity where you have to know somebody to have a government road pass through your village.
It is therefore not charitable, particularly for the opposition and their supporters to think the former militants do not matter in this transition process. They are a formidable force to reckon with and if the opposition is yet to interface with them, it is not too late to do so. After all, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) had pledged support for candidate General Muhammadu Buhari and the opposition did not condemn MEND. If they did not see anything wrong with MEND, let them warm up too to the former militants and play politics.
In this era where crimes committed even in the remotest part of the globe have become issues of interest for the global rights community, the Nigerian government must shape up to accord groups their rightful due. The era of holding one group down for others to milk is gone, and the earlier those in government and those coming after them understand this, the better. If past despotic military governments got away with some crimes against the people of the Niger Delta, the Jonathan administration and the next one must change tactics.
It is unfortunate that men who ought to be senior citizens, who have benefitted immensely from Nigeria, and who, in their youth, misled the country into taking initial faulty steps are the ones making jarring noises and overheating the polity. These men are overfed and have lost the grace to demonstrate dignified neutrality at a testy time like this. What motivates them is their greed and how to sustain it. Instead of demanding from political parties and their candidates the blueprints with which they want to transform Nigeria, they are doing doublespeak and carrying out dubious endorsements.
The attitude towards the Niger Delta does not need to be hostile. Whether we like it or not, this is the zone that holds the life wire for Nigeria. It could be the turn of another zone later, but for now, let those who are full of denial and disdain for the humble people of the zone eat their words and thank their God.
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