Yar’Adua’s Magic In The Niger Delta
In spite of the lingering skepticism in certain quarters, as to whether the ceasefire will hold, the focus now should be the consolidation of what has been achieved. In doing so, Nigeria can draw some lessons from the peace settlement in Northern Ireland where a cease fire based on the Good Friday agreement a couple of years ago, peace has substantially held. It is common knowledge that, that part of Britain was bedeviled by armed struggle for decades.
Niger Delta grievances predate the discovery of oil in the area in 1956. Long before that, the inhabitants of the Niger Delta region as minority tribes, like several other minorities in the country, had been protesting against the crushing weight of the major tribes under the colonial administration. The creation of more states and local governments should have stemmed minority agitation. That optimism has since faded in the face of continuing demands even up till this day. Curiously, agitation for new states has continued even after we seemed to have realised that state creation has been taken to a ridiculous extent and adopted zoning to consolidate the states into larger entities. It would be historically fair to note that widespread armed struggle and wanton destruction of lives and property in the Niger Delta was largely a phenomenon of the Obasanjo democratic era. It was simply inherited by the Yar’Adua administration.
It was during the Obasanjo era that “resource control” became a swan song in the Niger Delta. Prior to 1999, the military’s way of running the polity discouraged such radical calls. In governance, the military posted most officers to states other than their own as governors. Such postings to the Niger Delta had a moderating influence on the region in spite of violence in the Ogoni area.
The departure of the military in 1999 paved way for the emergence of civilian governors. This crop of leaders, for political reasons, threw their weight unreservedly behind their people. Consequently, the agitation, which this time focused almost entirely on ‘resource control’, assumed a new dangerous dimension. Governing under the new dispensation of freedom of expression after long years of military rule, Obasanjo had a tough time trying to contain the Niger Deltans. He succeeded partially as politicians created further turmoil by sponsoring armed gangs to intimidate opponents, especially during the elections.
Apparently in complicity, the authorities looked the other way while the gangs became strong and entrenched themselves. Abandoned by their sponsors after the elections, some of the gangs committed their energies to the violent struggle for resource control. Many others became plain criminals for purely selfish reasons. So, we can say politicians created the terrorist monster they could not control and the nation paid dearly for it. Even though the activities of armed groups have been brought under control by the current ceasefire, it is unfortunate that, like the incidence of armed robbery which followed the civil war, the Niger Delta struggle has left in its trail the despicable new crime of kidnapping for the nation to contend with.
Because of the widespread misgivings surrounding the Seven-Point Agenda, it is an understatement to say that the cessation of the armed struggle in the Niger Delta took a lot of people by surprise. It was as dramatic as the end of the Biafran war, especially because some militant leaders delayed embracing the amnesty until the last hour.
The rationale for the amnesty and its efficacy will continue to be debated. However, as the saying goes, nothing succeeds like success and success has many fathers while failure is an orphan. Many will want to claim credit for the achievement. Obviously there were those who worked behind the scenes and so their role can not be fully appreciated. But among those whose involvement was openly known, credit should rightly go to the President and his Vice, both of who patiently and doggedly pursued the goal. Timi Alaibe and Timiebi Koripamo-Agary, styled the militants’ mother, in whom some of the militants reposed a lot of confidence, deserve commendation for their individual efforts.
Among the militant leaders, Mujaheed Dokubo-Asari and Ebikabowei Victor Ben alias Boyloaf deserve special recognition. Dokubo-Asari had committed himself to peaceful agitation since his release from detention. He, therefore, deserves credit for blazing the trail. Boyloaf too, once he made up his mind to drop the gun, did not look back. He had no second thoughts about it and began to play a statesmanlike role. His pronouncements were quite mature, responsible and constructive. To him the armed struggle was one phase that was meant to highlight the plight of his people. He felt the case has been sufficiently made. The second phase is to get Government to negotiate and focus on development programme. This is quite a reasonable stance indeed. Chief Ateke Tom, even though he spoke in Pidgin English when he turned up at the State House, was acclaimed to have spoken well and was quite candid in his commitment to peace. He was happy to reintegrate with his community. If he is rehabilitated and his relations with the governor of Rivers State patched up, he could be relied upon to promote peace in the sub-region.
The latest meeting in Warri has brought out another side of Government Ekpemupolo alias Tompolo as one who is also out to consolidate peace. He was realistic enough to say that: “those expecting government to develop the region within one or two years were deceiving the militants, as it could take a longer time to put the expected infrastructure on ground”.
Henry Okah appears to be in a different category. He joined the fold somewhat belatedly and reluctantly. Not surprisingly therefore, he is still nursing some grudges. He seems to be more closely associated with the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and the hard liners who want to continue to fan the embers of the armed struggle. Okah’s attitude seems to confirm the fears of the skeptics who insist that the ceasefire can only last for a while. However, it is not in the interest of the Niger Deltans to sustain hostility indefinitely as it is only in a state of peace that the much-desired development they yearn for could take place. Hence, the spirit of accommodation must prevail.
Nearly all the militant leaders had attested to the attributes of President Yar’Adua as someone who is good-natured and who can be relied upon to keep his words. It is in this spirit that, in spite of the serious reservations about dialogue with MEND/Aaron group, the President bent over backwards to avail himself of the meeting, a rare privilege and an act that could only be done by a sincere leader. If the meeting could serve as a morale-boosting or face-saving purpose for the MEND/Okah group, let it be. This is despite the fact that this group is out of tune with the larger group of militant leaders. By seeking to chart a new course and involving people from outside the Niger Delta as negotiators for them, the MEND/Okah faction is merely sensationalizing the matter.
The people of Niger Delta have sufficient men of goodwill to chart their course more meaningfully. The more MEND/Okah faction drags the matter, the more every one will see and regard them as a black sheep. This will erode the goodwill they might have had; they will be isolated; they will be tagged criminals, not “militants” or “restive youths”. Thus, they will become irrelevant and risk being subjected to the wrath of the Joint Task Force (JTF).
As things stand today, the likes of Dokubo-Asari, Boyloaf, Tompolo and Ateke Tom stand on a higher moral ground. What remains is for them, as former commanders, to realize their limitations. War generals can not make peace. During the armed struggle, credible political leaders of the Niger Delta region were brushed aside by the young militants. These credible and mature leaders with wide connections and considerable goodwill throughout the country should be allowed to actively play their fatherly roles. There are far too many voices at the moment making numerous pronouncements for and on behalf of the Niger Delta which make it even more difficult for the authorities to identify the group to negotiate with.
The meeting of the Niger Delta Leaders, Elders and stakeholders forum of November 10, 2009, with elder statesman Chief Edwin Clark as spokesman is a step in the right direction. Just as the forum calls for the dissolution of the Amnesty Committee on the grounds that it has done its job, the former field commanders of the Niger Delta should give way to skilful political negotiators. Henceforth it is necessary to show some decorum and respect for protocol to give constituted authorities the respect they deserved. It is failure to do so that accounts for the state of flux in the Niger Delta. Since almost all the militant leaders were able to travel to Abuja and back unmolested, there can be no reason for any of them to indulge in inviting top government functionaries to their bases. Such unwholesome visits to the camps should not continue.
Quite surprisingly, the United Nations seeks to create a role for itself in the Niger Delta affair. This quest is quite strange indeed as often the UN is known to promote a regional solution to a local problem. The current move therefore makes one to wonder what role the UN is playing in the Irish question. Countries ought to be allowed to their devises in resolving their internal conflicts. The UN could have a role in such matter only when individual countries lacked the capacity to resolve their internal problems.
The Ledum Mitee report contains substantially what it takes to uplift the Niger Delta region and the Federal Government has since set aside the sum of N114 billion towards the execution of projects. This commitment is extra to the amount budgeted by the state and local governments, contributions from the European Union and the oil companies to the development of the area.
The projects proposed for implementation along with empowerment of the youths and grant of 10% stake in the oil industry to the host community are important steps for the consolidation of peace. Given this setting, the following are needed: patience, good faith and peace. All concerned will be tested on this as it will require extra effort to meet the challenges. The greater burden rests with the Niger Deltan’s awareness of the need to exercise restraint and create a more conducive atmosphere for the federal government to demonstrate its commitments. For while it is easy to destroy it is much more difficult to rebuild.
Many contractors engaged in executing some developmental projects, in areas like roads and power, meant to uplift the region were scared away in the heat of the armed struggle. They should be persuaded back and their security guaranteed to ensure swift progress in executing some of the projects intended to make life more meaningful for people in the area.
The destruction of some oil installations, which met some limited objectives of the struggle, impacted on the environment negatively and caused incalculable damage. Peace in the Niger Delta will help in mitigating that damage. Everyone should play a role in clearing up the mess. Serious thought is required in this area just as the Ogoni’s have had a rethink and allowed Shell to, at least, cap their oil installations in Ogoniland to safeguard the environment.
Above all, the federal government should continue its leading role. President Yar’Adua has demonstrated his sincerity towards uplifting the state of the Niger Delta. What is required now is a more dogged political will to translate his goodwill into social and infrastructural success on the ground. It is in carrying through this task that he would succeed in enlisting himself into the elite club of peacemakers globally acknowledged as deserving candidates for Nobel Peace Prize.
Dr Usman is a retired civil servant