That Police-aborted PANDEF meeting
In a manner reminiscent of the inglorious days of military dictatorship in Nigeria, a meeting of the general assembly of Pan Niger Delta Elders Forum (PANDEF) scheduled to hold in Port Harcourt the other day was forcefully and crudely aborted by men of the Nigeria Police and Department of State Security (DSS). Understandably and rightly so, the action provoked outrage in the South South region and in the human rights community. Although they claimed that they acted in compliance with orders from above, the security agents acted in breach of the 1999 Constitution which guarantees freedom of association. Is Nigeria beginning to witness the return of Gestapo tactics? Why did the government use the alleged threat from a rival militant organisation as a subterfuge to thwart a peaceful meeting of elders in the Niger Delta? That action remains condemnable as an odious disrespect to the people of Nigeria and a violation of the Constitution. Truth be told, neither by design nor by default must the country be allowed to slide into dictatorship, benign or otherwise.
PANDEF is a socio-political and cultural organisation which commands membership of the elite in the Niger Delta. The organisation had at different times in the past turbulent years moderated the trenchant tone of violence emanating from the region. With such distinguished Nigerians and elder statesmen as Chief E.K. Clark, HRM Alfred Diete-Spiff, Obong Victor Attah, Alabo Tonye Graham-Douglas, Professor Godini G. Darah, and Professor Oserheimen Osunbor and others, the government had nothing to fear about such a gathering. It had also played host to the Federal Government’s delegations at different times. For example, in 2016 the intervention of PANDEF helped curb violence in the Niger Delta championed by the Niger Delta Avengers. This led to a surge in oil production in the beleaguered region and a boost to the national economy. Also, the elders and traditional rulers have been architects of a peaceful resolution of the Niger Delta crisis which, certainly, has curtailed the level of violence in the region. It was therefore something of a shock that the Federal Government would take the drastic step of stopping a meeting of PANDEF. What has gone wrong? If indeed there was a security scare, could a call to one of the leaders of PANDEF about the situation not have made a difference?
One of the beauties of democracy is its inherent capacity to allow self-expression within the ambit of the law. Indeed, when some actions or expressions are considered to be extreme, it is the law courts that governments resort to enforce the laws of the land. Arbitrariness is alien to democracy. Besides, at a time like this, when the very basis of Nigeria’s corporate existence is being interrogated or questioned by some groups in the country, it is better to allow people to meet and discuss issues than to drive them underground. It is better for people to meet every day and everywhere than to prepare for war. A government that was massively voted into office should not be averse to expression of popular or counter discourse. Instead the government should engage the officials of such groups in order to strengthen the unity of the country.
The Niger Delta region, definitely the goose that lays the golden egg for Nigeria, has been longsuffering and abandoned. Although its rich natural resources have produced billions of dollars for the Nigerian economy, the region itself has nothing to show for it. Poor infrastructure, lack of basic amenities, and an insulting absence of the federal presence are some of the challenges of the region. Sadly, some of the prominent men that have led agitation for better conditions for their people have been brutally cut down by the State or its agents. Isaac Boro and Ken Saro-Wiwa are two excellent reference points in the struggle for a better life for the South South, of men who lost their lives because they dared to confront the Nigerian State over exploitation of the region. It would seem that the disdain with which the Federal authorities treat the region has not abated. A simple directive, for example, that the oil majors should relocate their headquarters to their areas of operation has been ignored. It is against this background that the armed invasion of the meeting, of a peaceful organisation can only be viewed with disenchantment.
To be sure, other socio-cultural groups have held and have continued to hold meetings. Arewa Consultative Forum held a meeting about a month ago at which the members challenged the unity of the country by calling for its dismemberment. There was no preemptive invasion of the venue or post-meeting arrest of those whose extremist behaviour and utterances threaten the unity of the country. On September 6 the Yoruba group held a well-publicized meeting in Ibadan where participants called for a complete re-structuring of the country. Why should PANDEF be treated differently? Are there two sets of laws that govern the country?
PANDEF is a credible voice in the Niger Delta that should be treated with respect. Indeed all groups within the country which subscribe to dialogue should be encouraged to express their views freely without let or hindrance. Negotiations and discussions are preferred options to terror tactics. Overzealous officials who pretend to be blind to the laws of the land should be called to order. The Presidency, represented by the President and his deputy should be on top of the political situation. They must ensure that surrogates acting in the misguided belief that the interest of the State is served by Gestapo tactics do not throw the country into anarchy. They need not be reminded that Nigerians are in a democracy. The nation deserves an explanation and PANDEF deserves an apology under the circumstance.