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Niger Delta: Confusion trails FG, militants dialogue

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 Niger Delta Avengers (NDA)

Niger Delta Avengers (NDA)

After a lull, the Niger Delta is once again on the throes of militancy, occasioned by recent spates of attacks on strategic oil and gas installations by the militant group, the Niger Delta Avengers.

Coercive force has historically been adopted by governments to resolve any discord that infringes on national security. However, a cross spectrum of concerned stakeholders in the Niger Delta have argued that this is seldom an effective mechanism to de-escalate conflicts, and have identified dialogue as the best veritable weapon to end the resurgence of militancy in the region.

While dialogue is viewed as an effective complementary mechanism for resolution of the conflict, the recent assertion by some prominent Ijaw leaders under the aegis of Ijaw leaders consultative council, led by elder statesman, Chief Edwin Clark, Governor Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa and Delta Deputy Governor, Kingsley Otuaro, amongst others that any dialogue between the Federal Government and militants in the Niger Delta would not yield result without involvement of Ijaw leaders, has elicited mixed reactions across the region.

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President Muhammadu Buhari, had recently given a hint that his administration is dialoguing with militants believed to be remnants of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), as confirmed by its spokesperson, Gbomo Jomo. But the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA), which is reputed to have wreaked unassailable havoc on critical national oil and gas assets, has denied any talks with the government.

According to NDA spokesman, Mudoch Agbinibo, “If there is any such peace talk, it means the President is talking to their mercenaries set to distrupt the genuine struggle of the agitators. President Buhari government is not sincere to the Nigerian people and their foreign allies. If we are to engage in any peace talk we made it clear that the International Community must be part of it. The President knows our demands. So they should stop deceiving the international oil companies, the general public and the international community.”

He insisted that all the NDA was demanding is that the country should be restructured. He said the Federal Government should just listen to the voice of the citizens instead of playing the deaf ear game.

At a meeting of Ijaw leaders in Warri penultimate weekend, Clark had observed that the Federal Government is already talking or negotiating with some militants without due consultation with prominent Ijaw leaders. And convinced that the government will soon be faced with the realization that they are dialoguing with the wrong persons, and are unlikely to succeed in annihilating the militants who are engaged in asymmetry warfare through coercive force, he told The Guardian that the government must involve Ijaw leaders in any talks aimed at deescalating the conflict in the region.

Clark recalled that at the climax of militancy between 2007 and 2009, the late President Umaru Yar’Adua’s involvement of Ijaw leaders like himself to dialogue with the militants, created an atmosphere that was conducive for honest talks that fostered mutual understanding between government and the warlords. He has however, cautioned the government against negotiating with persons masquerading as MEND because the group now is extinct.

“MEND is a dead body. In 2009, after the amnesty programme was granted Tompolo, Asari Dokubo, Boyloaf and others left this MEND and this was to be the end of MEND, but, we discovered that the Charles Okah who is in prison today is running this MEND with one Wilson Ajuwa and a few others. It is no longer an organisation accepted by the boys who founded it, so when they said MEND is arranging dialogue with government on behalf of the Niger Delta, we felt they have not asked questions to find out who are the true leaders. We feel that there should be dialogue, but the leaders must be involved because we all belong to this country,” said Clark.

Similarly, the President, Ijaw Youth Congress (IYC), Udengs Eradiri, has described purported talks with MEND as a ruse. He explained that though MEND had listed notable Ijaw leaders like Alfred Diete-Spiff and some others as meditators, there couldn’t be any genuine dialogue until President Buhari sits on the table with Niger Delta leaders drawn from all ethnic nationalities.

“I don’t understand who they say they are talking to, because if you say you are talking with MEND, is it MEND that was destroying pipelines? When MEND was operating, did any other persons negotiate on their behalf? I understand there is a Niger Delta Avengers, which a few days ago blew up another pipeline in Delta State. Thus, making nonsense of whatever talk they say they are having. You cannot be in talk and pipelines are going up in flames? So they are jut deceiving themselves,” said Eradiri.

Eradiri argued that some persons in government have been deluding themselves and the rest of the country with their reports of dialoguing with Niger Delta stakeholders. He pointed out that neither former President Olusegun Obasanjo nor Yar’Adua dealt directly with militants, instead, they engaged community leaders, who then served as intermediaries between the State and then adversaries, the militants.

Eradiri said, “Obasanjo never dialogued with any militant. He dialogued with leaders of the Niger Delta. Yar’Adua dialogued with leaders, and it was the leaders who went and brought out the boys when it was time for amnesty. Goodluck Jonathan was always discussing with leaders, how come Buhari now wants to dialogue with militants,” he asked.

He said: “I don’t even know who they are dialoguing with because Ibe Kachukwu is dialoguing with people we don’t know. The National Security Adviser office is dialoguing with another group of people and as I talk, the military is dialoguing with another faceless group.  Even the Ministry of Niger Delta is dialoguing? This government is not serious,” he said.

A member of the default 2014 National Conference and Ijaw activist, Ms. Ann-Kio Briggs, told The Guardian, that dialogue that will eventually culminate in negotiation to end the conflict cannot be restricted to only armed arbitrators and elders.  She canvassed that the youths, women and even business interest group must be involved. According to her, any dialogue that will affect the future and survival of the people of the Niger Delta is too critical to be left in the hands of a few people and their interests.

“I am not aware of any recognized or officially appointed or nominated person of persons by NDA or Ijaw nation to dialogue with Federal Government, nor do l believe that the Federal Government is negotiating with the real people.  Nor do l believe that the Federal Government is sincere in its claim that it is negotiating with NDA, since the NDA has said over and over that they are not talking with Federal government. I am wondering who then is the Federal Government talking to,” said Briggs.

Owing to the fact that recourse to militancy is often an expression of perceived political, social or economic exclusion and the result of poorly addressed historical grievances, Briggs stressed that meaningful dialogue will not succeed if it is not aimed at addressing the core issue of equity, justice, resource ownership, and internal self determination. She insisted that only trusted persons from the region and not those who want to protect their political interest are fit to negotiate.

“By analyzing the statements and the activities of NDA, they themselves do not trust the Federal Government. My fears or misgivings is based on past promises, past dialogues, NDDC, OMPADEC, Ministry Niger Delta, amnesty, even the Vice Presidential sloth for Jonathan, were all as a result of dialogue or our past agitations. Yet, our desires and aspirations for justice have not been achieved. The Federal Government is only interested in our resources and land. This is unfortunate,” he said.

A policy analyst, Alabo Ross George, said he supports the decisions of the elders that they be included in any dialogue aimed at de-escalating the conflict in the Niger Delta. He reckoned that the assertion by Ijaw elders led by Chief Clark, is an expression of discontent with the incessant military offensive in the creeks, which they view as anti-Niger Delta.

“The elders understand Nigeria better. They speak the language and do the politics of Nigeria better. Young people can fight the battles but it takes the wisdom of elders to win the war. So I am always patient with them. Sometimes they may not say what you want to hear, but they have consistently been correct on the issues of Nigeria”

“The Federal Government lost the spark created by Petroleum minister, Ibe Kachikwu. But the cabal moved against the minister and we are where we are. There is nothing to negotiate really … The key demand is the Maritime University. For every Ijaw man, that’s not negotiable. So start from there, call the Minister of Transport to order. I’m sure when they see that peace move, they’ll know the Federal Government is serious and there will be pressure on them from their own people to relax. That said, I believe in dialogue and I’ll urge all those agitating to give room for discussions,” he said.

George, has meanwhile, expressed reservation that the government will be faithful to any terms of agreement reached with the Niger Delta Avengers if they decide to dialogue and eventually negotiated with the government. He noted that from empirical observation, the Avengers is a well organised group that discern for themselves that the requisite trust required for genuine dialogue is missing, especially when the administration consistently disregards court orders.

He stated that if the government is truly sincere about the resolution of the conflict, it should first take a look at the model that worked for Yar’ Adua and possibly improve on it.  According to him, under President Yar’ Adua and President Jonathan respectively, the strategic model they adopted was effective such that oil output rose to 2 million barrels per day and no pipeline was blown up in 5 years.

“So the short term solution is the Yar’ Adua template. I don’t think the Federal government is ready to be flexible. They still, maybe, prefer the Zaria template or the Arepo method. Sun Tzu, in his book, Art of War says ‘Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak. The supreme art of war is to conquer the adversary without fighting.’

“This is one fight the Federal Government can not win, because it will always be seen as a war to control resources, especially when the agitators have baited you by declaring that they will not attack or kill soldiers. So, short-term options are: negotiate and make concessions like Yaradua, set the rules. Long-term resolution can only be fiscal federalism. That’s so easy. States should control their resources. The centre is too wealthy and powerful, but too far away from the boundaries so the dividends don’t trickle down,” he added.

On her part, former Special Adviser to then President Jonathan on Legislative Matters, Senator Florence Ita-Giwa, has charged the Federal Government to engage credible Nigerians in a dialogue to end the incessant bombings of oil facilities by the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA).

Reacting in a statement to recent widespread reports in the national dailies and online, that she has agreed to serve as a mediator between MEND and the Federal Government, Ita-Giwa said she considers serving in any dialogue to end the ongoing attacks through dialogue towards restoring peace in the region a good service.

She said, “I will consider serving if the Federal Government is willing to engage in discussions with credible Nigerians that have genuine interest and sympathy for the people of the region. Again, I said I will serve in order to put in place a lasting solution to the hostility and thereby bring succour to the people of the region.

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“I shall also be willing to be part of the dialogue for the benefit of the people of the region and by extension, the numerous displaced Bakassi indigenes that have been neglected over the years. As a major stakeholder and mother in the region and indeed Nigeria, I shall be willing to be party to any dialogue that will bring about peace to the sufferings of the people of Niger Delta. As we speak, over 3000 refugees have not been properly resettled after ceding Bakassi to Cameroon, out of no fault of theirs”.

The Muri Munene of the Efut in Calabar South Local Government Area, Muri Effiong Mbukpa said, he is unaware that anyone from Cross River is involved in negotiation between the militants and the Federal Government. He canvassed the inclusion of traditional rulers in the discussion.

“I think the Federal Government should get a robust team, which must be inclusive of the traditional rulers, youth leaders, and respected elders from affected areas. However, in as much as I have recommended that traditional rulers should be involved; there are some traditional rulers who are militants in traditional attire, who actually know and benefit from what the militants are doing.

For such traditional rulers, it will not augur well for them to be in the team because they know that the largesse they get from these militants will no longer come to them”

“That is why respected elders, people with integrity and honour should be members of what I call the robust team to engage in the dialogue. I don’t think there is any traditional ruler that is worth his salt that does not know who the bad boys or guys are in his domain; there is no traditional ruler except the traditional ruler in Diaspora. But any traditional ruler who dwells within his domain knows who the bad guys are,” he said.

On the militants disassociating themselves from current negotiation with the Federal Government, he said the militants are no more fighting for the cause of the ordinary people, but they are fighting to enrich themselves.

“You know what happened to Asari Dokubo, at a point, there was a break away and there were so many splinter groups and you do not know who actually to talk to. Because if they disagree on one point here, the aggrieved go to form his own group. So, whom do you talk to? So once you begin to grab yours, you forget what is the ideology and focus. It is the well-being of your people that drew you into militancy and not your personal pocket”

“The current approach by government, somehow, is a step in the right direction but they should incorporate the militants, the trained militants, traditional rulers and elders of integrity. They should not bring politicians because politicians will go and play politics by trying to identify who they are and use them to play politics and achieve their own special aim. The militants too should begin to understand they are not fighting the cause of their pockets, or, for their immediate family, but for the entire community and that is the South South. Government should create jobs for youths and those who want to work will work” said Muri.

But, an Itsekiri activist and a former Delta State Commissioner of Youth Development, Omolubi Newumi, said there will be no genuine negotiation without the full involvement of the Itsekiri ethnic nationality, whose communities produce the bulk of the oil wells in Delta state.

Omolubi, popularly known as ‘Gentle General” during the Warri crisis, faulted reported negotiations with the Federal Government, saying that the Minster of State, Petroleum Resources, Ibe Kachukwu, has failed in attempts to find a solution to the Niger Delta crisis.

“But beyond all these, the question on my mind is who do they want to negotiate with? For whom are they negotiating? Is it for the whole ethnic nationalities in the Niger Delta or for only the Ijaws? Who are those to go there to negotiate with government? In whose interest? I don’t think the negotiations will work because already the components of the formation of the group, NDA, is faulty, their demands are faulty and did not articulate all the demands of the
Niger Delta people”

“The development of the impacted communities and the region in general as contained in the amnesty framework is yet to make any headway. The Niger Delta master plan is yet to take shape; there are lots of issues. Also, remember that the issue of pipelines vandalization also has to do with criminal elements, made up of contractors who repair damaged pipelines and those in charge of awarding contracts for damaged installations in the oil companies, so you cannot rule out criminality from these acts. That is why I will not support negotiation between Federal Government and the Avengers, because they do not represent the whole of Niger Delta and neither are their demands genuine enough,” he said.

In Akwa Ibom State, stakeholders who spoke with The Guardian, strongly disagree with those canvassing for the involvement of leaders from this region in any dialogue or negotiation between the Federal Government and the supposed militants.

The chairman, Civil Liberties Organisation in the state, Clifford Thomas, frowned at the calls by prominent persons from the region that the government must involve them in talks with the militants.

“Who constitute or who make up the militant cadre that the Federal Government wants to dialogue with? If they end up dialoguing with the wrong people, the problem will continue. You must know the people you want to discuss with, what is their involvement in militancy, have they been involved in militancy before?

“Some elders who claimed that thy must be involved in discussion, must first come out to declare that they are militants directly or indirectly, that they have been involved in kidnapping, raping, pipeline vandalism and so on; so that, amnesty will cover them, so that they can have dialogue with the Federal Government. By forcing themselves on the dialoguing process, they must declare that they are militant”.

An ex-militant and the spokesperson for ex-militants’ forum in Akwa Ibom, Paul Edoho-Ukwa, warned the Federal Government not to involve chiefs and state government officials in the negotiation with militants.

Edoho-Ukwa explained that they are aware that government was negotiating with militants, but not in Akwa Ibom State. He stated that militant groups such as, Niger Delta Buffalo, and the Niger Delta Subterranean Force based in Akwa Ibom State, have already warned any group that is aggrieved to channel its grievances through the Forum.

Chairman of Akwa-Ibom ex-militant forum, General Kingsley Umoh Bassey added that, they had meeting with Paul Boro and the state government where they signed peace agreement and agreed not to support the Niger Delta Avengers. He then called on the Federal government to ensure that all known militant groups are included in the negotiation to bring about enduring peace in the region.

“We have embrace amnesty, it is not good to negotiate with any group except the militants, other militant groups in the state have been told them to always channel their grievances to the Forum so that it can be handled appropriately. Militancy is not a community business, government should deal with the militants alone, it is not a political matter; outsiders will want to talk about their interests and this will bring more problem instead of solution,” Bassey said.

But, the South-South Coordinator of Citizens’ Forum for Constitution Reform [CFCR], Ansalem Eyo, has said that over reliance on oil is the reason why militancy is a thriving and attractive to youths in the Niger Delta.

“The Federal Government could help itself by forgetting about oil and look inward for other things. Can’t the Federal Government look at the circumstances that make us go for oil that is no more there? Why can’t they forget about oil, why can’t they give oil to the owners because the militants are from that area and give them what belong to them? If they do that, militancy will stop instantly. Oil is no more attractive. Money spent exploiting for oil, is even higher than the gains we are making from oil now. Whether you want to dialogue with militants or not, you can save yourself the problem by not relying on oil. You can stop this problem by surrendering the oil to the people who reside in this area” he said.

A policy analyst, Robinson Tombari Sibe, has expressed reservation about the likelihood of a successful resolution of the conflict based on what he described as the false starts on the part of government and the entire issue of lack of trust. He wondered if the Federal Government will faithfully implement the resolutions reached with the militants, as well as make sacrifices to tackle the root causes of armed agitation in the Niger Delta.

“Today, they say they want to dialogue; the next day, they tell you they’ve launched Operation Crocodile smile or tears? These are my fears. First, you need to establish the fundamentals. Is government actually dialoguing with the agitators of the Niger Delta? For now, it’s all foggy.  At one point we were told by a high-ranking cabinet member of this administration that government will not dialogue with them. Later, they admitted that they were ready to dialogue, and were in fact dialoguing. These false starts on the part of government, was unnecessary and avoidable. In a dialogue, it’s important that government remains consistent with a common agenda, and a harmonized position, to avoid such conflicting signals, which might dampen trust and confidence, and jeopardize the process. So far, beyond the back-and-forth rhetoric, there is nothing to show that indeed any sort of negotiation is on-going,” he said.

On the complaint by Chief Clark about non-inclusion of the Ijaw elders, Sibe recalled that they played key roles in the amnesty programme of the Yar’aua/Goodluck administration. Essentially, he said the Buhari administration ought to consult all stakeholders, especially those that were useful to the original process that culminated in the amnesty programme.

Sibe noted that beyond the elders, and indeed beyond a particular ethnic group, there are several other stakeholders in the Niger Delta struggle.  He pointed out that Nigerians always tend to forget those involved in non-violent struggle, but are also a critical part of the struggle, that should not be jettisoned.

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“Therefore, it’s the prerogative of government and key facilitators of the dialogue to come up with an inclusive strategy that ensures a fair representation of the Niger Delta people. That said, it’s pertinent to note that all of these are mere stopgap measures. We are merely treating the symptoms; the underlying cause of the problem remains unaddressed. We did it in time past, and recorded some economic and social gains; albeit temporarily. Today, we are back to square one, on the dialogue table treating yet another symptom. If we want to stop the vicious circle, we must be ready to tackle things from the root. Yes, we can treat the headache, but we must also tackle the ailment triggering the headache.”

Stressing that armed groups will often choose violence as a possible recourse when the political system fails to reform and address historical grievances, Sibe urged government to restructure this country; stop the resource injustice and ensure fiscal federalism. He stated that there is also the need to aggressively develop the region (infrastructure and human capital development), and open it up for investment. According to him, the teeming vibrant youths need to have economic opportunities to express themselves.

“The Niger Delta has arguably the most polluted wetlands in the world. The rivers and creeks are toxic, the land is barren. Poverty is endemic, and life expectancy is dipping by the day. Quality and affordable healthcare and education are beyond their reach.  The people are at the receiving end of this oil curse, despite being responsible for over 70percent of the nation’s revenue. Aso Rock is clearly too far from the fishing pot down south. No matter how you massage the ego of the current agitators, a new group will emerge with time, because the root cause of the problem remains untreated”


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