‘Ex-Niger Delta agitators, militants failed the region’
Agitations in the 1990s that culminated in the execution of Saro-Wiwa and eight others in November 1995 by the late Sani Abacha military junta triggered political turbulence and other serious repercussions.
It was Saro-Wiwa’s execution that spurred the Ijaw Youths Council (IYC) to issue the Kaiama Declaration in November 1998 with a resolve to struggle peacefully for freedom, self-determination and environmental justice for the oil-rich region.
The group also declared ‘Operation Climate Change’ with directive for oil companies to suspend oil exploration and exploitation operations in all Ijaw territory.
It was the IYC that paved the way for the emergence of ex-militants like Asari Dokubo, Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) commanders like Government Tompolo, Victor Ben aka Boyloaf, Ateke Tom and several others.
One of the founding members of IYC, a sociologist and university teacher, Dr. Sofiri Peterside, told The Guardian that following the killing of Ken Saro-Wiwa, which of course changed the whole agitation in the Niger Delta, Ijaw youths resolved that peaceful agitations adopted by the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) cannot draw the desired Federal Government attention to Ijaw communities. So, they decided to take the struggle a step further by issuing the Kaiama Declaration, drawing inspiration from the Ogoni Bill of Rights.
“Often times, people always focused on the Kaiama Declaration, but the core issue is that there is document known as Operation Climate Change. That document directed all Ijaw communities to extinguish gas flaring by any means possible.
“That added a militant tone to the whole agitation. To demonstrate their determination, they also issued an ultimatum to multinational oil corporations operating in the Niger Delta to vacate on or before December 31, 1998. To demonstrate that we were committed to these declaration, a seeming war dance was staged in Ijaw communities in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, beginning from Bundu to the end of Aggrey Road,” he said.
Peterside explained that afterwards, Ijaw youths converged on Yenagoa and as they marched towards the Government House to convey their grievances to then military administrator, Lt. Col. Paul Edor Obi, soldiers opened fire on harmless Ijaw youths killing some and injuring many. According to him, this was the root of the insurrection movements that emerged subsequently.
“That necessitated extra legal and constitutional measures to actually advance the struggle. And that was the basis for the formation of the first militant movement among the Ijaw youths known as Supreme Egbesu Assembly (SEA). Ijaw communities were donating young men and food and trainings were provided. That was how the first militant movement started. Attacks on oil and gas infrastructure were not designed at first to destroy the environment. They were meant to draw attention to the problems of the area,” he said.
Peterside noted that after some criminals killed policemen in Odi, resulting in a brutal military onslaught on that Ijaw community, a meeting was later held at the Government House, Port Harcourt between former President Olusegun Obasanjo and stakeholders. The outcome of the meeting was an increase in derivation to oil producing states and the subsequent establishment of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), which was to be financed through certain percentage from oil revenue devoted to address development issues in the area.
In 2001, Asari became the IYC’s president and his major slogan was ‘resource control and self determination by every means necessary’. During this period he formed the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF), which for a long time clashed with the Niger Delta Vigilante (NDV) led by Ateke Tom.
Asari’s agitation for self-determination of the Ijaw people and independence for the Niger Delta continued. Obasanjo later brokered a truce between him and Ateke, leading to Asari’s arrest and was subsequently charge with treason. He was later granted bail by the late President Umaru Yar’Adua administration.
Asari’s incarceration, as well as the impeachment and the arrest of former Bayelsa State governor, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, paved way for the formation of MEND with the objective of ensuring a total control of the Niger Delta’s oil wealth by the states.
After MEND’s first major attack on oil installations in January 2006, it demanded that Obasanjo should release two jailed Ijaw leaders, Asari, who was in jail at the time on treason charges and Alamieyeseigha, who was convicted of corruption.
Between January 2006 and 2009 when President Yar’ Adua offered amnesty to MEND and others, Nigeria’s petroleum production for export deceased from over 2.7 million barrels per day to bout 700,000 due to MEND’s attacks on oil installations.
As part of the amnesty deal reached between the Federal Government and the Niger Delta militants and others, the government through the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) awarded them pipelines security protection contracts.
Tompolo, who hails from Okerenkoko in Gbaramatu Kingdom in Warri Southwest local council of Delta State, was alleged to be the owner of Global West Vessel Specialists Limited (GWVSL), which sealed a multimillion Dollar deal with Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) for surveillance and patrol of Nigeria’s waterways against oil theft, piracy, sea robberies and kidnapping. He is currently being probed by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in connection with N34 billion fraud in NIMASA.
He was reputed to be the most influential militant in the Niger Delta as he runs a foundation, primarily to help to improve the quality of education and support healthcare services in the rural communities.
Asari, a major beneficiary of Federal Government’s pipeline surveillance deal, presently resides in Benin Republic and is the sole proprietor of King Amachree Royal Academy in Cotonou. The school was established as an independent educational institution with the objective of creating a crop of Africans with the latest and modern knowledge of automotive and information and communications technology.
As for Ebikabowei Victor Ben (Boyloaf), he is involved in maritime business and a beneficiary of NNPC pipeline surveillance deal. He was appointed Chairman, Board of the Bayelsa State Centre for Youth Development by Governor Seriake Dickson in 2014.
Ateke Tom, who had initially relocated to Lagos after the amnesty offer has gone back to Rivers State.
MEND commanders such as Dagogo Farah and Sobomabo Jackrich aka Egberipapa, are full time political actors in Rivers State. Farah is currently a member of the Rivers State House of Assembly, while Jackrich once served as the caretaker chairman of Asari-Toru council.
As these militant leaders embraced the Presidential Amnesty Programme and emerged wealthy afterwards, issues in deep social, political and economic reality of the Niger Delta that formed the basis for the formation of their insurrectionary movements were abandoned.
Peterside told The Guardian that the Niger Delta struggle was plagued by what he described as the commodification of the struggle. He argued that militancy rather than drawing attention to the underdevelopment of the area now became an industry and a veritable means of primordial accumulation of wealth.
“Even though what we wanted did not emerge in the dimension which we did envisage, but we cannot deny that those agitations actually attracted the attention of the Federal Government. Even though we wanted 50 per cent derivation that we didn’t get, but you know from 1.5 per cent it now got to 13 per cent derivation. Yes, even though such a move may not be felt in terms of their impact, but of course, those struggle actually paid off,” he said
He explained that amnesty offer to the ex-militants created its own challenges as people saw it as a means of having access to the national cake. According to him, “so today, you have ex-agitators who are now settled. Contracts were awarded for the protection of oil pipelines and all that. Even though some people were settled, a new crop of young men also emerged capitalising on the grievance spaces that have been vacated by these senior agitators. And so, that is where we are at the moment”.
On his part, the erstwhile chairman subcommittee on Disarmament, Demobilisation and Rehabilitation (DDR) of the Technical Committee on the Niger Delta, Anyakwee Nsirimovu, said the militant agitators failed to achieve the reasons for militancy.
Nsirimovu noted that while the militants succeeded in drawing national and global attention to the Niger Delta question, the issues of environmental degradation, infrastructural deficit and poor living conditions of the people remained largely unresolved.
“At the point where they would have succeeded, they decided to take money instead of taking the issues that bedeviled the people into account. Money for the agitators succeeded. The issues were abandoned and that is why if you start all over today, you will not get the support they had at the beginning. Those who are at the bottom level will never give that kind of support again,” he said.
Nsirimovu observed that the reason why most of the ex-militants have gone into hibernation was because they probably did not believe in the struggle that they embarked on. He contended that the essence of a revolution was change.
“If you didn’t achieve change, you have no moral right to continue with the process, because nobody is ever going to take you serious.”
He explained that while the political leaders in Nigeria offered amnesty as a bait for the free flow of crude oil and induced the militant leaders, development of the Niger Delta took the back seat. He insisted that what should have mattered most to the ex-militants if truly they were committed to the struggle would have been the transformation of the Niger Delta environment and its oil economy to alternative economic strategy.
Nsirimovu, who is also the convener Niger Delta Civil Society Coalition (NDCSC), argued that ex-militants ought to be ashamed of themselves for their failure to make the Niger Delta better than they met it.
According to him, due to militancy, in a place like Okrika, people were unable to bury their dead relatives; businesses were destroyed across the region resulting in the closure of oil companies and loss of jobs.
“Niger Delta is worse off. For almost six years, Goodluck Jonathan was President, we should have used the opportunity to better the lot of our people, but nothing like that happened. And because nothing came out of it, there is nothing to hang on to as foundation for people to continue. It was a complete failure,” he added.
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