Fingers crossed, as FG fishes for peace in turbulent creeks
With peace talks initiated by President Buhari holding this week, there is a ray of hope the resurgence of militant activities in the Niger Delta could cease. But would all stakeholders in the region’s decades-long crisis actually allow it to happen?
For many Niger Delta stakeholders, the Federal Government takes blame for fragile and confusing peace drive in the region. They point fingers at several months of vacillation by the authorities; uncertainties over commencement of negotiations with groups, like the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA), especially after the latter had announced cessation of hostilities, following intervention by Niger Delta leaders, led by Chief Edwin Kiagbodo Clark.
It is not clear who participants at the proposed meeting would be or whether the NDA, which has been the arrowhead of recent vicious attacks on critical oil installations, would sit with the Federal Government to draw a coherent peace plan.
The Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Ibe Kachikwu, at the public presentation of a roadmap for development of the nation’s oil and gas industry in Abuja, last week, said government’s target was to have 90 per cent incident reduction by 2018 and target zero militancy by mid-2017.
“Whatever shutdown is experienced by the middle of next year, we expect it to be production slippages, not militancy issues. We must resolve current militancy problems and bring back production to 2.2 million barrels per day. We are currently at 1.8 million,” he said.
Frustrated by the apparent lackadaisical attitude of government to dialogue, the NDA broke its unilateral ceasefire few days ago and bombed Chevron’s Escravos facility. The militants were bitter the oil firm had ignored warnings not to repair the pipeline, destroyed before the truce.
NDA spokesperson, Brig. Gen. Mudoch Agbinibo, said: “If the President comes down from his ethnic iron-horse, to engage in discussion with our people on October or any date he likes, the issues are not new. We want to control our resources and pay appropriate taxation to the central government. That is fiscal federalism in practice and in principle.
“The government, representatives of the multinational oil corporations, neutral international observers and elders, as well as stakeholders, should guide themselves with the following documents: the Sir Henry Willinks Commission Report of 1958; the Ogoni Bill of Rights; the Kaiama Declaration of the Ijaw Youth Council; the General Alexander Ogomudia Committee Report; the Niger Delta Technical Committee Report, which contains the pre-amnesty issues and agreement with the government of Nigeria in 2009. Then, the framework can be drawn for achieving the short, medium, and long-term objectives toward the restoration of our land and reparation for the people that have been raped and colonised since 1914.”
But with the long-awaited dialogue here at last, there are nevertheless cracks in the house; some Niger Delta leaders are still singing discordant tunes.
The Ijaw National Congress (INC), at a point, raised the alarm that the delay in commencement of talks with the militants and stakeholders was fueling speculations that the Federal Government was perfecting strategies for a military option.
INC President, Charles Harry, explained that if the Federal Government was truly anxious to find sustainable solution to the crisis in the Niger Delta, it must discountenance ad hoc measures and deal directly with the people through their registered constitutional organs, traditional institutions, and elected representatives.
A thought-provoking development in the confusion was the emergence of the Niger Delta Greenland Justice Mandate (NDGJM). This is an upland based militant group said to have been formed by elements from Urhobo and Isoko ethnic nationalities to break the monopoly the Ijaw have allegedly enjoyed from government, especially alleged marginalisation of both ethnic groups from the last amnesty package. The NDGJM till date has refused to sheathe its sword or accept the Edwin Clark-led Pan Niger Delta peace team, preferring instead to choose leaders it says would be unbiased.
The INC also said it was opposed to influence peddling that led to the formation of several ad hoc bodies, particularly those led by Clark, former military governor of old Rivers State, Alfred Diete-Spiff, the Minister of Transportation, Chibuike Amaechi, and others. It described them as self-serving and inimical to interests of the region.
“The Federal Government will do well to look before it enters into negotiations with any of these ad hoc contraptions hurriedly put together for maybe less than altruistic reasons, and certainly not in the general interest of the region. Ad hoc arrangements that have no permanence or successor mechanisms, may only achieve temporary reliefs. This has been the bane of previous attempts at resolving the Niger Delta crisis. New agitators will spring up later, if we continue to follow this path that has not proved efficacious. The President Yar’Adua amnesty programme is food for thought,” it warned.
Recently, Clark blamed the confusion in the region on the slow pace of government to address issues raised by Niger Delta stakeholders. According to him, “We want proper dialogue. Because of this agitation, so many groups have sprung up. One will call itself Boro, the other will call itself Egbesu. We feel there should be dialogue. But the leaders must be involved because we all belong to this country. Our son was President of Nigeria for five years. His successor, Buhari, is also a Nigerian. So, we should support him. It’s no longer a question of, ‘Oh, we are no longer in power, so we should destroy things’.”
The Fiye-owei of Ogbe-Ijoh kingdom, Warri, Delta State and chairman of Ajuju oil community, Chief Favour Izoukumor, on his part, blamed the problem in the region on the unsatisfactory attitude of the Federal Government.
“Government created that vacuum,” he said. “It created those reasons that justify the emergence of the Niger Delta Avengers and their destructive actions. When you looked at the issues adduced by the so-called Avengers, it is all about deprivation and injustice perpetrated on people of the Niger Delta by past and present governments. And they felt that the present regime, led by President Buhari, might not be different from the past approach. They felt that the Niger Delta would be less developed by some of the decisions he had taken in the last one year and few months. The reasons are very obvious; it is about the development of the region. Even before independence, agitations for development of the region had been on.
“But, I need to commend the President for opting for dialogue. Most Nigerians believe that the best approach to the Niger Delta issue, which is very sensitive, not only to Nigerians but also to the international community, is dialogue. I need to give kudos to the President for accepting advice to dialogue.
“But I need to be candid. Apart from his body language, making pronouncement of dialogue, and giving instruction to the military to scale down actions, the President may have genuine intentions to see that the Niger Delta, which is still aggrieved, comes to the roundtable.
“I feel concerned, however, that after that statement, much has not been achieved, even the relative peace we are enjoying in Delta State was initiated by the Delta State government. Governor Ifeanyi Okowa set up a peace advocacy committee, led by the deputy governor. They travelled around the nooks and crannies of the state advocating peace. That was a similar approach Yar’Adua used with MEND. The Buhari government must take a cue.”
A policy analyst, Robinson Tombari Sibe, expressed reservations on the likelihood of a successful resolution, as a result of what he described as false starts by government and lack of trust. He wondered if the Federal Government would faithfully implement resolutions reached with the stakeholders and make sacrifices to tackle the root of armed agitation in the Niger Delta.
He said: “Today, they say they want 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 fundamental. 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 would not dialogue with them. Later, they admitted that they were ready to dialogue, and were in fact dialoguing.
“These false starts were unnecessary and avoidable. In a dialogue, it’s important that government remains consistent with a common agenda and a harmonised position, to avoid such conflicting signals, which might dampen trust and confidence, and jeopardise the process. So far, beyond the back-and-forth rhetoric, there is nothing to show that any sort of negotiation is ongoing.”
On complaint by Clark over non-inclusion of Ijaw elders, Sibe recalled that they played key roles in the amnesty programme of the Yar’Adua-Jonathan administration. He said the Buhari government ought to consult all stakeholders, especially those that were useful to the original process that culminated in the amnesty initiative.
He noted that beyond the elders and any particular ethnic group, there are several other stakeholders in the Niger Delta struggle. He regretted that Nigerians always tend to forget persons involved in non-violent struggle, but who are yet a critical part of the fight.
“It’s the prerogative of government and key facilitators of the dialogue to come up with an inclusive strategy that ensures fair representation of the Niger Delta people. 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 the same in the 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. We can treat the headache, but we must also tackle the ailment triggering the headache.”
Because armed groups will often choose violence as recourse when the political system fails to reform and address historical grievances, Sibe urged the government to restructure the country and ensure fiscal federalism. He said there was also the need to aggressively develop the region and open it up for investment.
He said: “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 70 per cent of the nation’s revenue. Aso Rock is clearly too far from the fishing post down south. No matter how you massage the ego of the current agitators, a new group will emerge because the root of the problem remains untreated.
“The injustice of the skewed legislations we have, and the short-term financial incentives of the symptomatic treatment, will continue to motivate such groups. Today, people are aware of their rights; they are aware of the United Nations Rights of Indigenous People. They understand petro-economics and the dynamics of petroleum products pricing. They are aware of the injustice of the Petroleum Act and the Land Use Act. They know that the Nigerian state is not fair to them. Unless we tackle this from the root, there will always be another group to dialogue with.”
Commenting on the lingering crisis and the way forward, the Special Adviser to the Cross River State Governor on Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Mr. Victor Ekpo, cautioned that the resurgence in bombings of oil installations by the NDA and other groups, coupled with the economic recession, portends ill for the country.
“I am calling on the Federal Government to intervene with meaningful dialogue. I don’t want a situation where the government will use federal might. When two elephants fight, the grass suffers. Now that the bombings are going on, we the ordinary Nigerians are suffering. I call on the President to dialogue and find a way to peace by rehabilitating them and discussing with them. Ask what their problems are, so that there will be peace. The militants say they can talk through Wole Soyinka and others. So, let the Presidency work through persons. I think the Federal Government, through the President, is committed to finding lasting peace in the Niger Delta.”
Legal practitioner, Mr. Etim Inyang, on his part, called for the stakeholders meeting to be holistic and take into cognisance other ethnic nationalities in the Niger Delta region.
“My problem in this Niger Delta issue is that when people start talking Niger Delta, it is like they are talking about Ijaw and about Ijaw interests. But for God’s sake, it is not only Ijaw people that make up the Niger Delta. We have the Ibibio, Efik, Annang, Urhobo, Ishekiri, and many others. When our son was the President, it was all about Ijaw interest in terms of appointments and projects. So, they should not confuse the President. The man should go back and look for true leaders of the Niger Delta, not politicians.
“Those guys are people who lost an election and are trying to arm twist the President. They are not honest. Let the man go for the real people of the Niger Delta. The region does not belong to Ijaw alone, for God’s sake. It is more than Ijaw. I am not happy about it. Every day, you see people going to meet with Clark. But when Clark had all the opportunity in the six years of Jonathan, what did he give to us on this side? Nothing! It is just because they have lost power.”
He added: “What the Niger Delta needs is development in terms of roads, water, electricity, industries, infrastructure, and others. You shouldn’t just call people and pay them and continue to pay them. How long? What is the price of oil today? I think the government should stop paying people. You cannot arm-twist government. Let me tell you my fear. Some people wake up, bear arms, and government settles them. It shows that another group will say, ‘Ijaw people are doing it and they are getting paid.’ Tomorrow, the Urhobo, Ishekiri, Efik, Ibibio will do it, to also get money from government. That is not the way out. Government should dialogue with the real people, and not Niger Delta politicians.”