FEDERAL GOVERNMENT OF NIGERIA'S
INVASION OF ODI, BAYELSA STATE, NIGER DELTA
BLUNDER IN BALYELSA
Monday, 22 November 1999
THE Federal Government's reaction to the security situation in Bayelsa State is understandable, but the manner of the response is capable of aggravating rather than ameliorating the crisis. Sequel to the kidnapping and killing of seven policemen in Odi community of the state, the government invited the state governor, Mr. Depreye Alameyeseigha for briefing in Abuja. This was in order. President Olusegun Obasanjo was apparently not impressed by the explanation given by the governor and he said so in clear terms. On November 10, the President sent a letter to the governor, giving him a deadline of two weeks to apprehend and prosecute the killers of the security personnel or a state of emergency would be declared in Bayelsa. The ultimatum expires this Wednesday.
This trend is unfortunate for several reasons. First is the medium of communication. Whilst it is the prerogative of the President to deal promptly with any situation that poses a threat to security in any part of the country, we do not think it was right in the circumstances to issue this kind of angrily-worded letter. The method is inappropriate but the language of the query is even more so. The President says that Governor Alameyeseigha has "lost grip of the security situation in the state." The governor is also accused of allowing the law and order situation to degenerate because he failed to heed the President's advice in the past. The state government is indicted for complicity in the killing because the "government was holding negotiations (with the killers) before the killing of the policemen ..." A correspondence from the president to a governor should not be so harsh. The President says, "I note with utter disgust and shock the reported incident of rape in your state by military personnel ..." The alleged cases of rape took place in Choba, Rivers State, not in Bayelsa. This kind of mix-up should not have been allowed.
The handling of the situation in Bayelsa also raises some fundamental issues concerning federal-state relations in a democratic setting. The constitution recognises the autonomy of the various units. The way the governor is berated in the letter gives the unfortunate impression that the President is not sensitive enough to the need to cultivate an atmosphere of understanding and cooperation in dealing with such matters of concurrent legislation. The Federal Government has a duty to protect life and property in all parts of the country, but the killing of the police personnel, outrageous as it is, should not be used as an excuse to demean the personality of the state governor. This can produce the unintended effect of hurting future relations.
There are other political implications. The Federal Government says it is angry because the state governor has been unable to find the killers of the police personnel. But the same government has been indifferent to allegations of atrocities committed by soldiers and police in Bayelsa and other parts of the Niger Delta. Since the Kaiama Declaration of December 11 last year, the entire region has been under siege. In the immediate aftermath of the declaration, armed detachments raided various communities. Innocent people were killed; many were injured, including the aged and infirm. Soldiers and policemen have also brutalised people in the Niger Delta in the name of peace-keeping. In spite of loud protests, the government has never investigated these charges. Do the people of Bayelsa and other oil producing states not deserve the protection of the Federal Government?
The emergency measures being contemplated will provoke more resentment in the region which has suffered decades of deprivation and exploitation. Bayelsa is emblematic of that tragedy. It is the least developed state in the country, yet it is the cradle of the oil-fuelled prosperity of the past three decades. The other oil states of Delta, Rivers and Akwa Ibom have similar tales of woe. Perhaps, they are so treated because they are the so-called minority states. Again, Bayelsa typifies this injustice. It is the only state in the country where an Ijaw indigene is a governor. But the Ijaw are the fourth most populous ethnic nationality in Nigeria. In four other states where they are found, they are a minority. For nearly a year, Ijaw territory has been a target of military action and the environment is volatile. What we are faced with is not just a law-and-order situation; it is a matter of fairness and justice in a federal system.
The constitutional instrument of
emergency powers should be invoked only where other methods fail. In the
particular instance of Bayelsa, the government has not exhausted all other
avenues for dealing with the crisis. There are numerous flash points in
the country. There have been clashes of ethnic militias in places like
Lagos. The inter-ethnic killings in Sagamu and Kano a few months ago were
unprecedented in peace-time Nigeria. Armed bandits and marauders are causing
havoc in the north-eastern corridor of the country. The introduction of
a Sharia system has created social tension in Zamfara State. The Federal
Government did not contemplate the imposition of emergency sanctions in
any of these places. Clearly, the situation in Bayelsa does not warrant
this extreme measure.