By Eric Ayoola
November 30, 1999
The President had at an earlier forum decried the incessant violence in the Delta area and its adverse effect on both upstream and downstream oil operations. He had commented then that "it will not be an exaggeration to say that the Niger Delta is in a state of war".
The Delta State Governor, James Ibori, had warned against the consequences of kidnapping, hostage taking, piracy and other acts of violence by the militants in the Delta region. He added that the government should not be blamed if it finally decides to wield the big stick against the criminals perpetrating this acts of wanton lawlessness.
He said "I have acknowledged that we all have the right to agitate but at one point you must know where agitation ends and where criminality begins". The militants of the Delta region have definitely crossed the bounds of acceptable agitation. He added "There is no responsible government that would sit down and watch these activities go on".
The government acknowledges the years of almost criminal neglect and official abandonment of the Niger-Delta region but avers, quite rightly, that "the process of reconstruction and community development cannot be pursued seriously in an atmosphere of violence and anarchy".
The British High Commissioner has called for dialogue and the use of democratic instruments in resolving the delta crisis. He opined that "Looting and hostage taking may provide short-term benefit to a few, but only complicates the search for a long term solution".
The unrest does not only affect the region but also scares away does wanting to invest in other areas and in other sectors of the Nigerian economy. It has spilled over to other parts of the country. More directly, the Ijaws have opened up another "war front" by taking on members of the OPC in Lagos. Members of the Ijaw Egbesu cult became involved in an inter-union conflict in Port Harcourt leading to the loss of 15 lives.
Indirectly, copy cat groups have sprung up all over the country with all of them borrowing a leaf from the book of the militants of the Niger-Delta region in resorting to mindless and wanton violence against their neighbours or opponents to register each and every issue of disagreement.
Alameyeseigha had asserted that the criminal and violent activities of the militants is not representative of the Ijaws struggle for control of their natural resources or for justice and equity within the federal polity.
Groups such as the Ijaw National Congress (INC), Council of Ijaw Associations Abroad (CIAA), Chikoko Movement and Niger Delta Human and Environmental Rescue Organisation (ND-Hero) have condemned the deployment of troops to Bayelsa State to fish out the criminals that killed the law enforcement agents.
Perhaps these groups could advise us on what the government should have done in the face of such bestial and senseless violence as continually unleashed by the Ijaw militants. They advocated dialogue, yet how do you dialogue with people who seem to lack the basic tenets of human relationship. How do you dialogue with those who do not know when to capitalise on gains already made by pausing to reconsider other, non violent, options.
Since President Obansanjo took office in May this year, the militants of the Niger Delta region have not eased up in the violent, and criminal acts, rather, the violence has increased in leaps and bounds. They have not, as one would have expected, acknowledge the fact that an Obansanjo is quite different from an Abacha or an Abubakar and that it will be in their own self interest to give him a chance to deliver. These people have taken unmitigated advantage of the President's respect for human rights, they have capitalised on the fact that the country now operates within a democratic dispensation, they have been given a yard have taken a mile.
Maybe violent agitations could be justified under military rule since the military being unrepresentative of the people is not usually responsive to the people's yearning, but how can this be the case in a democratic dispensation where there is an Ijaw Governor and Ijaw Senators and Ijaw House of Representative members who can spearhead the fight for their people's legitimate demands.
The government's Niger Delta Development Commission Bill is yet to be passed by the National Assembly. What are Ijaw law makers doing about the delay?. Ijaw militants, albeit with the approval of less militant Ijaw organisations, have hijacked their people's movement and turned it into one mindless circle of violence and more violence against real and perceived enemies.
It would have been funny, if it weren't so tragic, to note that the Ijaw situation has become a microcosm of the Nigerian situation before our latest attempt at democracy. In other words Nigeria went downhill like a steam engine without breaks, when the men of violence (i.e the military) took over the rulership of the nation. Likewise the Ijaws have allowed men of violence to take over the headship of their communities with the resultant ill-effects in terms of the actualisation of their goals and to the unnecessary loss of lives and the destruction of property. Until Ijaw political leaders wrest control of the Ijaw people from the control of the militants there will be no progress in that region.
Though the Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Dr Doyin Okupe, has informed Nigerians that the Federal Government will no longer wait for the snail pace NDDC Bill and will initiate interim measures to improve the lot of the people of the Niger Delta region, it is hard to see how this can be achieved if the militants are not called to heel by their political masters. Without this, attacks will continue not only against security forces but also against construction workers who may be sent to the region to build roads, schools etc.
The men of violence are striving to make themselves relevant and indispensable to the scheme of things and if in future the Delta region were to attain autonomy you can bet your last kobo that they will hijack the government of that region and rule just like Nigerian military dictators have ruled the country so far. They will not just down their arms and bow down to civil authority since they have cultivated a lust for blood and the forceful acquisition of power and influence.
Mr Oronto Douglas's (Leader of Chikoko movement) argument that the recent development will harm the country's fledgling democracy is ironical to say the least. What will hurt our democracy is not the legitimate response of a democratic government, that finally lost its patience in the face of unparalleled and provocative acts of murder, kidnapping and destruction, rather it is the act of those who will not give peace a chance.
No one, least of all my self, is saying that the Ijaws or the people of Nigeria's oil producing region should give up their struggle for a greater share of the resources exploited on their lands or for proper development of the areas and the cessation of the environmental degradation of their land. On the contrary, they should step up the pressure since, unlike in the past, they now have a listening ear in the sit of power who will make a difference to their plights. Yet their tactics must change. They cannot continue to kill, plunder, kidnap, blockade, vandalise, terrorise and hold the rest of the country to ransome. On the other hand they should declare a cease fire and dialogue with the government.
The great Afro beat singer, Fela Anikulapo Kuti referred to democracy as "Demonstration of craze". That is precisely what all the violent agitators all across the country are exhibiting. Let us look father afield to other parts of the world where there has been conflict. Nearer home, the ANC in South Africa changed from being violent opponents of Apartheid to a political movement, the IRA in Northern Ireland declared a cease fire and its political wing Sinn Fein, is now a valuable part of the political process to find a lasting solution to the problems of that region. In the middle east Yassar Arafat achieved more for his people as a peaceful negotiator than when he was at war with Israel.
The chest beating by the CIAA, the FNDIC etc will not achieve anything apart from the loss of even more lives. The government of Nigeria is unlikely to yield to ultimatums and threats from these and other Ijaw bodies. What is most likely to happen if Ijaw organisations all around the world and in Nigeria do not call on the militants in the Niger Delta region to declare a cease fire and not to engage in battle with the soldiers is the loss of even more lives.
As we all know when two elephants fight it is the grass that suffers. Ijaw women, men and children will bear the brunt of the bloody mayhem. History has shown us time and time again that civilians die more than soldiers in wars of this nature. The razing of Odi is just a tip of the iceberg. If the militants regroup and launch an attack on the soldiers, the government will have no choice but to call in more troops. At the end of all the blood shed there will still be no option but to dialogue and it never cease to amaze me why we human beings never remember this simple truth before we embark on an orgy of killing and mayhem.
The argument has been advanced by many Ijaw groups that the government had turned a blind eye to atrocities committed in other parts of the country. Specific mention has been made of the activities of the OPC in Lagos. Apart from the fact that the violent agitation in the Delta region predates OPC's activities in Lagos, it is note worthy the fact that the policemen killed in Odi were captives or Prisoners of War, if I may use the phrase, and were killed in cold blood not as the result of a running battle with a mob. The Ijaw militants killed those law enforcement officers in cold blood not in the heat of a demonstration or spontaneous fighting. Moreover, after the latest incidence of violence by members of the OPC in their fight with members of the Hausa community in Lagos, the President's patience seems to have worn thin with members of the OPC and law enforcement agents have been mandated to arrest them or shoot on sight those resisting arrest.
My suggestion is this:
1) That political leaders of the Ijaw should take back control of their cause from the militants who are now doing more harm that good. The militants have made their points, they have shown that the Ijaw nation can bark and bite and should now, like disciplined warriors (if they are indeed disciplined) heed the call to heel by their political leaders.
2) A cease-fire must be declared by the militants.
3) The government must be given a time frame within which to ensure the development of the region and to reach a more equitable revenue sharing formula. Oil companies must be prevailed upon to stop their environmentally unfriendly acts.
4) The Ijaws and other Delta people should make realistic demands. Demanding to have complete and total control of the oil in their area is unrealistic. For as long as they remain part of Nigeria the oil revenue will accrue to the whole country just like minerals and crops from other areas in the country have been used for the benefit of the whole country.
The devastation done to the Niger-Delta region cannot be corrected within a few months. The more the militants create an atmosphere of murder and destruction the longer it will take to reach any meaningful resolution.
I beg of you all Ijaw organisations, yours is a legitimate and just cause, please, please, please do not let men of violence usurp your cause and turn it into a wretched one simply to satisfy their blood lust. Pyrrhic victory will be scored with every murder, every arson attack, every kidnapping, every act of vandalism, but at the end of it all it will not resolve the very important issues at stake.
I welcome any comments on this essay. Criticise me if you will, however, look beyond the fact that I am a Yoruba man and counter my arguments with weighty and objective views rather than by engaging in tribal polemics.