DON'T MILITARISE THE NIGER DELTA
The Federal Government of President Olusegun Obasanjo has deployed a 5,000-strong punitive military mission from the Port Harcourt naval base to the Niger Delta oil-producing state of Bayelsa and is threatening to impose a state of emergency in the region. Already the soldiers are killing, raping and spreading terror in the local communities, causing thousands of villagers to flee their homes to escape the wrath of the troops. This action follows the murder of twelve police officers by hoodlums in Odi, a town in Bayelsa, on 3 November. The carnage comes barely a year after the killing of hundreds of youths in the area in December 1998 by Federal troops following the launch of the Kaiama Declaration by the Ijaw Youth Council. That Declaration called for the immediate demilitarisation of the Niger Delta and the restructuring of the country to give the nations and ethnic nationalities of the Niger Delta a sense of dignity, part-ownership of their wealth and belonging. The current military expedition and the threat of a state of emergency are thus seen not only as insensitive but interpreted by restive youths as a declaration of war on their people by a government that has repressed and exploited them for decades.
President Olusegun Obasanjo's decision to deploy thousands of troops to Nigeria's troubled Niger Delta region is wrong as this will only exacerbate, not defuse what is already a crisis situation. An action ostensibly designed to forestall anarchy and lawlessness in the Niger Delta has not only plunged the area into an orgy of mindless bloodletting, fear and general insecurity, but it has also called into question the 'democratic' credentials of the new civilian government and its ability to deal with a crisis that clearly demands tact, dialogue and political sagacity. Indeed, there is no difference between President Obasanjo's actions last week and those of his immediate predecessors, Generals Abdulsalami Abubakar, Sani Abacha and Ibrahim Babangida, military dictators who turned the Niger Delta into a military occupied zone, razed down hundreds of villages and murdered thousands of political activists, environmentalists and community leaders, including the Ogoni leader, Ken Saro-Wiwa.
CDD has always argued that the crisis in the Niger Delta requires a political solution, not a resort to the same old terror-tactics that successive military regimes in Nigeria employed to no avail. At the core of the crisis in the region is widespread poverty, environmental devastation occasioned by over four decades of irresponsible oil exploitation by Royal Dutch Shell and other western multinational oil firms and the expropriation of billions of dollars of oil receipts by government officials in collaboration with the companies to the total exclusion of the local people from whose land the oil is derived. This state of affairs is unjust, predatory and runs counter to all tenets of civilised conduct and sustainable communal well being, and it was only a matter of time before the communities, led by the Movement of the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), began to challenge it beginning in 1990. The peoples and ethnic nationalities of the Niger Delta have, these past nine years, employed various means and forums, all of them non-violent and pragmatic, to articulate their problems and also suggest solutions to their grievances. The Ogoni Bill of Rights, the Kaiama Declaration of the Ijaw Youth Council and the Aklaka Declaration of the Egi people, among several other declarations and pronouncements, have called for a Sovereign National Conference to determine the economic and political basis of the Nigerian state, make for a proper and workable federation with devolved powers to the various geographical regions, and work out a fair and just formula on which basis wealth would be produced and shared among the federating units. The main grievance of the peoples of the Niger Delta is that their wishes, desires and aspirations are not factored into the Nigerian project, that they have no say in the production and allocation of the enormous oil wealth taken from their land and, as a result, they are suffering untold economic hardship, brutalisation, gruesome ecological crisis, and social and cultural marginalisation.
These grievances are, to a very large extent, genuine Coming barely a year after the killing of hundreds of youths in the area in December 1998 by Federal troops following the launch of the Kaiama Declaration by the Ijaw Youth Council in which they called for the immediate demilitarisation of the Niger Delta and a restructuring of the country to give the nations and ethnic nationalities of the Niger Delta a sense of belonging, this threat was not only seen as insensitive but interpreted by restive youths as a declaration of war on their people by a government that has repressed and exploited them for decades.â€¦ The demand for a fundamental restructuring of the Nigerian state is not only legitimate, but also eminently sensible. It is significant that all the ethnic nationalities of the Niger Delta are united in this demand. On 4 November, their representatives rose from a two-day conference in the city of Port Harcourt and declared that Nigeria's new constitution on which basis President Obasanjo's government was elected into office last February, did not have any input from the people, is resoundingly silent on their cardinal demands of true federalism and resource control, and so cannot be binding on them. They also rejected the Niger Delta Development Commission bill that President Obasanjo has put before the National Assembly for consideration, arguing that they were not consulted before it was drafted.
In summary, what the people of the region are saying to Obasanjo's government is that they want to see Nigeria's new democratic dispensation - which is said to guarantee freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and the right of the people to hold their elected representatives to account - reflected in their daily lives. They are asking for dialogue with the government on ways and means to address their problems. The government has, however, chosen to seize on the ethnic conflicts presently sweeping through the area, as well as on the face-off between local youths and the oil companies over such issues as environmental pollution and allocation of the oil revenue, to argue that there is a breakdown of law and order in the area and that the only solution is to deploy troops to maintain public peace. Ill-informed foreign journalists and commentators are also quick to see the communal clashes as atavistic and 'tribal' in nature, with neither reason nor logic to them, a vindication of their warning that Africa would implode in anarchy, chaos and 'tribal' warfare with the end of the Cold War and the withdrawal of the super powers from the continent.
These analyses and the actions arising from them, are
not only self-serving but ultimately dangerous and self-defeating. At the
heart of the communal conflicts is poverty and economic deprivation, and
a deep-running feeling that 'government' has abandoned them to their fate
and the only way out is to secure their interests with whatever means is
available, including machetes and rifles. And stoking this conflagration
is the divide-and-rule methods of the oil companies who have been implicated
in pitting community against community, arming both sides with sophisticated
weaponry to fight it out to
the bitter end, and then inviting Federal troops to do the mopping up. What the Niger Delta needs is democracy, not guns; dialogue, not decrees and martial law. We appreciate that the problems of the region are so enormous that they cannot be solved overnight, or indeed by any one administration -- particularly President Obasanjo's that also has to grapple with the onerous task of healing the country's traumatised psyche following sixteen years of rapacious military dictatorship. But President Obasanjo can take the first important step of calming strained nerves in the Niger Delta by telling them that his government is willing to enter into dialogue with their representatives, show them in word and deed that this time it is for real, and begin the difficult, but nevertheless inescapable process of working out the modalities for this dialogue. Obasanjo must also resist the hawks in his government, and also pressure from the oil companies and their foreign sponsors, who would like a state of emergency imposed on the region and more troops sent in so they can go on with business as usual, taking oil from the local communities unchallenged and leaving mauled and polluted rivers and farmlands in their wake. He must find the courage to tell them that the season of blood and stuttering guns is over, that his is a democratically-elected government and so must find democratic solutions to the crisis in the Niger Delta.
If anything, the spread of resistance movements in the region, the increasing assertiveness of youth leaders challenging and indeed displacing local chiefs who they accuse of betraying their people to the government and the oil companies, and the growing determination of the people at large to see an end to their exploitation and marginalisation, should warn the government that declaring an all-out war in the region can only be met with a similar response. A people fighting for a just and legitimate cause may be outgunned and outnumbered, but they can be a formidable enemy. And the swampy terrain of the Niger Delta, criss-crossed by treacherous marshes and near-impenetrable mangrove, is a conventional army's nightmare. A military campaign in the Niger Delta could well act as a trigger to the implosion of Nigeria, a scenario that could spell spill-over catastrophe in the West African sub-region. CDD urges the Obasanjo government not to begin a war it can neither finish, nor hope to emerge from victorious. The troops must be withdrawn and a peaceful solution to the stand-off sought. Ultimately, the crisis in the Niger Delta can only be resolved within the framework a new federal constitution whose strength should lie in genuine devolution of power and responsibility to the regions.
CDD, London, 22 November 1999
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