The Niger Delta Region: Anatomy of a Crisis – by Emmanuel Asiwe

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Nigerians are holding their breath and the world is watching as the amnesty program offered Niger Delta militants expires on October 4, 2009. The issue of unrest in the Niger Delta remains a major problem to Nigeria's economic development. Successive military and civilian governments have employed different strategies and policies to forestall peace in the troubled Niger Delta region but none has achieved any meaningful result.

Recently, the government of President Umaru Musa Yar'adua introduced an amnesty program with the aim of bringing peace to the region. But the exercise has been a tangled tale; a combined tragedy and comedy of errors and it remains to be seen whether the outcome will justify the government's initial calculations.

Understanding the current crisis in the Niger Delta requires a brief look at the history of unrest in the region. The Niger Delta is home to about 140 different ethnic groups in nine states which includes in a broader definition of the region. The main five states being; Delta, Edo, Akwa Ibom, Rivers and Cross Rivers. Abia, Ondo and Imo are oil producing states but not major producers so no crisis over there. This diversity has given birth to confrontations and competitions for economic benefits and political power.

The struggle for resource control can significantly traced back to the formation of the Niger Delta Volunteer Force (NDVF), an Ijaw group formed by Isaac Adoka Boro and declared a Republic in 1966; the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) by Ken Saro Wiwa that raised issue of environmental pollution caused by oil companies and highlighted the lack of representation of the Niger Delta people especially the Ogonis and published an Ogoni Bill of Rights in 1990; the 'Mujahid' Dokubo – Asari Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) which have all faced different resistance from the Federal and State Government. These groups and other minor ones did not just come up; they started due to the neglect that has over the years faced the states.

Numerous communal clashes between the different ethnic groups with the major ones as Urhobos, Itsekiri and Ijaws (Izon) mainly happing in Warri, Delta State. The desire to control oil and gas along border lines has seen many villages and communities burned down by angry youths with the federal government doing nothing concrete to rescue the situation. With time, these villages and communities started raising militants with the aim of building a strong force against enemies around them.

The federal government virtually outsourced the development of these states to the oil companies who cared less about issues of corporate social responsibility thereby leaving the states to remain backward; a situation which has seen them come together by a sense of grievance about the exploitation and neglect of their region without forgetting their ethnic differences. While groups like MOSOP tried to address the issue through dialogue, others chose armed struggle and declaring themselves are freedom fighters. But as time went on, they forgot their main goal and criminality set in.

From the Ivory Towers to the Creeks

The history behind the armed groups date back to the university confraternities which started in 1952 at the University College Ibadan down to the street gangs like Icelando, Deebam etc, involving drug rackets, oil bunkering and political and military influences. However, the armed groups were born out of the desire to protect their land, community or their ethnic group, a desire to protest against government and oil companies', political and economic marginalization of their communities, regions and ethnic groups. Greed by the awareness of the gain in kidnapping, the desire to avenge death of a brother, or sheer exuberance has also become a major motivator for militancy.

The big question is where these groups get their support to acquire sophisticated ammunition and carryout their activities. The simple answer is that it comes from all top political and traditional personnel in the country. A situation where political parties and politicians employ these groups to help steal ballot boxes, assassinate their political rivals and intimidate opponents has always been a source of sustainability for them.

During the 2003 polls in Rivers State, the then governor Peter Odili employed and equipped both Ateke Tom and Asari – Dokubo to deliver the state. The arms that were bought by Odili and his campaign team were not returned after the election and the $5 million and $10 million allegedly paid to both groups, was channeled into buying more arms and perpetuating more attacks on oil companies and workers which later encouraged what has now become a criminal franchise - kidnapping rich and influential individuals.

Ethnic rivalry has also help in their survival where money given for community development is instead thrown into fortifying these groups to help the community fight their presumed enemies and take control of the oil wells and land. These groups are also empowered by the traditional class helping in imposing kings and rulers on the people if they also helped these rulers intimidate the people to accept their will even when they were unpopular.

With these armed groups kidnapping, blowing off oil facilities and making the Niger Delta region unsecured and unstable for oil exploration, bunkering and militancy, the Nigeria economy is constantly experiencing a decline with Nigeria loosing over 700 bpd. The overall effect is the increase of oil prices in the international market. Hence the federal government is doing everything within its power to put a stop to it and restore lasting peace and provide permanent solution to the whole issue.

Previous initiatives have failed. In 2004, a peace agreement was in River's State but it failed because there was no political will and the disarmament process failed. After Ateke Tom and Asari Dokubo met with President Olusegun Obasanjo in October 2004 in Abuja, the disarmament committee headed by Odili decided to pay cash for weapons, which was instead used to buy more sophisticated weapons. The rehabilitation process was over taken by corrupt politicians who saw it as a means to empower or compensate loyal friends and relatives instead of transforming the repentant militants back into normal life and reintegrate them into society. The end result was more attacks, kidnapping of oil workers, more communal clashes and “blood oil” game.

In Delta State, efforts have also been made with the governor paying the militants so as not to foment any problem but it has not brought any progress. The militants always come back to ask for increase pay from the government thereby depleting the state treasury.

The introduction of a corrupt and insincere commission by the Obasanjo government known as the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) was a complete fiasco for about nine years for which they have clearly displayed incompetence and lack of vision. Like in Edo State, a solar borehole at Iwogban Quarters is yet to start but has been gazetted in their quarterly publication as a completed project – These are all works of the various state representatives.

President Yar'adua started by bending to the will of Western MEND who kept kidnapping, blowing off oil facilities to press for the release of Chief D.S.P. Alamieyesigha who was arrested on suspicion of corruption in 2005 and Asari – Dokubo who was also arrested for treason in September 2005, not to mention Olo the Leader of the street armed gang known as the KKK. Alamieyesigha and Asari – Dokubo two Ijaw lords were released to forestall peace in the region but they had already lost their political relevance and were now isolated due to their long stay in detention. Their release from a much deserved detention achieved little besides emboldened the militants. Just like the release of Henry Okah.

The establishment of a Ministry for the Niger Delta by the Yar'adua government is also one of the numerous policies that has been introduced though it is too early to judge the effect of the ministry; but critics have dismissed the move as yet another window-dressing especially as the appointed minister Chief Ufot Ekiete served under the president Olusegun administration as Secretary to Federal Government (SFG). He was appointed on experience, but history and posterity will forever remember his influence in the highly corrupt Obasanjo administration.

A Hydra-headed Criminal Franchise

The present amnesty program ended on October 4, 2009, during which time, different militant groups have been surrendering their weapons with Ateke Tom being the latest to surrender his arms. But there remain the likes of Government Chief Ekpemupolo aka Tompolo who is a strong force in MEND. His attitude towards the amnesty has at best been ambivalent and cynical. It is hard to figure out what the amnesty really achieved as not all the militants agreed to disarm. If anything, Tompolo's actions will be determined by his own ceasefire, not by the government amnesty.

For one thing, no one knows the exact number of people involved in militant activity in the Niger Delta, but going by the study conducted for the Delta State Government in 2007 at the start of the program. It found there are about forty-eight recognizable groups in Delta State alone, boasting more than 25,000 members and with an arsenal of approximately 10,000 weapons, going by this, one can estimate that they may be up to 80,000 members of armed groups in the Niger Delta as a whole.

Membership in this group changes from day to day as their leaders forge fresh alliances and enter into disputes with each other. More and more men are being conscripted into the group which creates more problems in terms of statistics. Without accurate figures when the amnesty program was initiated, how do we know how many that are still left in the creeks and what statistics was used to arrange the amnesty program, without a proper census.

For the amnesty to have had any meaningful effect, the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) process has to be supervised by a neutral body preferably the United Nations or African Union, but in this case, the process is been chaired and supervised by the Minister of Defence Major General Godwin Abby (Rtd) leaving out international stakeholders who are involved in the region.

The sheer multitude of armed groups adds another layer of complexity. Identifying the groups and trying to decipher what they want is an immensely difficult task because of their nebulous structure and ever-shifting allegiances. Each group has a specific history; some see themselves as freedom fighters and have overtly political aims, most involved in criminal activities. Without the federal government knowing properly what each group stands for and want, how will they rehabilitate them?

The one size fits all approach of the amnesty is problematic and a non-starter; it will not work because each militant group must be rehabilitated along their stated goals. This will help the amnesty team know what method to use. Grouping all of them under the same umbrella is an exercise in futility. Nigeria we all know has over the years been governed by politicians who are good at making policies but never implementing them. It is very clear that not even the least Nigerian has hope in the government following their lackadaisical attitude towards the Niger Delta problem. Most of the armed groups that have embraced the amnesty offer have already gone to the streets on a number of occasions to demonstrate their neglect in Rivers and Bayelsa States.

In Edo State, the leader of the armed group controlling the Safarogbo creek name Egbema I has also gone to the media to decry his neglect as the amnesty group has not met with all that was promised him. The truth is that these groups knowing the antics of government may not have surrendered all their arms because the federal government can never be true to the end of the Program.

It looks like the case of renunciation in the Nation's Universities between 1999 and 2001 which saw most confraternity students who were already short-listed for eradication embracing it. Those that had two guns submitted one and quickly went to form the Anti-Cult Crusade Organization of Nigeria (ACCON) to fight against those who refused to renounce their membership. Few years later, ACCON started acting like a cult oppressing only cults that were not ready to pay or meet up with their demands.

The affected cults came together and fought ACCON which led to eight (8) ACCON members killed in Ambrose Alli University on October 8th 2004 when an unknown cult group attacked the ACCON secretariat on campus. After this incident, these groups went back to their individual cults and returned our university campuses into a war front. All this was due to the lack of sincerity from the school authorities and the Student Union Government (SUG).

Again, these groups have been used by politicians especially the ruling PDP to win elections and the big political leaders who have joined them in the “blood oil” game. What happens come 2011; who will deliver these states and other states that the PDP wants to win? What happens to the top guns that have joined the “blood oil” business? When concerted efforts are not been made to bring corrupt leaders to book, how will the amnesty program work? The finger print is clear on the wall; all these issues ought to have been addressed before the amnesty program was to see the light of the day. By the time the estimated N50 billion has been exhausted, the militants will go back to their remaining weapons staging bigger attacks like it has always done in the past and using their share of the 50 billion to buy more weapons for use.

The issue of fundamentality most be looked into; why these people got involved with militancy in the first place. Until the fundamental issues, the core fundamental reason and principle are understood and addressed, there will be no way forward. The amnesty is a waste of time, energy and resources.

The militants will definitely go back to their arms within short time owing to the fact that the federal government have failed to convince them on the need to drop their weapons and channel their grievances through the democratic process. The leaders of these armed groups may remain calm because the federal government may meet their need but what about their boys. That will definitely be neglected. Elders like E.K Clark have missed the golden opportunity of helping the Niger Delta take responsibility for its own destiny.

Lastly, the federal government must develop other sectors of the economy to reduce the concentration on oil. If this is not done, the tradition that has been going on over the years of ownership and control will be a counter force to the success of the program. Change the land tenure system.

In conclusion, the federal government through the defence ministry and minster is only extending or postponing the evil day instead of curbing it permanently. The amnesty program is bound to fail except active steps are taken to go back and properly address the various problems that has over the years grew to become this militancy problem. The amnesty team should seek international advice and co-operation to foster development of this troubled area. The head quarter of the ministry of Niger delta should be located in one of these troubled states so they can have first hand information instead of staying in Abuja enjoying the N50 billon voted for the ministry and working with unverified information.

Until the government goes back to the drawing board to take a hard and unsentimental look and the fundamental underlying problems fueling the militancy, all efforts to achieve peace in the Niger delta region will remain at best, a luxurious desire.