WHO REALLY BETRAYED THE NIGER DELTA CAUSE?
Since the results of the Presidential election were announced with the emergence of the General Muhammadu Buhari, many people have voiced one form of concern or another. In particular, the results took many people by surprise, especially in the South South and South East. Although many of them knew that the incumbent President was unpopular, they were expecting that some last minute rigging and manipulative magic could happen that would turn the tide in favour of the ruling party. For me, I knew it long ago that such a thing would be difficult to pull off. Many of us had publicly supported the need for Nigerians to experience a change in government this time around, and told anyone who cared to listen that the re-election of President Jonathan was mathematically impossible. As someone from the Niger Delta region (whether you say oil producing state or NDDC state), I was called all sorts of names including unpatriotic, betrayer, sell-out, traitor and others. Even some of the prominent leaders who promoted other political parties were described the same way. I remained and still remain unmoved. However, as I have done in the past, I am once again forced to ask – what, exactly, is the true Niger Delta cause? How did we contribute to betray it?
I cannot claim to be an authority on the underlying problems in the region. However, anyone who attempts to reduce the Niger Delta struggle or cause (whatever that means) to the Jonathan presidency is at best being simplistic and at worst being unfair to the people of the region. With a flashback, I remember the early days of the agitation for resource control which initially crystalized into the symbolic Ogoni Bill of Rights sometime in 1990, and the centrality of environmental concerns to the people of our region in that document. One will not forget the sacrificial role of many persons, including the late Ogoni political activist Ken Saro Wiwa, who brought international attention to the issues at that time.
Then almost eight years later in 1998, representatives of communities of Ijaw extraction met, re-echoed and amplified the same issues of neglect, environmental devastation and resource control raised earlier and agreed to the Kaiama Declaration. The Declaration called for increased infrastructural attention to the people and ecological rehabilitation of the region. Those were the two issues uppermost on the agenda at that time. In between these years, many of leaders were actively involved and made important contributions to keep the issue on the front burner, both locally and internationally. Others paid with their lives in many peaceful protests and non-violent struggles against the military and the high-handedness of multinational corporations.
Put together, the period of the Ogoni Bill of Rights and the Kaiama Declaration still represents the most intellectual and non-violent phase of the struggle. This was before the 'struggle' was hijacked by miscreants, criminals and conflict entrepreneurs in the name of armed struggle and militancy. Given the descent into nearly absolute anarchy, which grossly affected, in the negative, on the economies of the various producing states witnessed under this era, it remains debatable whether this phase of the struggle was really worth the while. Many observers agree that this era of the struggle, despite its “nuisance value” of further escalating the message about the plight of the Niger delta people, remains the darkest days of the struggle. This era is characterised by increased oil theft, rape and kidnapping-for-ransom (in many cases of the same Niger delta people whose interests the militants claim to be protecting or furthering), and by disruption of oil installation and production.
One must admit that the Obasanjo administration gave some attention to the people of the region by establishing the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC). Subsequently, the late Yar Adua extended an amnesty to the militants, which led to the cessation of the escalating conflict and hostilities.
What about our own son? With the emergence of Dr Goodluck Ebele Jonathan. First as Vice President and later as President, the Niger Delta people heaved a sigh of relief. While the outgoing President could be said to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the struggle, he could not do much. Many people who took it for granted that the issues of the region would be given priority attention under him, are now completely disappointed. After almost six years of the Jonathan Presidency, the same issues contained in the Ogoni Bill of Rights and the Kaiama Declaration still persist. During his campaigns a few weeks ago, he claimed that he deliberately did not give attention to the region until he is re-elected. Is that a sufficient explanation for the neglect? Now that he has lost the election, what are the options open to the Niger Delta people?
As I write, the most important road in the region, the East-West Road is yet to be completed. The coastal road project is still a pipe dream. No concrete effort has been made to clean up the heavily polluted communities in Ogoniland or elsewhere in the Niger Delta. Even with the effort of the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), which published a comprehensive report with clear recommendations. The proposed clean-up program mas marred by selfish politics, and the US$1 billion counterpart fund reportedly provided by Shell and other partners has not been utilized. The reluctant establishment of the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project (HYPREP) was staffed with incompetent people and starved of operational funds. The consequence is that no clean-up activity has taken place to date. Not in Ogoniland and not anywhere else.
It is sad to recall that there were sons and daughters of the Niger Delta like Chief Edwin Clarke, Mr Kingsley Kuku and even Ken Wiwa Jnr that became cheerleaders for the President, but hardly pointed him in the right direction. I remember that Governor Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State once raised alarm about the danger in continuous neglect of the East-West road. He was later confronted by the then Minister of the Niger Delta, Elder Godsday Orubebe who quickly branded the governor a betrayer of the Niger Delta cause. Now, which cause was Orubebe referring to? The one that has brought public resources into the pockets of the few to the detriment of many?
Now that the Jonathan administration is coming to an end, it is safe for observers try to find out who are the real betrayers of the Niger Delta struggle. Is it President Jonathan, the chief beneficiary of the struggle, who neglected the region for almost six years? Or is it people like Edwin Clark, Godsday Orubebe, and Government Ekpumepulo aka Tompolo, Ateke Tom, Asari Dokubo, Ann Kio Briggs, and others, that benefitted from the neglect? Or is it Mrs Patience Jonathan who made NDDC a personal farmland (or is it fishing port or Bori-Kiri) rather than an interventionist agency operating in the general interest of the people in line with its mandate? Or Governor Godswill Akpabio who knew where the President was headed yet kept cheering him? Or others like Governor Amaechi and Senator Magnus Abe who kept raising concerns about the issues of non-development of the Niger Delta and warned about the unpleasant consequences? Or is it a few of us citizens that believe in change and managed to vote for General Buhari and his All Progressives Congress amidst intimidation?
Having lost the Presidency from the region, we know that our problems may likely persist, because we no longer have the morality to complain about marginalisation and neglect to other Nigerians. Everyone assumed that President Jonathan had all the time in the world to attend to our teething problems, but he refused, failed, and/or neglected to do so, preferring instead to pursue and advance his personal ambitions.
Many argue that if the outgoing president had spent half the energy and zeal that he exerted in the pursuit of his re-election bid in the pursuit of the Niger Delta cause, the Niger Delta would have been an El Dorado. Here we are with gaseous and often carcinogenic hydrocarbons still being flared all over the region, with the Petroleum Industry Bill still pending, our ecosystem still heavily polluted, and our people inexplicably impoverished.
So back to the question – who are the real betrayers of the Niger Delta people? We must take an excursion into history and set the records straight for our children and the coming generations. We must answer that question for the sake of posterity. In so doing, we must be truthful to ourselves. We have been, thus far, untruthful and hypocritical to ourselves. We elevated sycophancy to the next level and, in the process, missed yet another opportunity to move our region forward. It will be self-destructive to turn around now to continue to blame others for our misfortunes, for the heavens help only those who help themselves.
***Uche Igwe wrote from the Department of Politics at the University of Sussex.