Boma George: Niger Delta fragile, says Group * As Militants back Sylva for Re-election * Amaechi's Social Service Levy receives praise


CIVIL society group, Stakeholder Democracy Network (SDN) says the Niger Delta, Nigeria's honey comb, is still a region of potential violent conflict in spite of the prevailing relative peace.

Spokesperson for the group, Inemo Semiama, told AkanimoReports on Friday that the recent murder of Soboma George, an influential militia leader in the Rivers Stae axis of the volatile oil and gas region, is a potential conflict trigger.

Soboma George, was killed on August 24, 2010 by gunmen who approached him in southern Port Harcourt, the Rivers state capital city.

The late militia leader controlled one of the five largest groupings of armed youths in the region and was implicated in particularly vicious clashes in 2007 in Port Harcourt.

The Nigeria Police, Rivers state Command, has named three suspects in his killing. But the SDN says this has done little to reduce speculation and a widespread fear of reprisals.

According to them, ''the amnesty has reduced tensions in the region, but this one incident provided a graphic demonstration of its fragility. Whether sponsored or an act of gang reprisal, the killing of Soboma has been interpreted as clear reminder that the mix of political and militant violence in the region has only been temporarily suppressed. This should serve as a further warning to the potential realities of the 2011 election process''.

Arguing, they said, ''if the Federal Government 'post amnesty' programme is not improved then it leaves open a high risk that militia youth will be recruited into the least stable elections in the region. These used and dumped youths form the core of post election breakdowns that have worsened with each election cycle since 2003.

''President Goodluck Johnathan put the Niger Delta at the heart of interventions he has promised Nigeria and the international community for his current short term. With UN General sessions due this month the international community is ideally placed to make it clear that he must work harder on his home region if these pledges are to be seen as credible''.

In Bayelsa State, the home state of Jonathan, SDN is claiming that some militants have endorsed Governor Timipre Sylva for a second term.

Their words: ''In a state where it is hard to find many fans of the ruling governor, it was hardly surprising to see him endorsed by 'former' militants in the state. Television interviews in the middle of the month with militant leaders brought ringing endorsements for him serving another term. State Governors - especially Sylva - have made little effort to hide the fact that they make monthly payments to militant leaders in addition to those already covered under the amnesty.

''The payments and the close association of militants and government in Akwa Ibom and Bayelsa state has underlined fears that governors are willing to resort to a core constituency of force to muscle their way through elections.

''Payments by state governors to leaders of armed groups are usually made from 'security votes' controlled exclusively by the Governor that run into billions of naira (typically in excess of $30m per state per year) that are entirely closed from public view.

''In the latest development this week the state governor has inaugurated a new state backed vigilante group called 'Famotangbei' (translation: 'hit and throw away'). Vigilante groups have a dubious reputation in Nigeria for obvious reasons and there are already fears that this group will be used to intimidate and harass opponents of the governor. The formation of this group is regarded by human rights groups in the state and the Niger Delta as a serious retrograde step, that could easily cause further instability.

''If the Federal Government is serious about ending violence in the Niger Delta it must take concrete steps to ensure that the opportunities to fund political violence through dubious channels are swiftly and uniformly ended.

''Members of the international community who wish to work with the "least worst" of the administrations in the region cannot look away from this issue in the hope that it will somehow abate spontaneously. The message must be simple - the funding of political violence will lead to consequences at every possible level for its sponsors''.

On Rivers state, the group said in the last few weeks the Chibuike Amaechi administration took what they described as ''a welcome public interest'' in the cost of reasonable quality health and education services in the state.

According to the SDN, ''in Rivers, as in many other states, there has been considerable construction of schools, clinics, and other structures, but little sign of the adequately trained and resourced staff to fill them.

''The previous week a proposal from the state government emerged to pay for improved services with a levy (for legal reasons it can't be labeled as a tax) amid some immediate controversy over the existing spending of the state. There was little or no public information available on the rate of this levy or its specific goals but on Friday the bill was passed and immediately signed into law by the state governor.

''Checks by our organisation have established that copies of the new law will be available 'soon', and there will be levies on both corporations and individuals while the proposed rates were trimmed by the state House of Assembly.

''The recognition in Rivers that taxation and real services are at the heart of governance represents the road ahead for the Niger Delta. However, the process leaves a lot to be desired and the amount of information publicly available about the new law (let alone debate before it passed) is deplorable.

''Local media have to share responsibility - in several articles last week not once was there a mention of the rate of the levy, who will pay, or specifically what services will be provided. Even if the state government was being reticent, there was no sign of their critical role in raising obvious questions.

''What the state government must do next is recognize that taxes will not be supported without genuine accountability and a level of public debate that generates a new-found participation in governance. The state government has talked of being open to criticism and debate, but now it must show it is able to tolerate a much more active discussion of public policy. This would doubtless be helped by robust engagement from civil society, federal agencies and the international community''.