Nigeria’s Niger Delta is organised politico-administratively into nine of current thirty six states of the federation. These states are Abia, Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross River, Delta, Edo, Imo, Ondo and Rivers.
The Niger Delta is reputed to be the third largest wetland in the world, which sustains a complex biodiversity, otherwise attractive to tourists, explorers-adventurers, traders, businessmen/women, academicians and a variety of researchers.
The area is characterised by ethnic pluralism as inhabited by Andoni, Bekwara, Bini, Efik, Egbema Ekoi, Ibibio, Igbo, Ijaw, Isoko, Itsekiri, Ogoni, Urhobo, and several others (see O. Otite 2000: Ethnic Pluralism, Ethnicity and Ethnic Conflicts in Nigeria). Naturally, there is the phenomenon of ethnic conflicts as different cultural interest groups engage in competition for access to limited resources and contested territorial claims. Many of such conflicts, especially involving the Ijaw, Itsekiri and Urhobo, occurred and were resolved or transformed through dialogue and Government intervention towards peaceful coexistence in Delta State before and during the 1990s.
The current conflict is more complex, a crisis involving local patriots and freedom fighters. It involves mainly the Ijaw of Delta, Bayelsa and Rivers States, and could ordinarily be analysed from their perspective of criminalisation of resistance to internal colonialism. The Niger Delta is rich in mineral-petroleum and gas. The Nigerian state formulated fiscal policies and laws such as the Petroleum Act, which gives the Federal Government the exclusive ownership of oil resources in Nigeria; the Land Use Act which vests the ownership of Lands on State Governments; The exclusive Economic Zone Act by which the federal Government has exclusive right over all resources within 200 nautical miles from the coast to the sea, thus the dichotomy between on-shore and off-shore oil, etc. These laws and their operation are perceived by the ethnic group owners of their territories to be oppressive, derivational, and alienating. These views and experiences form the basis of agitation for demand for resource ownership and control by the peoples of the Niger Delta.
With millions of barrels of oil harvested per day, and an over 90% income to Nigeria, the Niger Delta provides economic strength to sustain the country. Yet, Niger Deltans feel infuriated when their environment remains undeveloped, with few or no infrastructure in health, schools, transportation, industries, Federal and State Government presence, etc. They feel angered, realising that the resources from their own territory are being used to develop the Federal Capital Territory and places outside their territory, to finance bureaucracies and personalised-individualised conspicuous consumption, and official and non official corruption.
Apparently realizing the strength of this argument, the Federal Government set up the Oil Minerals Production and Dev. Commission (OMPADEC), the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), and recently the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs with indigenes as the Minister and Minister of State, in addition to the appointment of Nigeria’s Vice President, an Ijaw from the region. These were regarded as mere palliatives and inspite of them, the crisis has continued.
Criminalization of the Niger Delta
The otherwise rightful agitation for an equitable deal from the Federal Government has been criminalised. The hijacking of this demand for financial and development inputs into the woefully neglected territory, was brought about by offenders who engage in illegal oil bunkering, fire arms business, kidnapping and hostage taking, piracy and armed robbery. These criminal diversions involve both militants and foreigners. The militants are mainly those unemployed youths disengaged by political elite, who had used them as political thugs and general supporters at the 1999, 2003 and 2007 moments of elections to high offices at the three levels of government-the Local Council, the State, and the Federal Governments. Not having any thing else to do as products of a failed State, in a drab socio-economic environment, they fall as easy recruits to engage in local defence fights. Some of their leaders or sub-leaders are moderately educated, often in a negative sense, and are able to communicate in good English through the mobile phones, e-mails and the internet. It is from this category of militants that some get involved in the kidnapping of innocent oil workers, mainly expatriate/foreign staff and also top Nigerian Petroleum experts. The militant-kidnapers have a full mastery of the geography of the creeks and other parts, as well as the communication and transportation systems of the Niger Delta. Those kidnapped, Nigerian and especially foreigners report good and humane treatment while in captivity in the fiercely protected hidden camps in the creeks. The kidnapping phenomenon has degenerated lately to involve innocent school children of any age, housewives, kinsmen and parents of politicians and parliamentarians from their residences or on their way to and from school and church services. The release of those kidnapped occurs with or without the payment of ransom money. In rare cases those kidnapped were killed whether or not fixed ransom money was demanded and paid. Kidnapping has now spread to other parts of Nigeria. Kidnappers have patrons and sponsors. Yet we should separate crime from rightful agitation for development in the region.
Another group of criminals consists of the economic elite, both local and foreign, who specialize in the technology of oil pipe breaking, halting of ships or badges loaded with crude or already refined petroleum oil, especially petrol and diesel, and siphon the products or hijack the loaded vessel from or to the high seas, take possession of the content, reload it into other vessels for sale in or outside Nigeria. Fire arms are often used in the process.
The third main category of criminals are those who indulge in and promote the importation, or local manufacture, of fire arms. Militants and illegal “bunkerers” demand and rely on firearms for their operation. It is a booming criminal trade and it connects foreign arms dealers in this criminal business. The importation of arms into Nigeria involves the promotion of corruption of Nigerians by foreigners.
It is also important to note the fourth category of enthroners of criminalisation at least from the point of view of critical analysts of events in the crisis. A newspaper writer puts it this way: “What is going on in the Niger Delta is an official act of criminality receiving the blessing of the President, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces” This statement refers to the activities of the Nigerian Military Intervention through the Joint Task Force combining the Army (JTF), the Airforce and the Navy. Critics feel that this Federal Government approach is an irony: The money used to maintain the military is sourced mainly from the nation’s petroleum wealth derived from the Niger Delta.
There are therefore two main schools of thought. The first opposes the military option in settling the crisis. The military may or may not win the war, but they will surely not win the people’s hearts. Hence the Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC) from South Western Nigeria opposes the use of the federal military might against a small though economically most important part of the country. The OPC condemns this approach as a lawless violation of the people’s rights. In a statement signed by its leader, Gani Adams, OPC urges the National Assembly to prevail on the president, Umaru Musa Yar’ Adua, to withdraw Federal troops from the Niger Delta. Similarly the Urhobo Social Club (USC) feels strongly that “The Niger Delta problem can not be solved by force. It can only be solved by ensuring justice and equity to the people”. Several groups in the Southern part of Nigeria support this viewpoint.
On the other hand, the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), a Northern Nigeria youth wing, supports the military action and its continuation following a meeting of its National Working Committee. It declared that no responsible Government can fold its arms and watch a few misguided elements to hold the nation to ransom. This viewpoint was expressed too by a lawless lawmaker in the National Assembly when he uttered an unprintable statement supporting the military to possibly wipe out twenty million people, the so called militants and others in the Niger Delta, in order to allow the rest of the 120 million Nigerian population to coexist peacefully. Although this statement was later withdrawn, it nevertheless reveals the inner mind of a category of national politicians in support of the concept of internal colonialism in Nigeria.
The Ijaw who are fighting for the emancipation of the Niger Delta are organized in several groups which include Ijaw Peoples Assembly (IPA) led by Mr. Asu Beks; The Niger Delta People Volunteer Force (NDPVF) cum People Solution Force (PSF) led by Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari; The Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC) led by Chief Bello Oboko; Movement for Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) etc with Chief Government Ekpemupolo alias Tompolo as leader of camp 5, alleged to be the centre of kidnapping, hostage taking and killing of JTF soldiers. Other Ijaw militant leaders include Kingsley Opuye and Ken Niiweigha. The crisis, the militancy and JTF reactions are taking place in the creeks, and not in Warri urban area which is about two hours speed-engine boat drive or about 100 kilo metres away.
Consequences of the Crisis
The crisis and its handling has several consequences, mainly currently negative. The hardest hit area is Gbaramutu Kingdom where the expansive costly new king’s palace was destroyed. The king (Pere), His Royal Highness Ogeh Gbaran II, and his subjects, household and dependants, have been disorganised. Other Ijaw Communities involved from May 15 to 21 2009 include Oporoza, Okerenkoko, Ogborode near the Chevron Tank Farm in the Escravos, etc; Kunukunuma, Benikrukru, as well as suspected militants hide outs in Abonnema, Buguma, Bukuma and Olabrukenpre, a suburb of Benikrukru in a dawn raid in Rivers State.
The JTF entered the area with force, making major waterways unsafe to pass, disrupting traditional occupations of fishing and farming, and blocking free movement, trade, and commercial activities between communities. Those trapped in the process ran for safety into the bushes and swamps, including both indigenes and non indigenes and serving members of the National Youth Service Corps. Some waded into the deep mud-swamps until rescued, while others got lost in the forests until they reached some settlements of kind-hearted Ijaw people. Youthful people escaped relatively easily while the children, the aged and the infirm people were left behind, abandoned. Dr. Oboko Bello, an Ijo youth leader, condemned this situation as “ a wrong application of Nigeria’s military might on her own citizen”.
Three main sources of authority have thus emerged in the crisis situation. The first is the subsisting authority of the militants and their leaders with their chain of command though now waning. The second is the authority of the Joint Task Force acting on behalf of the Federal Government, now firmly gaining grounds. The third is the authority of the State Governors who are still the constitutional security officers of the states. In the case of the Delta State, where the war is raging in Gbaramatu and its environs, the Governor, His Excellence, Dr. Emmanuel Ududaghan, is apparently baffled that the crisis and its handling from outside the state, has adverse effects on his ongoing three-point programme of human capital development, infrastructural provisions and security of life and property.
The JTF, under the overall commander, Major General Sarkin Yarkin-Bello, is concerned with routing the militants, in a cordon and search operation. Other human sufferings or dislocations are incidental. They are now combing the Delta State for militant hideouts and have moved to Bayelsa state where people are feeding from Odi town once destroyed by the Army, while citizens of Agge town in Ekeremor Local Government Area have given suspected militants two weeks to relocate from their territory. The JTF has been encouraged by a part of public opinion in support of military tactics to move on to Rivers State in continuation of the task of capturing and flushing out militants from the Niger Delta.
Meanwhile many hostages especially oil workers, consisting of Filipinos, Ukranians and Nigerians have regained their freedom through the activities of the JTF. Large quantities of arm and ammunition, software, documents, military hardware, etc were also found especially in camp 5.
The current crisis grew from an unresolved legitimate struggle and demand for an equitable development of the Niger Delta, the main current source of Nigeria’s wealth. The ongoing problem has been inherited from past Government regimes. It requires a political solution, a firm committed political will. And when the Federal Government established the OMPADEC and the NDDC, and these were bugged down with corruption and political inaction and general mistrust, the youths could not be carried along in the utter absence of infrastructure, roads, hospitals, bridges, industrialization, etc.
It is generally argued that Nigeria, as a failed state, turned the local agitators and freedom fighters into criminals of sorts. Several notable people have pleaded for cease fire and peace on both sides. Such eminent persons include Chief Anthony Enahoro, Chief E.K Clark, leader of the Ijaw people, Nobel Laureate Prof. Wole Soyinka, the United States Senate Foreign Relation Committee Chairman, Russ Feingold, the Prime Minister of France, Mr. Francois Fillon, on his visit to the Region, as well as religious leaders and civil societies.
However, with the establishment of a Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, manned by indigenes of the area, it is expected that visible changes will occur in matters of youth employment, industrialization and the provision of amenities. The region and its governors and people are challenged by the new Ministry. This does not require a wasteful military solution. It represents the lasting solution in the long run.
In the interim, while some people have gone spiritual by fasting and praying, humanitarian activities have been occurring in the Niger Delta. The Delta State Government has been sending relief materials including food, clothing, drugs and other medical items. Similarly, the Nigerian Red Cross and the National Emergency Relief Agency (NEMA) under its director general, AVM Mohammed Audu-Bida, have sent wooden boat-loads of relief materials under military escort by JTF from Ogbe-Ijoh, headquarters of Warri South west Local Government Area of Delta State to reach victims of the crisis stranded or abandoned in their communities, deep forests and swampy areas. Men, women and children who relocated to the L.G.A headquarters of Ogbe-Ijoh near Warri are catered for in the headquarters. Rice, beans, garri, salt, mattresses, wax materials, children’s wears, toilet materials, etc were sent by Governments, NGOs, religious bodies, including the Catholic Church, individuals and civil societies. The Delta State Oil Producing Areas Development Commission (DESOPADEC) is also participating in this complex relief task.
In view of the above issues, militants should be positive, and not sceptical, and are enjoined to lay down their arms and embrace the Federal Government amnesty. The present crisis cannot be resolved by the criminalised local patriotism of militants and the military reactions of the Joint Task Force on behalf of the Federal Government.
The question however remains: how can we successfully use dialogue to get the militants to surrender their arms and stop the induced criminal tendencies without the activities of the military?