An Open Letter to my Ijaw Kinsmen and Women

Brothers and sisters, yes, some of these groups did make some kind of transition from their unenviable past to the status of armed activists, but that transition was never complete, as groups who claim to be freedom fighters fighting for the people also go into easy alignments with groups who murder, rape and engage in acts of armed robbery to fight the Joint Task Force whenever they think it is in their interest to do so. This easy co-habitation between groups who claim a higher purpose in their armed insurrection and groups who terrorize our communities has meant that our communities have been the losers. Brothers and sisters, I do not need to suffer the rape of a blood sister to feel the pain of an Ijaw girl who has been raped by members of an armed group. Neither do I need to get the report that a cousin harmlessly going about his business has been felled by the bullet of an armed group before I feel the crushing pain of an Ijaw family who has lost their son to the bullet of one of the armed groups. I am truly sick and tired of the meaningless jargon of those who see these realities and seek to white-wash them or be cavalier with the facts. The amnesty is, therefore, not one to be rejected; it is one to be embraced. Our communities have seen enough bloodletting.

Moreover, brothers and sisters, as I have noted earlier, we stand at a pivotal moment in history, a point where the highly developed economies have intensified research to make oil, the main revenue source of our country, irrelevant. We cannot wait until that day comes. We must be prepared. It is, therefore, imperative that we quickly put our house in order. We need to come together from the village level to determine rules of acceptable behavior in our communities and ways to use the laws of the land to sanction those who harm us or choose to live as laws unto themselves. We cannot wait for tomorrow to resolve these problems, because time is of the essence. We must resolve these problems as quickly as possible, so that peace and a conducive atmosphere for development can return to our communities. It is not enough to issue proclamations that the JTF leave our communities. Where, as in the cases of the villages and towns of Gbaramatu Kingdom, the JTF attacks and kills non-combatants, we should use the proper channels to make sure that the offending officers are brought to book. We must no longer, whether as Ijaw or non-Ijaw, accept the notion that the Nigerian military is a mad dog that has the license to operate any way it chooses in its interaction with civil society.

On the other hand, the call for the JTF to leave communities where they have in the main acted in a professional manner and chased out armed groups and restored law and order is a very reckless, and even unconscionable, one. I ask those who are making these calls, if the JTF leaves these communities and armed groups return to terrorize them, robbing, raping, and killing, will they stop those groups? I ask without intending to be offensive, how many of us were courageous enough to enter these communities to protest their activities when they were terrorizing our own people? The fact that we have not been victims of the groups that have sown blood and destruction in our communities should not make us be too quick to speak without taking cognizance of the way our suggestions will affect members of our communities. Brothers and sisters, we must put our house in order, and we should do it really fast.

The present conflict can be resolved to be a win-win situation for us, the central government, and the oil companies. Since the Technical Committee on the Niger Delta has already come up with a very comprehensive set of recommendations to deal with the problems of the region, I will limit myself to proffering remedies for the immediate problem. A committee, preferably a mixture of local and international statesmen and women from Nigeria, the United States and Britain, should meet with the government to come up with the outlines for a ceasefire, the taking up of the amnesty, the dismantling of militant camps, the integration of militants into society, the setting up of firm dates for the implementation of the recommendations of the report of the Technical Committee on the Niger Delta, the stoppage of gas flares, and the containment of reckless oil spills, including the replacement of rusty and dilapidated pipes. To ensure that our communities enjoy the full benefits of these measures, we as a people should seize the opportunity to do a thoroughgoing examination of intra-village, intra-clan, and inter-ethnic disputes, with particular regard to the resolution of still-festering conflicts revolving around rent collection and chieftaincy/kingship disputes. Fortunately, for those of us in Rivers State, the Kayode Esho Truth and Reconciliation Commission has already identified the problems. The committee working with the IYC and the INC should coordinate efforts to resolve the problems very quickly. The problem of guns for hire during elections should also be discussed very frankly, and we should be able to consign this obnoxious practice to the trash can of history. It has instigated too much bloodletting in our communities, and we could show the rest of the nation the way to conduct peaceful and free and fair elections by resolving to say: “Never again!”

Regarding communal relationship with the oil companies, the current practice whereby warlords are employed to provide security for oil pipelines and flow stations should be discontinued and replaced with genuine grassroots efforts. In other words, communal provision of security for oil pipelines and flow stations should be truly communal. It should be directed by elected representatives of the people, local government councils. This, in fact, is their job anyway.

Regarding youth participation in oil bunkering, as we know brothers and sisters, there is legitimate oil bunkering and there is illegitimate oil bunkering. Legitimate oil bunkering involves the licensing of third parties by the government to sell crude oil that is already accounted for on the international market. The government gets its revenue even as it financially empowers local entrepreneurs. This has been a sticky point with many in the Niger Delta, for they complain that the central government shuts out indigenes of the region from legitimate oil bunkering, as it gives such bunkering licenses to mostly those outside of the region. Therefore, aggrieved parties, particularly armed youth who have learnt the ropes of the trade, engage in illegally siphoning crude from pipelines to sell on the crude oil black market. This is what is known as illegitimate oil bunkering. The aggrieved youth insist that as indigenes of the region that have been shut out of this lucrative sector, they have a right to force themselves into the sector, and that they are doing no wrong by doing so. By the way, the armed groups only came into an already thriving illegal oil bunkering business sector. It is therefore a no-brainer to suggest that the government can shut down the illegal oil bunkering sector by expanding the legal oil bunkering sector to include the indigenes of the region, particularly the youth, and forge partnerships with them and with local and state governments to shut down the illegal oil bunkering sector, which costs the nation billions of dollars in revenue every year. It will be a win-win situation for the central government, for the oil companies, and for the indigenes of the region.

This will even be more of a win-win situation if the central government seizes the opportunity to solve the problem of scarcity of petroleum products in the riverine areas of the region by licensing the establishment of small-scale refineries in locations that are close to major oilfields and align such refineries with mobile petroleum stations, owned by private entrepreneurs, that will take petroleum products to even the remotest of islands. If petroleum stations are set up in these islands to cater to the energy needs of the islanders,

the floating stations can take products to the island stations perhaps once every week or once every two weeks, depending on demand and the capacity of the stations on the islands.

Brothers and sisters, one of the things to which the insurgency has opened our eyes is the presence of fairly large islands that could be developed as fishing hubs, tourist sites, and even getaway islands to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue every year. We need to take account of these islands and work with the three tiers of government and entrepreneurs to quickly come up with strategies to put these islands and perhaps other islands to such uses. An island could, for example, be developed as a place for getaway homes, with a mini-golf course, palm-tree laden streets, shopping centers, movie theaters, fishing and sailing opportunities, and so forth. It will provide a place for rest and recreation for not only those in the region, but also for those outside the region, including those in the diaspora who would be enticed by such places to visit home more often, as they come to realize that a vacation in such places is as good as a vacation in the Bahamas. As commercial activities grow in these areas, they will increasingly suck people away from the slums of the cities.

Brothers and sisters, at such moments it is easy to be beguiled by secessionist ideas, the idea that there is some kind of pure Ijawness that will fully unfold itself outside of the bounds of a multi-ethnic Nigeria. Let us carefully examine this idea. Do we really believe that our internal squabbles in our different villages, towns, and clans, and between village and village, town and town, and clan and clan will magically disappear when there is an Ijaw nation-state? Do we not see the possibility of the emergence of new stories of origin and of other contending interests to lead to further breakups of that nation-state? Will the elite of powerful clans not attempt to carve out their own mini-states from such a nation-state? Will armed groups whether qualified or unqualified to lead not assert their authority over the rest of us by the force of arms, and will aggrieved groups not call their bluff and stick it to them, and will we as a result not witness what has happened in some of our villages and towns? Have we asked those who are itching to secede from the Nigerian state what their plans are for the development of our people? Have they answered the sticky question of what they will do when the Nigerian state declares war on us? Talk, as the saying goes, is cheap. And in this instance, it is indeed very cheap. Have these persons thought of the devastating consequences of such a war, or are they living in some kind of fantasy world where all that we need to do to secede is to simply say so and walk away, and the Nigerian nation-state will fold its arms and do nothing?

Furthermore, how do these peddlers of secession position the Ijaw with regard to the plight of the black person not only in Nigeria, but on the African continent? If they are only about what we could do with the oil in our backyard, should we not be suspicious of their claims of altruism? Does it take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you give all of the oil revenue generated in Ijaw land to the Ijaw, that the Ijaw, if their governing elite do not become even more licentious in their thieving ways, will pump in enough funds into our developmental efforts for us to achieve a measure of success in uplifting our material condition? But as we can see from my discussion above, we do not need to secede to develop ourselves to our fullest potential. In fact, our very presence in Nigeria may be saving us from very vicious intra-ethnic oil wars, fueled by gun-toting militias, who in an Ijaw nation-state would invoke the names of their villages, or towns, or clans instead of the ethnic group to pursue their private agendas. We have seen them in operation, and I have no cause to believe that they will not do even worse when they see that all that stands between them and fantastic oil wealth is other militia groups. I strongly suspect that it will be a deadly fight to the finish on the grounds of winner-take-all, as we saw in Sierra Leone and Liberia. I see absolutely nothing of value in the calls for secession. I see such calls as instances of a Don Quixote chasing windmills thinking that he is chasing hulking giants.

Finally, brothers and sisters, the most urgent matter facing us today is to sort out what has happened in the villages and towns of Gbaramatu. How many people were killed? How many people were injured? How many people lost their homes? How do we obtain remedies for these people? These are also questions that the committee I have mentioned above should address with the central government. Again, we should use this opportunity to do a thorough self-examination, and come up with solutions to end the scourge of the endless spilling of our blood in our communities. We must make our communities safe and create the environment for rapid development. Time is of the essence.

God bless you all.

With deep affection and very warm regards,

Dokubo

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