Long before the formation of the most ferocious non-state group to ever traverse the Nigerian landscape, I had penned a series of essays warning of dire consequences: unless measurable and significant actions are taken to ameliorate the sickening socio-economic and political conditions that were pervasive in the Niger Delta, inter and intra ethnic conflicts, kidnappings, assassinations, secessionist movements, and the burning of oil fields was going to be commonplace.
I warned that the equivalent retaliation and the low intensity conflict that would follow would not just be of local concern; it was going to have international implications. Hence my advice was that the Nigerian government should treat the nascent conflict as a national and international security concern. Seven or so years after the first group of essays were published, MEND — Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta — along with the Nigerian government, are about to cross the Rubicon.
There are several indisputable facts about the Niger Delta. We know for instance that the region cemented its place in both pre-colonial and post-colonial Nigeria. In prior centuries the region was the center of commerce — renown for its trade in ivory, palm oil, and other natural resources. The region also gained fame for its involvement in the Atlantic slave trade.
The Niger Delta, within the aforementioned period, was also a hub of political intrigues and political activism. Rulers who opposed the shenanigan and the inhumane behavior of European powers were dethroned, killed, or sent abroad to die. Indeed, European powers made sure that the region was “thoroughly destabilized” by engaging in and introducing ethnic politics, malevolent survival strategies, and divide-and-rule politics. Such iniquitous acts were undertaken, principally, to puppetize, pauperize and weaken the majority population of the region, to allow the hegemons free and uncontested reign.
In the intervening years, successive Nigerian governments, military and/or civilian, have continued such practices. In this regard, we know the followings to be true: First, for more than forty-five years, there has been a deliberate policy to encourage divisive and hostile behavior amongst the ethnic nationalities of the Niger Delta. It is why, for instance, the Ijaw, the Urhobo, the Itsekiri and others finds it difficult to cooperate and coexist as neighbors even after hundreds of years as natural neighbors.
Second, we find that the Nigerian government has deliberately engaged in policies that encouraged restiveness, indolence, and illiteracy within the region — especially amongst the Ijaw (the major ethnic group in the region). The less educated, less enlightened, less curious and the most corruptible were promoted to position of leadership. This tactic was necessary in order to curtail the group from being in control of its destiny. This also accounts for why most previous challenges and demands for equity and other political goods and services were feeble, fleeting and unsustainable.
What is more, we see that for more than forty-five years, the government has encouraged policies that degrades the region’s ecology and causes social imbalances, and encourages cultural ills. What we have in the Niger Delta, more so within Ijawland, are policies that systematically obliterated the spirit and the fibers of a community — a community successive Nigerian government deems too ambitious and uncontrollable.
Taken in totality therefore, it is, and has always been in the interest of the Nigerian government to see that the region is continually in a state of anarchy and degradation. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find an oil-producing community in Africa that is as fetid and underdeveloped as the Niger Delta (even though the Delta is the seventh or eighth largest oil producing region in the world). How then could a people this rich suffer so much underdevelopment, exclusion and paucity?
There are several justice-seeking groups in the region, twenty seven or so. However, MEND is the most prominent. As with most militant groups, social movements, insurgent groups or any other non-state groups, sooner or later, their ranks is bound to be infested by a few criminal elements. Even religious groups have infidels whose main purpose is to use the pious for their impious deeds. And so it is that a legitimate struggle for justice is now seen as a criminal enterprise. It is a grave error, on the part of the government, to think of the Niger Delta struggle as wholly a criminal enterprise.
On Monday June 15, 2009, speaking at a public event organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS, Washington D.C.), the Nigerian Foreign Affairs Minister, Chief Ojo Maduekwe, advised his listeners not to be “overly concerned” by the crisis; and that the recent bombings were mere “police action that will be concluded in the next few weeks.” The loss of innocent lives, destruction of properties, and the maiming of women and children, were, in his words, “expected and acceptable collateral damages.”
On the same table was Chief Ufot Ekaette, the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs. They both asserted that Nigeria is not at war. Well then, what sane country drops awe-inspiring bombs on a segment of its people? Why use helicopters, warships and gunboats if this was a police action? In sane and democratic countries, governments arrest and prosecute those who commit offences. They don’t drop bomb! The fact is that Nigeria is at war with a segment of its people.
If the Nigerian government wants to engage in self-deceiving war of words, it has the right to do so. But she does so at its own peril. It cannot afford to continue the game it has been playing for more than half a century. Recent escalations on the part of the government will not go unanswered. No government has a monopoly of force and savagery.
No amount of military brutality can solve a problem that otherwise calls for political settlement. That MEND and its proxies has not taken down government infrastructures in Abuja, or violated the nation’s airspace, or even abridged the security and convenience of the president and his key apparatchiks is due largely to the moderate and calming voices within the movement. And so here are seven reasons why the Nigerian government must pay attention, muster the political will and commit financially to the root cause of the crisis.
First, the relationship between domestic and international phenomenon have been proven. For instance, grave environmental problems in the region will sooner or later affect communities far and wide. In addition, poverty and hopelessness makes terrorism an attractive option (as terrorism becomes the weapon of the weak). Furthermore, the effect of social ills that are rampant in the region — as a result of the continued exploitation and underdevelopment — will as soon take hold in other parts of the country.
Second, the Niger Delta houses some of the most sophisticated weaponry in the country. How they find their way into the region is beyond the scope of this piece. Nevertheless, consider this possibility: the availability of shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles or other anti-aircraft and anti-ship weapons; or even the introduction of improvised explosive device (IED) to the conflict. Once these types of weapons find their ways into the region, all bets will be off, the dynamics changes.
Third, there are many calm and moderating voices within the region. However, the longer this crisis — especially in the face of continued underdevelopment and continued military assaults, the more difficult it will be for such voices. Violence, terrorism and even outright secession may become the only option left on the table. Lessons learnt during the Biafra Era remain fresh in the minds of some people. The 1967/70 mistakes will not be repeated.
Fourth, the Nigerian government losses mil
lions of dollars every month to the violence; and in fact, this runs into billions of dollars every year as a result of stolen and shut-in activities. In 2003 alone, the government lost an estimated $7 billion; by 2008, the amount had risen to almost $34 billion. And then there is the cost to the multinational oil producing companies. When the human cost to the government and the companies are added, the real cost becomes almost incalculable.
To be continued…