The Niger-Delta Can Help Heal Itself

by Michael Oluwagbemi II

Home is the Niger Delta. I was raised in the Delta, bathed by the spluttering stilly rain from the precipitation of the winding creeks that reeks through the arteries of the big heart. Hence, while others discuss the issues of the people, lives and livelihood of the Niger Delta area in silhouettes, I do so in concrete times; sometimes, even selfishly. Whenever I go back home, I ride the bumpy roads of Ekpan, breath the polluted air from the refinery stacks at Enehren and confront the realities of troubled communities along the riverside in Ubeji. My friends and immediate family live in this region. My fate and destiny, my happiness and joy, my sense of self and ties, swims and sinks with the fate of the many Niger Deltans – indigenous or sojourners, that call this place home.

For these and many other reasons, I have had cause in the past to examine the challenges facing the development of the area that many have referred to (and rightly so) as the golden geese, that lays the golden egg (of Nigeria). The Niger Delta is an area abundantly blessed in natural resources be it palm oil, rubber, fish or crude oil. Indeed, since the advent of crude production, the Niger Delta is reputed for its rich reserves of black gold. However, before there was crude, there was another kind of oil. Palm oil dominated the trade between the riverine areas with the early Europeans. As coveted, as crude oil is today, palm oil, rubber and fish made this region prosperous with consequences far fetched. Now, the realities of this once prosperous region is one riddled with poverty, unimaginable pollution, collapsing social structures, untold violence and above all government sponsored military occupation that insults the sensibilities of its inhabitants.

In examining the challenges of the Niger Delta area, external factors often dominate the perception on what stands between this region and wholesome development. Conversely, often missing in the jigsaw are the internal factors. Perhaps it is because of the undoubtedly overarching effects the external factors have on the status quo, or even the detached relationship most analysts have with the region. The truth is that these internal factors do exist. Some of these factors are well known, while others are yet to be properly discussed and put into context. Indeed, the absence of these factors or a minimal translocation of their effects should help hasten the development the region seeks.

There is however a risk in highlighting these internal factors. Often times, the enemies of progress and development, and defenders of the status quo will seize on them as an excuse for ignoring the quest for an end to the external factors militating against the region, which are already well established. This should not be the case. Truth be told, most of the internal factors discussed in this piece are not unique to the Niger Delta region, and should not be an excuse for not countering the forces of debauchery and economic gangsterism, bent on raping the region of its resources. Let it be known, that there is no alternative to fairness and justice. The only lasting way to bring peace to the Niger Delta is to recompense to the people what the “owners of Nigeria” have taken away from them forcibly; not in the deployment of more of the same, barrel of guns or fast moving helicopter gunship and gunboats. Blaming the victims also will not cut it.

To quicken the pace of this restitution however, the good people of the region might need to put the house of Niger Delta in order. The number one cause for concern, and which perhaps account for more pain internally than others, is the apparent lack of coherence among the people of the Niger Delta. It is true that aside the Middle Belt area of Nigeria, you will be hard-pressed to find a more diverse biome than the Niger Delta in terms of culture, tongues and ancestry. The people of this region however have shared history, which predates the incursion of European traders to the Delta, and spans many centuries. However, due to schisms and lingering hatreds, the inhabitants of the Niger Delta have allowed a crack in the wall and allowed lizards to linger in them. Petty fights, ethnic crisis and seeming pervasiveness of clannish behaviors destroy the ability of Niger Deltans to sit as equals with their more powerful, numerous and monolithic neighbors to the East, West and North.

Furthermore, the mentality of “me, myself and my clan”, allows the “owners of Nigeria” to prod disgruntled, selfish rent seekers as puppet leaders exploiting the lack of common vision for the people of the region. These puppet leaders, often resident outside the immediate boundaries of the Niger Delta, have taken their rent seeking ventures to another height, stoking the embers of hatred and division in their lands while reaping bountifully of their duplicity in perfidious wealth and blood money. This consequentially results in a disillusionment of people at the grassroots, and the rise of pseudo reactionary organization often referred to as youth groups.

For any outsider from other regions of Nigeria, the power and influence of so called community youth groups in the Niger Delta is a unique attribute that comes as a culture shock. While youth organizations are not entirely unique to other Nigerian communities, the power they wield in the Niger Delta is to put it at best absurd. Often drunken with their own immaturity and youthful vigor, they wreck untold havoc on the psyche of the communities they are found. Sometimes, acting like Mafioso they shake down legitimate businesses for cash, and serve as fertile ground for misdirected militancy that spawns self-inflicted violence, be it political thuggery, kidnapping or outright armed robbery. I have been an eyewitness to a youth leader slapping a traditional ruler in the mangrove swamps before (in hindsight the traditional ruler probably deserves it), and most (to say the least) shocked at the apparent lack of traditional ethos of respect, structure and hierarchy lacking in these contemporary communities.

The maladies of the youthful exuberance that these youth groups exhibit is not only limited to the collapsing social fabric; but also extends to such sensibilities like the love of quick money. Furthermore, an absence of a determination by the young people left behind to strive for industry once associated with the likes of Michael Ibru, and the lingering after effects of this militancy like teenage pregnancy (often the handiwork of locals and foreigners alike) and prostitution, erodes the moral fabric of the fragile communities of the creeks, inner cities and swamps. Whether this is a symptom of the larger problem of poverty or despondency is still a subject of larger debate. However, what is unambiguous is that from the number of mulatto children in the riverside communities, and the open trade in flesh and kinds from Benin to Warri, and Port Harcourt to Calabar, the moral sensibilities of the local tradition is under assault and requires immediate rehabilitation.

These youth groups also have another effect; the disparate response to external forces of aggression that gives room to chaos and self-inflicted tribulations. For every oil-spill incident, resulting from the criminal negligence of multinational oil corporations like Shell Nigeria, a proliferation of youth organizations each seeking its own ends to a seeming simple problem seem to arise. This also speaks to fact of a lack of common vision, ethos and vacuum left by a lack of leadership. The resulting chaos, gives room to Shell and their ilk to get away with doing nothing; subverting the law in the process.

The problematic dimension to the internal problems of divisions and incoherence is the percolation of this mentality into the psyche of ordinary citizens. You will think that with all the years of injustice, tension, blood, tears and sorrow an emerging social paradigm for separation from the larger Nigerian federation will be preponderant in the Niger Delta. This is not true. In fact, for all said and done, ordinary folks in the Niger Delta by act of omission or commission do not subscribe to a clean break from a nation that have rendered little or next to nothing to them. Analyzing the situation closely will reveal this is a symptom of discordance, and its attendant lack of mutual trust and self-confidence.

A lack of common vision, an abeyance of shared ethos, and lack of cohesion have bred a fear of its larger neighbors in the minds of Niger Deltans who then seek refuge with not so good company of far-flung rent seekers sitting in judgment in Abuja. In addition, there is also a noticeable nauseating inferiority complex, which even otherwise genuine leader of the Niger Delta region exudes, when in engagement with the larger Nigerian community. For the Niger Delta to move forward, this needs to stop. Those who dwell in the mouth of the ocean that feeds the nation should ditch the minority mentality and seize the destiny of the region with both hands without any excuses. Minority status is a thing of the mind- with determination, cohesion and rise of a new accountable leadership, and a return of the deserting intellectuals, the sky is the limit for a region so blessed, yet so impoverished.

NB: Wonders shall never end in the unending story of the Niger Delta Crisis. The so-called “recent discovery” of a pipeline that led from PH Refinery to Tom Ateke’s private home is at best ridiculous. How can the government claim ignorance? No process warning? No pressure/process condition changes? Nothing to tip off operators that pipelines unauthorized is siphoning fuel from the refinery? The government at the highest levels know of this and it is plain sabotage. This crisis is assuming the dimension of a top-level criminal enterprise: a mafia, controlled at the highest echelons of Nigerian politics and government. PDP- Power to the Criminals indeed!

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