Home truths about treasure base of militants

By Casmir Igbokwe

 Published: Sunday, 8 Jun 2008

IN those days when Port Harcourt was still the Garden City, many good things came out of Rivers State. From Bonny Street to Aggrey Road; from D/Line to Borokiri; and from Mile One to Mile Four, Port Harcourt residents had a good time. There were good eateries, which, most times, could not find enough space for lovers of such delicacies as fresh fish and isi-ewu. Nightclubs were not in short supply even as expatriates had upper hand in the game of wooing ladies. Many parents reflected the mood of the time then by giving their children such names as Gold, Precious, Finecountry and Fineface.

Today, there is nothing fine about the face of security in Rivers State, nay Nigeria. The state is nicknamed treasure base of the nation. But from the activities of militants and sundry criminals that currently hold sway there, one can rightly call it the treasure base of militants/bandits.

Disturbed by the negative trends in the state, the governor, Chibuike Amaechi, set up Truth and Reconciliation Commission on 29 November 2007. He gave the commission a seven-point agenda. Parts of the agenda were to identify the nature of the discontent in the state, its remote and immediate causes and the extent of damage that has been done to the people and to peace in the state. The commission is also to identify the various factions and people who have been involved in fostering the discontent and to advise on ways to reconcile the factions with a view to bringing peace and concord in the state.

The governor deserves commendation for this action. Before the emergence of democracy in 1999, the unrest in the state revolved around pockets of communal disturbances as well as protests by the Ogoni people against Shell Petroleum Development Company. After 1999, the situation changed. Such cult groups as Deybam and Deywell began a rein of terror. They killed and maimed. At a point, a supremacy war erupted between the Niger Delta Vigilance Group led by Ateke Tom and Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force led by Asari Dokubo. Allegations were rife that some powerful politicians in the state armed some of these groups to help in prosecuting their political wars.

In September 2004, the then President Olusegun Obasanjo invited Tom and Dokubo to Abuja for a peace meeting. The following month, the two groups signed a peace agreement. Thereafter, they began to hand over their “weapons of mass destruction.” Over 3,000 of such weapons were publicly destroyed. But no sooner had this exercise ended than other forms of insurgency surfaced. In 2006, militants began kidnapping foreign oil workers. This, ostensibly, was to bring international attention to the plight of the Niger Delta people. But now, a large dose of criminality has enveloped the struggle as fellow citizens, toddlers, wives and mothers are targets of the kidnappers. Attacks on oil installations and police stations have also heightened.

This has led to a jump in global oil prices, a surge in military offensive and a cut in oil production. The President of the Nigerian Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture, Dr Ignatius Adaji, was quoted to have said last week that between 2006 and 2007, the nation lost about 500, 000 barrels of oil per day at an average price of $60 per barrel. In monetary terms, this approximates to about $26.9bn. This is besides the huge losses in human and material capital.

With regard to identifying the nature and characters involved in the Rivers crises, the TRC appears to be on the right track. As its Chairman, Justice Kayode Eso (ret), put it, “We have already received over 200 memoranda…The context of the memoranda, which we have received has gone a long way for any one to come to a conclusion that all is certainly not well with the Delta, the economic pivot of the nation and except something is done drastically and urgently, this country is sitting on powder-kegs.”

Since last Monday when the commission started its sitting, it has been allegations and counter-allegations. The governor himself released the opening salvo. According to him, “I personally had to take refuge outside the shores of this country for the fear of being assassinated when I was pursuing my political ambition to be the governor of the state…Throughout the period of Dr. Odili’s tenure I was considered to be independent-minded. This explains why I later went through all my tribulations. I spoke against using cult groups for election; that was why in my local government area there were no cult groups even up till now.”

By this submission, Amaechi indirectly confirmed that prominent politicians in the state sponsored cult groups to achieve their political ambitions. Some witnesses have accused former Governor Peter Odili and former Transport Minister, Abiye Sekibo, of being the godfathers of some of the cult groups. For instance, the people of Okuru Ama, last Wednesday, alleged that Odili and Sekibo masterminded the destruction of their homes during the 2001 crisis in the state. The crisis reportedly took the lives of over 40 people. They demanded N1bn as compensation from the Rivers State Government.

As the commission awaits the response of Odili and Sekibo, it is imperative to note that the reconciliation part of the public hearing appears to be emitting negative signals. The animosities are so deep-rooted that even the governor, while responding to the plea to forgive some gang leaders, reportedly said, “If you were to be the son of a man whose father was brought out and shot in his presence, would you ask me to forgive the man, who killed your father?” He said people must be made to answer for their crimes.

If the governor had named the commission, Truth and War Crimes Commission, I would have supported him totally.

It has always been my position that criminals must be made to face the full wrath of the law. But as long as the body handling the public hearing is called TRC, the governor should be ready to pardon any remorseful gang leader. Since he modelled the commission after South Africa’s TRC, he should emulate Nelson Mandela who pardoned his white adversaries in spite of the atrocities they committed against him and his country. He should also be ready to pay compensation to those who have genuine need for that. He should not deviate from his promise to seriously consider the recommendations of the Commission and take such decisions as would help restore peace in the state.

But whoever is caught again for criminal activities after the reconciliation must be made to pay for such crimes. The major consideration for any action should be restoration of peace. Without internal peace, the struggle for equity in the Niger Delta will continue to present a variegated and ugly face. Criminals will continue to hijack it. Local and international businesses will suffer. Expatriates will leave in droves. And the ultimate losers will be the Nigerian economy, hotel and nightclub owners, company executives, market women, fresh fish and isi-ewu lovers, tourists and sundry fun seekers.

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