Niger Delta: Between militancy and criminality

 By Casmir Igbokwe

 Published: Sunday, 31 Aug 2008

I presume we are now familiar with what happened last Tuesday night in Port Harcourt. The Rivers State governor, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi, had played host to the Israeli Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. Moshe Ram. At the dinner, Ram reportedly said the Nigerian media had blown the crisis in the Niger Delta out of proportion. As he put it, “The picture that is being depicted in newspapers about what is happening in Rivers State is different from what I, in the two days I have been here, have experienced.” He likened the situation in the state to that of Israel, which outsiders considered unsafe, whereas the inhabitants of the country did not see it as such.

As if to punish Ram for this statement, gunmen, the same night, abducted his compatriot, Mr. Ehud Avni, from his residence in Port Harcourt. The abductors have demanded N2bn ransom in order to set the man free.

To Amaechi, the kidnap of the Israeli was a calculated attempt to embarrass the people and government of Rivers State. The timing of the act, he noted through his media consultant, David Iyofo, was aimed at making the state look unsafe to the envoy and his entourage. He said the abduction was a criminal act that had nothing to do with the genuine agitation of the Niger Delta people.

At a recent South-South Legislative Retreat on Constitution Review organised by Vanguard Newspapers in Port Harcourt, Amaechi had similarly lamented the derailment of the genuine struggle for equity and justice in the oil-bearing region. According to him, “In Rivers State, in Bayelsa and other parts of the Niger Delta, who is fighting whom, what is the war about? What is the shooting about? The kidnap cases that are taking place are against whom..? There are three principal economic centres in Nigeria: Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt; we are by ourselves killing our own economic centre.”

I cannot but agree with this standpoint. If we must call a spade a spade, then we must draw a line between militancy/insurgency and the criminality going on now in the Niger Delta. Insurgency anywhere in the world works on some basic principles. Whether it’s the people’s war popularised by Mao Zedong in China, or the equivalent of it in Vietnam; whether it’s the fight against Britain in Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and Rhodesia, or the current United States’ misadventure in Iraq, there is a common enemy and a central focus. The general objective is to battle the common enemy in order to achieve the common purpose.

For instance, insurgents in Vietnam galvanised the people of that country into fighting the US army of occupation some decades ago. They eventually liberated that country from the clutches of the US. Similarly, the African National Congress rallied behind the black people of South Africa to fight apartheid or racial discrimination in that country. It took them time. But today, the battle is over as there is black majority rule in that country.

The struggle in the Niger Delta heightened with peaceful protests by such organisations as the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. Later, Ijaw youths came with the Kaiama Declaration fashioned after the Ogoni Bill of Rights. Essentially, the declaration contains different demands as regards righting the wrongs in the region. These steps then were in the right direction.

Today, the struggle has derailed. Or how does one explain the kidnap of toddlers, women and innocent people, who are also victims of the injustice in the region? Last week, gunmen hijacked West African Offshore’s oil vessel with eight crewmembers on Bonny River. A prospective youth corps member was also kidnapped when her mother was going to drop her off at the airport on her way for the youth service. This is nothing but sheer criminality. The major aim is to extort money.

Some Bayelsa youths acknowledged this fact penultimate week. According to a report in the SUNDAY PUNCH of August 24, these youths accused top government officials, community leaders and elders as being behind the spate of kidnappings in the region. The spokesman for the youths was quoted to have said, “What is annoying us is that they will send us to do things such as kidnappings and assassinations and fighting with innocent soldiers. At the end of the day, they enjoy while we and the soldiers get nothing…We are not criminals or killers. It is these people in government and our leaders (who) are causing confusion because of money.”

Yet, some of these same leaders are the ones who will visit Abuja, form groups, organise press and prayer conferences to pontificate on how to stop the Niger Delta crisis.

Already, we are paying the price for this perfidy. Last Sunday, this newspaper reported that Julius Berger Plc might sack about 2, 000 workers in the Niger Delta. The company had earlier suspended operations in the region following concerns over the security of its staff. Such companies as Michelin had since divested from the region. Governor Amaechi says he has over N100bn in the banks, but this has not enticed any company to come and reap from construction works in the state.

Apparently because of the governor‘s caustic comments against militants, he and the militant leaders are now at daggers drawn. Media reports yesterday quoted a group called Watchdog of Niger Delta to have called for the removal of Amaechi from office. Without his removal, the group reportedly threatened, there would not be peace in Rivers State.

This latest dimension will only worsen matters. The questions are: is this how the Niger Delta people will win the war? Are they not cutting off their nose to spite their face? Will the demand for ransom by kidnappers solve the Niger Delta crisis? And since when did kidnapping and extortion become a tool for achieving justice?

Soon, there may not be any expatriate to kidnap. That, perhaps, is when the warriors will turn fully against one another. If genuine liberation movements in the region will continue to attract sympathy for their cause, they must help in locating and dealing with those criminalising their struggle.

I have always maintained that the first step to deal with the crisis is to increase the derivation formula of the region. We can start from 25 per cent and gradually increase it to 50 per cent. It is only when the Federal Government has done this that it will have the moral right to attack the criminality in that region.

Without this, we can hold conferences without end; we can embark on massive road construction (that is if the contractors are not kidnapped); we can engage the combined military forces of the United States of America, Britain and Israel to deal with militants, but we will never achieve peace in that region.

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