TACKLING THE ENSUING UNREST
One can best describe what the government has done for the region since 1956 as merely damage control. There was no initial plan for the people and the region. They simply wanted the resources and when the people reacted, they came in with palliatives and kept running away from the root causes of the problems caused by careless exploration. The keyword for government’s response to the Niger Delta situation is ‘intervention’. That word simply suggests that there was no blueprint for galvanising the resources got, or a part of it, for the construction of a better living situation for those in the area. They never knew that there would be need for that. To intervene means to ‘come between two…’ that means a problem had ensued between the explorers and the people before the government came. One can best describe what the government has done for the region since 1956 as merely damage control. There was no initial plan for the people and the region. They simply wanted the resources and when the people reacted, they came in with palliatives and kept running away from the root causes of the problems caused by careless exploration. The keyword for government’s response to the Niger Delta situation is ‘intervention’. That word simply suggests that there was no blueprint for galvanising the resources got, or a part of it, for the construction of a better living situation for those in the area. They never knew that there would be need for that. To intervene means to ‘come between two…’ that means a problem had ensued between the explorers and the people before the government came.
It was in 1960, four years into the business, that it occurred to the state that an ‘intervention’ agency needed to be set-up for the Niger Delta. That was how they began, in their succession, according to the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs:
a. Niger Delta Development Board of 1960
b. The Presidential Task Force on 1.5% Derivation which was set up between 1979 and 1983
c. The Oil Minerals Areas Producing Development Commission (OMPADEC) of 1992
d. The Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) which was created in 2000 by an Act of Parliament.
The ministry says: “Unfortunately, these Agencies could not fully deliver the expected results, hence the establishment of the Ministry as a coordinating vehicle to drive the development process of the Region”.
Meanwhile, the federal government had amended the 1979 constitution to have total control of all the lands. This was chiefly because there was a growing unrest among the natives in the Niger Delta in reaction to the explorations. People were literally forced to leave their settlements, to be “compensated by the value of the crops on the land, not the land itself”. In Ogoni particularly, this move would lead to fatal ends, during which the late Ken Saro Wiwa featured as an activist and would later be killed by the same government, alongside his eight other tribesmen –the Ogoni Nine. Conflicts have since bedevilled the region due to the insincerity of the government and the increasing awareness of the people in terms of what they were losing and suffering. Face-off after face-off, both intellectual and violent. But the level of conflict between the people and the government and/or oil firms did rise to the unwarranted loss of many lives, as the years passed by. According to Wikipedia’s report; the two major ethnic groups that witnessed the brutality of government were Ogoni and Ijaw.
Between 2003 and 2004, different militia groups were formed in the region with the attendant battle for territorial control. The two leading arms were the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF) led by Mujahid Dokubo-Asari and the Niger Delta Vigilantes (NDV) led by Ateke Tom. There was a fierce rivalry between the groups who also did everything possible to other rising groups that were innumerably sneaking around the creeks. The entire region was thrown into such chaos that got even the authorities confused the more. The insecurity was made worse by the patronisation of political elites who would use them for influence and control in their immediate political jurisdictions. By 2006, it had escalated into organised oil bunkering and kidnapping foreign and local staff members of the companies for huge ransoms. Crime, just like every other human involvements, demands creativity so different means of kidnapping were seen. Heavily armed groups took over the waterways in the region, making Nigeria the second most pirated country in Africa, behind Somalia. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) majorly undertook most of those attacks.
More military actions were taken to curtail the rise but it never helped as it rather emboldened the boys the more and even increased memberships into the various ‘cult’ groups. Civilians’ lives and livelihood were in the line as many institutions were disturbed. Oil pipelines were being attacked and destroyed to the pain of the federal government. To end it all, amnesty was granted in 2009, by the federal government of Nigeria, which included a monthly payment to those ‘repentant’ militants. That was how the Nigerian government started using money they could have used earlier for the development of the place, to pay to the youths just to have a security of the oil. It did pay off. But the militancy became a better avenue to hold the government by the balls. Obari Gomba observes: “…the production of oil was about 500/600 bpd” before the amnesty, as against the previous 1.2 million bpd production”.
The period of kidnapping witnessed an unprecedented infiltration of arms into the region. There was no peace for the people, companies were losing staff and money, the government was as usual, confused and could only send more military. That was what looked like the height of the Niger Delta struggle. This is because previous peaceful dialogues and protests from the people met either resistance from the authorities or total ignorance. Like Agary would say, “the violence has forced the government to pay attention to the region, even though violence is not the way to go, it brought the needed attention and forced the government to take some decisive actions”
The crime rate in the region increased to its peak within those years. As time progressed, the armed groups ‘reformed’ into ‘freedom fighters’, making statements that demanded so and so ‘for’ the people, as they battled for acceptance by the civil society to gain more prominence than rival groups. It seemed they were welcomed by the people as Gomba notes, also stressing the disappointment that followed:
Some thought militancy was designed to address and seek redress but the truth is that there are lots of criminal elements in the mix and if you look at the big picture, it would appear that the rise of militancy has not solved our purpose at all. Those who decided to take up arms against the state were interested in their own wellbeing and pursued their wellbeing through the instrumentality of violence and when it became convenient for the Nigerian state to settle them and take them out of the way to ensure petroleum security, they quickly accepted the offer that was given to them and what we see is that from time to time when there is a measure of disappointment, you hear the same elements create a bit of unrest in the Niger Delta. So, what they do from time to time is to call the state to service their interest and once that is done, the generality of the regional issues, the people and communities that suffer daily continue to suffer and nothing is done.
Saro Pyagbara never liked the amnesty approach because so long he was concerned, it did not help the injustice that created the violence in the first place. According to him:
I feel that the government has not really engaged the Niger Delta people. You see, when some young men take up arms as militants and in a bid to put out that fire, you don’t engage in a proper conflict resolution with the people, you decide to buy off the guns. You give people money for them to surrender their guns because all your interest is in getting the oil. All the government wants is to make sure oil is flowing and in their own wisdom, any amount they can put in to buying gun from the people will be paid. They are not resolving the conflict, thereby prolonging the evil day. Yes, you may make millionaires out of them but have you addressed the injustice on the region? Have you addressed the issues of underdevelopment and holding the people down all the while? Have you addressed the imbalance of the stupendous resources taken from the people? So if you settle this person today, tomorrow, another group will rise up and will need to be settled the same way. It ends up in a vicious circle of settling people by cash and not dealing with the issues that have been raised across board in the region. That is where the challenge is and that is why we have those issues of settling one group today, another group rises tomorrow. They are using a very useless template. Injustice is injustice anywhere and you cannot remove it by buying people off the crusade.
Back to the ‘positive’ side: intervention. These agencies that were setup hardly settled anything. But the riddle that was not solved was why those agencies did not help the region, even after funds were invested. But the Nigerian government knew that they were not creating them to solve the problem. No serious government will setup an agency on such a serious issue and leave it to itself, without knowing what was happening. It all became a fallacy. And over the years, people in the Niger Delta, apart from those few who worked in those ‘ogbnaje’ agencies, lost confidence in them.
On the NDDC, for instance, Gomba had this to say:
Let me tell you the truth, I am on record for saying that the NDDC is like a conduit for dirty jobbers. And I still stand by that because there is nothing that has happened that has proven me wrong. Look, if the Nigerian state wants to get the Niger Delta problem solved, one of the things that must be done is to find out how the funds given to those intervention agencies are managed. It’s as simple as that. The normal complaint you get from the people in this region is well, government creates such agencies and doesn’t fund them properly. That’s true. Those agencies are not properly funded to the tone of what they are supposed to be doing according to the legal framework that put them in place. However, even the little that is given to them is mismanaged. And you cannot set up an agency that is supposed to be for intervention in a volatile region where development is such an issue of life and death and look the other way, allowing those you put in their to run the agency like idiots. We are all familiar with the story of a big man in the NDDC who burnt millions of naira in order to perform rituals to prolong his life. That’s unthinkable. He takes millions of naira that is supposed to service the people to a shrine and then burns them to prolong his life. The truth is that the NDDC in my thinking is a dustbin. You will be surprised if you have a critical audit of what goes on in there. I made this statement in 2015 that the Nigerian state has to look at what the NDDC is doing. You can say that OMPADEC is in the past but the NDDC is in the present. The state has to look at what they are doing. They must look at the books and what they have done in the past because this agency has been receiving money since 1999. People should tell us how much released to them and what they have done since 1999. You have road projects that are done without the specifications; you have contracts that are issued and are not executed. I mean all sorts of things are going on in the NDDC and the Nigerian state cannot say that it is not in its interest to pay attention to what is happening in that agency. If that agency can work, there is a possibility that it can address some of reasons for which the region has been restive.
That is where one can say it was hardly the government’s aim to settle the problem in the first place. After all, the country handlers themselves are not very accountable to their offices, how would they be able to ensure the agencies were responsible? It was the least of their worries. In the end, it all became a pit that gulped the meagre resources they managed to give back to the people.
Another Niger Delta novelist, Kaine Agary re-echoed Gomba’s position:
The NDDC is just a palliative agency. You know, there’s a lot of duplication of things… people are running into each other’s spaces and getting confused on what to do. But we haven’t seen much. There is so much scandal over the misuse of the resources that are allocated, people being investigated for corruption. Again, that’s the issue of leadership.
Let me not say they haven’t helped. They could have done a lot more with the resources that they have received. I can’t say they have not helped but more things could have been done. But that is not a problem of the region, there’s a lot of mismanagement in our state institutions, that’s what we must understand. It’s a general problem.
That’s it. General problem. There is no way that the region could have fared better anyway, the entire country itself is not well managed. There are problems from every corner of the state and the Niger Delta is just one of them but the effects of the business that kept the government alive was detrimental to people’s health and general livelihood and it was considered callous of the state to have also neglected it the way it did.
In a nutshell, the Nigeria government has been operating a take-it-or-leave-it method with the people. This is why they usually resorted to military action. There is a heavy military presence in the region as government and oil companies had to protect their facilities and investments. What was left undone was settling the cause of the upheaval and rise in militancy.
One the other hand, oil companies tried their hands in social corporate responsibilities for their host communities and states if the people could let them operate in peace. They have invested in various infrastructural projects around the region and in offering scholarships. However, they are still famed for double standards. They always find easy ways of circumventing responsibilities, which is why they are believed to always settle local heads and those considered as threats. When they spill oil, the communities have to resort to blocking roads, destroying their property or take up a legal action before any action is taken by the firms, like the Ogoni case. Did they have to wait for a directive from the UN and the legal authorities before agreeing to clean up an environment they literally destroyed for more than a decade?
Also, Exxon Mobil was accused of pouring huge amounts of detergents on areas where spills occur, not minding the effect of the chemical on the waters. Ibeno people also accused them of denying ownership of a spill even when it occurs within their facility.
Still, the firms, once in a while, do things for their hosts. But it all seems to be like trying to get the back of a duck wet. Satisfaction is nowhere near the people. The violence that has already been established usually led to infrastructural destruction.
One, among many such cases is the Rumuekpe example. Rumuekpe is a community in Rivers State. As at 2001, the community had begun to enjoy free uninterrupted power supply from standby gas turbines provided and managed by the operating firms in the area. They also enjoyed good pipe borne water running everywhere around the community, not to mention the scholarship grants for the youth. There were periodic cash/food supplies, especially during the festive periods. But before 2006, the inter-gang clashes affected the community. Rival gang members hunted and brutally killed one another until settlers had to flee the place, which gave room for the boys to vandalise almost everything infrastructural. It was an example of self-destruction. But in the midst of all these, the oil firms continued their business with heavy military protection. To them, protection of the peoples’ lives and property was the sole responsibility of the government who, as usual, had gone to sleep. They all watched the community become desolate. About five to six years later, the community began to resettle and to this day, even if there seems to be a full resettlement, only the elderly people returned and few young people who probably cannot foot the bills in the cities and neighbouring towns. Standing structures are overrun with bushes. No more electricity.
According to an elder, Christian Njoku,
…the boys in the community have still not learnt their lesson, after many of them lost their lives within the five to six years of violence. Many of our children died. They were fighting themselves recklessly. We the older ones are still here and we are having more children to take over from us. We don’t like the deaths, they are our children but they chose the other way and refused to listen to us. But after everything, we have resettled and things are gradually coming round.
This is the case with different communities in the region. Communal crises arising from cultism, youth leadership battles and chieftaincy tussles all because those spearheading them want to be in control of the incoming resources from the oil. Currently, Omoku, another leading oil producing town in the state is embroiled in a huge crisis. The point to note, unfortunately, is that the same military might that is used to suppress people when they stage a war against oil companies and the government, becomes distant when communities fight themselves. And this fight is simply endless, moving from one community to another, rendering the already devastated region more uninhabitable for the people. As Gomba further notes:
I’ve seen the rise of violence. …the multi-dimensionality of violence from the Niger Delta is particularly disturbing because you find people who should work together in the community in other to improve their lot, fight one another maybe because there is a crumb that has been thrown by the oil company or the state.
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