Niger Delta In the Eye of the Storm: The Need to Hold that Fire, By Gbolahan Gbadamosi

I fail to remember a leader in history who has taken a shot at his people and history has been kind to. President Buhari will not be an exception if he takes that shot. Mr. President sir, we can dialogue with these boys and peacefully resolve these issues. Do not order or allow your name to be used in taking any shot in the Niger Delta.

Can anyone write exhaustively on Nigeria’s Niger Delta? I wouldn’t think so. Is the problem as presently constituted anything to really worry about? Certainly yes! Can we find a middle ground and peaceful resolution to the lingering crisis (dating back to the 1990s and Shell versus Ogoni crisis)? Probably yes! This is an issue about Nigeria whose dominance of national discourse predates even the Nigerian nation, Nigerian independence and the current political dispensation – the so-called Fourth Republic. Very fresh in the memories of Nigerians are the antics, the drama, and the ‘peculiar mess’ that the region has become in their national life.

Public commentators, opinion writers, human rights advocates, social critics and even professional agitators generally tend to fall into one of two extreme sides of the divide when discussing the Niger Delta. On the one hand, are those who argue that we have to handle this situation carefully; we have to concede to the demands and yearnings of the region in order to maintain the peace. On the other hand, are those who take the position that ‘enough is enough’, a group of people cannot continue to hold a country to ransom, so let us call their bluff once and for all and put a stop to this nonsense. The interesting bit is that neither side is entirely wrong if you have been a keen watcher of developments in this region. Yet both sides cannot be correct because it is illogical!

Underlying the entire crisis in this area is injustice which is especially made serious because the majority of Nigerians from outside the Niger Delta, it appears, completely deny this injustice. For many, if your discussion with them is based on this premise they will stop the discussion. Many such people will probably stop reading this piece at this point. But the reality is that fish farms, farmlands, soil, and water have been damaged and this is the cornerstone of the livelihood of these people. The popular saying goes, “it is he (or she) who wears the shoe that knows where it pinches”. Ironically and without doubt, the Niger Delta region has consistently provided the bulk of government revenues, export receipts, and foreign exchange earnings since about 1970. This may change with time given the posturing of the present government but that is only where we are probably headed not where we are. Owolabi and Okwechime, far back in a 2007 paper in Africa Development, argued: “that since poverty, national security, the ruthless exploitation and destruction of the natural environment environment and food security are key to upon which the inhabitants of the Niger Delta depend for their livelihood and sustenance pose major threats to human security in that region and, by implication, to the Nigerian state”. Fast forward to 2016, and the situation has not changed. Nigeria has continuously had irresponsible governments for too long. The people do not matter to our leaders!

The majority of Nigerians have very little idea of the damage done to the environment in this region, but they imagine that they do and that it is not a big deal. It is actually a crime against these people. It is easy to take a moral high ground while sitting in Lagos, Ibadan, Abuja, Bauchi, Minna, Ilorin or other relatively serene places and make these comments. People really need to visit this region; they need to see through video evidence provided mostly by the international media. Our media needs to be more inquisitive, do more investigative journalism and take their journalism out of its comfort zone. Nigerians would be able to see through their eyes. It should be easy to serialise a documentary over an entire TV season of three months, covering the lives of average Nigerians who reside permanently in the Niger Delta and have nowhere else to call home. The international community has made some effort in documenting these devastations but our local media have done little to nothing. If you spend some time Googling video evidence, including on YouTube, you probably will find a few.

Oil will invariably become less important in the world. It will be relegated down the pecking order as a source of wealth of nations. That is probably in the future but we are in the present and this is not yet the case. The people of Nigeria will hopefully remain together after such a time. The Niger Delta militants, especially the Avengers, need to think about this prospect. Albeit, they would have a sound argument if they say this is exactly why the urgency of fixing the area is now.

Paradoxically, the current government which is now having to deal with pipeline bombing and threats to lives in the area, as oil production and prices simultaneously nosedive in the face of increasing public spending on infrastructural development, is in a difficult position. Yet, it is the first government to seriously respond to the call of the United Nations and other international agencies and agitators to attend to the problem of environmental degradation in the area. I am still at a loss as to how and why an Ijaw man who was president for six years did almost nothing for the environment in which he grew up, went to school “shoelessly” and rose to become president, but that is a story for another day. I have been asking myself if and how former President Goodluck Jonathan can stand in front of his people in the most deprived part of the Niger Delta today and blame government for the destruction of their environment and the ecosystem as well as their incredible levels of poverty. What exactly would he be pointing to that he did collectively for them as a people? Nigerians who live in Abuja will argue that “his boys” had fun while it lasted and painted Abuja red.

A lot of government money has passed through the Niger Delta area, not to the people, but to their acclaimed representatives and visible agitators. It seems the more trouble you can make or threaten to make, the higher the likelihood of receiving some largesse in whatever name. The so-called palliatives, the Yar’Adua amnesty programme (just read settlement payments) which Jonathan continued have made these young and hitherto very skinny boys become very fat with multiple relationships. Niger Delta Commission, NIMASA, the list is endless and yet the progress is zero, we have only moved backwards since all these initiatives were put in place.

The notoriety of misappropriation of money and how continually the appointed leaders have repeatedly raped their own people is unforgivable. Far too many citizens of the Niger Delta have become obscenely rich in the past 20 to 30 years in the name of negotiating for peace and the development of the region. They start with a claim that they keenly represent their own people and end up with fat amounts in their personal accounts. They often disappear and then new leaders or agitators emerge. Fat cats!

So where exactly are we today? I am overly worried when I read that the military is all over the Niger Delta region – fully armed! I get even more apprehensive when Nigerians spur on the government encouraging them to “deal with or root out the militants”. Who are the militants? Where exactly are they? If the shooting starts (God forbid!), the people who will get hit the most will not be the militants, they would be innocent and very poor and vulnerable Nigerians. The Buhari government will be condemned all over the world and may pull back the offensive. At that point the original instigators of government aggression will also pull back their support and the blame game will begin but the damage would have been done because more militants would have been born in response to whatever carnage has happened (again God forbid). Nigeria as we know it today may disintegrate but may also be irreversibly poor.

The people who advocate a military option in the Niger Delta are mostly naïve. They underestimate the seriousness of the conflicts of interests within the international community. Some believe the Niger Delta militants will not get international support and that they will not be armed. Many assume good people abound in the world and that the international community is solidly behind Nigeria. The news for them is that there are far too many wealthy and powerful individuals around the world who live off the sales of ammunitions and weapons of war. They take a lot of pride in selling to both sides of the divide in a war and the longer the conflict, the richer they become.

What should the Niger Delta people do differently? The people need to be a little more thoughtful (not used as an insult at all) and committed to the development of their region. They will benefit more from a peaceful resolution through dialogue than increased militancy especially because the resulting destruction to lives and properties following confrontation is never predictable. They need to develop a more serious group to negotiate their interest. They need to put forward their first team who should be nonpartisan and preferably non-political supporters of APC or PDP. This would enhance trust and build relationships in the dialogue process. They need to break from the past. People like old man Edwin Clark need to disappear from the names of people representing them. These fellows have done their bit continuously since 1960 (or even before) and honestly they have failed woefully and lost all credibility. Nigeria needs to know and see the faces of those who will represent this region in a national discussion. This group, ideally, must however include their own elected representative, possible the governors and not National Assembly members who have “padded” all their credibility into questionable acts. They need to get their act together and make their demand clear, coherent, sensible and powerfully articulated. This would rally fair minded Nigerians from other regions behind them. Presently we are dealing with ghosts who rove the region! The Niger Delta people should develop a sensible set of demands, get their people behind them and be ready for serious negotiations.

It is perhaps time we also ask serious questions of all the governors of the Niger Delta states. What specifically do they spend the 13 percent derivation fund they receive on? We have not legislated on its spending. Our National Assembly cannot be trusted to discuss this issue of national importance without politics overriding nationalism. The Niger Delta people have to re-examine this component of the budgetary allocation within their states and insist that their governors must spend most, if not the entirety, of this fund on the most deprived area of their states. It is morally expedient to do so. Physician, heal thyself – accusing fingers will indeed go to the federal government but to what extent are the Niger Delta people guilty of the same fault?

What is the role and place of Buhari’s government in all these? As a background, I am extremely sceptical that the Nigerian intelligence works at all. Often I wonder if we have one in place. To what extent are they able to identify the so-called powers behind the scene of the violence in Niger Delta? The same way the funders of the Boko Haram miscreants remain unknown. We are not asking them to tell us their names publicly but does Mr. President have any information along these lines and what is he doing about it?

Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has made a very strong allegation and urged the President Buhari to “stand up to powerful oil companies that have continued to abuse the human rights of the people of the Niger Delta with impunity for decades if it is to satisfactorily resolve the crisis in the region.”. They asked the government to enforce and implement the ECOWAS Court judgment of December 2012 which ordered the Nigerian government to punish oil companies over oil pollution and devastation in the region. I fully endorse this stand.

While hosting the Japanese leader, President Buhari was reported to have offered an olive branch and willingness to dialogue, while simultaneously warning that failure to dialogue by the agitators, they would be crushed. YES, to dialogue Mr. President, absolute NO to “crushing”. History shows that leaders are mostly blamed for waging war against their people. Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, among others, were mostly blamed for killing their own people and the powerful West waged war against them. They are both history. It is arguable whether they are main parts or footnotes of history. The wars following the invasions resulted in the comatose situation both countries are in today. Some commentators say both countries are on life-support machines. Bashar al-Assad is being blamed in Syria today for the same thing. It is inevitable that he will fall, the question is when, not if. I fail to remember a leader in history who has taken a shot at his people and history has been kind to. President Buhari will not be an exception if he takes that shot. Mr. President sir, we can dialogue with these boys and peacefully resolve these issues. Do not order or allow your name to be used in taking any shot in the Niger Delta.

Gbolahan Gbadamosi is an academic and writes from Bournemouth, United Kingdom. He can be reached at: