Tremors Of Secession In The Niger Delta By ‘Tope Oriola

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A meeting of Niger Delta stakeholders took place at Hotel Presidential, Port Harcourt on 27th April 2015. Ann-Kio Briggs addressed the “Lower Niger Congress” in a video posted by Sahara Reporters. Ms Briggs was quoted as stating that the “time is ripe for the Niger Delta to secede from Nigeria”. Ann-Kio Briggs requires little introduction. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) appointed her Liaison Officer for the Aaron Team set up by the group to negotiate with the federal government in 2009 during the government of President Umaru Yar’Adua.

Ann-Kio Briggs is regarded as the “Mother” of the Niger Delta struggle. I had the opportunity to interview her in 2012 during my research on women’s engagement in the Niger Delta insurgency. Ms Briggs is well-respected in the Delta region. Therefore, this new trajectory in the Delta movement needs to be taken seriously by the incoming administration. President Jonathan’s electoral loss has widened the mature sense of injustice felt by a huge section of the region. Anyone who has spent a reasonable length of time in the Niger Delta will be appalled by the limited level of development vis-à-vis the enormous wealth generated by the region since the discovery of oil in Oloibiri in 1956.

The Niger Delta has suffered tremendously from Nigeria’s oil inebriation. And yes, that includes political elites from the region who have mismanaged allocations to the region. While we must question the veracity of the claim by Ms Briggs that there was a conspiracy among entities such as transnational oil companies, Boko Haram, the US and UK governments to get Jonathan out of power, such outlandish claims must not make us neglect some pertinent issues that need to be addressed. The Niger Delta genuinely considers the Nigerian state as unfair and unjust. They regard their involvement in the Nigerian project as “enslavement” and the 1914 amalgamation an artifice.

Will there be insurgency 2.0 or secessionist movement in the Delta region? There are three categories of people capable of re-inventing the Delta insurgency. The first comprises behemoths or “Generals” of the last outbreak of war against the Nigerian state and oil companies. They include Mr. Government Ekpemupolo or Tompolo, Alhaji Asari Dokubo, and Ebikabowei Victor Ben (General Boyloaf), among others. Boyloaf and others were able to change the complexion of violence in the region from internecine conflicts, such as the Warri ownership tripartite debacle among Urhobo, Itsekiri and Ijaw into a concise affront against the Nigerian state and its oil interests.

Tompolo was a mysterious apparition during the last insurgency. Like a few others, he has learned the politics of the oil industry and has become a security contractor. Some newspapers reported in Decemeber 2014 that he had purchased decommissioned Norwegian warships for his business. Alhaji Dokubo was the first to explicitly call for use of violence against the Nigerian state following the hanging of the Ogoni Nine which included the famous writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa. Dokubo argued that violence was the only language the Nigerian state understood. He mobilized the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF) into an insurgency machine. Asari’s NDPVF is a reincarnation of Niger Delta Volunteer Force (NDVF) established by Isaac Adaka Boro in 1966. Adaka Boro led the first secessionist movement against the newly independent Nigeria and declared establishment of “Niger Delta Republic” on 23rd February 1966. The Republic lasted 12 days.

There are documents from colonial days urging the government to ensure that Niger Delta people were not so neglected that they would feel compelled to take up arms against the state. Therefore, the Port Harcourt declaration is not unprecedented. What has changed is that while Adaka Boro regarded the Hausa-Fulanis, particularly Ahmadu Bello and Tafawa Balewa as “defenders” of the Ijaws, present-day freedom-fighters direct their grievance mainly against the Hausa-Fulani. The President-elect can repair the broken relationship and foster unity through words and actions.

A new outbreak of violence should be avoided as the weaponry of the “Generals” in the last insurgency has become more sophisticated. We must avoid loss of lives and shedding of blood. A respected leader in the Nigerian military recently informed me that the appurtenances of the good life that these insurgent “Generals” have tasted may prevent them from returning to the creeks, where conditions can be inhuman.

Nevertheless, rank and file participants in the last insurgency constitute another category with capacity for another round of war. They have sedimented knowledge — geographic, operational and mechanical — from the last exercise. These are battle-hardened individuals. They include over 20,000 individuals who accepted the government’s amnesty deal initiated in 2009. This category also includes those who never accepted amnesty. We do not have exact numbers for these individuals. What is clear is that the government will ignore them at its own risk. The fact that these individuals are still largely unintegrated to the society means they may be willing to participate in another war.

The last category includes young men and women who have reached the age of maturity since the last insurgency. They were children at the height of the last insurgency but have now grown to be aged 18 to 23. The limited educational and employment opportunities in the Niger Delta may make such youth unable to be unwilling to participate in any war against the Nigerian state and oil corporations. Recall that Tompolo’s Camp reportedly employed over 3,000 people at the height of the last insurgency. My research in Gbaramatu Kingdom indicated that he had tremendous support. Tompolo and others have ebulliently reaped from state failure and spectacular economic mismanagement.

I believe that another round of violence can be prevented through transparently strategic ways. Ann-Kio Briggs and other leaders of the “Lower Niger Congress” should be called to a meeting by the president-elect as soon as practicable. Such a meeting should be transmitted live to the Nigerian public. They should be asked to present a list of core demands. Cooptation will not work this time around. The new government must make projects such as the East-West road a priority. There are other priority areas that Niger Delta people have been articulating for several years. These include resource control, environmental pollution and sustainability issues, employment, etc. The conversation must proceed in a respectful and dignified tone. Concise physical and social infrastructure must swiftly follow.

Some may wonder why little was done to address Niger Delta issues during the Jonathan presidency and people’s assessment. Asari Dokubo raised this issue during my interview with him in 2010. I asked him at the end of the interview what he would have asked me if he were the one conducting the interview. He said he would have asked about the implications of the Jonathan presidency for the Delta movement. I requested that he respond to his question. He said there was a constitution that encumbered whomever was president and that the struggle transcended the Jonathan presidency. To be clear, Jonathan and his presidency stand excused by many in the Niger Delta. Many are convinced that some elements in Nigeria actively worked to make the country ungovernable for him and have him fail. Boko Haram is believed to be one of such impediments. Perception is reality in the world of humans.

My research on the Niger Delta is now in its seventh year. The current tremors sound eerily familiar. We must prevent another round of violence in the Niger Delta by engaging in meaningful dialogue.

 ‘Tope Oriola is assistant professor of criminology at the University of Alberta, Canada. A Carnegie African Diaspora Fellow, he is author of Criminal Resistance? The Politics of Kidnapping Oil Workers. 

SAHARA REPORTERS