The response of Nigerian President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua's regime to the Niger Delta crisis jeopardises the country's entire existence, writes Sabella Ogbobode Abidde in this week's Pambazuka News. With the president only interested in pursuing brutal, military 'solutions' aimed at completely annihilating 'trouble-makers' in the region, fears around the launch of a full-scale invasion seem set to be realised. Calling for a national sovereign conference to establish a lasting, long-term solution, Abidde stresses that no amount of bombing will ever lead to a sustainable peace.
'Alea iacta est: The die is cast. The assault on the Niger Delta is about to begin.'
Beginning in 1999 when President Olusegun Obasanjo’s regime came into being, there were ample opportunities to solve some of the most pressing problems that have confronted Nigeria since 1914 when a parchment of differences were put together to form a single political entity. At the very least, Obasanjo could have made genuine attempts at solving those that have confronted the country since 1960. But he didn’t. He was in power for eight years, during which time he legalised corruption, mediocrity and inanity. He was succeeded by Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, a president who relies primarily on the military and the hawks around him to do his bidding.
President Yar’Adua’s greatest challenges seem to be his deteriorating health, how to rein in his greedy associates, how to rule the country and how to approach the Niger Delta tragedy. And a tragedy it is. Insofar as the Niger Delta is concerned, the president’s approach has been to listen to the dictates of the military and the Arewa Consultative Forum: namely, annihilate trouble-makers and restless communities in the region. The goal of his government is not to arrest and prosecute, but to invade, destroy and kill. This mild-mannered and self-effacing man has turned out to be more brutal that General Obasanjo. And so, 'Alea iacta est: The die is cast.' The assault and annihilation of the Niger Delta is about to begin.
Daniel Volman, the director of the African Security Research Project in Washington, DC, is reporting that the Yar’Adua government 'is set to launch a full-scale offensive in the Niger Delta when a ceasefire declared by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) ends on 15 September 2009. And this time, Nigerian military forces will be using special warships, helicopter gunships and troop transports, and unmanned drone intelligence planes and ships sold to Nigeria by Israeli, Malaysian, Singaporean, Dutch, and Russian companies.'
Volman went to say that 'Israeli and Russian instructors have been providing specialized training to Nigerian Navy and Air Forces sailors and pilots in how to operate the ships and helicopters over the past few months, and some of these instructors may help operate them during the offensive.' As disquieting as this report may sound, Niger Deltans – especially the Ijaw ethnic nationality – have been expecting such a move for quite some time now. Indeed, how to deal a knock-out blow to the Ijaw has been on the government’s agenda since the escalation of hostilities in 2001, and the formation of MEND in 2005. They have waited and waited and waited. The time seems to have come.
Historically, citizens of the Niger Delta have been a thorn on the flesh of pre- and post-colonial Nigerian governments. Not a people to suffer injustice in silence, they have a history of political activism that dates back to the 18th century, at least. Rulers who opposed the shenanigans and the inhumane behaviour of the European powers were dethroned, killed or sent abroad to die. Indeed, European powers made sure that the region was thoroughly destabilised by engaging in and introducing ethnic politics, malevolent survival strategies and divide-and-rule politics. In the intervening years, successive Nigerian governments – military and/or civilian – have continued such practices.
Depending on the context, there is the geographical Niger Delta, the political Niger Delta and the economic Niger Delta. In general, however, when people speak of the Niger Delta, they are basically referring to the vast expanse of land and waterways that house virtually all of the oil and gas that supports the domestic and global economy, in this case, the Ijaw land. For more than 200 years, the Ijaw nation has cemented its place in the international political–economic system.
For instance, the Ijaw territory was the centre of commerce, renowned for its trade in ivory, palm oil and other natural resources. It was also a centre of the African Atlantic slave trade. And for a period in its history, it had an independent diplomatic relations with European powers. Then and now, especially since the last 45 years, how to subjugate and control the Ijaw has been a preoccupation – an obsession even – on the part of the Nigerian government.
Why would a people who have always fought for their inalienable rights suddenly acquiesce to the shenanigans, the duplicity and the brutality of the Yar’Adua regime? Other than a handful of hungry elites and misled commoners, no one, in my view, is going to succumb to Yar’Adua’s threat and the actual use of force. President Yar’Adua, the Arewa Consultative Forum and their band of fellow travellers may, in the end, find themselves in the deepest end of the river, without a lifejacket. They should know, or should have known, that this is a conflict that can never be solved by military force.
Indeed, no amount of military brutality can solve a problem that otherwise calls for a political settlement. However, if and when this or any other government takes to the sea, air and land to invade, to bomb and to forcibly impose its iniquitous will on the Ijaw and on the people of the larger Niger Delta, my guess is that there may be no known bystanders left, no known moderating voices left, and there may be no one left calling for 'one Nigeria' in the region. It most likely will be the beginning of the end for Nigeria.
As it is, there is a growing voice within the region calling for secession. A military invasion culminating in deaths and destruction, therefore, will only embolden the secessionist movement.
Consider this: Would the Yoruba have simply stood askance if pre- and post-colonial governments had misappropriated their cocoa farms? Would the Hausa–Fulani have looked the other way if the government had exercised undue control over their groundnut pyramids? As for the Igbo, they never would have appreciated it if government had taken over their natural resources in an unfair manner. Awolowo and Ojukwu fought for fairness. Ahmadu Bello and Balewa too would never have subscribed to anything that was not in northern interests.
But today, Nigerians for the most part think the Ijaw and other oil-producing communities should just be quiet, even in the face of economic injustice, resource theft, environmental degradation and political exclusion.
A military invasion of the Niger Delta, and especially of Ijaw land, will have several consequences: thousands of innocent men, women and children will die; thousands more will be maimed and displaced; and the region’s environmental problems will be exacerbated. We already have a region – especially the riverine area – that is vastly underdeveloped, with much of it looking like 18th century Louisiana. These are the same areas the Yar’Adua government wants to bomb? I wonder if he knows what the Stone Age era looks like. The pain will deepen, the anger will deepen, and vengeance shall not be the Lord’s alone.
The Ijaw and others will most likely extract their pound of flesh. And in this regard, not a single federal infrastructure will be safe, not a single oil pipeline will be safe, and not a single military or intelligence officer in the region may ever be safe. What’s more, the theatre of operation may be expanded to include Abuja and all federal infrastructures in Lagos and elsewhere. It will be tit-for-tat, an equivalent retaliation. Of course, Yar’Adua knows when the bombings will begin, but he may never know when it will end. If he opens this can of worms, he may not be the one to close it.
No one disputes the fact that a very small faction of MEND may have gone roguish. No one disputes the fact that a very small section of other justice-seeking groups within the region may have sold out or gone wayward. Still, that does not justify the planned and actual invasion of the region. What reasonable government and what sane president, bombs his own country simply because he is in search of a few criminals? What sane government spends billions of dollars on the acquisition of military hardware for the sole purpose of destroying his people and his country, when such an amount could have been used for the development of the same region? What doesn’t this president understand about nation-building?
In recent years, at least, six factors have helped to give rise to militancy, and these are: 1) the gross underdevelopment of the region; 2) the sickening environmental condition of the region; 3) the unfair manner in which revenues from oil are allocated, plus the exploitive derivation formula; 4) the unconscionable state of poverty; 5) the political marginalisation of the people; and 6) the socially irresponsible manner in which multinational oil companies operate. But beyond the militancy engendering factors, there are other national problems which deserve urgent attention, of which only a sovereign national conference can help mitigate and/or solve.
And until the aforementioned conditions are properly tackled, no amount of military force will bring about sustainable peace. Whatever peace and security that seem evident the day after the bombing stops, shall be untenable. It will be the worst type of peace ever witnessed in the history of Nigeria. President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, what will history say about him? The man who hastened the disintegration process?
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