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While the Niger Delta represents the epicentre of an ongoing crisis in Nigeria, it is but a microcosm of a nationwide problem, writes Sabella Ogbobode Abidde in this week's Pambazuka News. The country must face up to its difficulties, Abidde contends, and not simply marginalise voices of dissent. Common sense must prevail and President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua must use the instrument of the state to pursue peace.

Steve John G. Stoessinger, in 'Why Nations Go To War', reminded us that, 'The emperors and generals who sent their men to war in August 1914 thought in terms of weeks, not months, let alone years.' President George W. Bush was also under the impression that Iraq would be a surgical operation. All assumptions on all fronts were erroneous. We all now know what happened. Military quests are unpredictable. What’s more, wars, as Steve Yetiv tells us, 'are tragic events. They not only produce devastating human and economic costs but also often reflect the failure of reason to control events and emotions.' And in the estimation of Kenneth Waltz, 'in wars there is no victory but only varying degrees of defeat.' We shall revisit this theme in later essays.

The epicentre of the ongoing crisis may be in the Niger Delta, but really, what we have is a Nigerian problem: problems of environmental degradation; uneven development; weak institutions and poor governance; untenable federalism; institutionalised corruption; how to fairly distribute profits from the sale of resources; the unhealthy and uneven relationships between ethnic groups; an insidious culture that robs people of their sense of belonging and their sense of identity. Essentially, the 'Nigerian question' has not been resolved. There was hope for a resolution, or at least addressing this thorny question, during the Obasanjo regime, but he reneged even though he promised a group of select Nigerians in several consultation sessions in Washington, D.C., New York, London and elsewhere.

Most Nigerians from all walks of life know that the Yoruba, the Ogoni, as well as the Igbo and many other ethnic nationalities have issues with the country’s composition, and with how political goods and services are being shared. Scholars and political commentators even speak of the mistake of 1914. We need not dwell on the mistakes of yesteryears, but we must find acceptable and long-lasting solution to these mistakes. We can’t continue to ignore them. To pretend all is well with the country or to asphyxiate those with dissenting opinion is not only unreasonable, it is self-immolating. Problems are to be solved, not to be swept aside.

Nigeria has problems, problems we must collectively confront through a sovereign national conference or through other constitutional mechanisms. But somehow, we have never been good at peaceful and meaningful dialogue. We dismiss or ignore the aggrieved, or we impose our will, telling them what to do, how to do it and when to do it. As a collective, we have never been good at finding common ground and we certainly have never been good at allowing the minorities, or those with a minority opinion, to have their ways. Once a group of people assume a position of power, they hold onto it, protecting their holdings as if to let it go will mean the demise of their provincial civilisation.

Perhaps because of primordial sentiments and suspicious, and perhaps because of the events of 1967–70, the Nigerian oligarchy has never been good at sharing power. What’s more, ethnic identification and allegiance – and in recent times, religion – colours most of the decisions that are made at the national level. Whenever the Hausa–Fulani and their historic cousins are in power, their goal, for the most part, is to weed out all others save for some decorative, less powerful or near-inconsequential positions. When they are not weeding, they fill vacancies with their own. And of course, the Yoruba do the same in a less injurious manner. The Igbo, in spite of their intellectualism, resourcefulness, patriotism and contribution to the nation, usually find themselves bargaining and/or begging to be heard, begging to be seen and to be taken seriously. It is as if they are afraid to assert themselves.

The first official report detailing the grievances of the Niger Delta community was the 1957–58 Willink Minority Report. In the intervening years, there have been a dozen or so other reports, including the Niger Delta Technical Committee Report of 2009. Whether under military or civilian administration, every commission’s report and recommendations have either been watered-down or the recommendations completely ignored. It is as if the Nigerian government does not think much of the pain and anguish of the Niger Delta communities. After all these years, the aggrieved – especially the Ijaw – have simply had enough. Fifty years after Willink’s report the predator and the prey collided and are about to cross the Rubicon.

Sensibly, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) – the major justice-seeking group in the region – has taken the high road and called for dialogue. The group wants to negotiate with the Nigerian government on how best to prevent the further escalation of the ongoing low intensity conflict. The group has not imposed preconditions, but has instead signalled its intension to come to the negotiating table with open and clean hands. But Defence Minister General Godwin Abbe, speaking on behalf of the Nigerian government, scoffed at MEND, saying his government would not enter into any negotiation because it does not recognise the existence and/or the legitimacy of MEND.

In spite of General Godwin Abbe’s public utterances, we hope and expect the Yar’Adua administration to take a step back from the line in the sand. We expect common sense to prevail. We are advising President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua to plan for peace and to plan for the construction and reconstruction of the Niger Delta, especially of the riverine areas. We also implore him to speak to the flawed constitution and to convene a sovereign national conference. He should not plan for war, an outcome which he cannot guarantee. This could be his war or his peace. He has the instrument of state at his command. How he chooses to use it is his and his alone (as enshrined in the constitution).

A section of the Nigerian military cadre may be urging the president to embark on a military adventure. A section of the Arewa Consultative Forum may be nudging the president towards military intervention. The hawks in his administration may be beating the war drums in his ears and to his liking. This president must ignore them all. This president must choose negotiation and diplomacy over war and destruction. He has nothing to gain by going to war. Lives will be lost. Properties will be destroyed. Bodies will be maimed. His place in history will be certain: as the president who ordered the killing of his countrymen and women and the president who ordered the destruction of homes and hope and the maiming of women and children.

But the cost to the Nigerian state, especially to the treasury, will be heavy too. Beyond that, Yar’Adua must know that we now live in a world where tyrants, murderers and maniacs are no longer safe and free from the tentacles of international law and convention. Also, can a country with such diminishing prestige within the international system afford to shoulder the worldwide outcry its actions will elicit? And who is to say that Yar’Adua’s military escapade will not trigger violent ethnic conflicts, military coups d’état or the secession of the Ijaw ethnic group from an already weak and collapsing Nigeria?

It is precisely because of these that I hate wars and the pain, anguish and misery they bring. And then there are the costs and recriminations and mental pain and social dislocation and tensions. War is horrible. It is why I favour negotiations; it is why I favour dialogue. And now that the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta has also called for a negotiated settlement, Yar’Adua and Godwin Abbe want none of it. Why is the government balking at such a noble and brave idea?

What is Yar’Adua afraid of? In any case, what can a lion do when flies hovers around and peck at a gaping wound by its ass? Remain calm and ask for help, of course. In this instance the Nigerian government should come to the table, to dialogue with MEND under the auspices of the United States and one or two other non-governmental organisations. To negotiate is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of maturity and coherent thinking.


* Sabella Ogbobode Abbide is a public intellectual who has written and commented extensively on African affairs. He is currently based in Washington, D.C.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.