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Jonathan and the Niger Delta Struggle…and Related Matters

By Franklin Otorofani, Esq.  - Published July 17th, 2010


I have had cause in several of my previous write-ups to compare Nigeria’s newly minted president, Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, to the US president, Barack Hussein Obama. And I will plead with the reader to be allowed to do the same again in this presentation even at the risk of repetition. It is not some fanciful, feel-good indulgence on my part, but a deliberate attempt that is designed to draw out certain salient leadership qualities that seem to define these two leaders of totally different worlds, who are nevertheless harping on common themes, as both continue to reveal the inner and outer cores of their personalities to us, albeit within the constraints and limitations of their official duties.

It’s also designed to compare notes on their policy thrusts, ranging from foreign policy to renewable energy, including of course, the present conditions in the Gulf of Mexico and Obama’s handling of the situation in the Gulf; all of which have direct bearings on the conditions in the Niger Delta region including the way and manner the Nigerian government has reacted to similar conditions in the region.

The comparison is particularly striking not only because both men are former university teachers and are slow to anger, but because both appear remarkably cool, unflappable, and unperturbed under intense political and economic pressures and circumstances, and seem to be made of sterner stuff, unlike other ordinary mortals. These qualities should serve both leaders well on the hot seats.

It’s particularly striking not only because both men came in at the worst of times and inherited daunting economic and political challenges that could make or mar any leader, but because both have repeatedly mouthed and appear committed to the implementation of transformative agendas for their respective nations. These are official pronouncements that would act as the compass or guideposts of their respective administrations.

For Obama, it is “resetting” US diplomacy with Russia and Iran and perhaps North Korea as well, by engaging the world in multilateral dimensions as opposed to the go-it-alone Bush doctrine of American unilateralism, by engaging rather than isolating the “enemy.” It uncannily reminds one of another US President, Ronald Reagan’s dubious policy of “Constructive Engagement” with Apartheid South Africa, which was calculated to undermine and ultimately defeat the international sanctions then imposed on the evil regime.

Is Obama a secret admirer of former President Reagan who is the darling of and in fact a deity of the Republicans? It’s hard to tell except that he once heretically praised the former Democrat-turned Republican, during the party primaries even though he professes President Abraham Lincoln as his political idol.

Obama may well be implementing Reagan’s policy in the reverse with respect to traditional American foes. And this is so even if nothing has changed in reality with Obama appearing as bellicose as GW Bush on Iran and North Korea and even much more militarily aggressive in Afghanistan than Bush with his troops surge.

Obama’s escalation of hostilities in Afghanistan is similar to Bush’s troop surge in Iraq and may very well make or mar the Obama presidency as it did Bush’s, because he has borrowed the Bush template using the very same General David Petraeus and the very same Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Mr. Robert Gates, who both authored and executed the troops surge in Iraq.

Nothing seems to have changed overall. The Bush doctrine is essentially intact under the Obama administration which is not altogether surprising because, come to think of it, Obama inherited two ongoing wars from Bush that had sapped the US military to breaking points. Yet defeat is not an option. Obama has thus found himself unable to quit or “cut and run” (as the Americans prefer to put it) even in Iraq let alone Afghanistan the very home of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. It’s a catch 22 situation of sorts.

And that’s why it is said that the more things appear to change the more they remain the same. Obama’s gospel of change is now sounding hollow by the day and appears to be more a question of style than of substance, at least in the area of foreign relations, with particular reference to the so-called “Axis of Evil” nations, of course with the singular exception of Iraq for obvious reasons.

Domestically and politically for Obama also, it means working with the opposition party with a handshake across the isle, in this case, the Republican hot heads, to find “common grounds.” And this is so even if Obama has yet to get a single vote from the Republicans in passing his legislative measures, and the Republicans have sabotaged his policies every step of the way. Rather than getting handshakes across the isle, he is getting cold shoulders, brushstrokes and hard tackles from the Republicans. And that’s what change means in this part of the world.

And economically for Obama, it means moving the United States into the world of renewable energy and cutting down, if not entirely eliminating the “United States dependence” and “the United States addiction to foreign, middle-eastern oil.” Never mind that the US also depends heavily on oil from other nations outside the Middle-East including Nigeria, of course. And she is likely to remain so in the foreseeable future if the Republicans recapture either the White House in the long run or Congress in this year’s midterm elections. No energy bill will pass through the doors of the Republicans and they will only give up their addiction to oil in their graves. 

For Jonathan, it is “changing the game” with reform of the electoral system, which, however, appears to have begun and ended with the firing (?) of Maurice Iwu the former INEC chair. That is the meaning of reforms in this part of the world and Jonathan was only following the precedents laid down by his predecessors-in-office and passed on from generation to generation of Nigerian leaders.

Diplomatically, for Jonathan also, it means Nigeria’s “re-engagement with the world” to end Yar’Adua’s era of benign isolationism which unfortunately was not grounded on any defined foreign policy objectives. It also means for Jonathan an aggressive pursuit of the seemingly abandoned projects in power, railways and other sectors; and more importantly, a reset and re-calibration of the Niger Delta development agenda which had suffered undue delays and gross mismanagement in the hands of the Yar’Adua administration.

And it’s particularly striking not only because both men were unlikely candidates for their exalted offices given their relative lightweights in political environments dominated by heavyweights, but fundamentally because both are from minority constituencies that had never tasted political power at that level in their respective countries or domains, from the beginning of time since their nations were founded. 

And that’s what made their political ascendancy truly historical and remarkable in every sense of the words. As such, it is only natural for us to monitor their moves and see how they stack up against each other as they tackle the huge challenges before them.

 

Amnesty for Militants

Up and until his sudden transformation as the nation’s substantive president following the death of President Musa Yar’Adua, however, Jonathan was part of the Yar’Adua administration that had embarked on a general amnesty program for “repentant” militants who agreed to drop their weapons in exchange for their rehabilitation and reintegration into civil society to enable them contribute their quotas to the development of their fatherland. It was a good faith gesture of peace and reconciliation on the part of the late president. And if there was anything or island to be credited to the late president in his ocean of failures, this was it. 

Official figures released by the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Mr. Godsday Orubebe, indicate that over 20,000 ex militants signed up for the program out of which some 13,000 have already undergone training in “various skills particularly in the oil and gas, maritime, information technology, tourism industry, and other related trades” with assistance from foreign experts to give them sound and proper grounding. According to the minister, those already trained would be sponsored to read regular courses at both local and foreign institutions of higher learning. This no doubt is a step in the right direction and should form a template for government’s handling of similar situations in other parts of the country.

And given the amount of blood that has been spilled in Niger Delta and given where Niger Delta is coming from, I have no reason to doubt the authenticity and veracity of the figures released by the minister because it is unimaginable to think that anyone with his head sitting roundly on his neck would dare to play games with the amnesty program and the larger Niger Delta development agenda for that matter. That would be suicidal indeed. All eyes are on the ministry.

The declaration of general amnesty was a political masterstroke that came in with a bang to defuse tension at a time of heightened military operations by the military’s Joint Task Force (JTF) in the Niger Delta headquartered in Effurun, near Warri. The military operations, it would be recalled, followed the alleged kidnapping of some twenty nine or so military officers who had been sent to free some foreign hostages allegedly held by the militants in the creeks, that had caused several deaths and destructions, civil dislocations and untold hardships to the inhabitants of the region many of whom had fled to Warri and neighboring towns and villages to escape the military wrath unleashed by the federal government.

We all remember the sacking of the famous “General” Topolo’s Camp 5 in Gbaramatu kingdom by the military and the destruction that followed. We also remember the retaliatory strikes of the militants extending even beyond the immediate theater of conflict.  By the way, that camp destroyed by the military should be rebuilt and maintained as a historical legacy of the Niger Delta struggle for future generations. Camp 5 is an important historical monument to be kept alive as part of our historical heritage.

However, there is no question that the general amnesty program announced at the nick of time brought matters to a head and led to cessation of hostilities on both sides of the needless conflict. It was a peaceful solution that was heartily embraced by all well meaning Nigerians and the militants, including leaders of thought in the region who had earlier called for the amnesty in the first place. It was their idea and not the government’s although it could only be implemented by the government.

It can therefore be said that the government capitalized on the call to reset relations, as it were, to hastily announce the amnesty. And that would explain why its implementation was at best ad hoc because it was not clearly thought out and spelled out before it was announced forcing the government to improvise along the way. Again that explains why the implementation of the amnesty program was at best haphazard. However, it was bait dangled before the militants to lure them from their natural environments in the creeks to the cities, not necessarily to continue the struggle for the socio-economic emancipation of their peoples for which they had dedicated their lives, but to get them into other civil vocations.

Phased Struggle

However, the Niger Delta struggle appears to have been conducted in phases—alternating between peaceful and violent phases, right from the time of Isaac Adaka Boro to Ken Saro Wiwa and on to the present time. In all these phases, however, violence has been a last resort. None of the militant groups involved in the Niger Delta struggle started with violence, but violence was forced on them by the utter insensitivity of the government and the oil companies feeding fat from the miseries of the peoples visited on them by the oil companies with no compensations whatsoever.

Such gross insensitivity and criminal negligence couldn’t be countenanced in any part of the world. And the federal and state governments couldn’t be bothered as if they were dealing with a conquered people, not their own citizens. That, in and of itself, was a direct invitation to  direct action by disaffected youths that started with peaceful protests and gradually progressed into violent agitations as it was bound to become.

Was the legitimate struggle hijacked at times by criminal elements with a different agenda? Were some unscrupulous and dubious local politicians fueling and profiting from the crisis? Without a doubt! But that is always the case in every struggle. Criminal elements having nothing to do with the issues at stake would always catch in and exploit every crises situation for their selfish ends.

But the fact remains that no one woke up one day in Niger Delta strapping an AK 47 riffle and a bomb to his back to blow up oil wells. These youths were driven to the point of desperation and economic survival for their peoples whose only means of livelihood had been totally obliterated by oil behemoths operating in Niger Delta the same way it is dramatically happening now in the Gulf of Mexico.

I will return to the Gulf oil spill in the US later in this piece.

Suffice it to state, however, that since the return of democracy in 1999 the Niger Delta struggle which hitherto had been lulled by military jackboots and somewhat ineffectual, equally returned with vengeance to assume a more virulent, aggressive, and militant character never before seen in those parts in such scale, depth and military sophistication.

This time around, the militants were ready for a full scale war with the Nigerian authorities. But even so their demands were simple and directed not against the government per se, but against the oil majors. But the government considered that an affront on its authority. However, by fighting and killing its own people instead of defending them against the oil companies, the government unwittingly created the impression of siding with and condoning the negligent conduct of the oil companies. This realization must have informed government’s rethink of its military operations against the militants and quickly dialed back to announce the amnesty.

Without a doubt democracy had provided the perfect environment for such daring military undertaking by the militants. It removed the capping from the cauldron of discontents in the forgotten and forsaken region that produced the wealth of the nation. And Niger Delta youths, sick and tired of the business-as-usual, individual settlement approach of the Niger Delta leaders, were quick to leverage the power of democracy to redefine the struggle in military terms.

It seemed that the powers that be in Nigeria, sequestered in their ornate, marble offices in highbrow Abuja, had stuffed their ears with cotton wool to avoid hearing the cries and anguish of the dispossessed, economically marginalized, and environmentally abused Niger Deltans, which only the staccato sound of guns and bombs exploding in the oil rigs and flow stations in the region could remove.

The language of force was spoken with guns and bombs which reverberated with deafening crescendo in the halls and citadels of power in Abuja. What the loud cries and shrieks of the economically condemned peoples of Niger Delta could not achieve, the exploding bombs and bullets did with military precision, forcing the government to at least appear to be listening, if not acting.  That is a feat worth noting despite everything else that might be said against militant agitation.

Thus, while many Nigerians including, I might add, this writer, had reservations regarding some of the tactics employed by the militants for their struggle, which in the final analysis, is actually our national struggle, it remains an incontestable fact that the militants’ campaigns helped to bring the Niger Delta struggles for economic justice and equality into, not just national, but international lime lights.

Absent that, the usual individual settlement of political leaders by the government to shut their mouths would have continued to this day only to postpone the evil day.  Therefore, however reprehensible some of the tactics might have been, it does not detract with the benefit of hindsight from the utilitarian value of the overall strategy not only to draw attention but to force the authority to do something tangible and substantial to help alleviate the sufferings of the people. 

It must, however, be noted in this regard that no military struggles, no matter the planning, scale and sophistication, is without collateral damages involving ugly incidents on both sides as US military operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, have helped to drive home. Thus regrettable as they were, some of the tactics employed by the militants such as the kidnappings of expatriates and similar acts of violence directed against innocent civilians could be seen as collateral damages in guerilla warfare.

War is inherently a nasty business that should be avoided at all costs by doing what’s right and what ordinarily ought to have been done by the government as a matter of course without being forced or prodded if it were a responsible and responsive institution in the Nigerian system. The militants may have overreached in certain instances, but overall, they were restrained and avoided civilian casualties.

With the scourge of kidnapping gripping the nation especially in the South/Eastern parts of the country, it is easy to blame this trend on the militants. However, such thinking overlooks the fact that kidnapping did not start in Niger Delta and so could not have been copied from Niger Delta by purely criminal elements operating in other parts of the country with no political undertone whatsoever. Moreover, kidnappings in Niger Delta were never directed at fellow Nigerians but at expatriate staffers of the oil companies and their mercenaries. And more importantly, these acts were not carried out by common criminals politically motivated individuals in pursuit of a political agenda bothering on political and economic emancipation of their region that had been devastated by oil exploration.

With the benefit of hindsight, and they say hindsight is 2020, it is now crystal clear that the initial treatment of the Niger Delta problem as criminal rather than political issue was responsible for the prolongation of the crisis. The crisis is definitively political rather than criminal in character and this character of the struggle may have been lost in the fog of war and mutual recriminations.

But the difference couldn’t be clearer. Therefore, while it is all well and good to express reservations about the acts of kidnapping generally as many had done, it is to the credit of the militants that they ensured that no harm came to the kidnapped foreigners in their custody and they were freed as soon as their demands were satisfied whatever those demands might have been. In comparison to similar operations in other parts of the world including Iraq where victims were beheaded and their gruesome images posted on the internet, that must be a plus for the militants, for, it showed restraint, maturity and principled disposition on their part. It showed they were not a trigger happy blood hounds, but a disciplined, purpose driven outfits that ere out fighting for a noble cause.

With that in mind, it can be said that while the act of kidnapping might ordinarily be criminal under normal conditions in time of peace, it assumes a different name and character in war conditions—prisoners of war—POWs for short. Under such war conditions, the POWs might have been regarded, rightly or wrongly, either as enemy combatants or as being sympathetic to the cause of the enemy and, therefore, liable to be treated as enemies. It is extremely difficult to draw the line between a friend and a foe in the fog of war.

While no one truly believed or imagined kidnapped expatriates to be sympathetic to the cause of the federal government of Nigeria that had been roundly and routinely criticized by their home governments for neglecting the oil producing communities in the Niger Delta, their mere association with oil companies whose exploitative and environmentally destructive oil exploration activities are responsible for the abject conditions in the Niger Delta region in the first place, would appear to make them fair targets for punitive or at the very least, deterrent measures through the doctrine of guilt by association.

Considered against the backdrop of the standard demands of the militants to the oil companies to close shop and quit the region altogether, targeting their staffers and facilities would seem to fair game since they had refused to quit or come to terms with the real issues at stake. There is no question that the oil producing companies in Niger Delta are the real culprits in Niger Delta and not necessarily the government at the center, which is, at worse, only an accomplice after the fact. 

If this proposition is correct and I stand to be corrected, it means the militants had no case to answer in the first place and the amnesty declaration was at best a convenient political and administrative cover to resolve the conflict rather than a tool designed to “pardon criminals” as some might have imagined because only those who had been duly “tried” and “convicted” in a court of law or tribunals are pardonable, and to the best of my knowledge and information, none of the militants had been tried and convicted in a court of law or tribunal either before or after the amnesty was announced and so could not have been “pardoned” by the government because they were not convicts in the first place.

And this is a no-brainer. The militants were blowing up oil wells and oil pipelines alright, but fighting for political and economic emancipation has never been a crime regardless of the modus operandi, provided of course, innocent civilians were not primary targets otherwise our founding fathers and all freedom fighters, including those who drove out the British in the United States in the war of independence would be criminals. This then is the difference between common crimes committed by common criminals and what could appropriately be termed “political crimes” committed by freedom fighters to liberate their territories. While common crimes are tried in the courts, political crimes are resolved at the table or at the battlefront. The Nigerian government for whatever reasons chose the former and the militants bought into it in en mass. That’s it.  Case closed.

 

Lessons from the US Gulf Oil Spill

The environmental devastation visited on Niger Delta was caused and continues to be caused not by the government at the center, but the oil companies and the inability of the federal and state governments in the region to make the oil companies pay for the environmental disasters routinely unleashed on the region makes the federal and state governments severally and collectively complicit. The huge $20m initial damage deposits, which the United States government had imposed on BP in the wake of the Gulf oil spill to settle claims by fishermen, shop owners, and sundry workers affected by the spill, exemplifies how a government that is responsible for the protection and welfare of its own people should act at all times whenever and wherever such disastrous incidents occur to its people.  And that should form the template for the Nigerian administration now and in the future.

Latest information indicate that BP has so far paid out over $160m as claim settlements to victims of the Gulf spill and still counting. So far, it has expended a whopping $2bn on the clean up and settlements efforts. The cost is so huge that BP is reportedly considering selling off some of its assets in Alaska, United States, to help defray some of the costs. The oil giant may well be headed toward bankruptcy filing in the US when all is said and done because more claims are in the pipeline through the courts.

And as if that was not enough the US Congress is gearing up to open hearings to determine whether BP had leveraged its influence with the British government to secure the release of the Libyan Lockerbie bomber in exchange for oil exploration deal in Libya. As reported, BP is due to start production in Libya anytime soon and that could offset its losses in the US potentially preventing it from going under. 

The Americans will extract every dime from BP in claims even from the corpse of the oil giant. There is no reason why Nigerians can’t do the same against Shell and Chevron and other oil majors in Niger Delta if they place any value at all on their socio-economic wellbeing.

And all that is because the United States government has brought its full powers to bear on BP to make whole not just the victims of the spill but the environment of the spill as well. Nigerian government stands to learn important lessons from the swift and decisive response of the US government. The Nigerian government should be seen to be acting as a real government and not a wimping, jelly mound. 

A corporation, no matter how big and influential it might be is never bigger or more important than the citizens of a nation and must therefore be made to make whole the lives of the victims of its negligent acts that adversely affect their means of livelihood. A government exists for the welfare and protection of its people and must be seen to live up to that billing at all times especially at times of natural and man-made disasters that are outside the powers of individual citizens or groups to redress on their own. They must not be left to their fate or to their own devices. If the Nigerian government had been alive to its responsibilities as the US government has demonstrated, there would have been no need for the militants to ask oil companies to quit the region. The government would have long intervened on behalf of the peoples of the region to compel oil companies to make whole the lives of the peoples devastated by their exploration activities.

And it is not only the Nigerian government that should draw appropriate lessons from the BP incident. The people of Niger Delta in particular and Nigerians in general should be alive to their rights with regard to the deleterious activities of corporate bodies operating on their lands. A high degree of environmental pollution in both land and water is going on all over Nigeria without any action against corporate institutions responsible. Manufacturers are pouring toxic chemicals into our rivers and creeks, with the environmental protection agencies looking the other way.  Yet when a toxin laden ship is headed to Nigeria, it generates a lot of hoopla by the Nigerian press all because it is coming from abroad. What about the tons of carcinogenic toxins being deposited by manufacturers on our waterways right there in Nigeria under the very nose of the press? These abuses should be exposed with the same fervor as those coming from foreign lands and appropriately punished. Locally generated toxins in local plants are no less damaging and hazardous than foreign ones and should be treated the same way.

And the individuals affected must not sit back and wait for the government to act. The Nigerian Bar Association should look into ways and means of assisting indigent communities whose health is placed at risk by the presence of these toxins in or on their land. The Nigerian judicial system must be activated to deal with these issues squarely.

While the cost of litigation could be astronomical and unaffordable by the poverty stricken citizens in Niger Delta, environmental, not for profit, civil groups could be formed to help raise necessary funding for legal action against the oil giants with lawyers well versed in petroleum and environmental laws and other professionals with relevant expertise contracted to handle such cases for as long as it takes. Our judiciary should equally be sensitized as to the irreversible damages caused to the environments and the livelihood of our people by oil exploration activities. 

It’s no news that Niger Delta ecological system has been permanently destroyed by oil spills that are never redressed thus permanently destroying the people’s means of livelihood. As indicated earlier, the criminal negligence of the government and the oil companies had driven the people to take the laws and their destiny into their own hands because somebody somewhere has got to pay for the damages to their lives and environments by whatever means necessary.

Therefore, charges of extortion usually leveled against the militants whether valid or not pales into insignificance are totally secondary to the issues at stake.

As indicated earlier, the armed struggle can be said to have made a significant difference overall in terms of drawing local and global attention to the struggle and getting the powers that be in Nigeria to do something. However, the ultimate measure of the success of any campaign, whether military or civil, is not whether somebody in power is listening and reacting, but the extent to which its objectives are achieved.  And if the militants have succeeded in at least forcing the government at the center to listen to the cries of their peoples by not only declaring general amnesty, but backing it up with concrete development agenda, it is an indication of the success of the campaign.

That development agenda has come in the form of the Niger Delta Ministry, which, it must be noted, and in all sense of modesty, was the brain child of this writer in the sense that yours truly had stridently canvassed way back in the OBJ era, for a well funded Ministry of Niger Delta to be fashioned in the likelihood of the Federal Capital Territory Ministry, Abuja, to deal exclusively with Niger Delta development, long before former VP, Abubakar Atiku, jumped on it during his ill fated presidential campaign. Somebody must have been reading me and tapping my brains. Good to know though! However, the idea didn’t materialize then as the OBJ government had just set up the NDDC, but it came to fruition during the Yar’Adua era.

Am I being immodest here? I don’t think so. There is nothing wrong for taking credit for an idea that seemed farfetched then but has now become the touchstone for dealing with and managing the developmental imperatives of the region. While many had scoffed at the idea and in fact dismissed it out of hand as being too little too late, there is no single individual in Niger Delta today who would call for the abolition of the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs however ineffective it might be.  It has come to stay as an important interventionist vehicle to actualize the dreams and aspirations of the entire region on a much larger scale and power.

The idea was conceived to put a ministerial interface between the people of the region and the government in order for the struggle to receive proper governmental attention at a higher level, which the NDDC could not as a mere agency. This is a ministry we call our own. It is a young interventionist ministry that is bound to make a huge difference in the overall efforts to develop the region. In fact, the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs has become the hub and the main vehicle for the implementation of the government’s agenda for the region including the rehabilitation of the militants as alluded to above as the pre-existing interventionist agency, the NDDC, has fallen short of the people’s expectation.

With every sense of modesty, that is the power of positive ideas that should move us forward on the path of growth and sustainable development.  

That development agenda has also come in the form of rehabilitation and reintegration of ex-militants and a raft of infrastructural and socio-economic development projects calculated to reverse the utter neglect and infrastructural decay in the region. These projects include, but not limited to extension of railway lines, interstate highways, tertiary educational institutions specially related to the petroleum industries in oil and gas, new towns development and housing, as well as cottage industries sprinkled throughout the length and breadth of the region, just to mention but a few. 

A holistic approach encapsulated in the Niger Delta Development Plan now appears to be underway and the guns have since fallen silent, giving the nation a much needed breather to tackle our larger economic problems including our epileptic power supplies which the crisis in Niger Delta had adversely affected due to disruptions in gas supplies to gas powered power plants located within and outside the region; which is all well and good.

 

No Letting Up

However, in this very silence lurks the danger of complacency on the part of Niger Deltans. It is so easy to assume that with President Jonathan, a true and proud son of the soil, in Aso Rock, all would be well with Niger Delta.  Nothing could be farther from historical realities. If anything, the opposite could very well be the case. And one doesn’t have to go outside of Nigeria to find examples of leaders who neglected the development of their own backyards not to talk about the backyards of others.

While the Nigerian nation has been ruled by leaders from the North for 38 out of her 49 year old history, Northern Nigeria is about the least developed in the nation both in terms of infrastructure and human capital development. Other than the political elite class that feeds fat on politics, the middle class that is the driver of economic growth in all nations is virtually non-existent in the Northern parts of country, and so are social infrastructures like schools and hospitals.

Both secondary and tertiary school enrollment is tragically low in the North as revealed in JAMB placements and NECO statistics year after year. The literacy rate in the North is as bad as it gets and must rank among the lowest in the world. And primitive conditions still exist in parts of the North with whole tribes living nomadic and pastoral lives in the 21st century. Yet its sons have been in power for more than a quarter century with absolutely nothing to show for it.

What this proves conclusively is that the development of a region cannot be guaranteed by the mere fact that a leader from the region is in power. African Americans are now discovering this bitter truth in the United States with President Obama in the White House. Beyond the psychological and perhaps spiritual gratifications of having a leader from one’s own stock of humanity in power, more often than not, there is little or no change in the material conditions of the people.  This reality must inform the attitudes of Niger Delta leaders of thought.

But the more insidious part of it all is that the mere presence of the leader in the corridors of power has the power to lure his people into a false sense of security and total complacency even if there is nothing to show for it. Thus Niger Deltans must guard against a false sense of security and accomplishment just by the mere fact of the presence of their son at the seat of power in Abuja. That fact alone without more offers no guarantees and no warranties either. 

 

New Phase

With this reality in mind, therefore, on no account should the Niger Delta struggle be allowed to fall into a state of comma or a relapse into violence. A dog does not go back to its vomit. While the old strategy of violent militant agitation has fallen out of fashion and should be discouraged by all means from being resurrected the pressure on the presidency must not be let up but intensified through direct political action in consonance with democratic tenets.

This is therefore calling for a new phase of the struggle that utilizes not guns and bombs as such but the full complement of democratic tools available to lift the struggle to respectable heights similar to those utilized by the likes of Mahatma Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jnr. History has shown that these forms of struggles are even more potent and effective than other violent forms if properly coordinated and led by a charismatic figure.

Here we are talking about protests and demonstrations, petitions, political mobilization, and adequate publicity and information dissemination about the conditions in the region and state of progress or lack thereof in the implementation of the government’s agenda, and more. These are the recognized tools of democracy that have been used effectively to move mountains in the past in different parts of the world.

There is so much political capital in the region that could be tapped and deployed to good effects to ensure the development of the region. History has shown time and again that Niger Delta holds the key to the presidency whether or not its son is contesting.  There is no Nigeria leader other than those who came in through military coups that got to the presidency without the approval of Niger Deltans. The road to Aso Rock passes through Uyo, Warri, Yenogoa, Ughelli,  Abomema, Ikot Ekpene, Oleh, Sapele, Burutu, Ode Itsekiri, Ogwashiukwu, Gelegele, Koko, and Okitikpukpa, just to mention but a few. That is a humungous political capital that should be put to good use in a democracy by the leaders of the region with or without Jonathan occupying the office of the president.  No one goes to Aso Rock without seeking and obtaining clearance from Niger Delta, and this has been the case since the nation’s independence. Do Niger Deltans realize this political power in their hands?

While I’m absolutely confident in the willingness, commitment and ability of President Jonathan to fully implement, as he alone can, the outlined development agenda for Niger Delta, there can be no let up in the pressure on the presidency to deliver on its promise. This must be the case because the president has other issues on his plate besides Niger Delta. Although he hails from Niger Delta, he is nonetheless the president of the entire country and can easily be distracted by other competing demands. This is why this I welcomed the recent bus trip of ex-militants storming Abuja to press their concerns at the seat of power. Whether or not their advertized concerns are meritorious or not is besides the issues. What is important is to put the Niger Delta question on the front burner of national discourse at all times and such actions help to remind the nation of the unfinished business in Niger Delta. 

While this writer has no intention of diverting the attention of the government from the programs already outlined and those currently being executed, it is perhaps appropriate to recommend to President Jonathan to start with his own state, Bayelsa, if only to validate the saying that charity begins from home. Presently, Bayelsa state is cut off from the rest of the country even though Bayelsa is not Alaska or Hawaii in the US that is totally and completely cut off from the mainland.

Bayelsa is only separated from the rest of the country by a river and a network of creeks that are easily bridgeable to become fully integrated into the mainland. There are already bridges on the Rivers Niger and Nun, which need to be expanded to dual carriage bridges or other bridges added to them because it is not wise to access that region with just a single bridge and that’s’ reason why a second bridge is being proposed for the East at Asaba to complement the aging Onitsha bridge.

However, it is not enough to build major interstate roads and bridges. It is equally important that the marshy, mangrove terrain of the Niger Delta that are bristling with little towns and villages be integrated into the mainstream of the transportation infrastructure in order to bring development to those remote and inaccessible areas. There is no reason on earth, with the available technological expertise, why any part of Niger Delta should be accessible only by dug-out canoes and motorboats. Absolutely no reason whatsoever!

Therefore there should be no town or village in Niger Delta and Bayelsa in particular that is inaccessible by road because there is no unbridgeable ocean dividing the region. Full integration into the mainland therefore requires connecting and interconnecting the entire region with quality networks of road and bridges that would withstand the peculiar terrain of the regions that would outlive the Jonathan administration for decades to come, not shoddy, low quality jobs that would wash away with the first rains.

 

Warri, the Forgotten City

That said, the oil city of Warri, nestled at the heart of Niger Delta, and the oil capital of the world, is very dear to my heart. It was the headquarters of the big oil giants like Shell Petroleum Development Company, and Chevron, formerly Gulf. Unlike its sister city of Port Harcourt, however, Warri is not a state capital and that fact has been turned into a disability of sorts. Consequently, it has suffered utter neglect in the hands of successive state administrations.

Although Warri is an industrial city in its own right, the major industrial establishments in the city have nothing to do with the state but everything to do with federal government whether we’re talking about Aladja steel complex, port complex, refinery and petrochemical complex, Petroleum Training Institute, Petroleum University, and the major highways ringing and traversing the city, and of course the oil companies themselves.

Warri deserves a major push due to the fact that the city is perhaps the biggest victim of the militant activities that rocked the state with scores of commercial undertakings relocating from the city including Shell, of all companies. It would not be asking for too much therefore to declare Warri a disaster zone to help restore it to its past glory. It is pointless building new towns as the Niger Delta ministry has proposed when old towns and cities are victims of neglect.

A major oil producing city like Warri deserves an international airport and first class transportation infrastructure including 5-star hotels and hospitals. What obtains at the present is a far cry from what it ought to be and it falls on the government to lead the charge in this regard. Building an international Airport at Asaba as the Delta state government has done is terrible decision that would serve the eastern part of the country rather than Niger Deltans. It’s a disservice to the people of Delta and a slap in the face of Warri cosmopolitan city, which is home to all Niger Deltans, other Nigerians and foreigners alike.

It’s worthy of note in this regard that the funds for the Asaba International Airport came from Warri and its environs as indeed almost the entire Delta state budget. Yet no major project worth the status of the city has been undertaken by successive governments. If this is not what is called negligence I don’t know what is.

It is patently unfair and therefore unacceptable for the government to build a brand new federal capital in Abuja with oil proceeds from Warri and then abandon Warri to its fate and leave it as glorified slum. If the government has a conscience it is time to show it by immediately upgrading the infrastructure in the city and its environs as an important part of the Niger Delta package.

 Warri already has an airport at Osubi built by oil companies and an old airfield along airport road, built and operated by Aero Contractors either of which could have been upgraded to international airport.  I don’t know what exactly informed the decision to site the international airport in Asaba other than to serve government officials. Economically and politically, Warri should have been a no brainer given Warri’s population, strategic location, historical and economic importance.  But the damage has already been done.

 

Failure, Not an Option

For the Jonathan administration, however, failure to deliver on the Niger Delta program is absolutely not an option. Jonathan may fail to deliver on power supply; he may fail to deliver on jobs; he may fail to deliver on credible elections; he may fail to deliver infrastructure rehabilitation and everything else in between, but he cannot afford to fail to deliver on Niger Delta! And the reason for this is simple enough.  His failure to deliver on Niger Delta will put paid to the Niger Delta struggle. If Jonathan, a son of the soil could not deliver, who else would be asked to deliver? And what right would Niger Deltans have to ask one from another region to deliver for them? Cries of marginalization by Niger Deltans would be scoffed at and laughed to scorn should, God forbid, Jonathan fails to deliver.

Failure by Jonathan to deliver on Niger Delta is simply not an option and that’s reason enough for Niger Deltans to band together to help him bring to fruition their dreams and aspirations and shun individual and selfish motives for the general good, because this is the last card and the last chance to get it right.  Jonathan is our last card in Niger Delta and it should be played with utmost care, deliberation, and thoughtfulness. And it goes even beyond Jonathan himself for another important reason: Oil is going out of fashion and the world is racing to replace it with renewable energy. This is our last chance indeed as a nation to catch our breath and get it right.

 

Diversification

It is not a matter just for Niger Deltans alone but for the nation as a whole to make hay while the sun is still shinning before darkness falls upon us all. Oil is our last boat to cross the river of poverty and underdevelopment to the land of prosperity and infinite opportunities beckoning on us on the other side of the river. Europeans are racing to dump oil; the Chinese and the Japanese are almost there, and the Americans are already playing catch up under Obama with a determined focus on renewable energy. Obama is dead serious about the United States playing a leading role in renewable energy and that means bad news for OPEC because the US and China are the world’s biggest consumers of fossil fuel.

Obama just completed the funding of the biggest renewable energy manufacturing plants in the United States in Colorado and many more are in the pipeline. In a few decades from now it is safe to predict that oil will be a thing of the past and Niger Deltans and Nigerians will be left to drink their oil. An aggressive economic diversification effort must be put underway before we find ourselves economically marooned at the banks of the Niger River with our fingers dripping with a worthless product. This is no time for dithering and second guessing. Whether we like it or not the world is moving steadily from oil. The time to act is now because delay will be dangerous. The time to gradually shift away from oil is now by using oil proceeds to develop renewable energy and other sectors of the economy with proven multiplier effects otherwise doomsday awaits Nigeria in the very near future.

 

Our Destiny in Our Own Hands!

With that said Niger Deltans should never imagine that President Jonathan will solve all of their problems or do everything to them. The huge problems on the ground will take several years and huge financial outlays to overcome. There is a limit to what he can do both in terms of financing and the timeframe he is working with. Nevertheless he is bound to make a significant if not historical difference with the time and resources available to him.

Yet we must not set our sights too high under Jonathan so as not to unduly overwhelm him with our problems recognizing that decades of neglect will not be undone overnight even if he has all the resources at his disposal. I shudder to state this, but try as he will and he should, it is safe to predict that many of the problems of Niger Delta will outlast the Jonathan presidency even with his utmost exertions. It’s just the way it is. However, that should not deter him from giving it his best shot possible and so should the states and local governments in the region.

In the end, however, the salvation of the region is in the hands of Niger Deltans themselves. If people are complaining about economic marginalization, what about their own oil and gas sitting there beneath their feet? What is preventing our people from getting in on the act? There is no single private gas plant or oil refinery owned by indigenes of the region in over 50 years of oil activities in the region. Why can’t we build and own refineries and gas plants, for instance, to employ our teeming youths? Why can’t we build our own gas plants to be utilized for cooking and other industrial and commercial applications? Why wait for the federal government to build and operate refineries in our backyards only to bring outsiders to run them while we’re left to clean up the mess after them? It makes absolutely no sense to wait for others to come and develop our own land only for us to go cap in hand begging them for little favors and employment of our people.

 And if the financial requirements are just too much to bear by individuals, why are our own banking institutions like the Oceanic and other banks not involved in the funding of oil exploration and production activities, including the establishment of refineries and gas plants and instead allowed to be engaged in cheap importation of petroleum products and spare parts? What are banks for if not the funding of capital intensive projects with huge economic benefits and potentials for our people?  Oil refineries and gas plants should be owned and operated, not by governments, but by corporate bodies and Niger Delta investors and entrepreneurs should be at the forefront of this new awakening because nothing is too big to be accomplished if the will is there.

The Delta state government is engaged in building multi billion naira prestige projects like the Asaba International Airport and the so-called naval base at Oghara in Ethiope LGA, which by the way, is fugitive ex-governor Ibori’s town, which will only provide employment for a handful of citizens instead of investing in the oil and gas resources that are readily available to it or in gas-powered power plants that could serve the entire Niger Delta region for good. When you build a refinery, gas plant or gas powered power plant, the entire state benefits as every citizen in the state will taste the benefits, not just the indigenes of its location. I don’ know how many Deltans will benefit from an international airport or a naval base at Oghara, for that matter. A clear case of misplaced priority is indicated in these white elephant prestige projects. And we just can’t continue to go down this path. And somebody should at least explain to Niger Deltans why a naval base was built with Delta money and donated to the federal government as Christmas gift by the Delta state government when the same Delta state government cannot meet its basic financial obligations to its own people and institutions?

A state that is drowning in oil and gas has no single oil and gas plant of its own! It shows our warped sense of priorities in those parts. A radical reappraisal of our development strategies is called for at both governmental and individual levels.

If the oil and gas belong to Niger Delta, the oil refineries and gas plants should equally belong to Niger Delta. And the time to wake up is now before our oil is rendered useless with renewable energy forms before our own eyes. Gear up Niger Delta and put your economic destiny in your own hands the right way!

And President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan should kindly lead the way forward.

I’m a lonely voice in the wilderness crying out for action and providing the intellectual stimulus for our people to cue in. And I’m extremely proud to be of service to my people even if remotely so from another land across the Atlantic.

My part is done.

 

Long live Niger Delta!

Franklin Otorofani, Esq. contact: mudiagaone@yahoo.com


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