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Uche Igwe: Niger Delta cleanup, Niger Delta Avengers and the rest of us

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Uche Igwe: Niger Delta cleanup, Niger Delta Avengers and the rest of us

By Uche Igwe

Tomorrow the 2nd of June, President Muhammadu Buhari will be in Bodo, Ogoniland to officially kick off the environmental clean-up of oil polluted sites in the Niger Delta region. This is consistent with the recommendation of an assessment conducted by the United Nations Environmental Program(UNEP).

That visit will lay to rest speculations about whether the Nigerian President will fulfil the promise he made to Ogoni people during his campaign visit to Bori, the headquarters of Ogoniland.

The timing and political symbolism of the visit are multidimensional. After one year of Buhari’s administration, part of the criticism is that he has paid insufficient attention to some parts of the country which did not vote substantially for him. Although as an individual, I have always argued against such prevailing but misleading narrative, I hope this visit will help challenge it. No one part of the country contributed more to Buhari’s victory than the other. That is a fact. The block votes from Northern Nigeria and the resistance against rigging mounted by the opposition leaders in the Southern Nigeria contributed equally to the defeat of the ruling People’s Democratic Party in 2015.

One important takeaway from the last election is that no one part of the country can make it to the Presidency until it learns to take other sections along. I am sure the President knows this but anyone who is still in doubt should look at the numbers from the results of that Presidential elections in 2011 and 2015 and make comparisons. That is why I will remain grateful to President Buhari and Niger Delta leaders like immediate past governor of Rivers State, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi and Senator Magnus Abe for their roles in making the clean-up happen. It is important that all citizens get a feeling of dividends of democracy.

The UNEP Report we celebrate today is a product of the foresight of some people. We must put on record that as governor of Rivers State, it was Amaechi who insisted that the UNEP investigators should be provided community access to do their work and gave them adequate security throughout their stay. His role exemplifies the level of progress that is possible in the region when there is positive vision, selfless sacrifice and enduring political will. Those who understand the history of agitations of marginalisation in the region will appreciate that the damage that arose from the ecological footprints of oil exploration originally defined what will later be known as the struggle. Therefore, anyone (like Buhari and Amaechi) associated with remedial measures on the Niger Delta environment should be given their right places in the annals of history.

We know that the situation is now slightly different and more complicated. We know that what started as an environmental struggle has now been hijacked, commercialised and criminalised. Many young people have taken to arms to advance their own interpretation of the struggle- no matter how delusional. It is now a full-fledged conflict economy with sophisticated and well-resourced networks. Their sponsors and patrons are merchants of instability in our midst who use violence as their own bargaining chip for access to power and the powerful.

Today, whatever remains of the Niger Delta struggle leaves more questions than answers. It is often said that the struggle is about the ordinary Niger Delta citizen. However, since the struggle started, no one has ever bothered to do an honest cost -benefit analysis and stock taking. Is the average Niger Delta citizen better off now than before the struggle? Is the environment of the region more polluted now or then? Are the communities not more fragmented, dislocated, devastated and more desolate than ever before?

We must note that President Buhari is visiting the delta at an interesting time when another amorphous group known as the Niger Delta Avengers(NDA) is on rampage. In the last few weeks this group has continuously and successfully gone on the offensive destroying many strategic oil installations in the region. I have looked at their shabby website in search of their purpose without success. So what or who are they avenging against? At least one of their demands include the cleaning up of the region. We all know that this could be a mere smokescreen masking their real intentions, however it will useful to see if the meeting of one of their demands through clean-up can force them to any form of ceasefire or dialogue.

Many observers insist that the so called avengers may be a political response to the defeat of the former President Jonathan in the last elections. The Avengers pointed implicitly to the detention of some of the former President’s allies as part of their grievances. No one will deny that the signs have been there. So why will anyone defeated take to arms? When shall our politicians learn to be magnanimous in defeat and reorganize for the future? Where is the politics of ethic based instability leading this country to?

What is surprising is that the government in power could not engage them early before they went ballistic with their reprehensible vengeful mission. I am more interested in the response of government than the predictable ranting of the avengers. I hate to suggest that these renegades need to be engaged before they bring our economy to a halt. The Niger Delta region is too strategic to be overtaken by violence again. The avengers should be told that contracts, cash and temporary appeasement cannot lead to sustainable solution to the problems of the region.

Yet I must highlight the complacency, myopia or collusion of our leaders for what has become of this blessed but impoverished region. For too long they have refused to speak with one voice or be on the same page with one another. They are the ones whose hypocritical silence created the space for the avengers to thrive and have a voice. I do not know who these delinquents speak for but they at least do not speak for me. Sometimes I try to imagine that the agitations of violent militant groups are simply reflections of the anger exclusion by the elite – business and political. I may be wrong but it is always the elite and community support- however covert- that sustain these hostilities and you can take this to the bank.

Many of these people pretend to be less concerned at least publicly while offering their full sympathy privately. Typical of Nigeria, our ethnic affiliations continuously blur our sense of objectivity. There are others whose business interests are enhanced by insecurity and you can imagine where their loyalties will lie. The issue such as the fate of the Maritime University in Okerenikoko in Gbaramatu Kingdom readily comes to mind- a project that was derailed because 13 billion naira of public funds were squandered in acquiring the land alone. Such amount of money could have been used to completely build and equip a brand new university. No one has been courageous enough to question how such a humongous amount of money disappeared or call corruption by its name because they do not want to offend an individual. Why have the avengers not directed their rage at the individual who sold a land at 13 billion naira? Why the selective vengeance?

What about those who parade themselves around that they have relationship with these clandestine groups? They assert an imaginary patent of constant access and capacity to call the ‘boys’ to order anytime. It is a sort of meal ticket. If they knew as much as they claim, how come the problem of purposeless agitation have not been completely solved over the years. These claims have often turned out to be false and misleading and further exposes the kind of divisive and opportunistic thinking that has taken root among the Niger Delta elite. For them, it is an entitlement mentality, making bogus but unsubstantiated claims of territorialism and creating a living out of it, that matters. In many ways they pretend to be part of the solution but indeed they are part of the problem.

My counsel is that the Niger Delta Avengers should leverage on the President’s visit to drop their guns and embrace dialogue. Taking arms against the state is a suicide mission that leads to unintended consequences that inflict indelible damages to the communities. They should watch how Boko Haram was degraded from one of the deadliest terror organisations in the world to one at the verge of extinction. If the avengers claim to be protecting Niger Delta interest, they should start by adopting a method that will lead to any progress beyond economic tokenism.

Finally, I know President Buhari is committed to cleaning up the region but that promise in my view does not include the spillages that occur through the sabotage of oil installations. It is the wish of optimists that someday when the clean-up is completed oil dries up, the people of the delta can at least return to their traditional occupations of farming and fishing. These avengers and their collaborators who keep blowing up oil installations for short term benefits will endanger such aspiration. They may have themselves to blame if at the end the day the aims of this expensive clean-up are not realized. For the sake of long term sustenance of livelihoods in the region, it is time to for these avengers and their sponsors to apply caution and allow wisdom to prevail.

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