May 23, 2007

Niger Delta - Still a Hot Bed of Violence

This Day (Lagos)
INTERVIEW
22 May 2007
Posted to the web 23 May 2007

By Godwin Haruna
Lagos

With the events of last week still fresh in memory, the Niger Delta situation appears to have assumed a frightening dimension. If a guarded country home of a sitting governor and Nigeria's Vice President-elect, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, could be reduced to rubbles in a night of rage by militants, then all could be glaringly seen to be abnormal in the oil-rich region. Although many reasons have been adduced for the dastardly act, it was one incident that has brought home the votality of the region to close watchers due to years of neglect, which have thrown up frustrations in many quarters.

Speaking to THISDAY in an interview on the crises in the region, a prominent son of the soil, Chief Dumo Owukori Lulu-Briggs stated life and property are held by no greater tenure than the caprice of a mob in the region as at today. Lulu-Briggs stressed that laws were continually despised and disregarded and citizens' love for their government has waned, if not completely erased

Assessing the overall situation in the region, he added: "Children are still illiterate and go to bed hungry, fathers go infirm through premature aging, mothers still go six feet under at child birth and young girls trade sex for money and small favours to pay their way out of poverty and through education. People are still locked in the gloom of the huts they call homes, with neither water nor electricity trapped in the quagmire of poverty set by their leaders and rulers. The human development index rates below that of cities in Haiti and Bangladesh and 65 per cent of graduates cannot get employment for upwards of twenty four months after graduation. The leaders of tomorrow, young men and women of this generation have in their numbers become destitute, prostitutes, cultists, robbers, thugs and kidnappers".

According to him, at the heart of government's problem today, is perhaps, its wrong diagnosis of the main issues and therefore, its wrong prescription for remedial action in terms of policies.

"The crisis in the Niger Delta, manifesting in armed violence and kidnappings reflect the frustration of the people of the region, who have been complaining for years of; the mismanagement of rents from their natural resources, environmental damage from oil exploration, perpetually rising unemployment, increasing poverty and degradation in the region, and lack of infrastructure development in the region", Lulu-Briggs stated.

He said those now involved in hostage taking, were a combination of local ethnic agitators and criminal elements bent on exploiting the situation in the Delta, making the situation both a political problem and a criminal issue. "Many of the armed groups are probably just criminal elements that take hostages and promptly release them unharmed when ransom is paid. This category makes themselves available as ordinary tools in the hands of politicians who assembled forces for the April elections", he added.

However, the chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) noted that there were few others who were genuinely agitating for the region's fair share of the nation's resources, and the sincere and insightful employment of such resources in the development of the region and her people.

"In order to resolve the issue of the Niger Delta Crisis, the government needs to develop relationship that is conducive to negotiation, compromise and cooperation. These positions explain the crisis in the Niger Delta, and its resolution should take these into cognizance", he declared.

He said prior to 2003, there were two major bodies, the Ijaw National Congress ( INC ) and the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People ( MOSSOP ) leading the agitation for increased accommodation of the peoples of the Niger Delta in the Nigerian federation. The other two, he said, are the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), and the Niger Delta People Volunteer Force (NDPVF), led the call for revolutionary engagements in the Niger Delta region.

"Today, there are more than five well organised militia groups with membership running into thousands. They comprise previously unknown groups such as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), The Joint Revolutionary Council (JRC, an amalgam of MEND), the Martyrs Brigade, the Reformed Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force, and the Coalition for Militant Action in the Niger Delta (COMA). These groups are in actual fact, splinter groups that broke out from the Dokubo-Asari's NDPVF after series of misunderstandings catalyzed by Dokubo's NDPVF decision to disarm and pursue peace with the Nigerian state and his eventual incarceration on charges of treason", he said.

Asked to provide insights into how the problem could be resolved, Lulu-Briggs stated: "If we do not provide opportunities for all then, the corresponding expectations of responsibility from all becomes undeserved. Therefore, let us start by agreeing that all of us, governments, chiefs, elite, local community heads, militia groups, peoples of the region, and of Nigeria, and the oil companies, have failed. There is a legal expectation of obedience to law but the moral expectation is lacking, hence, the inability of government to frontally engage the militants.

"Government needs therefore to earn the moral authority. If a parent fails to provide food, that parent hardly finds the voice to rebuke the child when the child goes begging outside. Oftentimes, the child goes beyond begging. To earn that authority, round table talks are necessary, and there must be a joint ownership of the process, agreed benchmarks and timelines, in synergy with the local demands and the deliverables", he stated.

For such roundtable talks to be feasible, Lulu-Briggs posits that representatives of all tiers of government to be appointed by the president, community representatives nominated from associations like INC, IYC, MOSSOP, chiefs, - eight first class chiefs, one from each oil producing state to be nominated by their governors, oil companies, - one from each major oil producing company, and one representative each from their home governments, the elite, - about five nominated by government, and the militia groups like MEND, COMA etc. Others are militia groups, - one person from each of their leadership and three nominees from Nigeria Bar Association.

In his opinion, at such a forum government has only one demand to make which is the maintenance of law and order and respect for rule of law, the breach of which shall no longer be tolerated.

He added that the incarceration of Asari-Dokubo by the government has created a leadership vacuum. "In the absence of identifiable leadership, others stepped in, offering more militancy as their leadership bona fides. We need to build confidence and trust to be able to have a purposeful negotiation. In his absence various criminal elements also got on the bandwagon and committed atrocities in the name of freedom fighting", he added.

He said the release of Alhaji Mujahid Asari-Dokubo will indicate goodwill and sincere intention on the part of government to resolve the matter once and for all. He said apart from the fact that this has been one of the major demands of groups such as NDPVF, Asari-Dokubo can act as a central figure in the government's dealings with the whole militant groups in the region.

According to him, many people in the Niger Delta and indeed some of the militant groups have demanded for the release of the former governor of Bayelsa State, Chief DSP Alamieyesiegha, whom they believe has been made a scapegoat in a country where almost all the governors are guilty of embezzling state funds.

He said as a means of quelling all fronts in the region, it may be necessary to release DSP Alamieyesiegha even if conditionally.

"The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity recommends that oil companies establish a Community Investment Fund (CIF) to set aside a specific percentage of their gross earnings to local community organizations working in health, education, micro-credit, and infrastructure development to alleviate the sufferings of their host communities.

Part of the long-term solution he suggested is to strengthen the Coastal States Council to engage with a broad based delegation of Niger Deltans from the region's ethnic councils, religious groups and other civil society organizations. He said the terms of reference for the talks should focus on expanded local resource control as called for by the Special Committee on Oil Producing Areas in 2002. He said the venue of the negotiations and discussions should be a location in the Niger Delta (which could be rotated across the states in the region) to allow for greater transparency and local participation. He added that if talks needed to be broken off into smaller groups to address the problems of individual communities, efforts should be taken to keep the process transparent.

He canvassed for the reform and re-structure the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) to ensure improved quality of project and service delivery. He said the supervision of the resolutions for peace and security shall be in the hands of the federal and state governments, and representatives of the home countries of these oil companies or representatives of the oil majors. Lulu-Briggs said the Nigerian Bar Association shall observe the strict adherence by all parties to resolutions of his proposed conference reiterated the fact that there must be amnesty for all.

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