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Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: In Defence Of Niger Delta Youths by Ken Ugbechie

First, a bit of geography: a huge swathe covering over 70,000 square kilometres and barbed on the southern axis by the Atlantic Ocean. And a piece of history: a place peopled by over 20 ethnic groups whom archeologists say have been living there for about 7000 years.

Welcome to the Niger Delta region, the oil-rich but highly impoverished and neglected part of Nigeria which has since 1956 become the guinea pig of experimental failures of successive governments.

Rapaciously raped and persistently abused, the region has continued to define every moment of our national history. And when the people complain or whimper about their state of deterioration and destitution, they get mortal pellets pumped into their ravaged rib cages by federal troops. Deploying troops to silence and sometimes kill the Niger Delta people is about the only thing the federal government treats with despatch as far as the region is concerned.

Letís consider these. The despatch with which government despatched armed security men to Ogoniland in the wake of the Shell-Ogoni crisis which started in 1993; the urgency with which a Kangaroo tribunal tried Ken Saro-Wiwa and his Ogoni brethren and consequently sentenced them to death; the razing of Odi by federal troops and the "army arrangement" called Joint Military Task Force headed by Brigadier General Elias Zamani. The Task Force, true to type, has been tasking and forcing the Niger Delta people into abandoning their cause Ė resource control and self-determination.

But things appear to have hit a morbid cusp lately. Whereas the federal government has added more sizzle and fizz to the cup of marginalisation of the region, its youths have got even wiser. They, too, have added a bit of intelligence to their operations.

The events in the past two months in the region best exemplify this. It started with blowing up of oil pipelines and later, hostage-taking.

Dateline, January 11, 2006. A tug boat laden with arms-bearing youths zips through the creeks of Bayelsa. And in a moment, four expatriates were gone with the militant youths Ė kidnapped. They were not released until January 30-19 clear days Ė and that was after the intervention of Goodluck Jonathan, the lucky governor of Bayelsa State.

In his hysteria after their release, President Olusegun Obasanjo poured invectives at the militants, describing their action as the "height of inhumanity." He did more: "If anything, they have made people to see them for what they are Ė criminals." Then an assurance: "We would do everything humanly possible to try to prevent recurrence of what has happened." And was anything done? Absolutely nothing. The President was just grandstanding.

Then the militants upped the ante. By February 9, they issued an ultimatum to all expatriates in the region to leave on or before February 12. Again, government ignored the threat. And to add to the hysteria, Haz Iwendi, the spokesman for the police, dismissed the threat as "empty" while urging foreigners to ignore the militants. And you wonder where he got his confidence. Well, wherever, but he was wrong.

On February 18, six days after the expiration of the so-called "empty" threat, a good nine expatriates were abducted, thus putting a big lie to claims by the president and the police. Six of them had since been released after ten days Ďholidayí in the creeks. And you ponder, should we still believe the president and his policemen?

Yet, both the president and his security authorities ought to be more serious than they had been. It must be stated here that the foreigners were released not on account of the overture of the federal government but due largely to the mediatory role of Delta State governor, James Ibori. For while the drama in the creeks lasted (it is still not over) and the federal government was engaged in raucous twaddle and a cacophony of incendiary remarks, Iboriís voice was tempered and mellow.

It is not a time to talk tough when somebodyís life is at risk. Ibori understood this and resorted to plea rather than brinkmanship. But has this government learnt anything? It doesnít appear so, going by the insensitive pronouncements of the likes of Frank Nweke, the minister of information.

And now, the same government that has been full of hubris is crying over spilt milk. Government says the torching of two gas pipelines by the youths has resulted in a loss of about 1000 MW in our power generation capacity. That is why electricity supply has been horrible these past weeks. Government also says the cut back in the productive capacities of oil companies in the area would mean less income for the nation which would ultimately threaten the implementation of the N1.89 trillion 2006 budget.

This, again, got me wondering. How important is this Niger Delta region? And an answer reflexively jumped to my mind. It is as important as air to the body. In other words, without wealth from the Niger Delta, there would be no Nigeria. At best, we would have a malnourished Nigeria, penniless and so broke she could hardly pay her bills.

Why then does the federal government treat this people with levity? Does it not bother anybody that when the federal government and other state governments queue up to share oil cash, both appropriated and excess, somebody should do well to remember that the oil was drilled from the veins of the Niger Delta people with inorganic proboscis called drilling machines.

When an oil company issues a terse press statement announcing an oil spill in one of its flow stations, letís remember that somebodyís fish pond, farm or source of livelihood has just been swept away by the corrosive effluents from the spill.

When the vehicles in Aso Rock including those in the presidentís convoy pull up by the inexhaustible fuel dump in the Villa to fill their tanks, letís not forget that for every litre of fuel that gushes through the nozzle, there is a corresponding volume of acid rain in the Niger Delta.

When we type-cast the Niger Delta youths crying for justice, equity and fairness as "criminals", "crooks" and "terrorists", letís remember that a government that deceitfully takes a childís bread with one hand and with the other clasps the childís lips to prevent him/her from crying is a worse criminal.

At this time, I expect any responsible government to find out why the Niger Delta youths are up in arms. And banish the thought if you ascribe their agitation to the detention of Asari Dokubo and DSP Alamieyeseigha. It is clearly beyond both. In fact, before their ordeals, the struggle for self-determination and resource control in the area had been on. The Kaiama Declaration, for instance, predates the emergence of Dokubo.

The president should without delay convoke a summit of all stakeholders in the region. The first step towards mitigating injustice is to hear the voice of the aggrieved. This is not the case in the Niger Delta. Instead, the Federal Government all through the years has been deploying maximum force to muzzle and then annihilate the people. This is nothing but senseless nonsense and smacks of insensitive savagery on the part of government. I do not support terrorism or destruction in any guise but I am a firm believer in the theory of "cause and effect". Besides, I believe very strongly that where there is obvious injustice and inequity, the oppressed should not be denied their right to defend themselves.

And why have we suddenly grown cold feet to the stark reality of resource control? Why, for instance, is the North insisting on 13 per cent or nothing even at a time the South South painfully agreed to 25 per cent. If tomorrow we all wake up and all the oil in the Niger Delta has relocated to the North, will the same North still be obdurate?

When we choose to play politics, let us remember that it was the late Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello who in 1954 demanded that each region be allowed to control its resources as a pre-condition for independence. The North then was lavishly rich in groundnut. And crude oil was unknown in Nigeria. Why canít we have the same arrangement today? Please, letís return to history.

This article appears in The Daily Champion. The author, Ken Ugbechie, can be reached at

Ken Ugbechie

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

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