Skirting The Niger Delta Quagmire

In the fullness of time, Niger Delta will define the Buhari presidency, if not the fate of Nigeria. It’s a toss-up between fate and a foreboding hard choice! It behooves President Muhamadu Buhari’s handlers, therefore, to begin conceptualizing, how best to dodge the Niger Delta quagmire, and ensure that the eventual outcome to the present crisis is politically, economically and humanly salubrious. In so doing, they should consider soft power ideas and approaches, mindful that “argument and theory are no substitute for effective remedies and solutions.” Moreover, lessons drawn from history, instruct that seeking military solutions to domestic problems is not always a viable option.

Troubling as things are, Nigeria’s already stressed economy is inching toward complete grounding. The oil sector is being badly decimated by agitating Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) and the emergent Red Egbesu Water Lions. The recidivism in militancy is not an aberration; there’s cause and effect. And worryingly, the lines between agitation and criminality has blurred so much they are now fungible. What this portends is a cascading crisis that demands immediate solution. Pussyfooting will be catastrophic. Well ahead of Buhari coming to power, the unfolding situation in the Niger Delta was anticipated and analyzed, even if as a probability. Ejeviome Eloho Otobo had observed, that “renewed militancy in the Niger Delta would be deadly because the federal government still depends on oil and gas from Niger a Delta for 70 percent of government revenue. If oil production in the Niger Delta were to be interrupted at a time of falling oil prices, the economic consequences for Nigeria would be dire.” The moment of truth has arrived and the time for being mugwumpish has passed.

For inexplicable but probably security-related reasons, President Buhari cancelled his visit to the south-south on 2nd June 2016, to flag off the Ogoni clean-up campaign. Speculatively, the “cancellation of the trip by the President was because of ill-health”, but informed sources assert “that the President’s visit was aborted because of a credible threat by militants in the region to cause damage to lives and property during the visit.” Scrubbing the visit was a hugely sad and defining lost opportunity. The repercussions will manifest in the long run. On the record, it has taken one full year of governance for President Buhari to contemplate going to the Niger Delta, only to abort the much-heralded visit. Twice in a row, the President has cancelled officially scheduled visits to southern parts of the country. Point blank, this is not good, not as an omen and not as policy. The cancellation, for whatever reasons, was an awesome policy and governance mistake, considering that Niger Delta is Nigeria’s ground zero in every regard. By not going to Ogoni, Buhari gave the militants a win, in this psychological war, as “the President’s cancellation leaves more questions than answers..and gives the impression that the President does not believe our military is capable of securing his visit, which can only be bad for morale.”

Unfortunately, Buhari’s minders of the Niger Delta affairs seem inclined to pro forma bureaucratic operations, and less so, strategic assessments and solutions. As in most challenges confronting Nigeria, grappling with the Niger Delta conundrum seems all too confounding and arduous. It should not be, if policymakers divest themselves of preconceived notions and sentiments. The hard fact is that Niger Delta challenges will not be wished away; neither can they be solved militarily. The crisis, which has festered for half a century is replete with broken promises that match broken communities, broken lives and a mercilessly blighted environment. The Niger Delta pollution toxicity is only matched by policy toxicity. The time to act was yesterday.

We must also draw lessons from history. The people of Rivers State repudiated secession in 1967, foreswearing Biafra. And fifty years later their reward is environmental disfigurement and squalor, officious indifference and pious, if not condescending reassurances of good faith. But Niger Delta is not Nigeria’s only peculiar challenge. For all his leadership and personal brusqueness, former President Olusegun Obasanjo did Nigeria a huge favour in negotiating the

12 June, 2006 Greentree Agreement on Bakassi. He was widely excoriated for that visionary undertaking. But absent that agreement, Bakassi would have by now become either a war-torn territory or a sphere dominated by international peacekeepers. Like Obasanjo did with Bakassi, Buhari needs seminal policy ideas, to halt the Niger Delta crisis from festering further and escalating irretrievably.

It’s said that “Every problem brings an opportunity; something good can be found in every crisis.” Outwardly, Niger Delta presents as an intractable problem. The emerging consensus is that the growing activities of Niger Delta Avengers are “a serious threat to the Nigerian economy that the government must address with utmost speed and seriousness.” Beyond the negative impact that had compelled a grave reduction of our oil production capacity from 2 million to 1.2 million barrels per day, there is clear and present danger that if left unattended for several more weeks, the crisis will escalate immeasurably. These challenges offer President Buhari an opportunity to show great leadership.

The present resort to militarism as a solution is most ill-advised and wrong. The President and his advisers need to be told so, bluntly. As British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond warned President Buhari, the pursuit of a solution military confrontation could end in “disaster”. His words: “It’s obviously a major concern. The idea that your answer is by moving big chunks of the Nigerian army to the Delta simply doesn’t work…Buhari has got to show as a president from the north that he is not ignoring the Delta, that he is engaging with the challenges in the Delta”. Buhari, a leader who is involuntarily distant from Nigerians, does not need a proverbial Bay of Pigs. For starters the Nigerian military must stand down immediately in the Delta region.

Besides the present escalation of militarism and rise in militancy, two other issues dominate and compound government’s mishandling of the Niger Delta crisis: poor strategic communications and a dearth of creative ideas in problem solving. Whereas Buhari tacitly agreed to extend the duration of the amnesty programme from in 2015 end date to 2018, there was neither proper communication of the decision nor a white paper on it. Consequently, the agitators were led to conjecture or believe that a policy reversal was in the offing. Also, rather than seek a win-win solution, the decision to “crush the militants” by any means was underscored. Nonetheless, the prevailing consensus is that Buhari’s government is “creating opportunity for conjectures that could either be right or wrong;… Government is creating room for assumptions because it under-communicates and sometimes gives conflicting information.”

Secondly, creative ideas on tackling strategic national security challenges must be anchored on pacific settlement of the dispute and collaborative negotiations, not resort to the use of force, even as deterrence. Government cannot abandon what is working, when it has no plausible alternative or blueprint of its own for creating peace; and when securing peace ought to be the ultimate goal. Furthermore, government cannot secure peace without tackling the root causes of the Niger Delta crisis, which are well known. As former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, rightly surmised, “Bring peace and development to the Niger Delta then they will stop blowing up pipelines. Then, we will get gas and then power can be stable but until then, we will not get it.’’

“Ideas have consequences”; mostly positive. The handling of Niger Delta so far reflects dissonance, incongruities and absurdities that dog policy and governance. Even with the best of intentions, it is beyond debate that the absence of creative ideas aimed at problem solving and removed from orthodoxies, remain a missing governance link in Nigeria, despite the overused cliché within governance circles about ‘thinking outside the box’. It is the non-application of creative ideas in the Niger Delta that led the government into the trap of brickbats, muscle-flexing, threats and resort to use of force, which amount to a quagmire of conflicting and confusing policies that triggered ultimatums from the militants. There is also the mislaid perception, that policies of the Jonathan administration were skewed, simply because President Jonathan was from that region. Perhaps, the opposite is the case. Fraught as the policy were with financial leakages and abuses, it brought some reprieve, perhaps because Jonathan understood fully, the underpinning challenges, just as President Buhari understands the challenges of the Nomadic herdsmen. Moreover, the 2009 Amnesty programme were negotiated under President Umaru Yar’Adua, not under President Jonathan.

Admittedly, there are legitimate concerns on the part of government, that the current agitation border on criminality, and therefore transcends the quest for constitutional and human rights. Be that as it may, “sieving the wheat from the chaff” requires a methodical approach not a fire brigade disposition, which is what is being adopted now in the Niger Delta. Understandably, billions of Naira poured into the Niger Delta has not yielded tangible results. But then, billions of Naira taken from the Niger Delta has also left the region desolate. If Buhari’s government cannot handle the Niger Delta crisis proactively, and don’t trust those who handled it previously to continue doing so, then the least it can do is to deploy the services of neutral international arbiters, who can engage constructively, map the crisis properly and proffer workable and broadly acceptable solutions. It must be understood, however, that any Niger Delta process or solution that does not have a full buy-in and ownership by the inhabitants will fail. Government should not be bashful, or worry about loss of face or sovereignty, in the event it employs outsiders to help it rally all parties to a mutually beneficial and mutually acceptable solution.

Grasping the upshot of the Niger Delta quagmire fully, will aid President Buhari and his team in arriving at workable solutions. First, a ‘Marshall Plan’ of sorts is needed and it must confer ownership of restorative projects and long-term development plans on the inhabitants of the area. The plan must also tackle legacy and residual issues, the foremost being invoking of tail-end-liability-coverage and exit clause responsibilities for all oil companies that contributed to the Niger Delta environmental blight. They must underwrite the execution of the 2011 UNEP Environmental Restoration Fund for Ogoniland. There should be no statute of limitation. Second, reasons for avoiding a military solution to the crisis are legion. Topmost, is that successive governments tried solving the crisis militarily and failed. Government’s engagement must therefore be intrusive, transparent and focused on bridging the distrust gap, between the government and the people while systematically improving the infrastructural, economic, social and environmental conditions of Niger Delta. Whereas, Ministry for Niger Delta Affairs and the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) retain their respective statutory roles, President Buhari will be well served by considering the use of a Special Envoy or Joint-Envoys, whose high public standing is beyond reproach, to drive the Niger Delta solution and do the heavy lifting. Meanwhile, the emerging consensus is that President Buhari must find ways of settling the Niger Delta enmeshment at the negotiating table and with Niger Delta communities as key interlocutors. That’s the only way to avoid a Niger Delta quagmire. The time to act is now!

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Obaze, MD/CEO of Selonnes Consult Ltd., is the immediate past Secretary to the Anambra State Government.

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