Thursday, May 21, 2009

Enduring solution to N/Delta crisis

As the onslaught on the militants’ positions in the Niger Delta continues, there is a need for the nation’s military to exercise restraint to prevent attacks on wrong targets and thus avert imminent humanitarian disaster. Despite the urgent need to rein in the criminal gangs who have foisted a complete breakdown of law and order on the area, there has been concern about how to prevent innocent people from paying for the atrocities of a few elements.

But the Defence Headquarters continues to deny accusations of genocide. The government insists that no community has been razed to the ground and that collateral damage has been minimal. The Director of Defence Information, Col. Chris Jemitola, has however, warned that “the military will no longer tolerate or watch criminal gangs slaughter its personnel without response.”

President Umaru Yar’Adua had ordered a full military operation in Gbaramatu communities in Warri South West Local Government Area of Delta State, following the alleged killing of 12 soldiers and the sinking of two gunboats belonging to the Joint Task Force by militants in the area last week. The JTF troops were ambushed while on a mission to rescue some persons kidnapped and held at Camp 5, a notorious camp operated by a local warlord, Government Ekpomukpolo, aka Tompolo.

In response, both Iroko Camp, located in Oporoza, Warri South Local Government Area of Delta State and Camp 5 were severely shelled and were said to have fallen to government forces. About 19 hostages, including Nigerians, Filipinos and Ukrainians have been freed. The militants, however, claimed that the present bombardment had caused the death of some hostages being held by them. Many lives have been lost while more than 20, 000 people are believed to have been displaced or trapped.

Though the latest hostilities have drawn varied reactions, the situation in the Niger Delta area had for a long time gone out of control, calling for a firm response. Many parts of the regions, mainly the destruction of creeks, have become largely ungovernable. Law and order had broken down, posing severe threats to the nation’s oil-dependent economy. The nation’s crude production has been forced down to 1.6 million barrels per day from a production target of 2.5 million barrels. Therefore, there has always been a need to tame violence and curb rampant criminality in order to foster a favourable environment for development.

Since the outbreak of the present hostilities, for instance, the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta, has claimed the destruction of the two trunk pipelines recently repaired in the Chanomi Creek and vowed to continue damaging oil facilities. The ultimate aim of the insurgents, according to MEND, is to completely cripple oil production and exports.

The Nigerian Gas Company, a subsidiary of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, is already recording a daily loss of 200 million standard cubic feet of gas, following last Saturday’s destruction of the Escravos/Warri Gas pipeline by militants. Already, the NGC has suspended further supplies of gas to the installations of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria, including Egbin Thermal Plant in Lagos and other strategic power generating plants in the country, in the wake of the attacks.

The Oil Producers Trade Section, last year, revealed that the nation’s oil industry was losing more than 10 billion dollars annually due to the crisis in the region, adding that between January and September, 2008, the nation recorded not less than 59 cases of attack on oil facilities, while 93 persons were kidnapped.

The unceasing wave of kidnapping, hostage-taking and destruction has since made it obvious that the hitherto legitimate struggle in the region for justice and fairness has been hijacked by common criminals in pursuit of selfish goals. No doubt, such criminals need to be hunted down to restore stability to the region. Yet, military action should not be seen as an end in itself. The aim should be to create a new environment of law and order where all tiers of government can embark on massive development projects for the benefit of all Niger Delta people.

The ministry specially created for the region and the Niger Delta Development Commission should be properly equipped to tackle the development challenges facing the region. The Niger Delta elders and retired generals should work with the Federal Government to bring peace to the region.

Above all, the platform of grievance on which the crisis is standing should be removed through a gradual return to fiscal federalism. The lesson from the crisis is that it is too risky to rely almost completely on oil for revenue and foreign exchange. The whole nation stands to benefit if the federating units are empowered to generate wealth and employment from the solid minerals and other resources now lying idle across the country.