Thursday, May 28, 2009

Military expedition in the Niger Delta

WHATEVER might have triggered the on-going military expedition in the Niger Delta, the onslaught represents a dramatic phase in the government's containment policy towards the atrocities of the militants in the oil-rich region. For the past fortnight, the Joint Task Force has bombarded the militants' hideout, particularly the notorious camp 5 in the creeks of Delta State. The military have scorched villages and razed the fabulous home of Tompolo, a notorious militant kingpin, who has now been declared wanted - dead or alive. By last weekend, the operations extended to Rivers State, where militants also have their camps.

It is regrettable that while the militants are being smoked out, there have also been civilian collateral casualties. Women, children, the elderly, and members of the National Youth Service Corps have been displaced from Oporoza, Gbamaratu, Okerenkoko, and other riverine communities. A huge humanitarian crisis is, thus, unfolding. The response to the humanitarian emergency must not be that of the state and local governments alone. Even without being prompted, the Federal Government must pitch in with supplies and logistics to ameliorate the discomfort of the displaced persons. The Federal Government's involvement is all the more imperative, lest it be accused of waging a mindless war against the people.

Being the conundrum that it is, security operations in the Niger Delta present exceptional challenges. With criminality interlaced with genuine agitation for the redress of decades of neglect and underdevelopment, it is tricky to use a heavy hand against the militants without provoking an outcry that they are being persecuted because they want a better life for the region. But it is beyond dispute that the militants, whose ranks have long since been infiltrated by criminal elements, have overreached themselves. Oil facilities are sabotaged on a regular basis; oil workers are kidnapped routinely, and these days the victims include just about anybody.

Under the Constitution and the norms of international law, the State (i.e. country) has a right to defend its territorial integrity. In recent years, the militants have begun to stake out portions of the Niger Delta, where they are lords unto themselves. In such areas, they engage in illegal bunkering, engage in gun-running, and gravely undermine the government's capacity to earn appreciable revenue, which in turn affects the fortunes of all, including states in the Niger Delta region.

Last week, the cache of arms uncovered at the sacked residence of Tompolo was a shocking reminder of the militants' capacity to levy war against the state and to perpetrate their other criminal activities including kidnapping for ransom. Above all, the militants have on occasion attacked military personnel on patrol duties in the region. In fact, the current onslaught was precipitated in part by the killing of 12 officers and men of the JTF as well as the sinking of their two gunboats by the militants. The militants, thus, invited this wrath upon themselves, and sadly on the host communities.

However, lamentable the problems of the Niger Delta may be, the moves to address them must begin from somewhere. While the Federal Government can be accused of being sluggish in tackling the crisis of underdevelopment in the area, it would be unfair to accuse it of doing nothing. Only recently, in response to popular demand, the Federal Government created the Ministry of the Niger Delta, which cannot be expected to perform magic overnight, even though it is guided by the report of the Niger Delta Technical Committee, which was similarly set up by the incumbent government. The recent South-South Economic Summit is another pointer to the desire of other stakeholders to bring rapid development to the region, the past notwithstanding.

To create a peaceful environment for, among other things, the return of contractors who had hitherto been kidnapped or chased away from their sites in the Niger Delta, the Federal Government offered a blanket amnesty to the militants, a move that was widely applauded. But the militants rejected the amnesty. The current expedition is a necessary lesson that a government cannot allow the reign of lawlessness to persist in spite of its overtures for a new dawn.

Despite its rightful use of force to bring peace to the creeks, the Federal Government, through the JTF, must know when to apply the brakes. The government needs to remember that the problem of militancy is that its proponents did not know when and where to draw the line. There must therefore be a quick decision on the scope and extent of the on-going security operation.

The victims and the theatre of operation are in Nigeria, not some foreign territory. If collateral casualties escalate beyond tolerable limits, the military expedition will boomerang, leaving the government with a huge public relations disaster. This must be avoided. Let the forces mop up the last strongholds of the militants, and sweep the region clean of the menace. That, of course, is the stick. The carrot must follow immediately, by the government being as prompt and decisive in mobilising development to the area.