Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Trouble in the creeks

LAST weekend would literally pass as the longest in recent memory of thousands of residents of the Gbaramatu Kingdom and environs, in the Warri South West local government of Delta State, hosts to Camp 5 base of some militants in the Niger Delta region. The Joint Task Force (JTF) who had for long been engaged in a running battle with militants in the Niger Delta sees Gbaramatu and other communities spread across the region as haven for criminal elements whose cups have run over in the visitation of violence on the people, especially security operatives. Apparently on orders from above, the JTF operatives moved against the suspected hideouts of the militants to finally flush out the rampaging armed youths who have supposedly become a terror in the land. But in the process of the undeclared war, innocent residents especially women and children were caught in the crossfire. In the displacement, many became refugees in their homeland, exposed to the inclement weather and without the basic necessities of life. A needless humanitarian crisis has set in.

The community has been unfortunate somehow; they've had their fair share of violence. Here's the community that was thrown into a senseless communal conflict more than a decade ago over the relocation of the local government headquarters at Ogbe-Ijoh. So many lives were lost in that incident you will recall. It was one fratricidal war no one wants to recollect.

Nigerians woke up Monday morning to be confronted with the pitiful sight of displaced and distraught citizens who were mere victims of a show of brute force by soldiers against some armed groups who may have no clear motives of what exactly they are agitating for other than to achieve their ulterior motives. All we get to hear is that they are fighting for the emancipation of the region from the shackles of successive governments that have failed to consider the plight of their people whose lands provide the wealth of the nation.

Funny enough, they have always lived under an illusion that the Niger Delta terrain is such that it makes it practically difficult if not impossible to penetrate for soldiers or the armed forces - until the Federal might was unleashed last weekend. The singular military move alone was enough for concerned groups and eminent personalities to plead for a ceasefire and an appeal to President Umaru Yar'Adua to cause a stoppage and order a roundtable discussion over the matter.

It was difficult to believe that the community leaders and traditional rulers who all stood by and watched things degenerate to unimaginable levels and watched the armed youths become laws unto themselves are now struggling to provide solutions to a bigger problem. A deeper refection could then force a conclusion that some of these elders have also been beneficiaries of the activities of some of the gangs. To a great extent, the genuine militant groups have a point for their struggles but to a certain extent too I believe they have overplayed the means employed to achieve a purpose. There has been so much infiltration by renegade groups that have turned the whole struggle into a farce.

Not much has really been done to promote dialogue since the armed protests intensified in 2005. More culpable perhaps is the Federal Government which in the past has presented itself as lacking in initiatives to end the crisis in the region or has deliberately remained insensitive to the people's cries for justice - the only logical condition for peace - anywhere. Niger Delta has been a sore thumb in the hand of the government and would continue to be until an acceptable solution is found to the crisis. For now, that is a mirage.

A number of reactions have trailed the military exercise in Gbaramatu, many of them calling on the President to order an immediate halt of the attack. I think so too. The soldiers have already made a statement of their capability and it is logical that the casualties should be limited to what we have on ground. To continue the assault can only be a continuation of the trauma the innocent ones have been taken through. They should not be made to pay for the sins of some recalcitrant fellows over whom they don't have much controls.

The multiplier effect of the current onslaught on Camp 5, Oporoza and lately, Iroko Camp, echoes loud. The avoidable humanitarian crisis resulting from the conflict is major among the lot. There are ominous signs the odds may even weigh against Delta State in the consideration of Warri as one of the host cities of the FIFA Under-17 World Cup later in the year. The FIFA inspection team currently in the country was supposed to be in the city on Monday for the final inspection of facilities. Tactically, the team asked the Warri sub-seat team to come to Abuja to make its presentation, which is very unusual. The inspection team members have registered physical presence in the other contending centres and made useful comments. I think the crisis has placed Delta in a difficult position. Here is a state that has prepared so well and has provided standard facilities that could rival any other in the country to justify its choice. (The hosting cities would be announced tomorrow).

That business and commerce will slow down in the area is to underscore the impact of a crisis of that magnitude on an area. It's enough to drive away investors from the state. Rivers State, also noted for militants' activities, is a perfect example of how not to lift militancy to a high pedestal in the life of a people. Most investors have run away and are now being lured back. Let us also consider the effect on upstream sector of the oil industry and by extension, the country's exports of crude.

Of course, we do not need to restate that the war in the creeks - that is what it amounts to - is capable of further militarizing the young minds who are lucky to survive the blitz of today. Whichever way one looks at it, what is playing out in Gbaramatu is an ill wind that blows no one any good. There is a great need for restraint by all parties involved. The president should realise that the Gbaramatu operation is a subtle declaration of war on a people he has sworn to protect, so he should order a ceasefire. He has handled the Niger Delta question well so far until the weekend push, given the two years he has been in the saddle. I don't think he should take arbitrary steps to create more enemies for himself there. All it requires is continued dialogue with the people, working towards ensuring they get their rights and finding ways to upgrade the living standards.

The militants should also realise that killing soldiers and security men (and kidnapping of both nationals and foreigners for a ransom) is not an act of bravery, it is an invitation to chaos and destruction. Militancy is not an art. Nigeria has had enough of internal aggression. Let us move forward please.

Yar'Adua and the oil mafia

President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua came out smoking last week as he briefed the State House press corps on fundamental matters of state. For me, I saw for the first time the face an angry leader who suddenly realised the roof was about collapsing on his head. One significant issue he tackled was his administration's final decision to deregulate the downstream sector of this oil-dependent economy. He did not mince words about a cartel that has operated so successfully and for a long time, unchecked. Good talk, Mr. President. But the nation would like to know who these vampires are that have been sucking the blood of the sufferers - in the words of legendary reggae great Bob Marley. It is not enough to give them a kick in the back. If their identities cannot be revealed, we take it that you have no business fighting corruption. Corruption, in the Nigerian sense, does not start and end with taking and giving bribe or stealing government money. We, the people, want to know our oppressors.