Monday, July 20, 2009

Amnesty, sincerity and the Niger Delta

WITH every care about the public relations profits to be reaped from the measure, President Yar'Adua announced, on June 25, 2009, his offer of amnesty to former and active militants of the Niger Delta. By the one word, militants, the Federal Government meant "all persons who have directly or indirectly participated in the commission of offences associated with militant activities in the Niger Delta." In the result, kidnappers-for-ransom as well as genuine armed and unarmed activists for fiscal federalism and restitution for 50 years of savage dispossession were forced into one camp. Were MOSOP's Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni 8 alive today, they would doubtlessly be within the purview of this definition and be expected to embrace this amnesty. As the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta and a few commentators have since pointed out, however, Yar'Adua and his policy henchmen seem to believe that "criminal" and "freedom fighter" are interchangeable terms.

And indeed power invariably sees them as such. Hence, to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, Nelson Mandela was a terrorist. While it is true that one person's freedom fighter may be another's criminal, it is also true that we can distinguish the one from the other easily enough. But doing so requires integrity. And for the person in power, whose view matters most in this context, integrity means sincerity of purpose, the willingness to shun the lazy resort to calling a dog a bad name in order to hang it. Once Mandela was branded a terrorist and the ANC a terrorist organisation - which the Zulu warlord, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, and his Inkatha Freedom Party were definitely not - Thatcher, Reagan and the entire government machineries they controlled could go on profiting from the apartheid regime's favourable economic policies while perpetuating the notion of white racial superiority. As if the alleged terrorism of Mandela and the ANC had somehow redeemed their choice of empowering evil.

Sincerity emerges, then, as the real test of any government policy on the Niger Delta. It is not surprising, therefore, that MEND, the main armed group engaged in guerrilla acts of sabotage against the federal government, has said as much. Nor that it did so in a pointed reaction to Vice President Jonathan Goodluck's claim that criminal barons were to blame for the reluctance of "militants" to queue in eager embrace of his boss's offer of amnesty. On the contrary, MEND saw government's insincerity as "the major cause" of the troubles of the Niger Delta, citing the preparedness of the Interior Affairs minister to travel from Abuja to Port Harcourt "to talk to fake representatives of militant commanders" and his unwillingness "to travel the shorter distance" to confer with Henry Okah in a nearby prison.

Now that Okah has accepted Yar'Adua's amnesty, and the prospects of a ceasefire brighten the horizon, Abuja's corridors of power must be reverberating to noisy chest thumping. The quick fix, it seems, is here. Some form of agreement will be reached, the essence of which will be that MEND surrender or at least lay down arms. Okah will be expected, like a garrison commander, to disarm and disband his troops. Peace will return to the creeks and the waters of the coast will be calmed for uninterrupted flow and exportation of oil and gas. Petro dollars will once again flow unhindered into the national booty fund misnamed the treasury for the continued orgy of looting. In the interim, a few bones will be thrown from the crowded banquet tables in Abuja to the hapless souls of the delta: a hastily paved one-season road here and there, a bridge to link two or three previously marooned creek towns to the nation that claims their loyalty, a school that in effect boasts nothing more than crooked walls and a blackboard, a few clinics and dispensaries that wouldn't pass a Red Cross first aid test, etc. And, of course, contracts, contracts, and more contracts, all paid for by the same oil and gas that is the very bone of contention.

And after that? Indeed, in the course of these acts of deception falsely called development of the Niger Delta? Any act of self assertion, any vigorous prosecution of the cause of the exploited, expropriated, maligned and mocked people of the Delta will be seen as evidence of ingratitude. Of an unbecoming greed that will be satisfied only with a one hundred percent derivation principle. In short, as an imminent threat to the corporate integrity of the nation. And, so, as proof beyond any doubt of insufferable unpatriotism. Woe betide every denizen of the Niger Delta then, militant and non-militant! Odi under General Obasanjo would be a mere battle drill in comparison. This well-laid trap is what the Attorney-General, Michael Aondoakaa, revealed in court in answer to the reservations expressed by Femi Falana, Okah's counsel, regarding the non-constitutionality of Yar'Adua's preferred amnesty in opposition to the prerogative of mercy or other options open to him. "Let us leave the matter like that," Aondoakaa insisted. "I have given you (a) guarantee that unless he breaches the agreement, Okah cannot come back to the court."

So we have it on good authority. Unless Okah - or any militant so-called - breaches the agreement, he will not be tried again by those who expropriate and drive him to arms. But what agreement is this that Okah must not breach? How will it be reached and with whom? Will this agreement have anything to say about a derivation formula that will do justice to the Niger Delta and every productive region of the country? Will it acknowledge the decades of dispossession and commit a fair and unencumbered sum over a reasonable period to undoing the colossal damage to the Delta's land, flora and fauna?

Will it bind the government to a geo-political restructuring of the unitary state that falsely bears the name of a federation? You can bet your last kobo on it that it won't. For Aondoakaa is right: all that Yar'Adua, the Federal Government, and let's face it, the majority of a nation that depends bread and breath on the oil and gas of the Niger Delta, want is to "leave the matter like that." In other words, to perpetuate the status quo of mindless dispossession of the Delta through vicious laws and a cruel derivation formula carefully reformulated from its fair and just manifestation in the days of regional governments and independence constitutions.

But all of this is nothing new. Power will not respect anything that cannot compel it to the path of reason and to act in the general good. Always, it is a question of the balance of forces. So it seems, quite regrettably, that the only way Yar'Adua's government or successive caretakers of the oppressive Nigerian state will be moved to attempt a sincere solution to the Niger Delta crisis is if militant opposition makes continued dispossession impossible. This is very clear to MEND, hence its recently announced "two-pronged" strategy of combining dialogue and intensified attacks. Let's call it the yam, or fish-and-stick approach.

Attacks may be halted temporarily to respect any agreed upon ceasefire, but harbour no illusions that Yar-Adua is ready to loosen the government's stranglehold on the Delta. But now the test of his sincerity is about to begin and I dread the result. For try as I may, the words of Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist and moral philosopher, keep buzzing in my ears: "I sit on a man's back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means - except by getting off his back."