Friday, July 24, 2009

Atlas Cove and the Niger Delta struggle

IS the Niger Delta conflict being ethnicised? Does it face the risk of being reduced to an Ijaw/Yoruba face-off? Or perhaps at some stage the Niger Delta/Igbo/Yoruba/Hausa-Fulani face-off? Of what import is the introduction of ethnic and territorial factors into the Niger Delta struggle within the larger Nigerian question? The earliest attempt to introduce an ethnic angle to the Niger Delta discourse in more recent times, would seem to be the splitting of hair between certain Northern establishment intellectuals who argued that the crude oil in the Niger Delta actually belongs to Northerners and that what Niger Deltans are fighting over is Northern property which escaped towards the Delta through some geomorphism over the centuries. Southern intellectuals have debunked this with equal vehemence. There can be no doubt about the Niger Delta people's claim to the ownership of the extractive resources in their region. But a frightening clash of ethnic emotions has resurfaced in the Niger Delta conversation since the Sunday July 12 attack on the Atlas Cove Jetty in Lagos by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).

The Lagos State Government was the first to condemn the turning of its territory into a battle field, with a subtle threat that this "must not repeat itself". The state government has since been joined by the Yoruba establishment, expressing its objections, through meetings in various Yoruba "creeks", and the threat of war drums. The Yoruba Council of Elders is asking for a meeting with President Yar'├ždua to discuss the development. The Oodua Peoples Congress, the Coalition of Oodua Self-Determination Groups (COSEG), and the Committee of Indigenous Associations of Lagos State have each promised retaliatory action in the event of a recurrence. On July 20, a meeting of Concerned Yoruba Leaders and Elders was held at the Airport Hotel in Lagos, comprising party leaders, traditional rulers, and all the Chairmen of the 57 local councils in Lagos. A report in The Nation newspaper titled "Lagos elders to militants: don't try another attack" pointed out that "it was an emotionally charged meeting" (The Nation, July 21, p.1)

This "quasi-war council" issued the following threat: "We hereby give a serious warning to the militants in the Niger Delta to view the latest attack as the last of such, and that the incident must never again be repeated as any attempt to do so would be met with serious consequences which the attackers would live to regret". The Yoruba groups demanded an apology, and as if to demonstrate the possible consequences, some Ijaw fishermen in Badagry were attacked by angry Yoruba youths. What has been the response from Niger Delta militants? An Ijaw group, namely the Ijaw Media Forum issued a statement apologising to the Lagos State Government for the attack on the Atlas Cove jetty.

But MEND, the protagonist of the incident has since dismissed the ethnic and territorial objections of the Yoruba elements on three grounds (1) that the Atlas Cove jetty is Federal Government property and hence Lagos State was not the target of the attack, (2) that there will be no hiding place for oil companies anywhere in Nigeria and (3) Jomo Gbomo speaking on behalf of MEND claims that both OPC and the YCE are ranting. If anything he insists, it is the Yoruba that should be apologising to the Niger Delta "after their son, Olusegun Obasanjo wiped out Odi with innocent civilians and stole our commonwealth as the Minister of Petroleum. ...The Niger Delta issue may have started in the Niger Delta, but the problem caused by injustice knows no boundaries. It is a Nigerian problem that should be enjoyed or suffered by all....It seems some people just enjoy ranting. Is the OPC threatening to attack any Niger Deltan or a particular state or tribe there? We have the Itsekiris, Isokos, Urhobos, Ijaws, Ibibios, Igbos, Efiks, so who do they plan on attacking first? Do they plan on attacking pipelines and oil companies and making our job easier or plan to destroy non-existent infrastructure? ..." (Daily Sun, July 22, p. 6).

Jomo Gbomo's rhetoric is logical in relation to MEND's objectives, but he surely does not speak for all Niger Deltans. There is no doubt that Nigeria is paying for the mistake of taking the Niger Delta militants for granted, treating them when the rebellion began as if it would fizzzle out with time; what the Atlas Cove incident has demonstrated is the failure of Nigerian leadership and the vulnerability of the Nigerian state, what we are dealing with is a Nigerian problem. From the point of view of strategy, it was a huge triumph for Niger Delta militants, and MEND may not have intended the attack on the Atlas Cove Jetty to be an attack on Yoruba interest.

But the ethnicisation of the incident is crowding out the opportunities for learning a few lessons which it graphically presents: there are lessons here for the Federal Government, the Lagos state government and the Niger Delta struggle. Nigeria is in deep trouble, Atlas Cove points to a national security crisis of grave dimensions. The current "Hurricane Moses" hits directly at the soft underbelly of the Nigerian state and should be seen as a signal that something more than amnesty offer and symbolic palliatives is required in addressing the crisis. The militants as seen in Jomo Gbomo's statement, do not seem to be intimidated by the protests by the Yoruba groups nor do they seem to care. But there is need for caution on all sides. With emerging talks about "our territory"and "their son", and plans by the YCE to hold a meeting with Yar'Adua, the objectives of the struggle and the relevance for all progressive groups could be diluted.

One gain of recent developments is however as follows: in many quarters, there had been an attempt by Nigerians in comfort zones to treat the Niger Delta issue as an external crisis, and the devastation and uncertainties in the region as "their problem". Bringing the conflict to the shores of Lagos has suddenly put the Niger Delta at the top of the public agenda, it has moved it immediately to the level of "our problem". It is a rude awakening. It has provided a rallying point for the expression of fears about territory and security, and although concerned Yoruba Leaders and Elders have issued threats, they have been forced nonetheless to take on the Niger Delta issue as a matter of direct importance to the security of their own people. They want to talk to Yar'├ždua. Traditional rulers had to abandon their palaces to discuss the Niger Delta struggle, local government chairman left the treasury alone for a while to discuss the coming of MEND to Lagos!. The seeming ethnicisation of the Niger Delta conversation is a development that should be taken seriously nonetheless by both the militants and the rest of Nigeria, for it is a danger signal.

There are among other things, four touchy subjects in the Nigerian arrangement whose mismanagement could result in a national emergency: one- oil - the major source of the country's revenue two: personal security: three- ethnicity/territory - this is a ready source of conflict in Nigeria which activates primordial instincts for survival, and four: religion. MEND has shown its readiness to force the issue on all of these fronts, if need be. It has touched on three already; the introduction of a religious dimension is imaginable, but MEND should also be careful not to lose the momentum that it has gained by adopting strategies that could defeat its core philosophical objectives. The special challenge that the Nigerian government faces is this: it must begin to approach the Niger Delta crisis and the implications for Nigeria's wholesomeness with a higher level of rigour and urgency than is currently being demonstrated. It needs not wait for the country to be up in flames before it embarks on more meaningful dialogue and action on the Niger Delta Question. For the Federal Government, the Navy and the Lagos State Government, there are security issues along the coastline that would still have to be addressed.

Will MEND's extra-territorial aggression alienate other Nigerians? Yes, possibly. It is a double-edged sword, not without costs. With recent attempts by the Federal Government to seek the partnership of the militant groups in the Niger Delta, MEND and similar groups should explore the offered opportunties for dialogue. What the people of the Niger Delta want invariably is exactly what most other Nigerian ethnic nationalities want: justice, equity and fiscal federalism. At the Airport Hotel meeting, for example, the Yoruba equally expressed frustration with their circumstances, detailing spefically how Lagos State has been abandoned and marginalised by the Federal authorities. Nearly all the country's over 400 ethnic nationalities have one complaint or the other. Niger Delta strategists need the partnership of other ethnic nationalities and progressive forces in their search for change. Violent incursions which drive up ethnic sentiments and which make Niger Deltans an unfair target of reprisal attacks could dilute the revolutionary import of the struggle in the same manner as kidnapping and other criminal activities in the Niger Delta.

The Nigerian leadership elite appears confused in addressing the crisis truthfully, in part because the present contentious status quo provides opportunities for a corrupt and unwise minority that is interested only in its own economic security and the power it wields. The partnership of other nationalities would be required in driving the momentum for change at policy and constitutional levels. What cannot be denied however is the fact that the Atlas Cove incident has woken us all up to the reality that there can be no comfort zones for as long as there is injustice or internal colonialism in any part of Nigeria.

The Niger Delta crisis is not hundreds of miles away, it is in our backyards, it is the pimple on our face, sitting delicately on a dangerous vein; it is the keg of gunpowder on which Nigeria sits. All concerned elders, leaders, politicians, be they in Lagos, Aba, Kafanchan, Kano, Aso Villa or Maiduguri can be mobilised through constructive engagement, and dialogue to focus more on the struggle for a better Nigeria. Engaging in ethnically-determined rhetoric which reduces the subject to the level of primordial sentiments and biases serves only the divide and rule objective of the ruling class.