Monday, July 20, 2009

The destruction of Atlas Cove jetty

ON Monday July 13, Lagos citizens awoke to the totally unexpected news that the Atlas Cove jetty, one of the major arteries supplying refined petroleum products to Lagos and most parts of the South-west, had been attacked by militants from the Niger Delta. Nigerians are aghast at this fresh turn of events. Several interpretations have been given to this unwarranted attack on the commercial capital of Nigeria. Many commentators condemn the act and fear that the militants in the Niger Delta may have crossed a forbidden line.

What is known about the attack is fragmentary, but a broad outline will indicate that heavily armed men arrived at the Atlas Cove on the night of Sunday July 12 in three, six or 15 gunboats. They opened fire on the facility and killed some five or nine persons including a naval officer, some ratings and some men of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). They seemed to have met little or no resistance hence they were able to hold the fort for more than one hour during which they made sure that the cove was totally destroyed.

Since then questions have been raised as to how such an audacious attack was carried out. Nigerians are wondering how such a vital facility was left so exposed to hostile forces and why no one came to the aid of the besieged jetty. NSS Aradu, a flagship war ship was said to be in the vicinity of the attack. Could those on board not have seen that a part of Nigerian territory was under attack? Other issues thrown up by the disaster include the failure of intelligence. If security agents knew before-hand that an attack was being planned around the Atlas Cove, as some reports suggest, why was it that security was not beefed up just in case?

If they did not know about it, harassing villagers around the Atlas Cove after the event is futile and amounts to closing the farm door after the horse has bolted. When the militants started a billowing fire, where was the fire service? Typically, the Nigerian fire service was completely unprepared so that it was only Julius Berger, a construction company, whose good offices and expertise were relied upon to quench the fire and perhaps save Apapa from the full effects of a so-called 'Hurricane Moses' boastfully crafted by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).

The intrusion of the militants into Lagos has been roundly condemned as an unsound manoeuvre that can in no way advance their cause. On the contrary, what they have done to a mega metropolis quite removed from the Niger Delta can rebound on them. This foray into Lagos is the sort of action that can turn sympathisers into antagonists. Whether the militants know it or not, what they have achieved so far is not so much owed to their individual prowess as it is to the groundswell of public sympathy for their plight.

The Niger Delta is a terrible environment. There are very few schools, roads and hospitals. Oil spills have poisoned the land and the water. Gas flares burning 24 hours a day have damaged human, animal and plant life in the area. Air pollution from the flares results in acid rain, low crop yields and respiratory problems. Everything costs more in the Niger Delta and yet poverty is endemic. The per-capita income in the Niger Delta is below the national average of $260 a year whilst unemployment hovers around 90 per cent. These facts are known but they can in no way be helped by a thoughtless assault on Lagos.

The government of President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua has been trying to manage the Niger Delta situation. He can improve on his methods. But he has offered a 60-day amnesty programme with sweeteners to all gunmen in the Niger Delta in the hope that the violence which has cost the country billions of dollars in lost oil income would cease.

For more than one year, a leader of MEND, Henry Okah was clamped in jail for gun-running and treason. MEND made his release a condition for peace. He has been released. But on the eve of that release MEND attacked the Atlas Cove. Two days later, production facilities belonging to Chevron and Agip in the Niger Delta were also blown up by MEND. The attack was of such severity that Agip had to declare a force majeure for some crude oil exports. All this has put a question mark on the effectiveness of the amnesty.

Despite this provocation, President Yar'Adua has continued with his 60-day amnesty programme. MEND for its part has also declared a 60-day truce as a goodwill gesture for the release of rebel leader Henry Okah. But in the light of what has happened before and since Henry Okah's release, we wonder whether MEND can be trusted. Moreover, freedom fighters have been joined by common criminals and kidnappers in the Niger Delta. There are now war-lords all over the place with pockets of influence. It is very difficult to make peace with a leaderless organisation. Whatever the constraints, we call upon all the warring parties to give peace a chance and to return to the negotiating table. Henry Okah must justify the confidence President Yar'Adua has reposed in him to find a lasting solution to the Niger Delta debacle.

Addressing the issue of fiscal federalism and resource control, mass poverty and lack of infrastructure in the Niger Delta will no doubt form components of a long lasting solution. But it is unreasonable to expect the federal government or any other government to negotiate with a gun on its head. All militants must be made aware of this fact as we appeal again to them to lay down their arms and give peace a chance. In the meantime, a rethinking of security attitudes would have to be considered; the attack on the Atlas Cove Jetty shows just how serious the insurgency in the Niger Delta is.