Friday, July 17, 2009

More bombs: MEND's official reply to amnesty offer

IN my analysis of the amnesty which Umaru Yar'Adua offered to the Niger Delta activists, I highlighted last week some of the problems that could wreck that offer. In that article I wrote: "Attractive as the amnesty carrot appears, there are problems. Other than the man or woman who goes by the name of "Gbomo Jomo" who has carved out an image as the official spokesperson for the leading group - Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) - the government has no clear idea about the characteristics of the other disparate groups in the region. The ill-defined nature of the leadership of the various groups in the Niger Delta also implies there is no identifiable command structure on which the government can lean to push for negotiations."

It would appear that I spoke too soon because 48 hours after the publication of that article, MEND attacked the Atlas Cove jetty in Lagos last Sunday night. At the last count, no fewer than nine people were reported to have died. Lagos represents the hub of Nigeria's commercial activities. So, any attack on Lagos is by inference an attack on the heart of the nation's business centre. The attack on the Atlas Cove jetty has serious security implications. It exposed the ill-prepared nature of the security agencies to respond quickly to emergency life threatening situations.

There are clear messages that emerged from last Sunday's bombing campaign at the Atlas Cove jetty. First, by exporting its campaign of terror from the Niger Delta creeks and swamps to Lagos, MEND has demonstrated its capacity to strike with ease any time and anywhere it fancies within the borders of Nigeria. Also, by implementing in Lagos its underground war tactics planned and rehearsed in the Niger Delta, the leadership of MEND has returned fire - literally and metaphorically - as its official response to Yar'Adua's offer of peace.

The events of last Sunday, in particular the loss of lives and property at the jetty, will test not only the resilience of Yar'Adua's amnesty but also his approach to the conflict in the Niger Delta region. Whether or not we accept it, MEND has effectively shredded Yar'Adua's offer of reprieve to the activists in the region.

The bombing of Atlas Cove jetty was an audacious move but it was a daring action that was ringed with contradictions. First, it came on the heels of the announcement that the Federal Government would release Henry Okah, the unconfirmed leader of MEND. In fact, no sooner was Okah released than he denied public perceptions of him as the authentic leader of MEND. That classical denial meant the government had been shooting blanks all these years, incarcerating Okah on the belief that the man was the leader of MEND. The government must have hoped that Okah's unconditional (or conditional) release would precipitate the installation of relative peace in the Niger Delta. That did not happen. In fact, following the bombing of the Atlas Cove jetty, MEND raised the abrasive tone of its war-based "nursery rhyme" in an online statement it released soon after the disaster.

According to newspaper reports published on Tuesday this week, MEND's provocative statements tended to celebrate the destruction of the Atlas Cove jetty. In a media release dripping with taunts and uncompromising rhetoric directed at Yar'Adua's government, MEND's spokesperson "Jomo Gbomo" said: "A boardroom or creek battle of epic proportion which will either emancipate the Niger Delta from over 50 years of tyranny or subject her to perpetual slavery was flagged off tonight by Hurricane Moses with a plague of warning attacks... Led by a pillar of fire, heavily armed MEND fighters today, Sunday, July 12, 2009 at about 2230 Hrs carried out an unprecedented attack on the Atlas Cove Jetty in Lagos State. The depot and loading tankers moored at the facility are currently on fire."

MEND also stated that "The two-pronged approach of combining dialogue and intensifying attacks throughout the course of negotiations will be the unique characteristics" of its approach to the government's peace initiatives. Now, that is a serious declaration.

Statements like these tend to aggravate rather than reduce tension. They distort the peace process. Above all, the brusque tone and language of MEND's media release shows there is no such thing as goodwill between the leaders of MEND and the Federal Government. What is particularly bewildering about the whole situation is that, while Okah said (on his release from detention) that he was not the leader of MEND, the media statement released by MEND mentioned his name as one of those to be consulted during negotiations. There are many ways to interpret the contradictory positions. The most probable interpretation is that the conflicting statements could be a deliberate strategy skillfully created by MEND and designed to confound the government.

If the statement credited to MEND, which suggested that Okah would be consulted during negotiations, could be confirmed, it would raise serious questions of credibility in regard to Okah's denial that he was the leader of MEND. Here, we have two positions that are at odds. Okah says he is not the leader of MEND but MEND identifies him as one of the men it would consult in its negotiations with the government. Who should we believe - MEND or Yar'Adua's government?

The bombing of the Atlas Cove jetty and the loss of lives and property a day before Okah's release from detention imply that the secret code of violence in the Niger Delta had not yet been cracked. Yar'Adua's top security machinery must now return to the drawing board to see if they can decode the mystery of the success of the underground groups in the Niger Delta, including the identities of the true leaders of MEND. Why, for example, would any government negotiate with an organisation whose leadership it cannot identify? The government's inability to identify the leadership of MEND increases the puzzle about MEND and its modus operandi.

In its determination to end the conflict in the Niger Delta, Yar'Adua's government must remove some daunting obstacles that hinder peace. The government must do one or more of the following: it must identify the number of clandestine groups that operate in the Niger Delta; it must identify their principal leaders in order to understand their perspectives on how to resolve the conflict; and leaders of the various groups must be presented with the amnesty offer on acceptable conditions. These are no mean tasks. For example, trying to muster reliable information on the number of groups that operate in the Niger Delta is as challenging as it is to pick out a pin from a sack of garri. In the Niger Delta, there are as many groups as there are conflicting ideas about how to resolve the crises, including how to respond to Yar'Adua's offer of official pardon.

So far, Asari Dokubo, the leader of a somewhat "liberal" movement in the region, said last week that his organisation was not interested in Yar'Adua's amnesty offer because members of his group have not committed any crimes. A bland but straightforward statement, I would suggest. Here is the reason. In his amnesty proposal, Yar'Adua said the offer applied to individuals and groups that may have killed, raped, plundered, bombed or wreaked havoc inside or outside the region. However, in his public statement last week, Dokubo was adamant that his organisation did not fit Yar'Adua's descriptive analysis of militants in the region.

Perhaps the most reasonable feature of Dokubo's statement was his contention that an organisation that fights environmental pollution should not be bombing oil facilities because it would increase the level of pollution. Dokubo's latest view has been described as a rational and persuasive argument. The main question remains: How many leaders of the other sub-military organisations share his views or how many of the leaders would be willing to adopt a similar philosophy?

Based on their successful bombing runs and raids, it would appear that the different organisations that wage war by proxy in the Niger Delta have managed to confuse and baffle the nation's political, military and police authorities. They have successfully evaded the most elaborate and well laid plans crafted to arrest them. If Yar'Adua's amnesty offer would be effective, the government must identify the authentic leaders of the groups in the region -- including the stakeholders -- and engage them in negotiations. There are too many pretenders claiming to be leaders of the different organisations in the region.