Friday, July 10, 2009

Yar'Adua, amnesty and diplomatic deadlock

EVER since Umaru Yar'Adua announced his government's amnesty offer to Niger Delta activists with unprecedented presidential panache, there has been so much dancing and drinking on the streets in some parts of the country. Unfortunately, most of the people for whom the amnesty package was configured have been sending out mixed signals. Most of them are not celebrating because the government's offer is nowhere near the current income they receive through kidnapping and blowing up of oil facilities.

On the surface, Yar'Adua's offer of amnesty seems to receive popular support especially from sections of the country that are not geographically proximate to the Niger Delta. On a selfish note, the amnesty portrays Yar'Adua as a kind-hearted man who deplores the use of force by para-military or guerrilla organisations to achieve their murky objectives. But the amnesty offer also suggests that Yar'Adua has been overwhelmed by the problems in the region, in particular the regular and successful sabotaging of national economic interests by various groups in the Niger Delta.

As debate continues over whether it was fitting for the government to have offered the amnesty, Yar'Adua now faces two key challenges on two fronts. First, he must ensure that the amnesty does not fail. Outright rejection of the offer would imply a practical and policy flip flop on the side of the government. Second, Yar'Adua must find a way to end the violence and insecurity in the region (for which the amnesty was crafted) without unleashing excessive military force on helpless villagers caught up in the military campaign to flush out members of the subversive groups.

Insurgency in the Niger Delta has created a major law-and-order problem for the government. Add to that the dilemma about how to overpower - by force or diplomacy -- the revolutionary elements in the region. If the government uses too much military force, the action could spark international and local agitations over human rights violations in Nigeria. If the government applies a soft approach and the lawlessness continues, Yar'Adua's government would be accused at home and abroad of endorsing anarchy and therefore failing to protect lives, property and businesses in the Niger Delta. These are major challenges for Yar'Adua. But, hey, the man was elected to solve national and regional problems, not to ignore them.

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.

In the past, some local community leaders had identified themselves as the authentic representatives of the groups in the Niger Delta only for the real warlords to emerge and scuttle official agreements made between the government and community leaders. So far, there seems to be no particular authority figure around whom all other interest groups could rally. We have heard about Ateke Tom, Asari Dokubo and the rest but none commands the same authority and credibility of all the groups in the region as Ken Saro-Wiwa did when he was alive.

In the ensuing battle for recognition and leadership, Niger Delta activists must rise to identify a unifying leader who can bargain or negotiate on behalf of the entire region. It will not be easy to find one such leader in light of the countless objectives that drive the activities of the different groups. To pass the leadership test, the Niger Delta activists would have to find common grounds around which the groups can coalesce. In untangling the Niger Delta crisis, unity is paramount. It symbolises strength both in terms of unified leadership and common goals.

Part of the reason why many people do not take seriously the government's talk about its commitment to resolve the conflict peacefully has to do with the constant shifts and turns by the government. The public has also lost count of the numerous times that Niger Delta activists pledged to disarm or observe a period of ceasefire which they never respected. Exactly one year ago, the activists succeeded in provoking Yar'Adua to the point that he ordered the military to use force of any magnitude to deal with the rebels. This toughening of the government's position followed the successful blowing up (in June 2008) of the Bonga oil field operated by Shell Petroleum Development Company.

The incident severely disrupted Nigeria's oil exploration and production in the region. Yar'Adua was so outraged that he ordered "the armed forces and security agencies to take all necessary action to apprehend the perpetrators of this latest act of national sabotage and bring them to justice". With that tough talk, Yar'Adua signaled that he had changed his position on how to resolve the Niger Delta crisis.

At the time of the incident last year, Special Adviser to the President on Communications, Olusegun Adeniyi, defended Yar'Adua by arguing that the presidential command should not be interpreted as "a declaration of war in the region but that the offensive by the military will be against criminality and criminals who take advantage of the situation in the Niger Delta to perpetuate criminality. They will be dealt with in accordance with the law. What happened (attack on the Bonga oil field) was sheer criminality and not an attempt to improve developmental efforts in the region". That was Adeniyi's defence of his boss.

Compare the aggressive tone of the government last year to the language used in the government's latest offer of reprieve for Niger Delta activists. In one year, the government blows hot and hard on the Niger Delta activists. In another year, when it is confronted with a failed policy, the same government adopts conciliatory language. These conflicting messages send mixed signals (about insincerity and treachery) to the Niger Delta activists. They hear the government say one thing today and they hear the government say another thing tomorrow.

Yar'Adua's government must admit two things. One: that it has failed to establish peace in the Niger Delta through coercion and bullying. Two: in trying to deal with the situation in the region, the government has struggled with semantics in its attempt to define two classes of "militants" - the "genuine militants" and the "criminals", as Olusegun Adeniyi toiled last year over words and their meanings. Who is a "genuine militant" and who is a "criminal"? Is a "genuine militant" a non-violent protester in the Niger Delta? Or, is a "criminal" someone who takes hostages by using replica guns and other soft weapons to kidnap their victims?

In their inconsistent reactions to the amnesty, the activists appear to be treating the government's offer with characteristic derision. No sooner did Yar'Adua announce the amnesty with presidential ceremony than the activists intensified their bombing campaigns directed at oil facilities. It's like the activists are telling Yar'Adua to take his amnesty offer and to go jump into the Warri creek. They don't believe the messenger and the message.

How could the government believe that the amnesty carrot would be so crunchy and tasty enough to lure the activists to disarm? The Niger Delta activists are no fools. Who, in their right mind, would abandon underground militancy that yields better income in exchange for an empty promise to return to society where nothing is guaranteed, not even the safety of the "reformed" activists, and not even the regular receipt of the pittance known as "minimum wage"? For all its talk about its commitment to peace in the Niger Delta region, the government has not been able to convince the leaders of the various groups that they would be fully integrated into the society with befitting jobs and training opportunities aimed at equipping them with the skills they need to be able to adapt to the 21st century challenges of surviving in corruption-riddled Nigeria.

For a group that has repeatedly been bombarded, hunted and shot at like feral animals fit for consumption as pepper soup, no amount of preaching from Yar'Adua's amnesty pulpit seems sufficient to get the Niger Delta activists to repent and return en masse.