Friday, October 23, 2009

MEND, 'Jomo Gbomo' and amnesty

IN the ongoing struggle for the 'liberation' of the Niger Delta region, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has two vocal representatives who have over the years been at the vanguard of the campaign. I refer in particular to "Jomo Gbomo" and "Cynthia Whyte", two names that have dominated press reports on the Niger Delta conflict. Although they are regularly quoted by journalists, doubts remain whether "Jomo Gbomo" and "Cynthia Whyte" actually exist or whether the names are pseudonyms devised by the hierarchy of MEND to match the government's public information crusade.

In his press releases, often quoted mostly verbatim by lousy journalists, "Jomo Gbomo" cuts the image of an uncompromising, incorrigible, indestructible and invisible face of MEND. His language is tough, brusque, provocative and hard-nosed. He portrays MEND as an underground movement driven by the philosophy of "no defeat, no surrender".

In a letter published in The Guardian of Monday, 19 October 2009, and entitled "Jomo Gbomo and the programme amnesty," Ayo Olorunfemi expressed worry that "... after going through the list of the repentant warlords, one name was conspicuously missing and that is the name of the mouth-piece of the struggle, Jomo Gbomo. What is the significance of the amnesty without him? What would become of the hope for eternal peace in the region without him? Why pondering over those questions, I stumbled on an interview granted by Boyloaf, an ex-militant and he emphatically said Jomo Gbomo is a ghost, fictitious, imaginative and non-existent."

Whether "Jomo Gbomo" and "Cynthia Whyte" exist or whether they are mere phantoms in the arsenal of MEND's radical campaign, credit must be given to "Jomo Gbomo" for his or her unwavering commitment to MEND's motto, for his or her passionate determination to transform the Niger Delta region, and for his or her untiring efficiency in churning out retaliatory rhetoric about how MEND plans to assail and humiliate federal forces patrolling the streets and swamps of the Niger Delta.

In terms of effectiveness in propaganda, "Jomo Gbomo" ranks next to the legendary Iraqi Information Minister - Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf - who, during the last days of the Saddam Hussein regime in April 2003, kept telling western television audiences that there were no coalition forces inside Iraq and that those who managed to get into Iraq were already "committing suicide", even as U.S. forces encircled Baghdad and other major Iraqi cities.

The difference between Al-Sahhaf and "Jomo Gbomo" is that while Al-Sahhaf appeared regularly and physically on television and whereas he conducted open press conferences, "Jomo Gbomo" (if the person actually exists) chose to remain faceless and to utilise the Internet and e-mail technologies to draw the world's attention to the problems and injustices that confront the Niger Delta people.

New technologies such as e-mail and the Internet now serve as a forum through which marginalised groups and minorities such as the Niger Delta activists tell their stories and communicate their problems to the rest of the world. There are possibly two reasons why "Jomo Gbomo" uses the Internet and e-mail to communicate with journalists who cover the Niger Delta conflict. One: The technologies are highly valuable means of communication - they are convenient and they can be used from any location without compromising the identity of the user. The second reason has to do with self-preservation or personal security.

If Niger Delta activists must maintain their invincibility, it is imperative that they must rely on the technologies that guarantee them anonymity and safety. These guarantees are embedded in Internet and e-mail technologies, which explain why "Jomo Gbomo" uses the technologies for regular press releases. It is in these contexts that Internet and e-mail technologies serve as tools for the economic, social and political emancipation of marginalised groups (such as the Niger Delta people) in their struggle for self-determination.

As MEND celebrates the amnesty deal, and as President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua engages in endless photo opportunities with Niger Delta activists who have enthusiastically snapped up the government's official pardon, only a few people seem to be asking questions about where "Jomo Gbomo" and "Cynthia Whyte" stand on the amnesty issue. Have they accepted the amnesty offer? If they have accepted the deal, do they plan to travel to Abuja to take photos with Yar'Adua?

These questions are relevant because "Jomo Gbomo", as the official amplifier of MEND's voice, cannot sound conciliatory in one press release and issue threats in another press statement. The inconsistencies are not a good sign that MEND has genuinely accepted the amnesty. The key question is: Has "Jomo Gbomo" (if it is not a pseudonym) accepted the amnesty as Henry Okah and other leaders of MEND have done?

Yar'Adua and his men must be worried that nothing has been heard about the official position of "Jomo Gbomo" and "Cynthia Whyte". However, one good feature of the amnesty is that it has effectively unmasked the identities of some of the principal leaders of the disparate groups that operate in the creeks and waterways of the Niger Delta. Prior to the amnesty deal, the public had no way of knowing what the activists looked like. The public is now able to match the names they see in news reports against the faces of the men who signed up for the amnesty. The names include Henry Okah, the leader of MEND, Ebikalowei Victor Ben (also known as "Boyloaf"), Government Ekpemupolo (otherwise known as "Tompolo"), Ateke Tom, leader of the Niger Delta Strike Force, Farrah Dagogo (who calls himself the "overall field commander of MEND"), Burster Rhymes, etc.

In a speech to mark his formal acceptance of the amnesty nearly two weeks ago, Tompolo told journalists: "I and my people accept the offer of amnesty." He also pledged "to work with Mr. President to achieve the dreams of this country". In his response, Yar'Adua said: "I thank Tompolo and all members of his immediate team for accepting this unconditional offer of amnesty. Tonight belongs to you Tompolo. By signing this amnesty, you have demonstrated that the interest of the Niger Delta is better served through peace."

Yar'Adua and his senior security officials must be smiling that they have successfully pulled off the amnesty deal by offering incentives which the leaders of the various groups could hardly resist. Although it is too early to judge the success of the amnesty, at the moment it should be seen as a brilliant idea, a masterstroke on how to apply domestic diplomatic pressure to end a potentially destabilising conflict. But, I must emphasise, it is still too early to judge Yar'Adua's amnesty offer.

In a press statement released soon after Yar'Adua met with MEND leader Henry Okah, "Jomo Gbomo" said that MEND would turn its attention to corrupt governors once this phase of the campaign was concluded. This is indeed the right way to go. Part of the reason why the Niger Delta has been neglected for many years must be traced to high levels of corruption among political leaders in the region. Questions must be asked about what previous governors did with the federal funds they received for the development of their states.

While the argument must be made that previous federal administrations never considered the Niger Delta as a region that deserved special attention, the state governments must also be asked to account for whatever amount they received from the federal government. If the federal government neglected the Niger Delta region, so too did the governors of the states who received some money but failed to use the money to make a difference in the lives of the people in the region.

It would be a good idea for MEND and other organisations to hold the state governments to account. There is no point turning the streets into a shootout zone through mindless kidnapping of ordinary citizens who have absolutely nothing to do with the underdevelopment of the Niger Delta. Going after corrupt governors and former governors, including corrupt senior public officials would signal a significant shift in the way MEND agitates for fairness and justice in the region.

It is important for MEND to demonstrate that it understands the difference between responsible agitation for the development of the Niger Delta and careless activism that punishes everyone. If MEND wants to earn public respect and recognition, it must not punish those for whom it is fighting.