The much anticipated meeting between a Federal Government delegation led by President Muhammadu Buhari and leaders from the restive Niger Delta region finally took place in Abuja last Tuesday. The leaders, under the aegis of Pan Niger Delta Forum, were led by the Amanyanabo of Twon Brass in Bayelsa State, King Alfred Diete Spiff. A former military governor of old Rivers State, Spiff is also Chairman of the Bayelsa State Council of Traditional Rulers.
The Forum presented to Buhari a list of sixteen demands. These include inclusive participation of Niger Delta indigenes in the oil and gas industry; ownership of oil blocs by Niger Delta natives; urgent review of the amnesty programme to reappraise its core mandate to provide robust exit strategy in order to transmit recipients into jobs; and integration of amnestied militants and freeing them from stipends. Other demands include addressing pending law and justice issues regarding some aggrieved groups and individuals; reversing the deployment of military personnel into Niger Delta; prompt take off of the Maritime University, Okerenkoko; building regional infrastructure and providing security surveillance and protection for oil and gas infrastructure.
We congratulate the Federal and the Niger Delta leaders on this important first step in the dialogue towards finding lasting peace through a solution to the region’s many problems. Even though it is not normal for a sovereign federal government to bend over backwards and engage in this kind of dialogue with a section of its country, the Buhari administration should be commended for doing so at the urging of many statesmen and women. While the whole of Nigeria is not a showpiece of development, the even worse situation in the Niger Delta in the midst of stupendous oil riches has been a blot on the conscience of the nation and the world. It is a situation that deserves the most urgent and most well thought out solution. Restiveness in the region has also cost the country dearly. Group managing Director Maikanti Baru said last week that N2 trillion was lost in the past year to the activities of the so-called Niger Delta Avengers.
One of the observable problems with this dialogue process, which was painstakingly put together over many months by Minister of State for Petroleum Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, is to what extent the Forum represents the views of ordinary Niger Deltans and the militant groups. Neither the militants nor the elected representatives of Niger Delta people, i.e. governors and legislators, were part of the team. Still, the group carries with it some moral authority because its members are prominent advocates of their people’s agitation and aspirations. Then also, the 16 point demands they put forward to Buhari were well articulated and must have been the product of many months’ give and take among the Forum members themselves.
Which is not to say that there are no problems with the demands from the point of view of government and other Nigerians. The fact is that the Federal Government under a succession of military and civilian rulers tried in the last three decades to come to grips with the special problems of the Niger Delta region. It created several agencies, projects and programs as well as a ministry. The truth is that if only these agencies had done the work assigned to them and with the infusion of huge amounts of money, the situation would have been at least partially ameliorated by now. For some reason however, all these agencies turned out to be bottomless pits of waste and corruption and trillions of naira were sunk into them without commensurate results. This is why a demand for the “funding” of the Niger Delta Development Commission [NDDC] is almost laughable.
Demanding that oil companies must relocate their head offices to the Niger Delta region is also problematic. Government should not tell a private company where it must site its headquarters though it can be prodded and even forced by law to make all necessary social responsibility investments. Asking for the removal of troops deployed to the region is similarly problematic as long as militants continue to attack key facilities. It is also important at all times to remember that the responsibility for addressing the situation in the Niger Delta is not that of the Federal Government and its agencies alone. State and local governments in the region also bear a heavy responsibility and luckily, they receive enhanced revenue from the Federation Account with the 13% derivation principle.
Probably the most urgent demand of the Forum, couched as it was in elegant language, was the demand for “addressing pending law and justice issues regarding some aggrieved groups and individuals.” In other words, the government should stop prosecuting Tompolo and other Niger Delta citizens who may have fallen foul of the anti-corruption campaign. The Forum seems to be saying, as everyone suspects, that it is these people that are behind the upsurge in militants’ attacks. The entire anti-corruption campaign of the Buhari administration will fall apart if it accedes to this demand but we urge all parties to continue with the dialogue process that was started in order to find a lasting solution to this intractable national problem.