Presidential gaffe on Niger Delta militants

Militancy in the Niger Delta region is as old as the country itself. So, it is trite to attribute its advent to the current administration in any form. Only children who have been growing without the benefits of history lessons would not remember that there was some minority rights militancy in Niger Delta years ago, which bred a legend called Isaac Adaka Boro who died on May 9, 1968. It is indisputable that agitations in the area partially triggered some of the internal wars, notably the civil wars that the nation survived in the seventies.

Besides, militancy in the area actually propelled political actions that led to the choice of a Niger Delta governor (Bayelsa State’s) as a vice presidential running mate to candidate Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in 2007. And the ‘political correctness’ was consolidated in 2011 when the 2007 running mate Goodluck Jonathan, was elected president and in office until power changed hands democratically in May 2015.

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Lest we forget too, agitation in the Niger Delta area led to a political project called “Niger Delta Amnesty Programme” to repentant militants during the administration of President Yar’Adua (2007-2010). What is more, Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and Niger Delta Ministry were created to serve the same purpose: development to address challenges in the volatile region.

Expectedly, heavy price has been paid for the unrelenting efforts of militants in the area as trillions of naira have been lost to agitations including blowing up of economic assets, (oil installations) in the area.

Indeed, the incalculable destruction of assets has been viewed as one of the critical factors responsible for the collapse of the Nigerian foreign reserve profile and concomitant inflation and recession plaguing the country at the moment.

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It must be acknowledged that the previous governments and the present one have applied various strategies including subtle diplomacy or moral suasions and military tactics to reassert sovereignty of the state for sustainable economic growth, but without much success. This is unfortunate.

But despite these sordid backgrounds, a recent comment by the President that militants in the Niger Delta area had an objective to colonise Nigeria has raised some curiosity that is capable of undermining conflict resolution mechanism being forged for the area.

This is the origin of the recent presidential Freudian slip: President Muhammadu Buhari in a meeting with a visiting Foreign Minister of the Federal Republic of Germany, Dr. Frank Walters Steinmeier at the State House, Abuja, had noted that the objective of the militancy in Niger Delta region was to colonise Nigeria. In a strange statement by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, Buhari said: “But another serious form of insecurity has reared its head on the Niger-Delta. The objective is to colonise the country economically by sabotaging oil and gas installations. We are trying to speak with their leaders to know how many groups they are and we are also working with the oil companies. The militants engage in sophisticated sabotage using skills they had gained from trainings either by government, or the oil companies to vandalise installations deep in the sea…”

The president also lamented to the foreigner that the Niger-Delta situation had become more complex, since the militants had no central command, and some of them had been mere extortionists.

Unfortunately, the president’s responses to militancy in the Niger-Delta region so far are capable of aggravating situation in the volatile area the Yar’Adua government defused years ago. Presidents do not speak so regularly to such situations this way. Speeches from the throne are very influential. Government’s militant attitude to the agitators in groups no fewer than ten including the famous ones like the Niger-Delta Arrangers (NDA), the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger-Delta (MEND) has been immature.

Without compromising sovereignty of the state, applying diplomacy and conflict resolution mechanisms such as caution and persuasion needed to assuage the region that has had a feeling of being historically short-changed in the scheme of things is not a sign of weakness. Sovereignty derives from only the people that the government itself has a responsibility to protect and dispense welfare to. This is what the constitution guarantees. Every stakeholder in the Nigerian project wants peace in the region that hosts the economic assets. It is presidential courage and wisdom to avoid unconscionable, irritating and inflammatory statements that can undermine peace and security, in this regard.

It should be recalled at all times that the cause of militancy in the Niger-Delta region of Nigeria is the age-long deprivation of the basic economic rights and social welfare of the people of the region that hosts the main source of nation’s revenue through oil and gas. Their demand for a fair and equitable share from such resources cannot, in any case, be described as colonising tactics. Colonisation would only arise if the agitators were non-Nigerians. Indeed, the Niger Delta agitators are bonafide citizens of this country and so have the inalienable rights to demand for better life and opportunities for their people. Their reactions, in this connection, cannot be interpreted as colonialism in its classical meaning. Describing them as colonialists or extortionists in this historical context, would amount to giving a dog a bad name in order just for the purpose of hanging.

Therefore, the president should as a matter of urgency modify these statements in the interest of peace and corporate existence of the country he has a historic mandate to lead at the moment.

This is no time for demonisation of a region. How else could the same presidency classify militants in the Northeast known as Boko Haram who indeed have been on a self-confessed mission of Islamising Nigeria? Should the insurgents be profiled by the presidency too as a classical example of religious colonialists?

In this regard, all the stakeholders including those speaking for the militants should take part in negotiations to end militancy instead of adopting violent means that can harm the economy. The current initiative (negotiation) that some forces in Abuja have been reportedly frustrating should be fruitful because it is in public interest. Brain, not brawn is required at this time.

Guardian Newspaper Editorial Board

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