A Dialogue in Dispute

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The Monday Discourse
President Muhammadu Buhari recently said his government was in talks with the Niger Delta Avengers, a self-determination group, to find a common ground over their agitation. But the group has also come out to deny knowledge of any such engagement. This could mean more trouble for the Buhari government,Shola Oyeyipo and Segun James ask
 
Issues relating to perceived alienation and militancy in the Niger Delta region are not new. In time past, long before the advent of the Boko Haram sect, militancy remained a national dilemma that the Nigerian state contended with. It was usually in the form of hostage-taking of oil workers, attacks on oil installations and general violence by restive youths.
The issues revolved around alienation of the people of the region, where Nigeria’s economic mainstay is derived, ethnicity-based political domination, environmental degradation, corruption and militarisation of the region. But the situation got worse in the early 1990s with tensions between foreign oil corporations and a number of the Niger Delta minority ethnic groups, who felt they were being exploited, particularly the Ogoni and the Ijaw.
Though in 2009, the late President Umar Yar’Adua’s amnesty programme, which provided support and training for ex-militants proved successful, however, in what many thought was a politically motivated resurgence of the militancy, a new group, the Niger Delta Avengers, has held Nigeria by the jugular by launching sporadic attacks that are gradually crippling the economy.
 
A Timeline of the Attacks
On February 10, 2016, the group attacked the Bonny Soku Gas Export Line, which transports natural gas to the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas plant and an independent power plant at Gbaran in the Niger Delta. On February 14, they attacked the SPDC giant underwater Forcados 48-inch Export Pipeline at the Forcados export terminal. On February 19, the Clough Creek Tebidaba Agip pipeline manifold in Bayelsa State was blown up.
As this continued, on May 4, the Chevron Valve Platform at Abiteye, reputed to be the most significant platform for Chevron because it is the major connection to all other platforms, was destroyed.
In a coordinated attack, the Chevorn Well D25 in Abiteye and other major pipelines were blown up on May 5. On May 13, Chevron pipelines were bombed and on May 20, the Escravos Gas Pipeline, belonging to the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) in Delta State was bombed. The militants struck Chevron’s main electricity feed pipeline to the Escravos Tank Farm at Ciera creek in Warri South-west local government area of Delta State on May 25.
Two days later, on May 27, the Nembe 1, 2 and 3 Brass to Bonny trunk lines belonging to Nigerian Agip Oil Company (NAOC) and Shell in Bayelsa State came under attack. On that same date, NNPC Gas and Crude trunk lines in Warri were destroyed and on May 31, oil well RMP 23 and RMP 24 belonging to Chevron believed to be the company’s highest swamp producing oil wells were blown up.
On June 2, there was a bomb attack on the Ogboinbiri to Tebidaba and Clough Creek to Tebidaba Crude oil pipelines in Bayelsa State. On June 3, the SPDC Forcados 48 export line in Delta State, which was earlier attacked, was once again blown up because the company started repair works on the facility. On the same day, the avengers blew the Brass to Tebidaba Crude oil line in Bayelsa State. 
As the group continued to obstruct all avenues by President Buhari to export crude oil because of his refusal to address its demands, it claimed responsibility for blowing up another oil installation belonging to Chevron Nigeria Limited in the creeks of Delta State on July 6, an attack that came barely 24 hours after they attacked a pipeline belonging to NNPC at Eleme, leading to the NLNG.
The militant group also claimed responsibility for blowing up NNPC in in Oruk Anam local government area of Akwa Ibom State on July 16, though the Akwa Ibom State Government and the police quickly refuted the claim.
 
The Disputed Dialogue
Considering the havoc being wrecked daily on the Nigerian economy by the militants, the federal government has been variously advised to find a lasting solution to the problem and one of the major steps in this direction is that government should dialogue with them. The United States government on Tuesday, July 4, 2016 said it was better that the federal government dialogued with NDA as a way resolve their grievances in a position expressed by the Public Affairs Section of the US diplomatic mission to Nigeria.  
“The U.S. Mission to Nigeria is monitoring reports of attacks and other incidents in the Niger Delta. We share the concerns of all Nigerians about these attacks. Furthermore, the United States remains supportive of efforts, including the promotion of dialogue, to address grievances in the Niger Delta. We encourage all parties to resolve their disputes through peaceful means and emphasise that human rights of all Nigerians must be protected,” it noted in the statement.
“We continue to call on all Nigerians to persevere in efforts to achieve common goals: to end violence and curb the activities of criminal elements; to establish conditions and mechanisms for profound, positive, and lasting changes in the region and to provide economic opportunity and needed services for residents of the Niger Delta,” the statement said.
While the government is showing that it is favourably disposed to the idea of talking with the group, the emergence of another militant group from the Itsekiri area, by name, Asawana Deadly Force of Niger Delta (ADFND), based in Sapele area of Delta State, is proving to be a stumbling block to the plan, hence President Buhari was advised not to dialogue with the NDA, or any militant group but with the leaders of the Niger Delta region.
This was the position expressed by the Center for Peace and Environmental Justice (CEPEJ), which said if the federal government dialogues with the NDA, it would give room for other militant groups to emerge and crave for attention. According to the CEPEJ coordinator, Sheriff Mulade, “The federal government should dialogue with credible leaders from the Niger Delta region and not with militants especially the Avengers and youth bodies because it will give other youth groups the opportunity to carry arms against the state.”
Also, former National Secretary of Labour Party, LP, Mr. Kayode Ajulo, said it is advisable that the federal government involves elder statesman and prominent Ijaw leader, Chief Edwin Clark in the ongoing dialogue with the NDA to ensure speedy and amicable resolution of the crisis. 
“I am of the opinion that the best way to resolve the Niger Delta crisis is for the federal government to dialogue with the members of the Niger Delta Avengers. The government I think cannot achieve much with use of excessive force. And that is why I will suggest that in its resolve to engage them, the authorities should include the leader of Ijaw nation, Chief Clark, who will be of great value to the  engagement with the militants,” he opined.
But for members of the United Niger Delta Energy Development Security Strategy (UNDEDSS), a coalition of civil society groups in the Niger Delta region, rather than delegate the responsibility of the dialogue ‎with members of the Niger Delta Avengers, President Buhari should personally head the team that will meet with the militants.
The UNDEDSS Secretary General, Tony Uranta‎, who reiterated his advice in a chat with THISDAY, said this will afford the president the opportunity to find a lasting solution to the problem of insurgency in the Niger Delta.
“In the light of the conflicting statements being made by too many putative representatives of both the region and the federal government”, the UNDEDSS scribe said, “It is necessary to state that the Niger Delta is not going to know sustainable peace via the coterie of so-called contact groups or committees! And, there cannot be any reliable dialogue, between the FGN and the region without a commitment to Justice and equity by President Buhari himself,” he said.
‎The UNDEDSS‎ said President Buhari also needs to revive the moribund platform of the holistic 2009 amnesty that the late Yar’Adua deployed, as one of the remedies to address the “dangerously imploding reality of armed agitation in the Niger Delta.”
‎According to Uranta, the federal government should adopt what he called the “successful Yar’Adua template of 2009, by appointing a credible Special Adviser on the region and re-establishing the Niger Delta Committee/Council that operated five sub-committees to holistically and sustainably address the challenges identified in the region.”
He said his group, the UNDEDSS and other leading stakeholders in the region have continued to interface with very senior members of the present administration and given them a detailed template that the president should use to resolve the growing insecurity in the region, which is negatively impacting all of Nigeria. 
According to the Niger Delta Delta group, what the federal government needs to do is adopt what the 2008 Niger Delta Technical Committee’s Report advises.
The UNDEDSS also listed the release of ten secondary school children and others detained as prisoners-of-war for many weeks since the military’s invasion of Gbaramatu kingdom and the return of symbols of Gbaramatu traditional worship.
Most importantly, that President Buhari should address the nation to announce that he would personally lead the revival of the 2009 template premised on a Niger Delta Development Committee under his direct supervision and granting free passage to all stakeholders he is ready to directly dialogue with, as some of the immediate actions towards reassuring the Niger Delta of government’s sincere commitment to justice and equity.
 
The Dalung-NDA Encounter
Though the NDA spokesperson, Mudoch Agbinibo, in a statement last Friday denied claims by President Buhari that his administration was holding talks with the militants to resolve the problem, the Minister of Youths and Sports, Solomon Dalung, some few days earlier had claimed that he travelled to Oporoza in Gbaramatu kingdom, where he said he held a meeting with the Avengers.
During an interview with journalists, he said: “On reaching the community after the two-hour journey on the high sea, I met with the members of the communities, who told me that their dream was to be included in the Nigerian project, that the education facilities and other basic social amenities are almost non-existent in the communities. They also raised concern of incessant attacks by the Nigerian Military.”
Dalung said after meeting with the communities, he was escorted by the Niger Delta ambassadors to the leadership of Avengers, who gave him a hand-written letter specifying their demands, which he said he was yet to present to the president.
Although the Minister said he did not unseal the letter, he said the Avengers had raised three important issues. “The issues include the Niger-Delta Maritime University, pipeline community policing, which they said the government had denied them, and the inability of the government to continue with the amnesty programme established by former President Umaru Musa Yarádua Yar’Adua.”
But as at last weekend, the NDA position as expressed by Agbinibo, was that the group was not in any peace talks with government. He said they would only hold peace talks with the government if the international community were involved.
“Our attention has been drawn to media reports that the president is in touch with Niger Delta agitators including the Niger Delta Avengers but the truth is that we are not aware of any peace talk. If there is any such peace talk, it means the president is talking to their mercenaries set to disturb the genuine struggle of the agitators.
“President Buhari-led government is not sincere to the Nigeria people and their foreign allies. If we are to engage in any peace talk, we made it clear that the international community must be part of it. The president knows our demands. So, they should stop deceiving the international oil companies, the general public and the international community,” the NDA spokesperson stated.
 
What’s the Road to Peace?
On what can be done to address the problem of militancy in the Niger Delta, a member of the sixth National Assembly, who represented Okene/Ogori Magongo federal constituency of Kogi State, Hon Suleiman Kokori-Abdul, said President Buhari must heed the calls for restructuring Nigeria.
He considers the ethnic fault line as the main factor promoting the violence seen in parts of the country, “For instant, Buhari being the president today from the Northern part of the country is causing the Niger Delta Avengers to be blowing our pipelines because he is not from the Southern part of the country. They are trying to mar or discredit his government, so, the earlier we sit down and talk restructuring Nigeria the better
“There is no point trying to stay as one Nigeria and all these are still happening and drawing the country backward‎. It is either we go back to the regional government system with a ceremonial president or every region for his or her own country‎.‎ Enough is enough! We should call a spade a spade. Each and every region has one advantage over others so let everyone make maximum use of theirs and move on‎.
When asked that restructuring seems like a very tall dream because like most previous governments, the Buhari administration does not seem to want go that way, Kokori said: “That is why we are not progressing the way are supposed to progress till today.‎ We need to sit on round table and talk amicably. Is UK not pulling out of EU, did the heaven fall‎?”
Mr. Doueyi Fiderikuma, a Yenagoa based legal practitioner, said “I am not sure those boys understand what they doing. Maybe their sponsors do, but not the boys because their activities have nothing to do with the Niger Delta struggle or the restructuring of the federation.”
He said the move to negotiate with the boys is welcome even though he doubts the method being adopted by the government. According to him, there are many loose militant groups in the region that are independent of each other and have diverse agenda.
He wondered what restructuring or true federalism the boys are asking for, when in December 2008, former President Umar Yar’Adua had in the Petroleum Industry Bill advocated that at least 10 per cent of the nation’s oil revenue must go to the oil bearing communities.
“After the death of Yar’Adua, President Jonathan had the opportunity to ensure this but he never did. Even the Petroleum Minister during this period was from an oil producing state even though her community is not oil bearing, yet they did nothing. So, what are the boys agitating for?”

He stressed that the creation of states or bakanising the country along ethnic or regional line would not solve the problem of the nation. He insisted that the constitution has already given the federating states sufficient autonomy, which precludes the state government from carrying out the laws of the federal government.
Also supporting the view of Fiderikumo, Mr. Anthony Ekpete another lawyer refused to subscribe to the assertion that the nation would be better when divided as being advocated. He stressed that he was of the school of thought as postulated by former Vice-President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar for a strong fiscal federalism.
He said even though he agreed with some of the things being demanded by the new militant groups in the region, he strongly disagreed with the method they adopted. He said the nation should never be balkanised or divided as being called for by the boys as a smaller country does not mean a better state. 
 
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On reaching the community after the two-hour journey on the high sea, I met with the members of the communities, who told me that their dream was to be included in the Nigerian project, that the education facilities and other basic social amenities are almost non-existent in the communities. They also raised concern of incessant attacks by the Nigerian Military