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All things being unequal, the impossible can happen in Nigeria. That is why the crocodile is about to smile and tear at the same time, courtesy of the nation’s military and the Delta’s militants. As both forces square up in lock-down threats and drills, the otherwise sleepy crocodile is being roused from its lazy lethargy into a menacing mood that can hurt either way like a double-edged sword. At the end of the day, the resulting scenario may be that of a MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) denouement that could leave both the Niger delta and the Nigerian state prostrate.
In the wake of escalated attacks on oil installations by resurgent but disjointed bands of militants and tough-talking responses from the Muhammadu Buhari administration, national and global attention has expectedly focused on the Niger delta in recent months. With its crippling effect on the country’s economy which is now officially in recession, two clear schools of thought had arisen on the renewed volatility in the region. The first which is preponderant in the corridors of power at the centre, is that sabotage and criminality has taken the garb of genuine agitations. The second, often canvassed by the intelligentsia of the Niger delta struggle, is that militancy is an off-shoot of the region’s demand to be given its deserved share in the allocation of national resources most of which is mined from its bosom. Somewhere in-between lays the interplay of global politics driven by the push of big oil and its conspiring component of international state actors.
But away from the theoretical and ideological underpinnings of the Niger delta affair, the reality on ground is that the nation is being brought to its kneels by the bombings of trunk lines, pipelines and other critical economic infrastructure crisscrossing the area. Nothing explains and exemplifies this more than the dreadful fact-sheet on the state of the economy released by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) last Wednesday. According to ThisDay newspaper’s report on the grim release by the Bureau, “Nigeria officially slipped into a recession based on NBS’ GDP growth figures for Q2 2016, which showed that the economy contracted by 2.06 per cent, compared to the negative growth of 0.36 per cent recorded in Q1 2016.” In terms of the specific context of this discourse, the report said “daily oil production was estimated at 1.69 million barrels per day (mbpd), representing 0.42mbpd lower than Q1 production of 2.11mbpd and also lower than the corresponding quarter in 2015 by 0.36mbpd when output was recorded at 2.05mbpd.” Agreeably, the federal government has attributed this “sharp contraction in the oil sector due to huge losses of crude oil production as a result of vandalism and sabotage,” in a statement by the Ministry of Budget and National Planning. The disturbing explanation is that “with crude oil contributing 8-12% of GDP and up to 50-53% of the non-oil sector dependent on the oil sector, it is clear that the fortunes of up to 60% of the Nigerian economy rested on a volatile sector.”
But how can Nigeria address and redress this devastating volatility in the Delta and get a badly needed relief from the debilitating economic condition made worse by the global downturn in oil prices? This is the million naira question confronting the nation’s leadership today.
Unfortunately, President Buhari has shown an inclination towards applying the iron-fist approach against calls in some critical quarters that dialogue is better suited to deal with the situation. In the last week or so, the military has begun an operation code-named ‘Crocodile Smile’ ostensibly to safeguard law-abiding citizens and oil infrastructure from the rampaging militancy in the region. The full import of the military’s ‘show-of-force’ is not hidden to keen observers and inhabitants of the Niger delta who fear that the effort is a surreptitious move to level-up the creeks and inflict maximum damage to harmless and hapless civilians in the region. Given the history of the military’s intervention in the region, these fears cannot be dismissed as unfounded. This is why a note of caution by Vanguard newspaper in its Editorial comment on August 30th entitled ‘As “operation Crocodile smile” Begins’ must be taken seriously by government. The newspaper said: “The armed forces must keep to their promise of conducting their operations within the rules of engagement, which guarantees the safety of innocent civilians and their property. We totally forbid the harassment and victimization of innocent civilians, as this might escalate armed confrontations and defeat the core objectives of the operation. This is not a revenge mission, and it must not be allowed to result in acts of criminality by those sent to pursue criminals. Meanwhile, efforts at dialogue must take on a more urgent note. Any peace agreement must not be abandoned as soon as calm returns to the region. This will amount to merely postponing the evil day, yet again.”
The newspaper’s admonition echoes a similar position canvassed by respected statesman and former Military Governor of Kaduna State, Col. Abubakar Dangiwa Umar (rtd) who cautioned the President against applying military force on the militants. In a statement released recently and titled ‘War in the Niger Delta: A Most Dangerous Option,’ Umar strongly advocated for the use of dialogue by government. Disagreeing firmly with attempts to draw a correlation between the Niger delta militants and the heinous boko haram terrorism in the North-east of the country, he said: “I am really frightened by the sudden escalation in the Niger Delta region from where there are reports of skirmishes between our security forces and the Niger Delta militants.
This is happening after the President was quoted as vowing to deal with the militants as he did Boko Haram. All factors considered, the use of military force in an attempt to resolve the lingering crisis is not a good option and must therefore be discarded. As a retired General, Mr. President is well aware of the serious and daunting challenges any military will face in its operations in the most difficult and densely populated Niger Delta region. The creeks are so heavily polluted with oil, rendering them highly inflammable. It will take the firing of a few high explosive shells to set the whole area on fire, resulting in inestimable collateral damage among innocent civilians. It is also difficult to see how an armed conflict can secure our oil and gas assets in the region, instead it will aid the destructive activities of the militants and lead to total shut down of all oil and gas operations in the area. The Niger Delta militants cannot be said to be terrorists in the real sense of the word and I believe they are amenable to meaningful dialogue. I need not remind the President that a war in the Niger Delta will be viewed and opposed by most objective Nigerians and the International community as unjust and merely aimed at control and exploitation of the region’s oil and gas resources.” The retired officer’s word of wisdom contrasts sharply with the position of a frontline member of the Northern intelligentsia and former presidential adviser, Ango Abdullahi who described the Delta militants as ‘economic terrorists’ who are “worse than Boko Haram.” According to him, the militants should be flushed out because “if you (federal government) are not going to fight the Niger Delta Avengers then stop fighting Boko Haram.”
Perhaps Professor Abdullahi and the school of thought he represents need to realize that the militants are not a rag-tag army of malcontents, saboteurs and criminals waiting to meet their waterloo in the hands of the armed forces as assumed. These boys much as their modus operandi is not in the overall best interest of the region and its peoples, are involved in a symbolic struggle for fiscal federalism and self-determination. And like has been proven beyond any doubt, they also possess the capacity to give the military a tough time if a push comes to a shove. Is it not ironically curious that a set of militants responded to the military’s declaration of ‘operation crocodile smile’ by announcing a countermand ‘operation crocodile tears’ which it demonstrated by blowing up a trunk line? The government should be guided by the dictum that violence begets violence. While I submit that the authorities must not be dragged into dialogue from a position of weakness, there is also the need to take deliberate measures to de-escalate tensions in order to create a convenient atmosphere for genuine talks that will involve all stakeholders across board. Otherwise, the real crocodile tears may become inevitable after the sounds of bombs and guns would have subsided. Or suspended.
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