Why Dialogue with Niger Delta Militants Must not Fail

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Emma Agu

While it can be argued that Nigeria is far from economic redemption, the truce by the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA), a group that has almost single-handedly crippled oil production in the Niger Delta and brought the economy to its knees, kindles hope that a break towards restoring economic stability is on the way.

Yet, it is not just the truce that gives cause for optimism. As we are all aware, the truce did not just emerge from the blues: there is always the cause and effect, the process and the outcome. But first, let us address the environment. Hitherto, two groups had pushed two contrasting models for resolving the debacle. One group, the hawks, was for outright military annihilation of the militants; the other group, the pacifists, advocated dialogue or some form of carrot and stick strategy.

The fear, always, was that President Muhammadu Buhari who maintains a zero tolerance posture to violent agitation would subscribe to only forcefully putting down the militants, a step that, many believed, would only lead to escalation of violence. Ibe Kachikwu, minister of state for petroleum was the arrowhead of the dialogue school and labored relentlessly to push his position. At every point, he insisted that he had the President’s mandate to negotiate with the militants and was never deterred by the campaign aimed at derailing the effort.

That we can today be talking seriously about dialogue is a tribute, first, to the pragmatism of the President who, against all predictions, endorsed negotiation. By that singular decision, Buhari has vindicated Kachikwu who, at every available opportunity, insisted that the President was committed to peace and development of the region. While it is not yet Uhuru, it goes without saying that Kachikwu has also been vindicated in his insistence that dialogue was possible, that it remained the most viable model, out of the many scenarios that were being touted to resolve the imbroglio. His nudging at the conscience of his fellow Niger Deltans; his methodical exposition of the dire consequences of unremitting militancy, his promise of federal government’s commitment to the development of the region, his cultivation of a broad spectrum of the stakeholder groups without prejudice to political alliances and the personal risks he put himself through, must have convinced the NDA to give his entreaties a chance.

We can speculate on other likely reasons why the NDA has embraced dialogue. For one, it is possible that the militants have achieved the limited objective of getting the Federal Government to the dialogue table. Lastly, it is possible that the unprecedented military build-up in the region and the resolve of government to deploy force if dialogue failed could have compelled a rethink on the part of the militants.

Now, it is left to be seen whether dialogue will work or not. It all depends on the disposition of all the stakeholder groups in committing unequivocally to an amicable resolution of the conflict. Yet, there is no gainsaying that this is one conflict that needs to be resolved quickly, not just because Nigeria and Nigerians are hurting badly but because the share magnitude of destruction of the Niger Delta, in the event of a full scale military expedition, will overshadow any disaster that the country has ever experienced.

From the experience of other lands, we need to approach this opportunity for dialogue with caution, realizing that there is no quick fix to the problem. But all the parties can create the atmosphere for dialogue to succeed.

In this regard, the first requirement is to guard against giving preconditions. For instance, during their meeting with Kachikwu, the Gbaramatu chiefs had given six conditions for peace to return. Legitimate as their demand was, nothing stopped them from reserving it for the dialogue table.

The second requirement is for both the Federal Government and the militants to constitute negotiation teams that are made up of nationalists and patriots who command the confidence of Nigerians. There should be no place for hawks and agent provocateurs. It is axiomatic that the Federal Government’s team be led by Kachikwu who, by unequivocally advocating development-propelled pacification and dialogue, has earned the confidence of the militants and genuine advocates of peace in the Niger Delta. Actually, at the end of the day, it is not about who takes the plaudits; only the President will take the credit for success just as the buck stops at his table should things go wrong.

Finally, nothing should be done to convey the impression that the Federal Government’s dialogue proposal is only a smokescreen to hoodwink the militants out of the creeks and round them up. It is difficult, at this point, to predict how ongoing military expedition in parts of the Niger Delta will affect the dialogue. Paradoxically, it will be naïve to expect the Federal Government to fold its arms in the guise of dialogue while the militants who oppose dialogue overrun the region.

This clearly shows the enormity of the challenge and why it is incumbent, on all the stakeholders, to eschew utterances and actions that fuel hate, enlarge suspicions, harden positions and instigate further violence. For those who think that overrunning the Niger Delta will be a police action, they need to be guided by the statement of Navy Admiral Dennis Cutler Blair retired, former United States Director of National Intelligence who once commanded the U.S. forces in the Pacific region. According to Admiral Blair “the use of large-scale military force in volatile regions of underdeveloped countries is difficult to do right, has major unintended consequences and rarely turns out to be quick, effective, controlled and short lived.” Has that not been our experience with Boko Haram?

By now, those who doubt the resolve of the Federal Government to defend the country’s territorial integrity would have read the statement credited to President Buhari to the effect that he was trained to die for Nigeria. It is this frightening scenario, and the real prospect that, in the end, we could all end up as losers that make this chance of dialogue one opportunity that should never be passed up. Anyone with any reservation about this should read the timely counsel of Col. Abubakar Umar, one-time military governor of Kaduna State at page 9 of the DAILY SUN newspaper of August 31, 2016. It is worth quoting in some detail. His words:

“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…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 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 populated with oil, rendering the area 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 citizens.

“It is 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 the total shutdown of oil and gas operations.

“Besides, Niger Delta militants cannot be said to be terrorists in the real sense of the word. I believe they are amenable to dialogue.”

He then ends on a note that should be of concern to the President: “I need to 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 the control and exploitation of the regions oil and gas resources”.

Incredible summon to greatness; uncluttered genuine counsel; bold timely intervention by someone whose moral compass has consistently trailed the trajectory of the plumb line. Will the President rise to the occasion, to be the courageous statesman that found a balance between might and compassion, between power and responsibility? How Buhari resolves this could ultimately define his presidency and place in history.

–Emma Agu is a member of the Federal Insignia, a nascent group of policy analysts poised to change the content and direction of conversation on national issues in Nigeria.