On Buhari and the Niger Delta Crisis

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President Muhammadu Buhari should adopt a holistic approach to the Niger Delta crisis and try to learn from past mistakes to arrest the growing restiveness in the region, writes Vincent Obia

It is now a year and four months since President Muhammadu Buhari promised in his inaugural speech to continue the Niger Delta amnesty programme and take other steps to address the region’s multifarious oil-induced problems. But the issues in the region have not only lingered, but they have also continued to expand, perhaps, in ways Buhari might not have envisaged when at his inauguration on May 29 last year he stated, “The amnesty programme in the Niger Delta is due to end in December, but the government intends to invest heavily in the projects and programmes currently in place.

“I call on the leadership and people in these areas to cooperate with the state and federal government in the rehabilitation programmes which will be streamlined and made more effective. As ever, I am ready to listen to grievances of my fellow Nigerians. I extend my hand of fellowship to them so that we can bring peace and build prosperity for our people.”

The period since after that speech has seen unimaginable increase in militancy in the Niger Delta, with a whole slew of nascent militant groups claiming to make demands on behalf of the region. In response, the military launched a crackdown on militant activities in August, code-named, “Operation Crocodile Smile.” And in a seeming tit-for-tat, the militants launched “Operation Crocodile Tears.”

While the unpleasant turn of events in the Niger Delta may be to the shocked dismay of Buhari, many who know the region are unsurprised at the situation. His first steps in the region tended to indicate that he had learned nothing from the mistakes of past leaders who failed to pursue a holistic solution to the Niger Delta problem, but conveniently picked and chose measures they thought could be a stand-alone. The result is the deterioration the region has seen.

Buhari’s inauguration came at a time when there was suspicion in some quarters that he might re-enact what seemed like a pattern of deliberate expropriation and repression in the Niger Delta set by most past leaders of the country, who are not from the region, especially, the military rulers. Being a former military Head of State, it was suspected that Buhari would adopt the coercive strategy in dealing with issues in the region. He did not do that. But he also did not prevent the circumstances that could push him to the military option.

This tactic is anchored on physical and psychological warfare against the people to sufficiently subdue and keep them at bay to allow unfettered flow of oil and gas from the bowels of the delta. It had ensured an illusory sense of peace in the region and also produced a graduation from civil protests to armed struggle, with countless consequences for the country.

At the inception of the Fourth Republic in 1999, then President Olusegun Obasanjo introduced some measures and pushed through legislations to try to appease the Niger Delta people. The late President Umaru YarÁdua, who succeeded Obasanjo, had no illusions about the effectiveness of force in quelling the rising agitation for economic justice and equitable distribution of the region’s resources.

Yar’Adua declared the Niger Delta amnesty project on June 25, 2009 as a five-year programme of “Disarmament, Demobilisation, and Rehabilitation or Reintegration” for armed agitators who accepted the offer of amnesty. The disarmament and demobilisation phases of the programme, which are mainly security-based, have been largely achieved. But the federal government has seemed to renege on the processes that underlie achievement of the reintegration phase, which is development-based and geared towards sustainable peace.

In May last year, Buhari promised to further the peace and development efforts and pay more attention to the problems of the Niger Delta. But he continued the mistakes of his predecessors, who seemed to be engrossed in the security aspects of the amnesty programme to the detriment of the development component. Thus, the problems in the Niger Delta continued to expand and ricochet around the same old stories of poverty, injustice, environmental degradation, insecurity, and restiveness.

Yar’Adua had started the mistake in 2009, when he picked the amnesty programme as a stand-alone from an integrated programme of sustainable peace and development recommended by a committee he commissioned. The Yar’Adua government had on September 8, 2008 inaugurated the Niger Delta Technical Committee headed by Ogoni-born lawyer and activist, Mr. Ledum Mitee, “To collate, review and distil the various reports, suggestions and recommendations on the Niger Delta from the Willinks Commission Report (1958) to the present and give a summary of the recommendations necessary for government action; To appraise the summary recommendations and present a detailed short, medium and long term suggestion to the challenges in the Niger Delta; To make and present to government any other recommendations that will help the federal government achieve sustainable development, peace, human and environmental security in the Niger Delta Region.”

The Mitee committee submitted its report in November 2008. It outlined what has been widely adjudged as the most comprehensive agenda for sustainable peace and development in the Niger Delta. The recommendations included the establishment of a disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration institutions and processes, with the granting of amnesty to militants ready to drop armed struggle and accept the offer of amnesty. It suggested an increment of the derivation revenue accruing to oil producing states to 25 per cent, from the current 13 per cent.

The committee also broadly recommended completion of the East-West road from Calabar to Lagos; building and improvement of critical infrastructure in the Niger Delta to support economic development and create employment for the people; making the oil companies operating in the region to have insurance bonds against environmental pollution; and massive improvement in health and educational infrastructure.

The report recommended the review and abolition of laws deemed to be inimical to the wellbeing of the people, such as the Mineral Act, the Petroleum Act, the Oil Pipeline Act, Land Use Act, Associated Gas Re-injection Act, Oil Terminal Dues Act, and the Land (Title Vesting) Act.

To facilitate proper implementation of the of the recommended measures, the Mitee committee proposed the establishment of some mechanisms and institutions, including National Minorities Commission; a Multi-Stakeholder Niger Delta Policy and Project Compliance Monitoring Committee; a Special Niger Delta Infrastructural Intervention Fund; a Niger Delta Futures Trust Fund; and Community Trust Fund for Oil Producing Communities.

Despite the robust body of suggestions for lasting development and stability in the Niger Delta, the Yar’Adua government picked the amnesty programme and concentrated on the security aspect, which involved disarmament and demobilisation of the armed fighters. This pattern has not changed.

There seems to be a tendency on the part of the federal government to equate peace with uninterrupted exploitation of oil. The Yar’Adua government’s amnesty programme, for instance, was preceded by a massive reduction in oil output from the Niger Delta due to disruptions caused by militant attacks on the oil infrastructure. Nigeria’s daily oil production had fallen from about two million barrels per day to about 500, 000 barrels.

Currently, resurgent militancy in the Niger Delta has reduced daily crude oil production to about one million barrels per day, from about two million barrels. And in response, the federal government proposed the now suspended two-day stakeholders summit on Niger Delta, scheduled to hold on September 26 and September 27. The suspension followed a rejection of the venue and framework by many Niger Delta leaders.

In the search for lasting peace in the Niger Delta, Buhari needs to change this propensity to use oil production as a measure of peace, which has proved illusory and dangerous overtime. There must be a sincere effort to invest in human and infrastructural development in the Niger Delta. Besides, an inclusive security strategy that extensively involves the communities is what would guarantee the security that the government craves. The federal government should ensure equitable land ownership rights, as well as community participation and ownership of oil production activities.

For now, certainly, Nigeria does not need another conference on the Niger Delta. What the country needs is political will on the part of the president to implement the holistic solutions that have been generously captured in existing reports on the region.
PIX: militancy in the ND.pdf