By Emmanuel Addeh in Yenagoa
Despite its reluctance to officially set up a negotiating committee to hold talks with militants in the Niger Delta, the federal government has continued discreet talks with the belligerent groups in the region, THISDAY learnt yesterday.
It was gathered that at least three meetings had taken place in the last few months between the militants and federal government emissaries coordinated by the National Security Adviser (NSA), Major General Mohammed Moguno (rtd).
The backroom discussions, which have incorporated other smaller aggrieved groups, are continuing, it was learnt, just as there is growing anxiety among elders and leaders in the region over the inability of the government at the centre to formally name its team of negotiators about six weeks after their meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari.
All the meetings between the agitators and the office of the NSA, THISDAY was informed, took place in Abuja, after the Joint Task Force (JTF), a special security outfit fighting militancy in the area, cleared and certified the various groups which have attacked oil installations since the beginning of the year.
A source close to the goings-on between the government and the agitators, said government agents reached out directly to the groups instead of going through third parties to learn first hand the underlying reasons for the several attacks on the oil infrastructure aside the ones publicly voiced by the warlords.
To avoid the complaints of exclusion that has continued to trail the amnesty programme, the government was said to have gone beyond only the known violent groups like the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) and the Niger Delta Greenland Justice Mandate (NDGJM) two groups that have publicly claimed responsibility, to reach out to smaller groups.
But the source added that to avoid making the meetings an “all-comers-affair,” the security agents subjected the groups to serious scrutiny which ensured that ‘portfolio militants’ were screened out.
According to the source, most of the issues being discussed still bordered on the 16-point demand by the Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF), led by Chief Edwin Clark.
However, it was gathered that the Iduwini Volunteer Force (IVF), one of the groups operating along the coasts of South-western Delta State and North-western Bayelsa State, in the last meeting with the office of the NSA, insisted that one of the conditions for peace should be the direct payment of 13 per cent derivation to the source of the oil, the communities, rather than the state government.
The group reportedly told the government negotiators that it was an aberration to pay the derivation funds to the state governors who were hardly accountable to the oil producing communities in the Delta.
The IVF, led by one Commander Johnson Biboye, it informed, maintained during one of the meetings that the part of the constitution that set aside the 13 per cent derivation specifically said that the monies should be paid directly to the source of the natural resource and not the states where they are found.
Confirming the discreet discussions between the parties, the source said: “We have been meeting and interfacing with the government through the office of the NSA. We have told them that the last amnesty programme did not carry many genuine groups along. So, after clearance, several groups have been meeting with them, though there is no definitive conclusion on the discussions.
“As far as you are cleared by the JTF, and they (security agencies) know you have antecedents, you are allowed to be part of those they are talking to. But we have also told government to be consistent.
“If they want peace, let them follow through with the withdrawal of soldiers from the creeks. They cannot be looking for peace and deploying soldiers to harass innocent people at the same time,” it added.
On how the talks were progressing, it said that though the federal government has not made any particular concession, it had agreed in principle to allow the Marine University in Okerenkoko, Tompolo’s town to continue as originally planned by the government of former President Goodluck Jonathan.
Meanwhile, there has been growing unease among elders and leaders of the region who met with President Buhari on November I, to table the demands of the Niger Delta, it was learnt.
Many of those involved in the peace committee, including Chief Clark, in a meeting in Delta State at the weekend, were said to be unhappy over the refusal of the government to formally inaugurate it’s team of negotiators.
Also, the King of Twon Brass, Bayelsa, Alfred Diette-Spiff, on the margins of an event which held in Yenagoa, told THISDAY that the committee was patiently waiting for the federal government to officially announce its team.
He said he was sure that the government was serious about achieving peace in the region and called on the militants to maintain the ceasefire that has prevailed for weeks.
“Of course, the federal government has to be sincere because they have no choice in the matter.
“The federal government realises and appreciates what the elders are trying to do. So, it is a matter of letting the tempers of agitators and the people cool down before starting the dialogue,” he said.