PANDEF Expresses Displeasure over N29bn Budgeted to Fight Militancy in 2017

• Wike: Count Niger Deltans out of agitation to divide Nigeria
By Emmanuel Addeh in Yenagoa, Mohammed Aminu in Sokoto and Sylvester Idowu in Warri   
The Pan-Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF), an umbrella body of traditional rulers, elders, leaders and critical stakeholders of the ethnic nationalities that make up the Niger Delta region, has lambasted the federal government for earmarking N29 billion to fight the militancy in the Niger Delta in the 2017 budget, instead of embracing dialogue.
The group, which met with Buhari last November and made 16 demands of the federal government, said that the budgetary allocation to fight militancy would further exacerbate the crisis in the region, which it has been working against.
In a statement issued Saturday night and signed by a member of Central Working Committee of PANDEF, Dr. Alfred Mulade, the group also expressed concern over a statement credited to the presidency that it was yet to identify credible leaders to negotiate with on the problems in the oil-producing region.
“The attention of the Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF) has again been drawn to some uncomplimentary remarks credited to the Senior Special Adviser to President on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, to the effect that the presidency was yet to have credible leaders from the Niger Delta region to dialogue with.
“This statement, coming from the presidency at a time when it has become very clear that the militancy and destruction of oil and gas facilities have abated, owing to the timely intervention of PANDEF, the umbrella body of monarchs, leaders and credible stakeholders of the ethnic nationalities of the coastal states of the Niger Delta region.
“This intervention which has positively led to the cessation of hostilities by the armed agitators, in deference to the appeal by the leaders, has actually led to improvements in the crude oil production, which hitherto fell to 900,000bpd, relative to the production target of 2.2mbpd,” it added.
PANDEF stated further: “To make matters worse, the government is reported to have earmarked a whooping N29 billion of oil revenue to fight militancy in the Niger Delta region.
“This, of course, will further exacerbate the crisis in the region, where PANDEF has been working assiduously to ensure permanent peace.
“How on earth would government begin to think of this kind of huge expenditure, despite the dwindling economy, just to fight militancy, when the causative factors sufficiently articulated and presented to Mr. President by PANDEF remain ignored?”
PANDEF recalled that the rise in crude oil production could not have been possible without the unification of all credible stakeholders under the aegis of PANDEF, adding that this explained the quality and diversity of the composition of its delegation that met with Buhari on November 1, 2016 in Abuja, where the position paper of the region was presented to the president, with a firm commitment to dialogue as a way out of resolving the lingering challenges in the Niger Delta region.
In the meeting with the president and at other fora, PANDEF said it has consistently advocated for dialogue and the urgent setting up of a dialogue team by the federal government to demonstrate credible commitment in resolving the crisis in the region.
But two months down the road since the visit to the president, the group lamented that the federal government has not demonstrated any commitment to the dialogue process by the setting up of its team.
“Curiously too is the fact that one of the items among the 16-point dialogue issues was the reopening of the Nigerian Maritime University, Okerenkoko, Delta State, which the government announced had been given positive consideration, but has not seen the light of the day in spite of the fact that hopes had been raised and expectations heightened.
“It is instructive to place on record that the Nigerian Maritime University, Okerenkoko, is an iconic project that touches the heart of the region. That the functionality of this institution will engender a sense of belonging, participation in speeding up the process of healing old wounds occasioned by age-long deprivations cannot be over-flogged.
“Keeping it closed without any practical sign of activities geared towards its resumption betrays a lack of commitment and goodwill towards the deprived oil-rich region.
“PANDEF urges the government to reopen the Nigerian Maritime University, Okerenkoko, Delta State. 
“This will confer credibility and goodwill to the federal government in the resolution of the crisis in the region; more so when the facilities for the successful take off of the university have already been domiciled and modestly developed in compliance with extant requirements and standards by the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan at Kurutie, a neighboring community,” it said. 
PANDEF, nonetheless, promised to continue to plead with all agitating groups to continue to sustain the prevailing peace and work towards dialogue, noting that this remained the best option for resolving the crises in the Niger Delta region.
It also called on the federal government to, as a matter of utmost importance and expediency, set up a dialogue team to commence the dialogue process with the region as represented by PANDEF.
In the same vein, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), one of the prominent militant groups in the region, yesterday reviewed its support for the negotiations between the federal government and the rebel groups in the oil-rich region that have consistently attacked oil and gas facilities in the area.
The group, which passed a “no confidence vote” on President Muhammadu Buhari, accused the president of reneging on all the deals he struck with the militants in the region, stressing that the government’s handling of the issues was unacceptable.
A statement by its spokesman Jomo Gbomo yesterday further stated that as a condition for peace, Buhari should immediately act to preserve the peace process by officially commencing negotiations with the leaders and elders of the region. 
It accused the president of “arrogance” in the treatment of the issues raised by the leaders of PANDEF, noting that the government had not shown seriousness in dealing with the crisis.
While stating that its members no longer trusted the current administration to have any meaningful dialogue with the region, the group, however, called for the immediate setting up of a federal government team to meet with PANDEF headed by Chief Edwin Clark to salvage the situation.
 MEND said: “Without prejudice to the pre-2015 presidential election endorsement freely and voluntarily given to President Muhammadu Buhari on January 6, 2015, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) hereby categorically and unequivocally passes a vote of no confidence on the government of President Buhari.”
The group listed the failings of the Buhari-led government in the Niger Delta specifically with regards to the crisis, saying that the government was not ready for talks with the people of the region.
It added: “Prior to and after his reluctant meeting with the traditional rulers, opinion leaders and stakeholders of the Niger Delta region, under the auspices of Pan-Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF) on November 1, 2016, President Muhammadu Buhari has been carrying on arrogantly and making controversial, prejudicial, conflicting and contradictory statements about the politics and economy of the oil-rich region.
“Since after he assumed the reins of power, President Muhammadu Buhari has always, for reasons best known to him, held the Niger Delta region in contempt while accusing and/or blackmailing the leadership of the region of not being ready for dialogue whereas it is the federal government which is not ready or willing to name a team to dialogue with the people.”
MEND disclosed that the pledge by the federal government to accede to the release of the Okah brothers, once leaders of the group, had been broken several times. 
“Prior to the inauguration of PANDEF, the several sessions of dialogue held between representatives of MEND, on the one hand, and those of the federal government, on the other hand, where concessions were secured for the release of the Okah brothers and several other political detainees and prisoners of conscience, were a grand deception on the part of the federal government.
“After the MEND/FG dialogue which was publicly confirmed by no less a person than President Buhari in his farewell remarks to Mr. Michael Zinner, the out-going German Ambassador to Nigeria, President Buhari reneged on the agreements reached at the dialogue.
“And following on the heels of the breach of the agreements, President Buhari personally wrote and signed a damaging and prejudicial letter to the 
Government of South Africa in an attempt to wilfully truncate the on-going peace process in Nigeria.”
“(The President) sabotaged the legal options open to Henry Okah and simultaneously influenced the on-going trial of Charles Okah and others, at the Federal High Court in Abuja, in favour of the Federal Government.
“Based on the foregoing premises, we hereby demand that President Muhammadu Buhari must put a stop to his cunning, crafty and un-statesmanlike rhetoric about the Niger Delta region, as they have only served the purpose of jeopardising the fragile peace in the region.
“We urge him to consequently direct the relevant agency of government to 
immediately commence dialogue with the Niger Delta region, as duly and 
ably represented by PANDEF,” the group said.
 MEND further demanded that the federal government should immediately grant arrested militants access to their lawyers.
“Notice is hereby given to the federal government that all Niger Delta militant commanders and/or individuals who were tracked and arrested while observing a ceasefire ahead of talks with the federal government should be treated well.
“They should be allowed access to their lawyers, the International Red Cross and a delegation from PANDEF so as to ascertain their well being and ensure 
they have not been tortured or killed, extra judicially,” it said.
In a related development, Rivers State governor, Nyesom Wike yesterday asserted that leaders and people of Niger Delta will always strive to defend the unity of Nigeria, stressing that the country remaining one indivisible entity was “non negotiable” and of paramount importance. 
Speaking when he paid a visit to the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar III at his palace in Sokoto, Wike said the interest of Nigerians and Africans will be better served with Nigeria remaining as one “strong and united nation”.
Wike, who was one of eminent personalities that attended the wedding ceremony of Sokoto State governor, Aminu Tambuwal’s daughter said he was in the state to symbolise that Nigeria was one, irrespective of political affiliations.
“Let me first of all sincerely thank you, our father the Sultan, for what you are doing for this country, working tirelessly to bring peace and to bring unity to the people. So for all of us, this is what is meant as one Nigeria.
“We cannot run away from this country. The unity of this country is very paramount. The unity of this country is non-negotiable.
“I am from the Niger Delta, from Rivers State to be specific, so I cannot see us in a divided country, no way. We stand for the unity of this country,” Wike stated.
According to him, his administration had invested a lot of time, resources and energy to protect the national assets of the country, especially in Rivers State.
“In Rivers, you hardly find pipeline vandalisation. We are working at all times to protect the national assets in our state. In my state, I am governor for all the people living in the state. I am not a governor of a particular political party, but a governor for all the people of Rivers State.”
While commending the sultan for his leadership of the Muslim community in Nigeria, Wike said he was in Sokoto to felicitate with his colleague, Tambuwal, who gave out his daughter in marriage. 
He equally dispelled the notion that his relationship with Tambuwal had a political connotation, saying he has been his friend for a long time, “long before politics defined who we are now”.
“Tambuwal has been my friend for a long time. If anything affects him, it affects me also. If he gives out his daughter in marriage, I have to be here to support him. If he has any problem, it affects me as well.
“Your Eminence, I am here to seek your royal blessing. You have blessed me before, that is why I am growing. So let me wish you a prosperous New Year ahead,” he added.
Responding, the Sultan stated that such gatherings and meetings would strengthen the unity and love among Nigerians.
He acknowledged the visitors from diverse backgrounds who had attended the wedding ceremony, adding that such a symbolic gathering would continue to portray Nigeria as one country.
The Sultan commended Wike for his stand on one Nigeria and called on  leaders at all levels to always work towards making Nigeria a great nation irrespective of ethnic and religious affiliations. 
He maintained that cordial relationships and peaceful co-existence would guarantee the success and development of any nation.
The sultan also implored Nigerians to live in peace with one another and wished them a year full of happiness and blessings.