Niger Delta: Retreat, yes; Surrender, no

Niger Delta: Retreat, yes; Surrender, no 

By Levi Obijiofor 

Friday, February 1, 2008 

The Federal Government's reported decision to begin a phased withdrawal of troops from the restive Niger Delta region underpins the futility of adopting a policy of measure-for-measure in order to impose peace on the region. A news report in the Punch of last Sunday (January 27, 2008) said President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua endorsed the military pullout as a way to appease the Niger Delta political and traditional leaders and militants, and to assist them to find solutions to the conflict. If the report is true, it must be admitted that Yar'Adua has made a wise move.  

History informs us that wherever governments have tried to use military force to quell violence by insurgent groups, the result has been more violence and brutality. See how Turkey has been fighting to end cross-border raids by the rebel group within the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). In Sudan, to cite just one African example, the deplorable situation in Darfur has dragged on for more than five years simply because neither the Sudanese government agents nor the rebel groups belonging to various factions have been able to finish off each other sooner than they imagined. And this extreme display of barbarism in Darfur has continued, watched by the comatose African Union (AU) leaders and the garrulous member states of the United Nations.  

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict offers another example of how popular resistance movements have been maintained in the face of overwhelming military force. Although each of these examples is driven or founded by different political ideologies and each is of a much higher scale than the Niger Delta conflict, these international examples illustrate the senselessness of trying to use force to quell bitter uprisings or political disputes that ought to have been resolved through negotiations. 

Back to the homefront! Part of the reason why military force has not solved the conflict in the Niger Delta has to do with the prolonged period of suffering and neglect of the people by previous federal and state governments, coupled with the tyrannical position adopted by the Olusegun Obasanjo government from 1999 when the government pursued the criminal, scorched-earth policy of using soldiers to suppress internal dissent. Obasanjo's military background was mostly instrumental in directing him to adopt the Mosaic philosophy of an eye for an eye. That was why the federal government's first reaction to reports of disturbances in Odi was to dispatch soldiers to the community. 

Rather than hunt the militants who murdered a group of policemen who had gone to Odi on a peace mission, soldiers went to Odi on a revenge mission: they used excessive force and killed innocent villagers. Ever since that experience, the Niger Delta crisis has ballooned out of control. From a few bands of disaffected youths calling for national attention and recognition, the nation is now confronted with a huge problem. The Niger Delta has become a war zone, literally. There are now numerous insurgent groups who have pledged loyalty to shadowy leaders who also proclaim objectives that are counter to the corporate existence of Nigeria. How did the nation get to this silly situation?  

Nearly a decade since fighting and kidnapping became the daily fare in the region, the Niger Delta crisis remains far from being resolved. Internationally, the conflict has done irreparable damage to Nigeria's image. After years of trying to wrestle Niger Delta militants to submission through military firepower, the Federal Government has just realised, thankfully, that the use of force often exacerbates rather than improve volatile situations. In every explosive situation, peace cannot be imposed by force. Peace can be achieved through mutual negotiation by all groups. Anything else is sheer waste of energy and resources.  

In the Niger Delta, the militants and the government have not achieved their principal objectives. The militants have not succeeded in carving out a state for themselves or, for that matter, they have not succeeded in overturning or improving the terrible environmental problems that overwhelm their communities. Poverty remains a major source of anger. Oil pollution continues to destroy agricultural land and fishing activities in the area. Although the government has shown some sensitivity to the people's situation through the creation of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and the allocation of more resources, the situation remains decidedly grisly. And the people, as well as the militants, appear not to be appeased by these measures.  

Although neither side will acknowledge this, confrontations between soldiers and militants have weakened both sides and taken their toll. A scenario where Nigerian troops continue to hunt and kill fellow Nigerians at a time when Nigeria is not officially at war is hideous and absurd. There must be alternative ways to installing peace in the Niger Delta. Neither federal government officials nor the militants and their secretive leaders seem ready to acknowledge the utility of this option. 

The government's decision to withdraw troops from the Niger Delta should not be celebrated by militants and their leaders. It should also not be misinterpreted as capitulation on the part of the government. The decision has come a bit late but it is a wise decision. To assess the value of the government's decision, we should ask some hard questions. What objectives were achieved by the government during the period it kept troops on the ground in the region? Did the presence of soldiers mark the end of intermittent killings and kidnappings by militants? Did military force serve as a useful weapon against insurgency? What lessons were learnt from that experience? 

While I would argue that the government was right to pull soldiers out of the conflict zone, it is important to emphasise that withdrawal of soldiers should not be regarded as a signboard for surrender. The government must not give up its efforts to find peace in the region. The key word is: negotiation, negotiation, negotiation. The government must not be frustrated by the militants' long drawn-out strategy of playing hide-and-seek at the negotiation table.  

We got to this sad situation simply because various governments – state and federal – neglected the conditions and complaints of the people in the region for many years. Seasoned negotiators will tell you that once you allow a bad situation to degenerate into rebellion or insurgency of some kind, the search for peace is always going to be tough and even nasty. This is what the nation is experiencing in the Niger Delta region.  

The Niger Delta people are not naturally a violent people. But bad times often force nice guys to be malevolent. No region in Nigeria would wish to trade places with the Niger Delta region. Although the Niger Delta people reside in the oil producing part of the country, their condition has (arguably) remained worse than the condition of people in other parts of the country who know nothing about oil exploration and production.  

By rules of equity and merit, a region that produces a nation's main foreign exchange earner should be compensated in such a way that the people should have something to show off for their natural resources. Not so in the Niger Delta region.  In Nigeria, our political and military leaders have institutionalised the imperious culture of "monkey dey work, baboon dey chop". For those who are not familiar with this Nigerian phrase, here is a brusque but practical translation. While the Niger Delta region produces the main source of our national wealth, the non-producing regions are euphemistically and metaphorically the "baboons" that feed off the riches harvested from the Niger Delta oil fields.  

The only way to entrench peace in the Niger Delta is for the government and the militants to return to the negotiation table with a will to make a difference, for the benefit of the present and future generations. Even the Chief of Army Staff, Lt.-General Luka Nyeh Yusuf, acknowledged on Monday this week that the conflict in the Niger Delta requires political resolution rather than military intervention. He was right. His words: "… the issue of using soldiers to solve that problem militarily may not go without regret like we are regretting the civil war. We are brothers and sisters and we don't need to go to war with one another to solve our problems."