Trouble looms again as Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) returns to trenches

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From Yenagoa, CHRIS EZE writes on the tension that Niger Delta Avengers’ threat to resume attacks on oil installations has generated in the Niger Delta region and in the country as a whole.
A local adage says ‘until the rotten tooth in the mouth is pulled out, the mouth must chew with caution’.
Without mincing words, the Niger Delta region of Nigeria represents a rotten tooth in the mouth of Nigeria.
Interestingly, efforts to pull out the rotten tooth so that Nigeria can enjoy a life of good health devoid of pain have rather been apoplectic and pretentious.

The first golden opportunity to address the injustice in the Niger Delta presented itself in the Willink’s Commission Report of 1958. The report produced by Henry Willink’s Minority Commission had characterized the Niger Delta as “infrastructurally and generally poor, backward and neglected” and advised the government to establish a Federal Board to address the problems of the area.

Fifty years after the report, Niger Delta has remained a rotten tooth which successive administrations could not locate the right elixir to permanently give the mouth lasting peace while chewing.

After the implementation of the Willink’s Report was bungled, there were Niger Delta Basin Development Authority (NDBDA), Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission (OMPADEC), Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs (MNDA).

Noble as the intentions to create those bodies and commissions were for the development of Niger Delta, the common feature that bedeviled all of them is corruption and poor funding. Government’s efforts in creating these bodies have, therefore, been likened to a celebrant who planned a big occasion, but went and paid a rainmaker to ensure a heavy downpour!

So, for the development of Niger Delta, it has been like taking one step forward and two backwards. But, as the saying goes, those who make peaceful change impossible end up making violent change inevitable.
Thus violent agitations for the development of the region started since the Kaiama Declaration in present day Bayelsa in the 1990s during the Abacha regime when youths from the region returned from Abuja after participating in the infamous rally aimed at perpetuating the Abacha junta.

Apparently overawed by the beauty and magnificence of Abuja where the rally was staged and returning to base where life is far lower that what it is in Abuja, the youths became thoroughly disillusioned, especially with the consciousness that the ‘magic’ of Abuja was the product of oil money from their backyards.

So, they drew the battle line and demanded instant government attention in the region. The agitation grew in scope as many of the youths took up arms and headed to the creeks when attention was not forth coming from government.

The ensuing militant activities dislocated socio-economic activities in the region and dealt a huge blow to the nation’s economy largely supported by oil revenue.

It took the foresight of the late President Umar Musa Yar’Adua who embraced dialogue and wooed the rampaging militants to a negotiating table where the deal for amnesty was struck and the ‘warriors’ were persuaded to surrender their weapons with a promise of rehabilitation.

With this deal, Nigeria returned to her good days as normal economic activities resumed in the region and many of the International Oil Companies deployed their platforms and resumed crude oil production.
That was the situation until Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, a Niger Delta son who had succeeded Yar’Adua as president lost the 2015 presidential election to the incumbent, MuhammaduBuhari.

The manner Jonathan was denied a second tenure and the apparent indifference of the new administration of Buhari to the concerns of the Niger Delta provoked a new wave of aggression in the region which birthed a new group of militants, The Niger Delta Avengers (NDA).

Buhari indeed stoked the fire as his first shock for the region on assumption of office was to cancel the multi-million naira Pipeline Surveillance Contract, which the Jonathan administration had awarded to the ex militant leaders in the Niger Delta to ensure safety of the oil bearing pipelines in order to guarantee hitch-free oil production.

Buhari’s argument was that the armed forces were capable of doing the job even better than the ex-militants. The second shock was the slashing of the budget of the Amnesty office, which exposed beneficiaries of the Amnesty Programme studying or doing other vocations abroad to untold hardship. It further led to tardiness in the payment of the monthly stipends of others who are locally based.

So, for a region already simmering with discontent following the outcome of the presidential election, the Niger Delta Avengers launched their “Operation Red Economy”, early in 2016, saying “Our goal is to cripple Nigeria’s economy.”

“We are a group of educated and well-travelled individuals that are poised to take the Niger Delta struggle to new heights that had never been seen in this nation before,” the NDA further declared, adding, “We have well-equipped human resources to meet this goal.”

With the formal declaration of hostilities, the NDA went to ‘work’. It first blew up an underwater pipeline forcing Royal Dutch Shell to shut down a terminal which normally produces 250,000 barrels of oil a day (bpd).

The attack forced Shell to declare a force majeure, which excuses a company from contractual agreements because of events beyond its control, on exports of high grade crude oil after an attack on one of its trunk lines.
A few days later, US firm Chevron shut its Valve Platform following another attack, also claimed by the Avengers.
The Nigerian government through the minister of Finance, Mrs. KemiAdeosun cried out saying the attacks had dealt a huge blow to the revenue of the Nigerian government.

In fact, the country’s crude oil production had plummeted to 1.65 million barrels per day, as against the projected 2.2 million bpd.

So, something needed to be done. The federal government started making overtures to Niger Delta leaders, culminating in a meeting where the Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF) led by Ijaw leader and former Federal Commissioner of Education, Chief Edwin Clark presented a 16-point demand in a meeting with the federal government.

Following appeals and assurances from Niger Delta leaders, the Avengers were prevailed upon to lay down their arms to give the government opportunity to begin implementation of the demands of the Niger Delta.

Thereafter, President Buhari assigned the Vice President, Prof. YemiOsinbajo to undertake a tour of the Niger Delta to interact with the people with a view to getting first hand, the challenges facing the people.
The tour has long been concluded, but the dividends are yet to be seen. Analysts have even dismissed the tour as a jamboree that would not yield anything insisting that it was not necessary since the challenges of the Niger Delta are already well known from different studies that have been done in the past and need no further tour or study to take action upon.

However, one interesting feature of the tour was the promise by government to liberalize local refining of crude oil through modular refineries aimed at mopping up the army of youths engaged in the illegal refining which is damaging the environment.

Here again, the Niger Delta was shortchanged as the license for the operation of the modular refineries released by government accommodated very few Niger Deltans.

Things were not looking to be better for the Niger Delta, and other parts of Southern Nigeria as President Buhari in body language, actions and utterances kept giving the impression that he was for a particular section of the country; in contrast to his earlier avowal that he is for everybody and for nobody!

For instance, the president had asked the World Bank to channel all their developmental efforts in Nigeria towards the North East being ravaged by Boko Haram insurgents, forgetting that the Niger Delta has been ravaged by oil exploration and exploitation for many decades without redress, even as it has remained the cash cow of the country!

Observers are quick to point at the East-West Road, which is the only road linking the entire core Niger Delta states. The road has been under construction for many years with government now ceding it to the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs.

However, since Buhari ascended power, no meaningful work has been done on the road. In fact,Setraco, the construction company handling the contract has since pulled out of site, even when it was widely reported that the federal government has released huge chunks of the funds for capital projects in the 2017 budget to contractors to remobilize to site.

What is rather seen on the road as critical as it is to the Niger Delta people are patch works by the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), on a road that has not been completed and delivered by the original contractors.
Worse still, in the face of the many deprivations, the government has continued to use acts of intimidation and terror to push the people further to the wall. There has been a relentless militarization of the region with so many irritating military check-points across the length and breadth of the region, even in a democracy.

The government recently launched a new Army Division, 6th Division in Port Harcourt, and created a new Brigade in Bayelsa, the 16th Brigade, with a plan to create a new Battalion in Brass, also in Bayelsa.

In addition to all these, there are detachments of other forces engaged in some form of special operations in the region. For instance, the Nigerian Army recently launched what it referred to as ‘Operation Crocodile Smile’, which has now gone through phases 1 and 2. According to the army, the essence of the operation was to sharpen the combat readiness of the army in the region as if anyone was contemplating war against government.

Before the Operation Crocodile Smile came on, Operation Delta Safe was already on ground, even as the Navy followed suit by launching Operation Octopus grip. The Air force is being eagerly awaited to also launch its version to consummate the caging of the Niger Delta.

But, the people are at a loss over the armada of military forces in the region when what they are expecting are fleets of bulldozers, caterpillars, Swamp buggies etc to create a new Niger Delta with modern facilities and state of the art infrastructure.

Nay! The Buhari government would rather expend energy, time and resources to make the crocodile smile instead of human beings or the Niger Delta people!
So, having apparently waited in vain for government to act on the 16-point demand of PANDEF, the Niger Delta Avengers last week announced cessation of ceasefire it had declared following the intervention of PANDEF in 2016.
In a statement by its spokesman, MudochAgbinibo, the group renounced PANDEF led by former federal Commissioner of Information, Chief Edwin Clark, ex-militant leader, Government Ekpemupolo, popularly known as Tompolo, and another militant group, the Reformed Niger Delta Avengers.
The statement said: “The Niger Delta Avengers are back and will not spare anything or anyone on our path to actualize a united and free Niger Delta.

“Our next line of operation will not be like the 2016 campaign, which we operated successfully without any casualties. This outing will be brutish, brutal and bloody, as we shall crush everything we meet on our path to completely put off the fires that burn to flair gas in our communities and cut every pipe that moves crude away from our region.

“We can assure you that every oil installation in our region will feel warmth of the wrath of the Niger Delta Avengers,” he said.
It was gathered that some Niger Delta leaders hurriedly met at the weekend to forestall any fresh crisis in the region.
But, some observers said they were not surprised that the militants issued the notice of recommencement of their suspended ‘Operation Red Economy’
Reacting to the development, National Leader of Pan-Niger Delta People Congress (PNDPC), and Paramount Ruler of Seimbiri Kingdom, Delta State, Chief Charles Ayemi-Botu, said he did not see any need for the Avengers or any other militant group to return to bombing of oil facilities.

“Dialogue remains the best option; the federal government should be open to more discussions with the leaders of the region and implement agreements reached. It should hearken to the demands of the people and execute them. President MuhammaduBuhari met with Niger Delta leaders about a year ago. I was among the leaders that met with him and since then, nothing has happened.

Similarly, former military governor of AkwaIbom State and PANDEF leader, Air Commodore IdongesitNkanga (rtd), attributed the threat by Avengers to the failure of the federal government to keep its promise to meet the demands of the Niger Delta.

He said: “It is unfortunate because it is like we are going back to the starting point. This is where we were about this time last year, and that was how concerned elders came together under PANDEF. It was that intervention that made them cease hostilities and oil production went up from 800,000 barrels per day to over 2million. I think, recently we have relaxed on the need to continue on the peace initiative.

On his part, the Ibedaowei of Opokuma Kingdom, in Bayelsa State, King OkpoitariDiongoli, said the threat was a troubling development with huge potentials to reverse the wheel of progress in the oil-rich region.

“However, I call for caution from all stakeholders as dialogue remains the most potent weapon for the peaceful resolution of the impasse,” he stressed. “In my view, the federal government needs to show genuine commitment to, and sincerity of purpose in, addressing the Niger Delta issues. Issues such as review of ownership of oil blocks, modular refineries, restructuring, devolution of powers and true federalism have been on the front burner for over 50 years and have not been addressed by the authorities, leading to renewed tension in the Niger Delta.”

National President of Ijaw Peoples Development Initiative (IPDI), Austin Ozobo, in his submission stated: “We blame President Buhari for the return of the NDA and the suspension of PANDEF activities. Buhari trivialized Niger Delta demands and that is the cause of the return of Niger Delta Avengers, so, the international community and other well-meaning persons should hold Buhari responsible for any crisis in the region.”

For now, the federal government has not officially reacted to the fresh threats from the Avengers. All eyes are, however, on Buhari who is known to be very lethargic in taking decisions. Will he unleash the war planes and armored personnel carriers on the Niger Delta people? The situation is very dicey.

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