Dr Chris Ekiyor is the former President, Ijaw Youth Council and currently Secretary of the Committee set up by the Delta State government to explore the possibilities of govt’s dialogue with the militants. He spoke on the resurgence of militancy in the Niger Delta and why the Ijaws are dominating the Niger Delta struggle.
Why do Ijaws seem to be monopolising the Niger Delta struggle when there is oil in other areas of the region?
That is an erroneous thinking. Niger Delta Avengers is not an Ijaw name. It is a perception in the eye of the believers. That is the burden it just has to carry. The reason is that the Ijaws are the fourth largest ethnic group in Nigeria. In Akwa Ibom for instance, oil is found in Ijaw land. In Rivers State, oil is found in Ijaw land, in Edo State, oil is found in Ijaw land so wherever the Ijaws are, they are in the swamps where oil is found whether it is by nature we don’t know but they are one of the oldest settlers in West Africa. Go and check history.
It is the same Ijaw struggle that gave birth to the minorities’ commission, the Niger Delta River Basin Development Authority. It is the same Ijaw struggle that gave birth to NDDC, Niger Delta Ministry to Amnesty Programme. So Ijaws are like the cross bearers for the Niger Delta struggle and fortunately or unfortunately, there is no place that is as under-developed in this country like Ijaw lands. You need to take a tour. If you go to the whole of the Warri Ijaw, Warri Itsekiris, you will weep. If you go to Bayelsa, you will still weep. People are blaming Bayelsa government that it cannot pay salaries, all of the Ijaws in Bayelsa work in the civil service because there is no other job.
These oil companies, from the first manager to the last person you may just find one Ijaw man or one Urobho man the rest come from Lagos and North. Your brother in Isoko will be looking for a job, the man in the North has four and he is bringing people down so the thing is skewed to their disfavour. The people are so disillusioned that their frustration can be vested on anything. But Niger Delta Avengers are not specifically identical to the Ijaws. The only Ijaw community that seems to be growing is Oporoza and the military always go there to bring it down, it is an unfortunate situation.
What is responsible for the resurgence of militancy in the region?
A lot of factors can be attributed to what has taken us to where we are right now, knowing full well that in 2007 and 2009, we were able to navigate this kind of issue and reached a truce via the amnesty. I am also very worried that we have found ourselves in this kind of situation again where oil facilities are being destroyed. But in my opinion, a lot of factors may have resulted to this, the issues they are putting forward are not different from the issues MEND put forward. They are not different from the issues Adaka Boro put forward. They are not different from the same issues that Asari Dokubo put forward or is it Henry Okah or indeed the issues that Niger Delta activists have been clamouring for. Issues of environmental protection, inclusiveness in the oil and gas sector, economic space, policy trust, and issue of complete disconnect. These are the issues that have characterised the Niger Delta struggle as far back as the Willinks’s Commission, the Minority’s right.
Even though government sustained the amnesty programme for over six to seven years, government failed to assuage or placate the same issues that existed. The only reason why there was down-turn of militancy under Jonathan’s administration was that there was a seeming hope kept alive by that administration-Maritime University, Dockyard, East West Road, coastal road and all that-they were all in the budget so the people assumed that the area will be developed, but the present administration simply said the people can go to blazes. The reduction in budgetary allocations to key sectors you could clearly see, for instance, the NDDC budget was reduced from over N100 billion to about N40 billion, Niger Delta Ministry from over N60 billion went down to N10 billion, Amnesty programme from N70 billion to N20 billion.
There is no appropriation for the Maritime University and then the people suddenly realised why this is happening coupled with the fact that the amnesty programme, which is an on- going programme is now taking this shape. There are possibilities that some persons who were supposed to be integrated may not be integrated. And I said that if Tompolo was to be involved, he would put his face to it, he would use pseudonyms and his media show will be different from this.
There is already a roadmap. The amnesty programme is there, they should absorb these people once we are able to create a platform for dialogue and they present their issues on the table.
What is the way forward?
Government must realise that it has to be sincere in delivering the goods to the people. For instance, why should you go to a place and you start putting a rig, building a small town by the rig for the comfort of the officers and you neglect the community completely. Such should work hand in glove, as you are putting a rig there, you are putting water supply there, as you are building roads in the yard, you are building roads in the communities, as you are building homes, you are building schools for the communities as you are building sick bays there, you are building hospitals for the communities, concurrently developing the community should part of the cost of developing an oil platform. If government is drilling 10 oil wells in a community, I believe that at least one should be given to the community so that whatever they get from it, they put it back into the community. The body language of this administration showed that it seems to be after Niger Delta people. Minister of Transport, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi said that the Maritime University is not needed because there is Oron. For such to come from a man from the Niger Delta and a very senior government official calls for concern. Port Harcout town alone has several tertiary institutions. Benin City has several tertiary institutions. The same thing in Lagos then you are talking about one maritime school in Oron and one in Warri because it is not in Warri urban, it shouldn’t fly. One of the communities we visited told us, assuming as you came to visit us and half of us are in the university campus doing research or working in a boat yard, we won’t even have the time to come and attend to you in at meeting.
What do you have to say on the militarisation of the region in a bid to quell the militancy?
The military’s grandstanding in the Niger Delta is worrisome and I think it is more of trade than patriotism. The military should know that Niger Delta people are homely people. A bunch of handful of Niger Delta Avengers cannot be equated to the entire Niger Delta people or the entire Ijaw people. The Ijaw people are threatened by the activities of Niger Delta Avengers because when you blow up pipelines the entire fish and farm products are destroyed. Our people have to depend on ice fish from Warri and pure water from Warri. Those people in the creeks are victims, because when Joint Task Force comes they will secure only the pipelines and deal with the people, saying they are the Avengers. No Avenger will blow up a pipeline and sit in the community and wait for you. So government needs to reorganize its military to reflect a people- friendly military. Gather intelligence and prosecute the right people.
Experience has also shown that the network of pipelines in the Niger Delta cannot be policed by these gun-totting approach, it has to be policed by a diplomatic call, committed understanding by a people who are ready to do it as a family. Government’s approach to protecting oil pipelines and facilities must change.
The crisis in the Niger Delta is being orchestrated by big interests in the West because right now all the activities that were happening in Warri and Port Harcourt are now happening in Lagos on the coastline so the companies just dive in here, take the oil and do their activities. Dangote for instance is building the biggest refinery in Lagos. Simple economics say nearness to raw materials is the first consideration in sitting an industry. There is no need to pipe gas to Lagos, now they are going to pipe gas from here to Lagos for him to fire his equipment then pipe crude. The insecurity in the Niger Delta is being sponsored by some big businessmen.
The blowing of deep sea pipes owned by Shell certainly cannot be done by petty criminals because what Shell was doing to repair it, you need technical team of divers, of top vessels to go and blow that pipe. Somebody is benefitting, so government should look at it beyond Niger Delta Avengers.