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Govt must airlift trapped Nigerians from Liberia before crisis worsens

LogoDaily Independent Online.         * Tuesday, April 8, 2003.

Niger Delta: Matters arising

By Stephen Olugbodi


The Niger Delta is on the boil again. And as expected, the whole nation is ill at ease. But as it has been with past crises within the region, there are many sides to the present conflict which was reported to have started as a face-off between some Ijaw youths and security agents deployed to safeguard the facilities of one of the multinational oil companies operating in Escravos, which is in the western part of the region area. And right now, all of the oil companies have stopped productions within the affected areas. 

While Brigadier General Henry Oke, the Brigade Commander of the 4th Infantry Brigade of the Nigerian Army claimed that it was the Ijaw youths that first attacked his men killing two in the process, the Okerenkoko community has denied this claim saying that the blame for the crisis should be put at the doorsteps of the Commanding Officer of the NNS Umalokun, Warri Naval Base, Navy Captain Titus Awoyemi who according to a statement by the Okerenkoko Federated Community, has been “employing diversionary tactics to thwart the outcome of the court case instituted against him as a result of the November 11, 2002 invasion of the town by armed naval personnel.” The Warri/Escravos waterways, they claim, was never blocked by their youths as the military is claiming. 

The Okerenkoko community went further to deconstruct the thesis that the conflict could have been as result of the “lopsided” composition of electoral wards in Warri South West council “which made the minority to rule the majority”. This, they said, is being looked into due to the intervention of Ijaw leaders and the Delta State Governor, Chief James Ibori. They claim that the allegation against the Ijaw youths is just an excuse to attack Okerenkoko community when the real problems on the waterways are water pirates and hoodlums who carry out activities that are inimical to the nation’s economy.

Obviously, nobody thought that the crisis would go beyond what happened on the first Thursday especially with the reported intervention of an Ijaw leader, Edwin Clarke, who had promised General Henry Oke at a meeting that those behind the attack of the military men would be identified and made to face appropriate punishment. Soon, old wounds were reopened and the two perennially antagonistic ethnic groups took up arms against each other. The Ijaw youths allegedly razed two Island communities inhabited by their Itsekiri neighbours but as they argued, it was in retaliation for what they claimed was the attack on Olukperebu village belonging to them. And in the process, oil installations became victims of the aggression with Shell and Chevron which have their Tank Farms and Terminals in Escravos the worst hit. Shell says with the closure of their flow stations, a total of 400,000 barrels of oil per day had been shut in. In monetary terms, the NNPC/Shell Joint Venture has been losing about $5 million daily to the crisis. Up till Monday, Shell’s fixed wings helicopters have also been targets of attack. Chevron Nigeria Limited does not fare any better. One of its two contract employees hit by stray bullets died and also as a precautionary measure, it has shut in approximately 440,000 barrels per day oil production from three of its swamp locations.  This crisis has thrown up a number of issues that must not be glossed over. It is very obvious that unlike in some instances in the past, the oil companies had nothing to do with the present crisis. Apart from the unsubstantiated claim of the Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC) that Chevron has been allowing its helicopter to be used by the military for surveillance activities over the community, the companies had nothing to do with the face-off.

According to observers, if the government had been a little more responsive and proactive, this kind of repeated clashes could have been averted. It is the responsibility of govern-ment to respond appropriately to the legitimate needs of her people. It will amount to stating the obvious that the people of the Niger Delta feel short changed in the Nigerian project. They sure deserve better conditions of living more so, that they lay the metaphorical golden egg. But that is no excuse for them to take the law into their hands. Violence cannot solve the problem at hand. How does a problem that is basically political in nature translate into an attack of oil installations?

It must be mentioned that in this case, the oil companies have responded well to the crisis by not just working on how to safeguard their facilities and their employees, they also offered a safe haven even for people in their thousands from both sides who ran into their tank farms for protection. According to Sola Omole, General Manager, Government and Public Affairs of Chevron Nigeria Limited, “some members of the affected communities sought refuge within our facilities and we allowed them in based on humanitarian considerations. And we have begun to evacuate the displaced people from our tank farm to a more conducive location where their immediate needs can be better addressed.” 

Again, while it is the responsibility of government to safeguard lives and property, the manner of response sometimes could send the wrong signals. For example, except for the attack on the military men, government did not give reasons why it deployed soldiers to the area knowing fully well that there has never been any love between the military and the people. The sight of these soldiers simply gave the impression that they had come to level their community, given the recent examples of Odi and Zaki Biam.

According to newspaper reports, the entry of three armoured tanks painted in army green colours and a convoy of about five truck loads of soldiers that further charged the atmosphere as it became evident that the city was on the verge of another war. With the Odi and Zaki Biam examples, it has become obvious that there could be better ways of responding to such situations. This does not in any way exonerate the warring groups from blame. More than ever before, their leaders should be able to impress it on them that there are better ways to settle whatever differences there are either with government or their neighbours than taking up arms. This sometimes makes them lose the sympathy of those who otherwise know that they have a genuine case. 

The problem of the Niger Delta, like those of other communities that are aggrieved, is not intractable; all it requires is absolute sincerity and the political will. The clamour for a national conference may therefore need to be revisited. If sovereignty lies with the people, then they deserve to have a right to make whatever inputs they have as regards how they want to be governed. And this of course is the beauty of democracy.


Olugbodi is a Lagos-based journalist and Public Affairs commentator




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