Daily Independent Online.
Thursday, August 28, 2003.
Warri: The neglect of a nation
By Maxwell Oditta
Last week, reprisal
attacks among the three dominant ethnic groups in Warri and environs (the
Urhobo, Ijaw and the Itsekiri), resumed with ferocious deployment of assorted
weapons. Images that emerged from the oil city were those of youths whose
remains continued to decompose
by walkways and along
tarred roads. Women and children were seen running in all directions in a bid
to flee the enclave of carnage to a safe haven in distant communities.
In the horizon, heavy
smokes and fire flakes co-existed,
a visible fall-out of the inferno that razed several edifices. The league of
internally-displaced persons continually expanded, as places of abode, domestic
utensils and worst still, progenitors were lost. Security forces on duty and
their heavy mortar weapons stormed the theatre of war, only to discover that
opposing forces equally had sophisticated firepower, motile and proficient in
No fewer than 28 persons were killed during the latest
carnage. Between 20 and 30 houses were razed as malevolent youths in cloak of
ethnic militia, sought to renew communal vendetta. Not even automobiles used
for peacekeeping operations by law enforcements were spared. Lots of private
cars were burnt, as irredentists scouted for ‘renegade’ bourgeoisie
and persons that belong to opposing groups.
A leader of a patrol team dispatched to Warri motor-park was
killed, while the team’s Nissan patrol van marked PF 2795 DT was set
ablaze, a mishap that inspired other cops in the team to seek escape routes.
Those who sought sanctuary in nearby suburbs found to their dismay pockets of
fighting, with entirely unfamiliar aggressors and in a terrain where escape routes
were not too familiar. Breach of peace spread from the Warri port to Effurun in
another round of confrontation whose cause could not be ascertained.
Like in any war, long distance from the stronghold of the
protagonists offered little assurance of safety. The war cry was heard not only
in the three local government areas in and around Warri, at Udu and Uvwie, but
also at Bomadi and Ughelli South council areas. In such instance, fleeing Warri
residents were halted on their way to safety as the crisis spread to Gbarijola
in Ughelli South where Urhobo youths were engaged in an open-air combat with
Ijaw youths from Bomadi. In this new setting, it was the same tale of flying
Fleeing from the upheaval to a tranquil landscape was not
the exclusive plight of the hoi polloi; even the elite staff of the multinational firms
were part of the winding trek to uncertain greens. Not one firm either
suspended operations or sent staff on indefinite leave to safeguard its human
resource. The Public Affairs Manager of SPDC (Western Operation), Mr. John
Onojerharho, said his company ordered its workers to stay off during the
confrontation. With much gunfire around their offices, Chevron contemplated a
similar step, not to stake the lives of its workers.
Sequel to reported loss of more than 300, 000 barrels of oil
per day to illicit tampering with pipelines and facilities in oil flow stations
in Warri, the Federal Government came out with a warning that sounded stern,
urging residents not to “create further opportunities for unscrupulous
elements to use the crisis as a cover for continued bleeding of the national
economy through the vandalisation of crude oil pipelines and theft of petroleum
True to its totalitarian approach to conflict resolution in
which the economic interests of the state supercede the plight of any people,
the Federal Government showed more interest in the sustenance of foreign
capital and the expansion of its own exchequer.
Since the Nigerian democracy owes both its nascence and
existence to the military, the crisis in Warri was appreciated in government
quarters as an upshoot of loss of contact between militant civilians and
indolent soldiers. And so, Aso Rock drafted a battalion of infantry soldiers
with armoured support to assist the naval personnel and 900 cops (from nine
police units under an Assistant Inspector General of Police in charge of Zone
5). That did not seem enough.
When carnage was subsiding, a new strike force was deployed
to the restive city. Governor James Onanefe Ibori of Delta State introduced the
new force to reporters as Operation Restore Hope in the Niger Delta. He said
members of the task force would serve as a buffer between the warring factions
to forestall fresh hostilities. The governor described the essence of the new
task force, thus:
“We have major problems in our riverine areas and our
states where the nation’s economy is being bled to death through illegal
trading in petroleum products. The task force commander is here with an
operational order to ensure that the development is stopped immediately, and he
is going to move straight away to deal with that. I am sure they would do a
good job. I just spoke with him.
“We have had an accord and basically agreed. Nigeria
as a nation has 50 per cent in the Joint Venture Operations with oil companies.
So, if we destroy the oil installations, we also destroy our property. We would
continue to monitor the situation like we are doing with curfew. When we have a
drastic reduction in the level of tension, we would then request a compact
arrangement in the security situation in the town”, Ibori said.
Rather than take solace in the capability of the government
forces to quell the Warri clashes, those entrusted with public security have a
duty to ascertain actual cause of reprisals, reasons why these conflicts are
triangular and recurrent and how to pacify militant groups on the long term.
Many associate Warri crises with ecological degradation and
dismal infrastructure base of oil producing communities in general, despite the
setting up of special funds and development commissions, a situation which
has given rise to agitations in
most parts of the Niger Delta.
That overview of the Warri crises is naive, said Governor
Ibori, who is in a position to know, as chief security officer of Delta State.
Some of the youths recruited to prosecute the fratricidal war do not fully
understand the rationale behind the suicidal wars, he said, stressing that they
have often confused the violence in Warri with the Niger Delta struggle for
True, the crisis in Warri did not wholly arise from the
ongoing struggle to ensure that political entities control their resources, a
struggle with which more tranquil geo-political zones of the South West, South
East and North Central have since identified. There are other causes; a
convergence of social and historical provocations. While the social
provocations highlight those issues that are locatable in the immediate
environment, the paradigm of ecological menace and mass material poverty within
communities affluent in natural endowment, and the historical deals with past
policy decisions combine to have an impact on the present.
There is a lingering social and legal dispute over ownership
of Warri and the limitations of the Olu of Warri, Ogiame Atuwatse the Second. To the Ijaw,
Urhobo and the Ukwani, the Itsekiri are no exclusive aborigines of urban Warri.
Oil companies are also said to have exploited this age-long
contention among rival groups. They allegedly pay royalties to the Olu of Warri, his retinue of Itsekiri
chiefs, and exhibit bias in favour of the Itsekiri. In which case, they neglect
the vast majority of indigenes in the distribution of economic booties. Thus,
according to them, the collective welfare of Warri dwellers continues to
suffer. These widely held views, the basis for deep-rooted inter-ethnic
acrimony, are without authority, however. Yet, when the Ijaw and the Urhobo
attack Itsekiri, they perceive themselves as partly engaging oil companies and
the Nigerian establishment in survival combat.
If former Military President Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida had
preconceived citing the capital of Delta State in Asaba for ulterior reasons,
then the Itsekiri made it possible by resisting inclusion in an
Urhobo-dominated Delta State, so their rivals believe. Since no plebiscite was
conducted to x-ray public pulse, and decisions made by a military regime may
not be based on consultations, there is also no basis for that belief.
To aggravate matters, the Federal Government relocated the
headquarters of Warri South West Local Council Area from Ogbe-Ijoh (Ijaw
community) to Ogidigben Escravos (Itsekiri hinterland), in November 1996. The
Ijaw protested the move vehemently, insisting that the Itsekiri establishment
made it possible by foul means. That was the genesis of the present imbroglio.
The deployment of armed troops, notwithstanding, the military government had no
answer to bloodletting that attended that political decision.
Before recent reprisals, it was the Ibori government, which
restored peace in Warri and environs. Having perceived that those historical
causes to which allusion is often made lack fecundity, the governor chose to
address social causes. To address material poverty, Ibori provided skill
acquisition programme and employment for erstwhile militant youths. His
struggle for resource control is motivated by a vision for arresting
environment hazard posed by oil exploration and ensuring provision of
much-needed economic infrastructure. He knew that primordial rivalry would
vanish in the face of present contentment.
Even when many Nigerians perceive that the Warri crisis was
borne out of oil companies’ neglect of their domain of operation, leaving
basic amenities in the Niger Delta region in festering condition, a direct result of the Federal Government’s neglect
of public utilities nationwide, President Olusegun Obasanjo suggested a way out
of the Warri war. He said:
“ The problem in Warri is that three groups that lived
together for a long time, the Itsekiri, Urhobo and Ijaw are quarrelling. I have
talked to the leaders of the three groups about this problem. I ‘m happy
they are not talking of eliminating one another, whether it is Itsekiri, Ijaw
and of course the Urhobo. They are talking of accommodation. So, if that is
what they are talking about, then dialogue is needed, because it is through
this they can work out accommodation.
“But to do this requires the involvement of the
Federal and state governments working with community leaders. I also know that
there are genuine political grievances, like the citing of a local government
and how it should be composed. That is a genuine political agitation.
“Unfortunately, superimposed on this political problem
are obvious cases of criminality, like the stealing of crude oil. They call
this criminal activity; illegal bunkering and we have to deal with this
criminality in two ways. We deal with the supply end and the demand. We are
also arresting people who are involved in this, but sooner or later, you will
In that remark, Mr. President spelt out modalities for
unmasking those who steal petroleum products. He seems to hold no strong view
on how to appease a neglected nation. He has no ideas of how to compel oil
companies to raise special funds for the rehabilitation of the environment in
which they operate. Though he advocated for dialogue, his own idea of dialogue
is that whose outcome is not binding on all parties. Which explains why he
consistently resists popular call for the convening of a sovereign national
conference. Clearly, he has no
consoling words for the victims of the Warri crises.
The man on the street of Warri rendered homeless by the
upheaval would find edifying the words of the Speaker of the House of
Representatives, Alhaji Aminu Bello Masari. The speaker told officials of the
Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN) who
paid a courtesy call, lately that, “There is no amount of force or
firepower that can stem the wave of violence in the Niger Delta until
fundamental issues affecting the lives of the people are addressed. I know that
anybody who has gone into business did so in order to make money, but making money
should be done in a way that it does not become offensive and oppressive to the
“In our country, it is different. Companies are
declaring huge profits, but the people in whose backyards they operate live in
abject poverty, so how can you be at peace?”