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LogoDaily Independent Online.         * Thursday, August 28, 2003.

Warri: The neglect of a nation

By Maxwell Oditta

Daily Independent, Lagos


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 guerrilla warfare.

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 bullets.

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 products.”

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 resource control.

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 catch them.”

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 larger society.

“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?”



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