President Buhari sharpens focus on Niger Delta
Out of the blue came a group calling itself the Niger Delta Avengers, NDA. They kill soldiers and policemen. They kidnap and kill oil company workers. Piracy on the high seas. They asked oil companies to stop operations and pack out of the Niger Delta region.
They blow up oil pipelines, power and other infrastructure. They attack and kill prominent individuals, ransacking homes up and down the coastal areas, including lately, Lagos and Ogun states. All these for what? It is still unclear what they want. From the diverse, if vague and inchoate voices of the militants, some say they want to take control of the oil resources in the region. Sometimes when the rhetoric gets uglier, they call for the breakup of Nigeria as a country!
The scariest part of what is happening is that the media, in their appetite for sensational stories are egging them on to make a great display of seditious, anti-national sentiment. In the last stages before her government’s defeat of the Irish Republican Army, IRA Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher likened publicity for the terrorist to oxygen needed for survival. “We must deny terrorists the oxygen of publicity,” and the independent English press gave the Prime Minister a free pass.
In the midst of these unfolding events, President Muhammadu Buhari had maintained an uncharacteristic aloofness.
Many had thought for instance that he would tackle the new onslaught on the economy with the same hawkishness that characterized his tenure as military Head of State in the 80’s. But he did not panic, either.
In fact several of the political leaders of the Delta, themselves severely under pressure for their inability to keep up with salary payments have been in the forefront of the calls for the “strongest possible military action” against the terrorists. The country’s third richest state, Delta State gave notice a week ago that workers salaries can no longer be guaranteed.
So far, the President has resisted the urge to pull the trigger. Yes, the army has mobilized to the region but military action has been stayed as the country absorbs the incredible shock that has come with the fall of oil revenues. Records of oil exports are at their lowest levels in 30 years.
The Punch newspaper, in an editorial on Friday July 1 warned the government about inherent “landmines” in any negotiations: “It is like dealing with a blackmailer: he keeps making all sorts of demands, reasonable and otherwise. Worse, there is a high probability that other splinter militant groups will emerge based on the negotiations with the NDA. They will threaten the state expecting to be negotiated with. At the end of the day, the government would have numerous groups to contend with than it can handle.”
In my conversation on this issue with General Babagana Munguno, the National Security Adviser precisely two weeks back, he informed this reporter that he met 14 groups claiming leadership to the renewed onslaught on the nation’s economic jugular vein.
Each of the groups had been brought to him by a serving governor or a former one; a serving minister or one that had left office with assurances that “this group is the one to talk to.”
The amazing discovery he made from his meetings is the lack of unity among them as each group that came attacked the one that came before it as inconsequential.
Leaning on an editorial by the influential British newspaper the Economist, the Punch recommended strong military action. Quoting the Economist, the newspaper said “Buhari should not try to buy them off. Rather, he should arrest those who have committed acts of violence or extortion.”
At a meeting with the Niger Delta Dialogue and Contact group led by His Royal Majesty King Alfred Diete-Spiff at the State House last Thursday, President Buhari spoke most extensively on his own approach to the crisis in the region.
He told Diete-Spiff, himself a former military governor of the old Rivers State that peace and stability in the Delta region and the country is the priority of his government and there will be no compromise on this. To show respect for the visiting ruler, President Buhari recalled that he was “a bloody army Lieutenant” when the Amanyanabo of Twon Brass was a military governor.
He disclosed that his decision on what to do dealing with the problem of the region will be based on the reports he is expecting from the Minister of State, Petroleum Resources, Ibe Kachikwu who is interfacing with all stakeholders; the Special Adviser to the President on the Niger Delta overseeing the amnesty program and the new management of the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC.
Allaying fears that he would jettison the Niger Delta Peace Plan he inherited from the previous administration, President Buhari told his visitors that he had read the agreements and the gazette outlining the amnesty program.
He said he had asked his officials on assignment on the Niger Delta to look around and see how many of the signatories to the amnesty agreement are still around.
“Let them find out what has been achieved and what is left and then write a report.
“I have asked the Minister of State Petroleum to work with the oil companies. We need to get as much intelligence as is possible before we start talking.
“I sympathize with the investors who borrow money, half way through, their investment is blown away.
“I have encouraged lawenforcement agencies to contact leaders like you (Amanyanabo). When I move in, I will have plenty of information so as to deal with the issue once and for all. We will talk to as many groups as possible. We won’t give up.
“Whatever remains of the Yar’Adua agreement will be met.”
He then talked about the impact of the collapse of the oil prices, which averaged about $100 US dollars from 1999 to 2015, saying that its fall to about $30 a barrel some weeks ago was shocking. “I would have been in coma if not for the fact that I was in Oil (sector as a past minister) for three years.”
He then sent an important message at this meeting: “We intend to rebuild this country so that our children and grandchildren will have a good place. But a lot of damage has been done. Tell the people to be patient.
“When you get together, pacify the people. Let them be patient. We will utilize (their) resources with integrity.”
The President’s conciliatory note came a day after he hosted the National Council of Traditional Rulers to a Ramadan Iftar, at which event he asked the rulers to “beg the militants in the name of God to stop their sabotage of the economy.” He appreciated the efforts they and the oil companies were making and said he did not wish to undermine them. This equally signaled a highly conciliatory direction for the resolution of the crisis.
It is clear from the foregoing that the President is taking a bit of time but it is also because he is determined to find a lasting solution to the recurring crisis in the Delta.
It is important for the country that a lesson be learned from the many past meetings and agreements between government groups and the militants that have yielded only short term political dividends. What is wrong with those agreements that they don’t last?
Second issue the President is obviously weighing is the integrity of the country’s internal capacity for the resolution of crises.
In his desire to build a country in which every part is carried along, he is mindful of the fact that if any part of the body is paralyzed, the whole body cannot be said to be alright. The President is mindful of the fact that the Delta region is an important part of the whole.
But as he charts his course for a permanent peace in the Niger Delta, it is important however that militants don’t mistake his efforts as a sign of weakness.
Garba Shehu is Senior Special Assistant to the President, SSAP (Media and Publicity)