N/Delta: The Human Cost of a Crisis

Amid the claims and counter-claims by the military authorities and the militants there is an irrefutable point: the operations in the Chanomi creek of Delta State have come with a toll. On the basis of the reported killings, enormous dislocation of the social lives of helpless villagers and destruction of properties, it is only reasonable to call not only for restraint but also outright stoppage of the avoidable carnage. Viewed from all dimensions what is happening in Delta state is indeed national tragedy. The fallen soldiers were Nigerians just like the militants killed.
Not surprisingly the information about the latest bloodbath has been murky as everything about the handling of the Niger Delta crisis over the years. There are no means of getting the records of casualties, if any is being taken at all. Deaths are simply counted in dozens and displaced persons in thousands. Newspapers are awash with photographs of hapless children and old men and women who have been displaced. These defenceless folks are fleeing the spots where soldiers are battling it out with militants. Viewers have been treated to footages on television of people streaming out of the creeks to avoid getting caught in the crossfire. Even the military task force that is “flushing out” the militants has only invited the media to visit the areas of operations “when the dust settles”. Meanwhile, one does not need to be a security expert to know that helpless people will bear the brunt of the crisis.
It is, therefore, not enough to have official declarations that Camp Five and the Iroko Camp of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) have been destroyed. It is even more urgent to stop the suffering of the defenceless persons. While the debate may continue about who is to blame primarily for the Niger Delta debacle, the government and people of Nigeria should be interested about the humanitarian dimension of the fighting now.
The burden should not be left alone to the government of Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan of Delta State, where the present tragedy is unfolding. The true extent of the collateral damage already caused by the operations should be ascertained. The truth of what happened should be told. The care and rehabilitation of the displaced persons should begin in earnest. The seeming humanitarian deficits in the operations should be thoroughly examined and dealt with quickly. It is unfortunate that the nation has ignored the lessons in the tragedies of Odi, Zaki Biam, Umuechem and other places where the military response to attacks on soldiers recorded indefensible collateral damage. The extent of this damage should be made clear as we draw on lessons from the past operations. These are steps that should not be delayed.
Voices of reason should be raised in the direction of government and the militants to contain the crisis. It is not helpful for other Nigerians outside the Niger Delta to respond cynically and blame the victims of the crisis. It has been said justifiably that what is often called the Niger Delta problem is actually a Nigerian problem. To that extent those who merely dismiss the matter saying the “militants deserved what they got” are missing the fundamentals of the problem, which this nation has to solve eventually in the interest of justice and peace.
The hostilities have inexorably brought to the fore, once more, the extant issues in the Niger Delta crisis. Those who are in position to do something about the problem should be constantly reminded of these issues even at risk of sounding like a broken record. This is certainly no moment for hubris. The solution to the problem indisputably transcends military assault on alleged militant camps by the Joint Task Force (JTF). For those who may be nursing some baseless hubris about these matters the experience of recent events in Sri Lanka may prove handy. The Sri Lankan armed forces have demonstrated superior firepower over the Tamil Tiger rebels who have surrendered in their 26-year old war for an independent homeland. The rebel leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was killed. Yet, in declaring victory yesterday, President Mahinda Rajapaksa was unambiguous in saying that the victory in the battlefield was not enough to win peace. He hinted at political steps at national reconciliation and the integration of the Tamil population. The moral of this is to state, for the umpteenth time, that there is no military solution to the problem in the Niger Delta.
For clarity, the government has the responsibility for security in all parts of the republic. And no sane person can justify the activities of criminals who kidnap persons, vandalise pipelines, steal oil or even chase a way construction workers from sites. These criminals operating in the region have distorted the legitimate struggle of the people for justice and equity in the administration of the revenues from oil. The activities of the criminals should be separated from the justifiable protest against the neglect, poverty and underdevelopment of the region. Security and law enforcement forces should be able to deal with criminals without wreaking havoc on whole communities. It is a professional challenge. For instance, kidnappers have operated in other parts of Nigeria outside the Niger Delta such as south- eastern states, Lagos, Abuja and Kaduna. The crime could be fought without unleashing onslaught on the communities.
It is tempting at a moment of like this to down play the root of the problem and blames the victims for the problem. No, this disaster should be a chilling reminder that the attempts to solve the problem have so far failed. The whole problem should not just be explained away as criminality. After all, the cumulative effect of the neglect of the region by the successive controllers of the Nigerian state in decades is nothing short of criminality in itself. The emotion of the present should not becloud the delineation of the criminal from the militant. And not every one who agitates for justice and equity in the region is a militant. Neither should the place for political agitation be denied. The hands of the pure political agitators can only be strengthened when governments take step towards improving the material situation on ground. The political option would then become preferable to armed rebellion.
There is the greater temptation to reduce the problem to just that of security. Such an approach has never worked. It will not work. The security problem should be a wake-up call for the federal, state and local governments to take the war on poverty and underdevelopment more seriously in the region. It is the bigger war that needs to be fought. The politics of fighting this more enduring war has not been right for the region. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo had eight years to make a difference in terms of political and developmental solutions. He failed to do so. A lot of Nigerians outside Niger Delta are yet to be cured of a distorted view of the problem. This much was evident in the political reform conference conveyed by Obasanjo in 2004/2005. The utter insensitivity shown to Niger Delta by delegates when the matter of revenue allocation based on derivation came was simply unjustifiable. The Niger Delta delegates staged a walkout promising to go home and tell their people what happened in Abuja. Four years later the political question about the region remains unanswered. Answering the political question should be taken as urgent as the military operations.
To merely dismiss every one as a criminal or militant is to obfuscate issues. For instance, those ladies and gentlemen, who were appointed by the President into a committee to produce a report on Niger Delta, are neither militants nor criminals. The committee headed by the President of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), Ledum Mitee, reviewed past efforts to resolve the Niger Delta question and the documents thus generated since the colonial days. The committee has submitted a report. The government is yet to issue a white paper on it much less implement accepted recommendations. The Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) is said to be owed arrears of federal government allocations. Some of the arrears are said to have expired. The same government has gone ahead to set up a Niger Delta ministry, the impact of which is yet to be seen.
The latest bloodbath in the region is unfortunately coming weeks after President Umaru Yar’Adua declared amnesty for the militants. The scale of the present military operations shows that Yar’Adua may have grown impatient with the militants. We must quickly add that there are other areas in which government should also show a sense of urgency. The government should immediately respond to the humanitarian consequences of the operations in the Delta creeks. Beyond that Yar’Adua should not stop at flushing out militants out of Camp Five and Iroko Camp, he should move swiftly to implement policies that would flush out inequity, poverty, and underdevelopment in the region.