Opinion: Robin Hood, Niger Delta Avengers and emergency militants

Suddenly, militancy which has been out of fashion in the last six years, is all the rage in the Niger Delta.

The emergence of the so-called ‘Avengers’ has unleashed a rash of would-be liberators of the peoples of the South-South zone. One group is called ‘Ultimate Warriors of Niger Delta’, another goes by the moniker ‘Niger Delta Liberation Force (NDLF).’

Another band dedicated to avenging a different kind of loss has just popped up. They are called the ‘Bakassi Strike Force.’ Their mission is simple: the Nigerian government must recover the Bakassi peninsula ceded to Cameroon or face the wrath of the group.

To send shivers down our collective spines they’ve sent out the obligatory photo of gunmen covered in body paint dancing in a war canoe.

So what does it take to prosper in this new growth industry? At best a Twitter or Facebook account and you are good to go!

You can blow up an isolated pipeline in the backwaters of Bayelsa and the sound of your triumph would be amplified worldwide by a thousand screaming front page headlines.

It doesn’t matter whether your armoury of missiles exists only on Facebook with your name creatively ‘Photoshopped’ on them; be assured that your threats would be helpfully ventilated on social media; or by traditional media desperate to outdo social media for shock and sensation.

Which is just great as it solidifies the notion that in today’s Nigeria, only the gunman, rebel or outlaw gets the attention of the powers-that-be.

And so, barely a week after it rolled out what seemed like an armada of warships, and set a stream of fighter jets cartwheeling through the skies over the Nigeria Delta, the tough-talking Federal Government has been quickly brought to heel to ‘negotiate’ with the militants who have successfully disrupted the country’s crude oil production.

Such is the vulnerability of this nation which in 55-years has contrived to put all its eggs in one basket. Now a band of characters it cannot control is stomping on that basket to devastating effect.

Whether the hurried talks of the last few days between Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, service chiefs and governors of the South South zone were borne out of genuine conviction, pressure from world powers or simple realisation that the petroleum cash tap was being effectively turned off by the hardline militants, is not really important. In any conflict it is always cheaper to talk.

But very rarely do you find an early consensus for dialogue. Parties in most conflicts always want to negotiate from a position of strength, or talk only when they have been virtually brought to their knees.

It is no surprise, therefore, that the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) have spurned the olive branch offered by the government – signalling their intent by taking out a couple more oil production facilities.

At this point the militants have their tactics spot on. Their attacks put the government under tremendous pressure as every facility destroyed results in lost revenue and torpedoes budgetary projections.

The government, too, would be frustrated by the fact that rather than being intimidated, the militants have reinforced that old belief that you can’t fight insurgents using conventional military tactics. That is why the jets roaming the Niger Delta skies haven’t been able to stop the bombings.

Which is not to say that the vandals can prevail against the might of the Nigerian military in the medium or long term. We’ve been here before. In the first year of the late Umaru Yar’Adua’s presidency, the amnesty deal was only procured after a lightening military offensive that destroyed an extensive web of militant camps in the creeks.

The impact of that military action was terrible on local communities – turning thousands of terrified villagers into refugees. No one knows how many lives were lost but the outcry from Ijaw leaders forced the hitherto recalcitrant militants to reach a deal with the government.

Hopefully, the window for dialogue that has been opened would be exploited by the Avengers despite their bluster. But, again, that might just be a fond wish.

Anyone who has followed what the NDA has had to say about its actions and mission would have noticed an evolution in their rhetoric. Their latest statement has the sophistication of something written by a professor or some seasoned activist.

“We are not like some of these personalities who run champagne parties or turn Rivers State Government House into a house patrimony of god-sons and prebendalism,” it states.

This is a far cry from some of the barely literate stuff they dished out at the outset. Still, the overall message is no different from what their forerunners like the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) trumpeted. They want control of the oil pumped from beneath their feet and self-determination.

I would gladly line up behind any initiative that guarantees that the wealth of this longsuffering region trickles down to the people. But while the NDA talk a good game, I am very suspicious of them and their fast-breeding spawn.

Let’s start with their name. What’s in a name you ask? Plenty, I say. It tells you so much and speaks to their mindset. A mission of vengeance is not ennobling, edifying, redemptive or positive in any sense. Who wants to be hitched to people whose raison d’etre is destruction without a roadmap to some future Eldorado?

These are not some latter day Robin Hood reincarnations – robbing rich, oppressive Nigeria to redistribute to the poor denizens of the creeks.

They are no different from the class of warlords who prospered under former President Goodluck Jonathan while their erstwhile foot soldiers remained pauperised.

Speak with some of these ex-militants who supposedly signed up for the amnesty programme and they would regale you with tales of how only a fraction of the stipend due to them ever reached their hands because along the way their ‘leaders’ and sundry middlemen had creamed off a generous portion.

Today’s emergency militants and their sponsors have seen that the fastest path to fantastic wealth in the Niger Delta isn’t through education or enterprise, but by taking up arms albeit in the name of the region but ultimately to feather their own nests.

That is why you won’t hear them talking about serious developmental and environmental initiatives but the sharing of oil blocs.

Some of the militant groups are demanding that 60% of ownership of oil blocs be allocated to persons from the South-South zone. On the face of it this would appear to be one of the issues that should be easy to resolve. I believe the government has indicated its willingness to revisit the issue of the oil blocs with a view to ensuring more transparency and equity in their allocation.

How I wish that ownership of oil blocs were the solution to mass poverty in the South-South region. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

The advertised data concerning present ownership of the blocs shows that that they are unduly skewed in favour of prominent individuals from the north. But what advantage has it conferred on the region? It remains the poorest section in the country – behind in all the measurable development indices.

What about the few southerners who own oil blocs? How have they been an advertisement for how ownership of these valuable assets can be a tool against poverty and a catalyst for developing their backward communities?

If anything, elite greed has ensured that the billions funnelled into the Niger Delta under existing revenue sharing arrangements have disappeared into the pockets of so-called leaders of the region who will not mind funding militancy as long as it protects their interests.

If truly the Avengers and their ilk are concerned about the despoliation of the Niger Delta how come they didn’t let loose their vengeance all the years Goodluck Jonathan was in power and the ‘oppression’ of the region by ‘Nigeria’ continued unabated?

Did the issues they would now have us believe has driven them to arms disappear all those years only to reappear magically in the last 12 months after Muhammadu Buhari became president? Is this not just about the fact that the spigot of cash has been turned off?

I believe that the way out of the Niger Delta crisis is not to return to the old, discredited practice of paying protection money to warlords and gunmen to buy an illusory peace. Pay off this batch and another set would emerge with even more outrageous demands.

I am all for engaging the communities in dialogue but I am also for terminating the criminality that promotes the wrong values in our region.

What is unfolding in the creeks is very grave and once again the government could be repeating the same mistakes made by Jonathan early in the Boko Haram insurgency. Back then many called on him to take a tough stance and stamp out the burgeoning violence. But he kept repeating the politically-correct rhetoric about not “waging war against our people.”

By election year 2015 “his people” had evolved into Frankenstein monsters – so much so that six weeks to the presidential polls, with his seat under serious threat, the peacenik president morphed into a hawkish commander-in-chief parading from place to place posing for photographs in army fatigues.

I understand that some South-South governors have been making the same noises about not being “at war with our people.” I beg to differ.

This is a shooting, bombing war against the nation’s economic interests. It is affecting what comes to Bayelsa and other states in the region. The militants have the nation by the jugular and some people think they are in a warm, cuddly embrace.

Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

Opinion article written by Festus Eriye

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