Sam Omatseye: Feeding the Niger Delta monster

by Sam Omatseye

Niger Delta militants

 ….report showed how brutal the killings defaced the villages that had enjoyed peace for close to a decade when the crisis ended. Whole families were wiped out, and ironically the Itsekiri were not the only victims. Some Ijaw also fell. 

The recent news of uproar in the creeks of Delta State reminds me of my days in secondary school. I often looked forward to my holidays with my grandmother in my village in the Niger Delta. I preferred it to Lagos. We had no light, no cars, no pipe-borne water, no paved roads. I thrived on the predictable staple of eba and starch and yam. Lagos offered the glitzy contrast. I bustled with what Americans call jungle fever. My only trepidation as a teenage boy was the prospect of wild beasts, especially snakes. Against them, I had no skill. But I loved the enchantment of the terrain: the arboreal beauty of the forest, the limpid glow of the rivers and the mysterious destiny of streams. They deleted any phobia. In vain, I craved the naïve facility of the country bumpkin. But I shivered with the joy of what South African novelist Peter Abraham called a dumb townie, a city boy out of sync with the primitive sweetness and sensuous peace of the village.

The city like Lagos where my parents domiciled belonged to the wild impulses of civilisation: armed robbers, political corruption, teenage delinquency, the pull of filthy lucre. In the village, wild meant simple: honesty, unadorned clothing, innocence of lucre. The other wild of the village belonged to the animals that imposed a rhythm of noise and silence to the forests, the pops and serenities of streams, the stir and stillness of the foliage.

When I taught journalism in the United States, critics of editors often cited a naivety among newspapers that stereotyped rural residents as innocents and the city dwellers as the poison tree of modernity. The rumble of Delta State between the Itsekiri and Ijaw spilled blood on the quiet streams and statuesque beauty of the forests in the region at the time. I cited the far-flung example to my students to show the other side of prejudice. Innocence does not always drape the simple.

That thought came to me when the news broke of the fight between the two ethnic groups around the Warri North Local Government in Delta State. I must state, as it is obvious from my name, that I am an Itsekiri man, and if that betrays any bias, I take responsibility. But I will state my point as my conscience propels me.

The reports show that a group known as Egbema Radical Group had been jockeying for some elective positions in the local government, and that matter brewed even as advertisement in newspapers. In the midst of this, some radicals first launched an attack on the house of an Ijaw man. The culprits did not secure the attention they desired. They stepped up the ante, and attacked Itsekiri villages. This gave the incident the flavour of inter-ethnic feud. Newspaper reports also fed this motif, and all over the region and the country, men and women in high and low places worried. They saw the return of the incubus of the old conflict. The mermaid of blood and death had risen out of the waters.

This writer imbibed that impression until I probed. It became clear from some more critical reporting like the one from our Southsouth regional editor, Shola O’Neil, and conversations with some insiders. It became clear that this was conflict as intimidation. Some boys who had been left out of the amnesty largesse had fought back with a vengeance. These young men wanted to take advantage of the flimsy agitations of the Egbema Radical Group’s call for representation by stoking up a conflict. The ERG wanted to feed off that tragedy to advance its positions.

Shola O’Neil’s report showed how brutal the killings defaced the villages that had enjoyed peace for close to a decade when the crisis ended. Whole families were wiped out, and ironically the Itsekiri were not the only victims. Some Ijaw also fell. Bullets spill blood but recognise no kin.

The perpetrators attacked for intimidation. They wanted to railroad the state government and the Federal Government for attention. Hence Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan warned that he would not concede to them and would not act under duress. He noted that the positions the ERG wanted were elective positions and if an Itsekiri won, it was not his doing. The Governor noted he was an Itsekiri man and he understood the sensitivity of the issue. Sources say the boys want to have their own opportunity to bunker oil. They are learning from the futility of the amnesty programme, and they are trying to take advantage of a subdued tension between the two ethnic groups. They betray envy of the big boys fattening on contracts from the president.

The perpetrators want to follow an old script: levitate selfish and parochial interest by exploiting familiar grudges. This is dangerous, and Governor Uduaghan understands this and he has shown why caving in would amount to feeding a monster. The irony is not lost for most of the beneficiaries of the amnesty programme are Ijaw. We have seen how the Jonathan administration has lifted these former brigands to be caretakers of our patrimony. Now, he should see that the same ethnic group is insatiable. It is a parable of the failure of the amnesty programme. It is the President’s action that made a group to call for an Ijaw region to cover other ethnic groups like Urhobo, Itsekiri, Isoko, etc. This is because, increasingly, Jonathan cannot distinguish his role as an Ijaw man and his position as President of Nigeria.

He has not addressed why the problem of violence persists. Bayelsa State has witnessed bursts of violence and Governor Seriake Dickson, his son governor, has been weeping impotently in public over the menace. The same groups are terrorising Rivers State to the extent of lobbing teargas into the Government House.

We all know the bloodletting that the Itsekiri-Ijaw conflict wrought in the region. It changed the landscape, wiped out the ambition of some of the youths for a generation, decimated families, destroyed businesses, and the state, in spite of the long spell of peace, still bears scars of that sanguinary era. Governor Uduaghan ensured peace in the state even before the so-called amnesty. In his new book Transatlantic, Irish author Colum McCann noted that peace is harder than war. Those who want to rekindle the inter-ethnic war are obsessed with “half-remembered fragments of some enormous receding and impossible dream,” apologies to Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. But the Federal Government owes it a task to the country to address the source of the problem. We must replace greed with work and opportunities. We cannot continue to feed the monster, or the Niger Delta will default to its old theatre of blood thirsty goons with flamboyant lifestyles.


Read this article in The Nation


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

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