In many respects, the Niger Delta is a special enclave in Nigeria. It is not just richly endowed with oil and gas resources; it is the operational base of the multinational oil corporations in the country. Unarguably, it is the treasure base of the Nigerian economy which is largely dependent on petrodollars.
It is also home to a multiplicity of ethnic and linguistic groups who parade diverse cultures and political persuasions. However, the people of the region have managed to forge some form of unity in their collective struggle for survival.
Over the years, the elite in the region have mobilised their people for development using various platforms and pressure groups. These groups include the South South People’s Conference (SSOPEC), South South People’s Assembly (SSPA) and lately, Pan-Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF) which was formed last year.
Shortly before that time, a brand new militant group, Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) had seized the agitation space from the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND) and had declared total war on the economy of Nigeria.
The new militant group did not only threaten to cripple the economy, but took definite steps to make good these threats. It launched series of bomb attacks on crude oil pipelines and other strategic oil installations across the region. These violent actions, which were perceived in certain quarters as fallouts of the 2015 presidential election, disrupted oil production and reduced Nigeria’s crude oil exports to about 700,000 barrels per day.
In response, the Federal Government deployed troops to the region to smoke out the militants and halt further destruction of critical national assets. It took the launch of “Operation Crocodile Smile,” by the Chief of Army Staff, Lt.-Gen. Tukur Buratai and the invasion of several communities by the troops for PANDEF to rise to the occasion.
The group led by an elder statesman, Chief Edwin Clark, was made up essentially of eminent personalities who took it upon themselves to douse the tension. They appealed to the militants to drop their arms and equally made overtures to the Federal Government to recall the troops to avoid a bloody encounter.
The Clark-led PANDEF also managed to secure an audience with the government of the day during which it presented a 16-Point Agenda covering the demands of the region. Although the government scaled down its show of force in the region with a promise to address the other demands, it has been difficult getting it to fulfil its promises to the people of the Niger Delta.
Now, it appears that a major crisis is looming in the region as a splinter group known as the Pan Niger Delta Peoples’ Congress (PNDPC) has emerged and is challenging the leadership of PANDEF. The PNDPC has declared that it has a mandate to enter into dialogue with the Federal Government on behalf of these militants and the oil bearing communities of the region.
Interestingly, the new group, which is backed by an equally unknown group called the Reformed Niger Delta Avengers (RNDA) parades some notable names associated with PANDEF.
Although, under a democratic setting, the rights of every citizen to freedom of speech, freedom of movement and freedom of association are guaranteed in the Constitution, this rivalry is rather unhealthy and raises the red flag.
A leadership tussle at this time is needless and an avoidable distraction because it could jeopardise little gains already made by PANDEF on behalf of the oil-rich region. This emerging division could become an excuse for the Federal Government to continue to evade convoking the proposed dialogue with the Niger Delta on the 16-Point Agenda and other developmental issues.
If the warring groups do not resolve their differences quickly, there is every possibility that the situation would be interpreted by the government as an indication that the Niger Delta people cannot speak with one voice and therefore do not deserve to be given any attention.
The leadership crisis could also snowball into a situation where the numerous militant groups across the region might get out of control and may wreak havoc on the oil installations just to demonstrate their loyalty to a particular group or the other in the region.
We do hope that those who seek to lead and speak for the Niger Delta understand that it is neither a tea party nor an ego trip. Leading a region with enormous socio-economic, environmental and political challenges demands courage, resilience and humility. It also requires a good grasp of the issues that needs to be put forward to the authorities at every given opportunity. It is certainly not about leading delegations to Aso Rock, savouring the red carpet reception and media glamour.
We urge all men of conscience and goodwill to prevail on PANDEF and PNDPC to sheathe their swords and harmonise their positions in the overall interest of the poverty-stricken people in the land, creeks and swamps of the Niger Delta.
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