By Ibanga Isine
I have been directly and remotely involved in the Niger Delta struggle for over two decades and still counting.
While I may not have carried arms like my Ijaw brothers, I can beat my chest and say that I have made very constructive contributions to the region’s struggle through the instrumentality of my twin addictions – journalism and advocacy.
Apart from my investigative and human interest stories that highlight the depredations of oil exploration on the region’s land, water and air and the concomitant effects on lives and livelihood of the people, I went a step further to lead international media organisations to produce far-reaching and very revealing news features and documentaries to draw attention to the atrocities committed against our people.
I have fixed severally for CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera, Associated Press and Jane Country Report, and they brought to the world firsthand images and stories of the wickedness of multinational oil companies and the tyranny of the Nigerian government against the people of the region.
I tend to agree to some extent with my friend, brother and former colleague in The Punch, Fidelis Soriwei and others who say that Ijaws have invested and sustained the region’s struggle for justice with their blood more than any other tribe.
But I disagree, and so vehemently, with those who tend to think that the Niger Delta struggle started and ended with Ijaws or that what happened and still happening affects only Ijaws and so they must corner everything that comes to the region.
No one should also hold the distorted belief that the region is and will always be about Ijaws by Ijaws for Ijaws. That is highly ridiculous.
For those who don’t know, the Niger Delta region is one of the most populated areas in the world and home to over 31 million people of more than 40 ethnic groups and peoples who speak in excess of 250 dialects.
Some of the ethnic groups in the region include the Bini, Itsekiri, Efik, Esan, Ibibio, Annang, Oron, Ijaw, Igbo, Isoko, Urhobo, Kalabari, Yoruba, Okrika, Ikwere, Etche, Ogoni, Epie-Atissa, Obolo, etc.
Besides, the region’s struggle can never be construed to be all about militancy or the arm struggle that led to the killing of thousands of people including women, children, the aged and the sick in many parts of the region.
The genuine agitators who paid the supreme price for the struggle they believed so much and fought on the frontlines were not only Ijaws. People from every ethnic stock in the region died, lost sources of livelihoods and got their environment destroyed.
Some of the killings and destruction that occurred in many parts of the region were not connected to the struggle in the real sense of the word.
No one can justify the killings and brigandage that were unleashed on several communities by militant groups as part of the region’s struggle for justice, equity and fair play.
Militants who killed Niger Delta people, sacked whole communities and blew up oil pipelines to further degrade the region’s environment cannot be said to have fought in the interest of the region.
Such actions were pointblank criminality. You can’t kill a fisherman who went to look for food for his starving family in the creeks and say it is a Niger Delta struggle.
It was common for militant leaders who were fighting for supremacy or economic space to level communities, destroy businesses and blow up oil installations sending tons of effluents into the environment.
Such incidents were widespread in many parts of Rivers, Bayesla, Delta and Ondo states and some of those atrocities were nebulously ascribed to the genuine struggle for the liberation of the region. Nothing can be farther from the truth than such a deprecating assumption.
But the real struggle wasn’t about the killings and counter-killings among armed gangs and cult groups that mushroomed into militant groups or political thugs who fell out with their paymasters and turned the guns they used in rigging elections on their people.
We have people like Isaac Adaka Boro and his compatriots, Ken Saro-wiwa and his compatriots and others all over the region that paid the supreme price for standing up to the oppressors.
Others like John Pepper Clark, Anyakwee Nsirimovu, Patrick Naagbanton, Oronto Douglas, among so many others, also fought during their lifetime and passed on the baton to those alive.
While militant groups were killing and maiming their own people and blowing up oil pipelines and also stealing crude and making billions, Akwa Ibom youth adopted constructive engagements with international oil companies (IOCs) operating within the state.
I recall when the youth blocked the Qua Iboe Terminal operated by ExxonMobil and stopped production for close to two weeks.
The police opened fire on the peaceful protesters just as the then Governor, Obong Victor Attah intervened and brought the situation under control.
At a point, host communities deployed their deities to the Qua Iboe Terminal gates and the management of the IOC and their workers could not access the facilities until outstanding issues were resolved. That was how Akwa Ibom youth approached the struggle and that was the same reason they were excluded from the Amnesty programme of the Federal Government.
They did not kill and maim their people. They did not kidnap oil workers for ransom. They refused to blow up oil facilities. They were not stealing crude oil and making billions from it.
When the leadership of Mobil Producing Nigeria Unlimited then justified their employment policies, which gave undue advantages to Yorubas, on the grounds that Akwa Ibom lacked qualified persons to take up its top jobs, Akwa Ibom people did not declare outright war on the multinational oil firm.
Though we felt insulted as a people, youth from the state mobilised and peacefully protested against the management of the oil firm. But the state government did something amazing.
Obong Attah commissioned a team and they came up with a long list of Akwa Ibom people who were eminently qualified, but were never considered for appointment.
Obong Attah did not stop at publishing the list in national dailies, he constructively engaged with top management of the IOC, and the intervention paid off with the appointment of Udom Inoyo as the first indigenous executive director of MPNU. I was directly involved in that agitation, but we did not shed any blood or destroy any facility.
That multilayered engagement took place at the same time youth groups from other parts of the region were masquerading as militants and blowing up pipelines, killing innocent community people, kidnapping scores for ransom. It was the case of the same ailment with differential treatments. While one group decided to be violent, the other deployed peaceful mechanism to achieve the same goal.
At the end of the day, oil production was brought to the lowest levels in many oil fields located in Ijaw land, while production increased in Akwa Ibom and indeed provided a buffer for the national economy, which was almost pushed into recession at the time.
I took time to highlight the above to show that every tribe and people in the Niger Delta region have made invaluable contributions to the campaign for better environmental practices, improved resource allocation and better corporate governance, and such efforts have resulted in the gains made so far.
I recall the push by the South-south Caucus of the National Assembly under the leadership of Chief Nduese Essien, which rallied governors and other political leaders in the region, including Obong Victor Attah, Chief Peter Odili, late Chief Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, James Ibori, among others, to stand together and individually engage the Olusegun Obasanjo presidency for the 13 percent derivation and establishment of the Niger Delta Development Commission from the relics of the Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission (OMPADEC).
It is, therefore, wrong to assume that the Niger Delta areas that did not blow up oil pipelines, kill their people, beat up their elders, kidnap and collect ransom and commit atrocious crimes were not part of the struggle.
One of the sad reminders and or manifestation of such cockeyed thinking was what turned the Amnesty programme of the Federal Government into an Ijaw diamond field. Over 70 percent of the beneficiaries are Ijaws in a region with over 40 ethnic groups.
Ijaw-based groups and individuals have made it a routine to fight every appointee into the Niger Delta Ministry and the NDDC, except their own.
When late President Umaru Yar’Adua created the ministry and appointed a consummate bureaucrat and a son of Akwa Ibom State, late Uffot Ekaette as pioneer minister, Ijaw youth and elders started a fight almost immediately, as if he was not from the region.
Militants threatened to bring down the sky. The same scenario played out when Usani Usani from Cross River State was appointed to head the ministry. It was when one of theirs, Godsday Orubebe was appointed minister that militants and many Ijaw leaders stopped fighting.
Today, the same groups who saw nothing wrong when Ijaws where occupying offices as NDDC sole administrators and minister of the Niger Delta ministry are swearing and fighting tooth and nail to remove appointees from Akwa Ibom State.
While I am not canvassing for the individuals occupying the offices of sole administrator of the NDDC and minister of the Niger Delta ministry as the case may be, I have an issue with the campaign of calumny waged against appointees from Akwa Ibom State.
There is hardly any appointee from Akwa Ibom or other parts of the region that Ijaw groups don’t fight, and sometimes to the extent of frustrating genuine projects and initiatives for the development of the region.
For the records, Ijaw youth and fifth columnists who specialise in disrupting the tenures of Akwa Ibom appointees right from the onset of both NDDC and Niger Delta Ministry do not protest and issue ultimatums when someone from their ethnic stock is appointed either in acting or substantive capacity in the two government bodies.
For the record again, Ijaws have served more years in acting leadership positions in the NDDC than people from any other ethnic groups in the region put together.
Such Ijaw acting NDDC administrators include Ibim Semenitari, Enyia Akwagaga, John Brambaifa and Kemebradikumo Pondei.
Throughout the time Godsday Orubebe served as minister of the Niger Delta ministry, no Akwa Ibom man or woman carried a placard or protested against him, and they also didn’t carry placards when Ijaws were appointed to act in NDDC when it was the turn of the state to fill the position of MD.
Those who think that the Niger Delta region belongs to them alone should note that the seed of rancour and hatred they are sowing today may haunt them tomorrow.
I recall how the so-called militant leaders abandoned the Okah brothers who were in the same struggle and even betrayed themselves for some morsels of bread.
When Charles Okah was held in Kuje Prison for five solid years without trial, his tribesmen and those who claimed to be fighting the same cause abandoned him.
It was on the night I participated in the Presidential Media Chat that featured then President Goodluck Jonathan that I got a call from a man who identified himself as Charles Okah. He told me he had been held in prison custody for many years without trial and pleaded with me to follow up his case and bring media attention to it.
Mr. Okah is Ijaw and I am an Ibibio man. I don’t know how many Ijaw journalists reported on his case and why he singled me out to tell his story.
I followed up that case, asked questions from relevant quarters and wrote reports for Premium Times newspaper where I was working at the time. I used that platform to draw public attention to his plight and was arrested in a most brutal and humiliating manner by the DSS and detained for my insistence that Mr. Okah should be given a fair trial.
I did not see any Ijaw reporter in Justice Gabriel Kolawale’s court on the day Mr. Okah almost committed suicide when his case was adjourned simply because the prosecuting counsel was going to London to attend the graduation from the university of his counsel’s child.
The professional protesters and militants kept quiet and or looked the other way while one of their own was standing trial for a cause they fought together.
I want to draw attention of those who are sowing seeds of division and discord in the region to one of the Ibibio adages, “Nuun ked isisioho ndang,’ meaning “one finger cannot remove a lice.”
They should know that the region cannot make progress when one group is constantly at war with all others just to advance their own selfish interest.
I don’t want to write about my experience as the special adviser to former Acting Managing Director of the NDDC, Gbene Joi Nunieh today. Perhaps I will tell the story in the near future. But she is one of the best minds in the region and had so much passion to deliver on the mandate of the Commission. Alas!
I have so much respect for my Ijaw brothers and sisters. They are unique people, full of compassion, smart, hardworking and daring. They have contributed immensely to the development of the region, but they should also support people from other parts of the region when the need arises.
The Niger Delta is our only home and we have suffered together for decades and we should share in the bounties that accrue to us as a region on the table of brotherhood, peace and goodwill. That’s not too much to ask. Or is it?
Mr. Isine, a journalist and public affairs commentator, wrote in from Uyo, Akwa Ibom State