When the Nigerian government sent David Brigidi, a former student activist and one-time senator, to speak directly with insurgent groups in the Niger Delta late last year, it was seen as a hopeful move. Brigidi was asked to tell them to give peace a chance.
Unfortunately, the outcome of that initiative has proven to be a mixed blessing. In some parts of the territory, there has been a marked reduction in violent hostage-taking and vandalisation of oil installations, but in others there has been escalating criminal activity against local political leaders instead of against the oil industry.
Again, in some parts of the region, impressive initiatives mounted by the federal government to reverse years of neglect have suddenly run foul of local brigands, while in other parts far-reaching infrastructural enhancement has begun to take shape with the full cooperation of the local populace. In Brigidi's home state of Bayelsa, which also happens to be the home state of Vice-President Dr Goodluck Jonathan, there has been a notable reduction in hostage-taking and disruption of oil activities; but in neighbouring Rivers State, communal violence and outright terrorism appears to be on the rise.
In recent weeks, the ancient island city of Bonny in Rivers State has experienced unprecedented youth unrest, including a dynamite attack against the palace of the king of Bonny who himself has often been an outspoken advocate of more equitable and accountable interaction between the oil industry and the host communities.
The revolt in parts of Rivers State appears to be a fallout of the confusion that followed the elections there, which led Governor Rotimi Amaechi appealing successfully to the Supreme Court against his exclusion from the ticket of the ruling PDP party. But some of the recent events have been difficult to characterise as anything other than pure criminality.
In early March, a German engineer working on the long-awaited dualisation of the East-West Highway was abducted by criminal elements even though this project was one of the key demands made by advocates of development for the Niger Delta in previous meetings with the erstwhile Obasanjo government.
Delta State, once the most volatile and distressed of the Niger Delta states because of deep-seated hostility among rival ethnic groups, is showing signs of recovery. Even though the former governor, James Ibori, is facing trial on charges of corruption brought against him by the dreaded Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), his legacy of highly visible infrastructural development across the state is being touted by the new governor as a worthy foundation on which to build.
Ibori worked extremely hard to dampen the outbursts of ethnic violence, especially between the Ijaws and the Itsekiris, and also between his own Urhobo group and their less populous but highly important Itsekiri cousins.
In last year's elections, the current governor, Emmanuel Uduaghan, (Ibori's relative although he is Itsekiri), was openly endorsed by Ibori. Uduaghan's challenger, a businessman called Great Ogboru, was a popular member of Ibori's Urhobo ethnic group. Ogboru mounted a spirited fight, and when he lost, it almost unleashed violence in the state's largest metropolis of Warri.
That this did not eventually happen was partly because a strong security offensive was mounted against him by the former governor, and partly because the government's strategy of bringing back peace to the city had turned many of the most violent elements there into allies. Uduaghan has inherited this success and is apparently still managing to use it to his own advantage.
In a recent conference held in the once volatile Effurun suburb of Warri, one of Nigeria's foremost movie actors, Richard Mofe Damijo, who has been appointed special adviser on entertainment and talent development, revealed that a major strategy objective of the Uduaghan administration is the development of the Delta State's capacity to create an economy that is not dependent on oil. Because of this, the government is working towards developing alternative areas of economic activity such as the entertainment and tourism industry. More of such initiatives have already begun to bear fruit, and are bringing peace and stability to communities across the state.
In addition, the state has returned to being the highest producer of oil among the Niger Delta states for the first time in many years. Production in neighbouring Rivers and Bayelsa States has been cut back because oil workers (both expatriate and local) have abandoned their posts out of fear of being kidnapped.
The signs of success in Delta State have, however, not spilt over to the neighbouring states of Bayelsa and Rivers yet. Although the new governor of Bayelsa, Timipre Sylva, a one-time special assistant to the minister of petroleum, has unveiled plans to engage directly in peace building within the state, recent actions by the federal government appear to have compromised his strategy.
When Brigidi visited the insurgents in Bayelsa State (with the help of the state government's team of facilitators), one of the things requested by the insurgents was the release, from federal government custody, of their leaders, including the almost legendary "Jomo Gbomo" who was arrested in a foreign country.
Rumours about his arrest forced the federal government to "officially" announce that it had secured the extradition of "two terrorist suspects"
from Angola. One was later identified as Henry Okah, a founder of the major umbrella insurgency group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), and the other was believed to be "Jomo Gbomo".
Okah has since been charged with treason and sedition but he was not present in court at the first hearing, fuelling speculation by his comrade-insurgents that he had been killed by the federal government. This situation is threatening peace in Bayelsa State and even beyond, but the federal government says it is determined to use the law to bring sanity to the Niger Delta.
Governor Sylva is also facing a revolt within the state House of Assembly which is aimed not at his person but at the leadership of the House. Some members of the House--prominent among whom is the popular Opusiri Noah Otobo--claim that the conduct of business in the Assembly has deteriorated drastically in recent times.
Otobo gained popularity in 2004 when he took on the oil giant, Shell, over its abandonment of a road project that it had promised to undertake in one of the most important and historical routes near the site of its pioneer oil find, the Oloibiri Well.
Otobo and others recently spearheaded an attempt to impeach the speaker of the House but this went awry when the speaker's supporters allegedly claimed that the group also intended to impeach Governor Sylva himself.
When Otobo and his supporters were suspended from the House, they retaliated by organising a quorum to impeach the speaker before their suspension was made public. This revolt forced Governor Sylva and Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan to convene a meeting of the caucus of the state PDP where reconciliation was negotiated and the status quo restored.
Since then, Sylva has endorsed a restructuring of the party's hierarchy in the state. Otobo and his group have announced that while they continue to be loyal to his leadership, they want him to help them bring about effective reforms and improved performance of the state legislature.
As the volatile politics of the Niger Delta continues to disturb observers, the increased empowerment of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) has begun to bear fruit. Issues have been amicably resolved after President Umaru Yar'Adua's apparent "undiplomatic" statement that his government was not obliged to honour the outstanding allocations to the NDDC inherited from the Obasanjo administration.
The NDDC management recently announced the establishment of an internal monitoring division tasked with the duty of ensuring that contractors are more accountable. This is in keeping with demands by community leaders and the National Assembly.
Timi Alaibe, the NDDC managing director, told a recent oil and gas conference in Abuja that major infrastructural changes were underway in the Niger Delta, especially in the most remote areas of the region. He showed a large audience of Nigerians and foreigners, pictures of major projects taking place there--including shore protection, canalization, and road development--which, on completion, will change the face of the region in the next few years.
While Alaibe expressed satisfaction with the commitment of the federal government to the NDDC, he stressed the need for the oil industry and state governments in the Niger Delta to enhance their collaboration with the Commission in order to bring about radical change to this most disadvantaged of Nigerian regions. According to him, cooperation among the stakeholders is the only way forward.
While the insurgency and criminal activity in parts of the Niger Delta continue, there are signs that the new generation leaders are employing the spirit of cooperation to encourage peace and progress that can bear fruit in the near future--if allowed to flourish.…