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. …