After the anxiety and fear that gripped me before my official trip to the scary region of Niger Delta, I returned safely to my base in Abuja, without losing any part of my limbs or sense of sanity to faceless militants and kidnappers who have dent the image of peace-loving people of that part of Nigeria.
At the instance of biannual meeting of the National Council on Information and Communication (NCIC) that held at Yenegoa, the capital of Bayelsa State, I was in the state between July and August 2008 and what I saw on ground erased some negative impressions about the development and the people in that region.
Some expected delegates rather than take the risk of the trip to have a first hand experience about the environment, sent their representatives to the summit.
From the outset the Minister of Information and Communication, John Ogar Odey told delegates that Bayelsa’s story should not be based on the primordial conjecture of people but on objectivity and fairness in line with the ethics of journalism. The governor of the state, Chief Timipre Sylva also told us that ‘Bayelsa is a very peaceful and peace loving, serene, green, tranquil and beautiful State.
I took some daring adventures, quite exciting to satisfy my journalistic instincts. There are indeed natural problems of degradation of lands, oil-polluted streams, air-pollutions from flaring and non-availability of lands because of water level that require massive sand-filling for building or any construction. I was moved by painful irony of a deserted Oloibiri Community where Nigeria struck oil in 1956 and miraculous transformation of Odi to beautiful town after its alleged destruction in a retaliatory military attack in 1999.
In a guided excursion to some sites and neighboring communities I could not see any militant only youths: boys and girls in high spirit and elderly people looking very innocent oblivious of outside bad impression of their community. I saw how ordinary Nigerians from different parts of the country living peacefully with their hosts and conducting their businesses unmolested. Most of the non-indigenes are into self-employment, though occasionally in menial jobs like Northerners who are water vendors, suya sellers and cobblers. I saw few Hausa women selling Tuwo and Miyan Kuka. The Yorubas are mostly the technicians and motor mechanics. The Igbos’ are the commercial traders and transporters.
There is also religious harmony in this predominantly Christian city where I heard early morning calls of Muslim prayers from mosques.
In the course of internet browsing at a café, a distance from my abode, I moved around in the night and saw lively and convivial atmosphere of this serene oil state. The crime rate in Yenegoa is very low because the people are conscious on the need to protect themselves. For security reason I won’t state how a suspected armed robber was summarily dealt with before the arrival of the police.
Though I may not know the highways that constitute federal and state roads, from the Benin- Bye Pass, the road network to Yenegoa is superbly tarred. Only a few potholes dotted the route. Similarly most of the major streets in Yenegoa and adjacent communities are well-constructed. There are also amazing infrastructures like solar-powered street and traffic lights.
Some of the infrastructures, I learnt, were undertaken and executed during the Alamieyeseigha-Jonathan tenure. We inspected some new projects that are being handled by reputable construction companies like Julius Berger PLc and Chinese Engineering Company. The projects include Ekoli bridge and other link roads to Oporoma in Southern Ijaw Local Government Area, Nembe-Brass, Tombia junction and customs road.
Some ongoing projects in the state are 500 – Bed General Hospital, a five star hotel, the Ox-bow Lake, the Yenagoa Gallery, Central Business District and Marina Projects, gas turbines, street lighting and water projects to serve clusters of communities with pipes to reach homes. While some of the projectsare intended to boost tourism and create jobs for the youths, new infrastructural facilities at the Niger Delta University (Amassoma) is done to seek accreditation for Medical and Law Faculties. Some of the projects, because of the threats of the militants have been abandoned by the contractors.
There are also structures and buildings provided by NDDC and oil companies operating in the state, especially at rural areas like schools, hospital, roads, portable water, recreational facilities, and parks. On the other hand there are sprawling classy business centers’, eateries and sophisticated edifices that are owned by politicians and public officers. I noticed various intimidating mansions of different shapes dotting every corner of the capital city and even in remote areas amongst thatched houses of peasant farmers and fishermen.
Most of the ordinary inhabitants admitted that they never come across the militants because they (militants) operate at the remote creeks. I gathered that most of the present militants were actually jobless youths who were recruited during electioneering to intimidate and harass innocent citizens to vote for their political manipulators who could not win in a free and fair election.
They were engaged in ballot box snatching and papers stuffing. After election, realizing that they had been used and dumped by politicians, the thugs metamorphose into militants. I gathered that they engaged in deadly illicit dealings which include drug trafficking, oil bunkering, robbery and sea-piracy as they masquerade as freedom fighters. The most unfortunate discovery is that majority of those used for the dirty job of kidnapping and vandalisation of oil installations are poor and illiterate youths, who are manipulated by some faceless masterminds.
Like robots, being run by a remote controlled device, the gullible youths who are children of the poor, mostly do not realize the futility of their action of taking arms against the state. The ringleaders mostly educated have their families living in cozy environments in big cities or abroad outside the mosquito-infested creeks.
There are two new dimensions on the youth restiveness and militants’ aggression: a war of supremacy of ethnic groups and struggle for sharing of oil wealth. Unfortunately unlike past struggles by respected youth leaders and activists like Isaac Boro and Saro-Wiwa towards a better condition of the entire people in the region, the present oil war is influenced by the greed of some few who extort the states and the oil companies through intimidation, kidnapping and blackmail. As they pocket millions of local and hard currencies from nefarious activities, their communities and the poor people, they claim they fight for, remain in abject poverty.
The money that could have been deployed to further develop their areas is used to acquire highly sophisticated weaponry, purchase assets outside their localities and engage in aggressive media propaganda through online and foreign media. It is noteworthy that past military administrations in the country especially that of IBB and Abacha in their deliberate policy of giving the minority groups in the then South-Eastern Nigeria sense of belonging cleverly carved out their areas which largely produce oil from the dominance of Igbo and to prevent any secessionist tendency. The South-South (or Niger Delta) region came to existence from that policy which gives the axis six states while the Igbo –speaking South East has only five states, the least in any of the six geo-political zones.
Unfortunately, the fear of single sectional dominance as reared its ugly head again as the Ijaws, who are mostly the arrow-head of militancy have hijacked noble struggle for justice and fairness in the polity by dominating other nationalities in the oil-producing region. The Ijaws have silenced other minorities like urhobo, Oro, Ogoni, Bini, itshekiri, kalabari, Ibibio, Efik, Isoko, Ogoni, Ilaje, Ikwerre, Anang among others.
Through their one-man-show antic s, some Ijaws always threaten that the militants’ attacks would continue unless their demands are met. One of their recent demands is on creation of another Ijaw state to accommodate their kith and kin from neighboring states of Ondo, Rivers, Edo and Delta. They are presently clamoring that the proposed Ministry of Niger Delta and its minister should be located and appointed from their zone respectively.
These arrogant postures of the militants and their patrons are quite unbecoming considering the fact that there are many Ijaws in top positions of responsibility in the nation’s hierarchy including Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan, Minister of State Petroleum, Odein Ajumogobia and Chief Executive Officer of NDDC, Chief Timi Alaibi and the recently retired Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Owoye Azazie among other top officers.
I believe the governors in the Niger Delta can still do more for their people considering the enormous resources being allocated to the states from oil companies, intervention agencies and the monthly revenue from the Federation Account. They should create enabling environment for industrialization and job creation through peaceful atmosphere by calling the bluffs of few undesirable elements in the name of so-called militants.
As much as President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua remains aloof to any aggression on the militants to avoid making peaceful and innocent souls victims of military actions, the gangsters should be cautioned on their intimidation of the Nigeria army with childish rhetoric and misguided provocation. They should not undermine the patience and underrate the prowess of our well-trained and gallant army who have records of outstanding performance in foreign operations.
As much as the government continues to treat them with kid gloves hoping they may have a rethink, the true patriotic people of the Niger Delta must come out to condemn them and cooperate with the relevant forces in dealing with the criminally-inspired armed struggles.
The governments of the states should also not only be involved in physical projects but reorientation of their youths from negative vices. In addition they should create skill acquisition centers’ across all the local government areas where they can learn different talents to make them even self-reliant and self-employed through soft-loans facilities to be guaranteed by their local chiefs. No person will be a willing tool to be exploited by undesirable elements for their selfish agenda when the government provides opportunities for its citizens.
In conclusion, I must mention that I enjoy the company of young men who are very proud and passionate about their state and took me to places of sight attractions. A mention must be made of a corps member Tonye Soroh and a driver Dennis who took the risk of guiding my movement in Bayelsa State.
Indeed the ordinary people there are quite wonderful just like the rest of us desirous of peace and positive development in our country. The Niger Delta, is a story of region that has ample potentials and opportunities to be great but is unfortunately drawn back by the antics of few in their midst.
Yushau A. Shuaib