Issues on Niger Delta
- Created on Monday, 25 February 2008 02:36
- Written by Anayochukwu Agbo
Historic wrongs and official insensitivity to the rights of the minority people of the Niger Delta throw up and sustain bloody agitations and insecurity in the region
By ANAYOCHUKWU AGBO
(originally published in Tell Magazine and reformatted for The Adaka Boro Centre)
“Today is a great day, not only in your lives, but also in the history of the Niger Delta. Perhaps, it will be the greatest day for a very long time. This is not because we are going to bring the heavens down, but because we are going to demonstrate to the world what and how we feel about oppression… Remember your 70-year-old grandmother who still farms before she eats; remember also your poverty-stricken people; remember, too, your petroleum which is being pumped out daily from your veins; and then fight for your freedom.”
With these electrifying words, 27-year-old Isaac Adaka Boro, general officer commanding, the Niger Delta Volunteer Service, DVS, declared an independent Niger Delta Peoples Republic, NDPR, February 23, 1966, 40 days after the historic January 15 coup.
It was 3 pm and the three divisions of the DVS, made up of 159 troops, were going into action at 5 pm with the objective of dislodging the federal police and taking over Yenagoa at 12 midnight. It was code-named “Operation Zero”. It marked the beginning of the “12-Day Revolution” during which Boro, an ex-police inspector, former president of Students’ Union Government of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and a fresh graduate of Chemistry, called “the attention of the world to the fact that the inhabitants of the Niger Delta were feeling very uncomfortable” with their fate in Nigeria.
That was an understatement for some of the observers of the time. It was the culmination of the injustice, political frustration and suffocation that the Ijaw and other Niger Delta people suffered in an independent Nigeria. As a bubbling, brilliant young secondary school leaver, Boro, after a three-month stint as a teacher, joined the Nigeria Police as a cadet in 1958 with a lot of fire in him to bring about change. But he received a shock when he found that he was alone in a police force that was already corrupt and was subsequently dismissed due to ill luck, maybe, the call of destiny.
Heartbroken, he dusted up his certificate and went to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he suffered various degrees of injustice as a student politician. He came to the realisation that the Ijaw were heading for extinction if the tide of the national politics being controlled by the big three — the Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo — did not change.
Boro and other Ijaw students watched with bewilderment as the Ijaw politicians failed to break into the top echelons of Nigerian politics.
“We discovered that most of the youths were so frustrated with the general neglect that they were ready for any action led by an outstanding leader to gain liberty,”
noted Boro in 1963.
“Year after year, we were clenched in tyrannical chains and led through a dark alley of perpetual political and social deprivation. Strangers in our own country! Inevitably, therefore, the day would have to come for us to fight for our long-denied right to self-determination,”
Excluded and alienated from power, the Ijaw withered in bitterness and regret. For a then
estimated two million people, there were no adequate educational opportunities, no infrastructure, no empowerment, no openings. “Economic development of the area is certainly the most appalling aspect. There is not even a single industry. The only fishery industry which ought to be situated in a properly riverine area is sited about 80 miles inland at Aba.
The boatyard at Opobo had its headquarters at Enugu … Personnel in these industries and also in the oil stations are predominantly non-Ijaw,” he lamented.
In 1959, Harold Dappa Biriye, after whom the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, headquarters in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, is named, began the journey to give the Niger Delta a voice in national politics by the formation of the Niger Delta Congress, NDC, with fish as its symbol. The hope was that, as the fourth largest ethnic nationality, the party would bring the Ijaw at par with other ethnic nationalities that had their own parties. In the 1959 elections, NDC disappointingly won only one seat in the Federal House through Melford Okilo from Brass Division, Yenagoa Province. NDC leaders had promised during the campaign that a state would be created for the Niger Delta and appointments given to people of the area at the federal level. Understandably, these promises could not be fulfilled. In the 1962 Eastern Region elections and 1964 federal elections, NDC, lost all grounds to the Igbo-dominated National Council of Nigerian Citizens, NCNC, to the frustration of Ijaw nationalists.
The political scenario that confronted the Ijaw was very gloomy. The NCNC which ruled the East was not interested in the creation of Niger Delta State for obvious reasons. NDC could not do much as out of the nine representatives of the area, eight were from NCNC. And in the Eastern Region House of Assembly, the Niger Delta had only four against 110 other representatives. In the Midwestern House of Assembly, Niger Delta had two representatives against 58 others.
“Given these prevailing circumstances,” lamented Boro,
But to have a state, an agitating area had to get the approval of the regional government or governments within which it falls, one other regional government and also the federal government. That meant that the East and Midwest regions must accede and they were not willing. The North and the federal government could not override them because the North was afraid of NCNC, which controlled the East, and Midwest retaliating by supporting the creation of Middle Belt State. What irked the Ijaw more was that during the plebiscite campaign for the creation of the Midwest Region, they were promised that in the event of the creation of a state in the Niger Delta, the Ijaw in Midwest would be allowed to join their kith and kin in the East. So, the Ijaw found themselves hedged in, like the Shakespearean stag tied at the stakes and bayed about by many enemies.
It confirmed the worries of the pre-independence fears which made Biriye lead a delegation to London to make a case for the minorities. The fruit of their effort was the Willinks Commission set
up in 1958 to investigate the fears of minorities. The commission confirmed that the fears were real and recommended a Niger Delta Special Area status for the Niger Delta. Consequently, the Tafawa Balewa-led federal government set up the Niger Delta Development Board, NDDB, to cater for the special needs of the Niger Delta. This did not achieve the desired development. Furthermore, the Eastern Region government refused to make any contribution to the board.
It dawned on the youths that Ijaw politicians would never achieve results for the area. In October 1962, Boro, then an undergraduate of UNN, began the movement that would, in 1966, start the violent campaign to end the marginalisation of the Niger Delta
“to discuss the political future of our people.”
They became known as the Internal Caucus. Boro was elected the secretary-general.
“Our primary objective was to organise ourselves into a strong political force to struggle for our self-determination as soon as we graduated,”
In 1963, Boro and his Internal Caucus took their campaign to the embassies of some countries whom they considered advocates of freedom. They did not get the desired support. In 1964, Boro and Samuel Owonaru, later to be his second in command in DVS, toured West African countries to conscientise Ijaws living in the West Coast about the plight of the their people in independent Nigeria. They visited Dahomey (Benin Republic), Togo and Ghana. In Ghana, they visited the Cuban Embassy where they hoped that Fidel Castro’s country would be keen to support the freedom of Ijaws. The ambassador gave them 60 minutes to vacate the embassy. After graduation, Boro was employed as a technical officer in the Faculty of Science, University of Lagos. Again he, Owonaru and other youths formed Integral WXYZ
“to prepare the minds of the Ijaw youths for the ripe moment.”
That ripe moment was the killing of Balewa on January 15,1966. He resigned his job, cashed his emoluments, sold his property and with £150, returned to Kaiama, his hometown, set up camp at the Taylor Creek and began recruitment. After six weeks’ training, they struck. And 12 days later, the revolution was foiled and Boro and his lieutenants were arrested. Boro and all his commanders were condemned to death. But fate favoured them and General Yakubu Gowon’s government freed them and created Rivers State and Lieutenant Commander Diete Spiff, an Ijaw, was made governor. It was a dream come true. The revolution had failed and yet succeeded.
“My men and I, with the creation of our state, are now free to help not only our people, but also Nigeria, to peace, unity, stability and progress,”
Boro enthused in 1967.
But this was not to be. The civil war started and Boro gladly became a major in the Nigerian Army. He was killed on April 20, 1968, near Port Harcourt and that muted the radical voice of the Ijaw against the disappointments in their expectations for the next 30 years. Nigeria deteriorated under the unitary military regimes and worsened the plight of the Niger Delta. Then Ken Saro-Wiwa, poet and novelist, who had worked with and seen the inside machinery of governance, concluded that Nigeria had not delivered on the expectation of the Ogoni, who, too, like the Ijaw, were very protective of their identity.
The British administration had forced the Ogoni into the administrative division of Opobo in 1908, which they protested. In 1947, they were placed under the Rivers Province and, in 1951, they were included in the Eastern Region, where, they say, “we suffered utter neglect”. They protested this by voting against NCNC in 1957 and underscored it in their testimony before the Willinks Commission of Inquiry into Minority Fears in 1958. In 1967, they were included in Rivers State.
The Ijaw and Ogoni have one more thing in common — oil. While oil was struck first in the Ijaw territory of Oloibiri in 1956, it was also found in commercial quantity in the Ogoni territory of K. Dere, known as Bomu Oil Field, in 1958. In all, the Ogoni have seven rich oil fields, which have contributed an estimated, unofficial, $40 billion to the national revenue. Despite this contribution, Ogoni nationalists regret that they had no representation at the national level, no pipe-borne water, no electricity, no job opportunities in the federal, state, public and private institutions, and no social or economic project of the federal government, even as crude oil flowed from their land into waiting oil tankers for export.
Against this background, in 1990, the Ogoni made of Babbe, Gokana, Ken Khana, Nyo Khana, Ueme and Tai, with a population of about half a million, formed the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People, MOSOP, under the leadership of an eloquent Saro-Wiwa. The motto of the organisation is “Freedom, Peace and Justice”. It was founded on the principles of non-violence and equality. Among its aims and objectives are three definitive ones: to promote and sustain the struggle against all forms of injustice, to create and sustain the identity of the Ogoni people as a separate and distinct nation (within Nigeria) with a right to self-determination and to the control of their resources and their environment, and to ensure that the Ogoni people obtain their rights within the Nigerian state.
Thereafter, they proclaimed the Ogoni Bill of Rights. While reaffirming their wish to remain a part of the Nigerian polity, the Ogoni demanded seven basic guarantees from Nigeria predicated on “political autonomy to participate in the affairs of the republic as a distinct and separate unit by whatever name called”. Of course, Nigeria did not deliver. The relationship between the Ogoni and Shell, which was exploiting the oilfields in their land, worsened and the federal government arrested Saro-Wiwa and seven other Ogoni activists. They were hurriedly tried, condemned to death and hanged on November 10, 1995, an act which has been widely described as judicial murder. Consequently, the Ogoni sacked Shell from their land for about 12 years. Ogoni oil has been under lock and key as all reconciliation efforts failed. Ledum Mitee, president of MOSOP, who survived being hanged along with Saro-Wiwa, said the Ogoni would rather prefer another oil company to Shell.
In 1998, Ijaw nationalism welled up again as successive governments failed to meet the basic expectations of the Ijaw. An all-Ijaw youths conference was held at Kaiama, Boro’s hometown, on December 11. The youths made 10 resolutions known as the Kaiama Declaration. They reaffirmed that “all land and natural resources within the Ijaw territory belong to Ijaw communities and are the basis of our survival.” Consequently, they “advised all oil companies’ staff and contractors to withdraw from Ijaw territories by December 30, 1998, pending the resolution of the issue of resource ownership and control in the Ijaw area of the Niger Delta”. They asked for a sovereign national conference to restructure the Nigerian federation. Finally, the youths resolved to set up the Ijaw Youth Council, IYC, “to coordinate the struggle of Ijaw people for self-determination and justice”.
Asari Dokubo became the second president of IYC. From his student days, he had, like Boro, been preparing himself for the liberation of the Ijaw. What started as political disagreement because of his protest against the rigging of the 2003 election snowballed
into guerilla warfare for resource control. To protect himself, Dokubo, who sees himself as the spiritual successor to Boro, dusted up the DVS which had survived as Niger Delta Peoples Volunteer Force, NDPVF, and engaged the federal troops. His arrest in August 2005, in violation of a ceasefire agreement, led to the rise of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, MEND, and other militant groups. Hostage-taking entered the arsenal of the militants as a bargain chip and later as a source of revenue. Today, the Niger Delta is still on the boil.
The Ijaw National Congress, INC, says no palliative shall work until the Nigerian federation is restructured to be a true federation where the components control their resources and pay taxes to the centre. This was the basis of the federation under the regional governments. In 1953, the derivation principle in revenue allocation was 100 per cent. By 1960, it went down to 50 per cent. During the Nigerian civil war, it was blanked out to zero to, perhaps, fund the war. By 1982, it was only a whisper at two per cent. It was further reduced to 1.5 per cent in 1984, and in 1992, it was doubled to three per cent. Currently, it is 13 per cent and the campaign is on for either total resource control or a minimum of 50 per cent derivation.
Kimse Okoko, a professor and president of INC, says that the resolution of the Niger Delta impasse should begin with the repealing of some laws which support the marginalisation and impoverishment of the region. These are: The Land Use Decree of 1978 which vested ownership of all land in the government; the Petroleum Decree of 1969, amended in 1991: Decree No. 52 of 1993, known as Osborne Land Decree; and the National Inland Waterways Authority Decree No. 13 of 1997. There is also the controversial issue of maritime boundary of coastal states solely for the purpose of derivation which the federal government puts at 200 nautical miles from the low water mark. The target is to deprive the states of their offshore oil wells. Victor Attah, former governor of Akwa Ibom State, who led the resource control fight, argues that Nigeria can lay claim to these wells because they belong to the states which are part of Nigeria. Therefore, Abuja can only lay claim on the basis of the natural owners of the continental shelf.