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Taking the MEND threat seriously

Just when Nigerians thought that the ghost of militancy in the Niger Delta had finally been laid to rest, there is a rumbling threat of its reemergence. Reports have it that the main militant group in the region, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, announced the resumption of hostilities on Saturday.

MEND, in a statement issued by its spokesperson, Jomo Gbomo, also called on oil companies to halt operations in the region to avoid putting the lives of their workers in danger.

Ordinarily, such an announcement should not cause any loss of sleep in a country where the security forces can be relied upon to protect every inch of its territory and nip any threat of attack in the bud. This should have been the time for the intelligence network of the security agencies to be put to task. But, sadly, this may not be the case with Nigeria. There were countless instances in the past when such threats were issued by MEND and they came to pass.

Already, there have been reports that a Shell Petroleum Development Corporation facility was attacked at Ogbotubo in Bayelsa State, barely hours after the MEND announcement. Some flow stations are said to have been affected, leading to a shut-in of about 70,000 barrels of crude oil per day. Although the attack has not been directly linked to the militant group, it will not be wide of the mark to assume that MEND is behind it.

At the height of militancy in the region last year, oil facilities in the country came under such ferocious attacks that the fragile and oil-dependent economy was brought to its knees. Official figures in June last year confirmed that the country was losing 1.3 million barrels per day as a result of shut-ins resulting from incessant assault on oil facilities by the militants. The Minister of Finance, Dr. Mansur Muhtar, was quoted six months ago as saying that the country could no longer implement its budget because projected revenues could not be realised. He lamented that the budget that was premised on 2.29 million bpd could only attain 21 percentage implementation because oil production had fallen to 1.6 million bpd.

At a point, the militants even had to defy whatever security system was in place to protect the Nigerian coastal waters by coming all the way to Lagos to strike at the Atlas Cove, the nation’s biggest fuel import distribution facility. Although the attack which resulted in the loss of lives seemed gratuitous, it was meant to announce to the government that the militants had long arms that could reach out to any part of the country. MEND, which claimed responsibility for the attack, also threatened to strike in Abuja but never did.

It was also convenient for the government to use the activities of militants as an excuse for its failure to provide electricity to a country that was suffering from acute power supply crisis. The government, which had invested billions of dollars in a gas-dependent National Integrated Power Project sited in the Niger Delta region, blamed militancy for its inability to fulfill its promise of delivering 6,000 megawatts of electricity by the end of last year. Militancy was also fingered for government’s inability to carry out promised developmental projects in the Niger Delta region.

Besides the economic and financial losses to the government, the restiveness claimed huge civilian and military casualties, especially when the Joint Task Force decided on an assault to smoke out the militants from their supposed enclaves. Militancy was becoming a hydra-headed problem that was spiralling out of control, until President Umaru Yar’Adua, in a rare stroke of imaginative genius, came up with his amnesty programme. The President bent over backwards to ensure that the amnesty worked.

Against all expectations, top members of the militant groups and their foot soldiers accepted amnesty, though grudgingly, if not tentatively, in some cases. Guns and weapons, including gunboats, were surrendered to the government, even if it is still doubtful that all the weapons in the possession of the militants were turned in. But MEND stood its ground that it was fighting a legitimate cause and would not accept amnesty, as doing so would amount to accepting culpability.

When it discovered that the amnesty, which also led to the release of its leader, Henry Okah, was about to take the wind off its sail, MEND decided to declare a cease-fire. It was then time to press forward and ensure a lasting peace in the region. But the fragile peace is now being threatened. The post-amnesty programme of rehabilitating the militants, most of who had been pushed into a life of criminality because of lack of job and a means of livelihood, seems to have suffered a hiccup.

The absence of the President, who has been out of the country for the past 72 days on account of ill health, has not helped matters. Almost every other week, there have been reports of riots and protests by militants, occasionally followed by threats to return to the trenches. One would have thought that a fast-thinking government would take steps to nip any bid to return to the days of unruliness in the Niger Delta in the bud. This, unfortunately, has not been the case.

Although the militants have come up with the issue of resource control or federalism as the main reason for their calling off the cease-fire, it is obvious that the apparent lack of sincerity by the government could be the main reason for their action. The promise to embark on massive construction of roads and address the general infrastructure deficit in the area is yet to be fulfilled. Most of the young men and women that took up arms against their motherland because of joblessness are still without jobs and can be easily tempted back.

What Yar’Adua has done with his amnesty programme is not a capitulation to the militants. In fact, it is the same programme that is currently being proposed in Afghanistan. The Western countries, tired of rising casualty figures of their young men who are fighting in that poverty-stricken country, have offered to rehabilitate Taliban members who may accept to lay down their guns and reintegrate them into the society.

A country that depends on oil for over 90 per cent of its foreign exchange earnings and more than 70 per cent of revenue cannot afford to toy with the source of that oil. Jobs need to be created. The country can begin to address some of these problems by swearing in the Vice-President as the Acting President to give him power to take wide-ranging actions to address these problems. The gains of the amnesty programme may be rapidly reversed if the power void created by Yar’Adua’s absence is not immediately filled.

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