COMRADE Sunny Ofehe is the Founder/President of the Hope for Niger-Delta Campaign (HNDC), based in Netherlands.
The organization visited Nigeria about a month ago, met with the Vice President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan and the House of Representatives on the way forward in the Niger-Delta region.
The group invited the House of Representative Ad-Hoc Committee on the Niger Delta Crisis and the South- South Parliamentary Caucus on a weeklong official engagement of the Dutch government at the very high level and also the European Union at the Headquaterâ€™s in Brussels, Belgium, and Committee held meetings with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Dutch House of Representative (tweede kamer) in The Hague, they also met with Friends of the Earth Netherlands (the organisation that has file a lawsuit against Shell,Â Netherlands on behalf of four Niger Delta farmers in the Dutch Court) and they were also part of the Amnesty International launch of the Niger Delta Report in Amsterdam. Excerpt.
You were in Nigeria recently and you visited Niger_Delta, how did you see the development, the invasion of Gbaramatu in particular?
The development in the Niger Delta is appalling and heart breaking.
The Niger Delta I grew in has deteriorated from bad to worse with massive insecurity and high crime wave, all in the guise of genuine agitation for improved condition of the ordinary people.
Ironically, the ordinary people particularly the old, women and children now bear the brunt of the criminal activities that has bedeviled the region.
I have always condemned military operations in the Niger Delta. Military action is not the solution to this protracted quagmire. There is proliferation of criminal elements in the region that has made it very difficult to separate genuine agitation from criminality.
It has further hampered military operations in the sense that searching for the criminal elements has led to so many innocent people being caught in the cross fire. The recent military incursion into Gbaramatu Kingdom left many innocent victims in their wake.
The military is meant to protect its citizens and not to attack them. I can understand that there was an attack on the military men that left 18 soldiers dead including a Lt. Colonel.Â Violence must not beget violence.
The government must take responsibility for the breakdown of law and order in the Niger Delta and as such must device a nonviolent approach to resolving the crisis.
The military attack on those communities cannot be considered a success because there has been a metamorphic rise in militant attacks on oil pipelines since then. We also know that majority of the victims of that attack were not even militants.
I know of some communities that enjoy the protection of the military presence in the Niger Delta.
If the role of the military can mean protection instead of attack then they are welcome. This is not to say that the militants are doing a good job because you donâ€™t kill military officers because you are agitating a cause.
Itâ€™s time to stop the blame game and work together to move the region forward.
Amnesty not the solution
Amnesty is the best solution to militancy but whether the militants will trust the government enough to come out and embrace the amnesty is another thing that we will have to wait and see.
If the Yarâ€™ Adua administration is sincere with the amnesty and the packages that goes with it, it will be a spring board to ending militancy in the region. I donâ€™t see it bringing a lasting solution to the unrest.
The crisis in the Niger Delta is not a one_- prong problem based on militancy; it is a combination of several factors that give birth to militancy as a byproduct.
Militancy dominated the other factors because it was enshrined in violence which affected all facets of civil life both nationally and internationally.
If the government solution is based on militancy alone then we will return back to the starting block in search of other solutions.
In granting amnesty, the government must fashion a way to discourage jobless youths who are not militants from becoming militants because they want to enjoy the government package. The government must not give the people of Niger Delta the impression that only the militants will benefit from their gesture. We must mirror deep into the problem and take a critical look at the other burning issues.
We must not forget that some disgruntled elements are also behind the militancy because they make fortune out of the crisis. This element will flex their muscle against the amnesty plan to make sure it fails so that they will continue to benefit from the chaos. It will surprise you that these elements are people from the Niger Delta.
Way forward is development and empowerment
The way forward in resolving the Niger Delta impasse is simple; Development and Empowerment! Any administration that will be sincere enough to provide the basic social and infrastructural amenities will automatically bring peace to the Niger Delta.
The people are not asking for too much. They want to have good roads, better schools, portable drinking water, electricity, hospitals and better environment.
When the people start seeing their communities change for good and the youths get empowered with jobs and other vocational activities, peace will crawl its way into the region.
We donâ€™t need any government committee or recommendation. What we want is send the bulldozers, tippers and construction workers to go into the communities and start projects that will equate the resources the communities produces for the nation.
You need to visit the core communities in the creek and see the level of suffering. Development is not hampered because of paucity of policies, its lack of implementation. Sincerity and policy implementation will lead to development and that will change the situation in the region from worse to good.
A lot of resources had accrued to the states, but not much development has been recorded. What do you think is responsible for this?
I quite agree with you that a lot of resources have accrued to the States without meaningful development. The answer is corruption.
The Niger Delta has seen its worse corruption at the State and Local government level, which means that we are the architect of our own misfortune.
The State governors are from the Niger Delta, the Local government chairmen are also from the Niger Delta and they get the Federal allocation promptly and on time.
In addition to Federal allocation accruing to the Niger Delta states, we also get 13 per cent derivation. What have we done with these allocations? The Niger Delta has not seen anything new that will reflect these additions.
The governors from the Niger Delta states are always the richest compared to other states governors in the country.
It is sad that as we cry of neglect and marginalization, we still fight the ghost of corrupt politicians among us. Some of the people parading themselves as Niger Delta leaders or elders once occupied positions of opulence but benefitted themselves alone.
They live in sprawling mansions and drive around their own impoverished people with custom made vehicles and yet they still decide the fate of the Niger Delta people in Abuja.
They are the scourge we must fight against. They also use this stolen wealth to fuel militancy in the region. This problem must be nick in the bud in other to realize peace and stability in the region.
What efforts have Hope for Niger Delta Campaign, HNDC made to address the problem of the region?
Hope for Niger Delta Campaign, HNDC, as you know is based in the Netherlands. I founded the organization in 2005 and I am currently the President.
We have done so much since inception, particularly in the last one year. We are mainly concern about the Peace and Security of the Niger Delta. We have raised international awareness to the suffering of the ordinary people in the Niger Delta.
We have made contacts with many donors NGO to focus their development and aid work to the region but they have always complained of security. HNDC has decided to prone their area of concern now to helping genuine agitators and stakeholders to bring about Peace.
In the quest for this elusive peace, I led a team to visit the camp of the most organized militant group in the Niger Delta, MEND in December 2008.
The discussion was centered on disarmament and if they will attend HNDC peace and reconciliation conference in The Hague later this year.
They agreed to our appeal and said they are willing to be part of any peace initiative as long as it has the support of the international community.
You met with Vice President Jonathan Goodluck in Nigeria, what did your meeting centre on?
Like I earlier said, the meeting with the Vice President went very well and the discussion was centered in our effort towards a lasting solution to the Niger Delta crisis.
We also spoke on the advantages of Aids and Development to the region. How HNDC is helping to attract Donor organization to come to the need of the ordinary people.
We promised to make a report on our effort and send it to him for evaluation. It was for us very vital to have this high level governmental meeting. He opened a channel that will allow for flow of constructive engagement.
You know the Niger Delta problem is a complex one that needs continuous assessment and engagement because it took many years for us to get to this chaotic level. The government must prove their sincerity for any peace plan to work in the region.
What is your assessment of the state of the region?
The state of the region is deplorable after more than 50 years of oil exploration.
It is a shame that a region that is the mainstay of the nationâ€™s economy, generating 98 per cent of the countryâ€™s foreign exchange revenue, a region that has put Nigeria as one of the leading oil producer countries in the world and one of the largest supplier of crude oil to the US, the people can still live on less than $1 per day, which World Bank definition of abject poverty.
You need to visit the Niger Delta to understand the pains and sufferings of the people.
Their health situation is worse as a result of gas flare, acid rain and polluted water which they drink. Their main occupation of fishing and farming no longer persist because their rivers and farmland have been destroyed from spillages resulting from oil exploration.
The region is in a complete neglect situation and the people now look up to God for help.
The government at the Federal level have failed them, their own politicians are worse culprit; focus on themselves instead of the people they represent.
There is nobody to account for the millions of dollars that have trickled down to the region from revenue allocation.
The oil multinationals have not helped matters with their divide and rule tactics.
They connive with the government to exploit the environment to the detriment of the people.
Those who rise up to challenge this oligarchy are either thrown in prison or bribed to belong to their click. This tactics will only yield temporary solution but the problems will remain in the long term.
The answer is no. The people have not been better dealt with in the way and manner I think they deserve. They have been exploited for many years, their environment have been destroyed.
The region is now a contaminated habitat leaving the people with high mortality rate, pre-mature birth and loss of pregnancy.
The people are now saying no to such a way of living. Ignorance has paved the way for awareness and that is why we now see the breakdown of law and order.
Parents have struggled to train their children from school with borrowed money and they end up in the unemployed market.
The oil companies donâ€™t provide jobs for them but instead bring in expatriate to do jobs that even the locals can be trained to do.