By Ifeatu Agbu
THE current armed conflict [some call it war] in the Niger Delta is an unnecessary distraction that is neither in the interest of the Federal Government nor the people of the region that have endured many decades of neglect and deprivation.
It is such an awkward situation that seems to have forced itself on both sides.
Here we are with the Joint Military Task Force [JTF] squaring up withÂ more or less faceless groups that operate in an undefined territory with unverifiable addresses and amorphous leadership.
Those with military experience will tell you that it is easier to fight a regular army than get entangled with people who consider themselves as freedom fighters in a territory that is criss-crossed by creeks and rivulets.
The creeks and mangroves of the delta create an environment for guerrilla tactics for armed militants that are largely anonymous and nondescript.
In an attempt to hunt them down, many innocent citizens will inevitably be caught in the cross-fire as was reported in the case of Oporoza, Okerenkoko, and other Gbamaratu communities around the militant camps.
In this circumstance, collateral damages are unavoidable. The JTF has not helped matters by adding aerial bombardment to the land and sea assault.
The sacking of villages and the humanitarian crisis that followed have roused local and international concerns, with many groups calling on the military to halt its rather heavy-handed assault in the region.
Much as no one would support any full-blown military assault on any part of the country, the militants have themselves to blame for escalating the crisis.
It is difficult to believe that some misguided militants had the effrontery to kill 12 Nigerian soldiers. That is tantamount to a declaration of war against the country.
This is most unfortunate because the militants should have learned lessons from the Odi and Zaki Biam experiences. Condemnable as those operations were, they were able to let all Nigerians know the mindset of soldiers, especially when any of their colleagues is murdered.
There is no doubt that the Niger Delta struggle for equity and development had a noble origin. However, the disturbing cases of kidnapping and hostage-taking and pipeline vandalism have shown that the hitherto legitimate struggle in the region for justice and fairness has been hijacked by criminals and miscreants in pursuit of selfish goals.
For the crisis to reach this stage is an indication of the failure of our intelligence services. Otherwise, how can one explain the apparent lack of information on the precise location of the militant camps that have been in existence for years?
Perhaps, the best intelligence work done on the activities of the militants was that contained in the detailed report of the former JTF commander, Major-General (then Brig.-Gen.) Lawrence Ngubane.
It detailed the locations of their camps and the names of their leaders. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, it would appear that even that insightful work by General Ngubane was faulty.
For instance, he had characterised Camp Five as â€œa highly militant camp equipped with the highest known Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)â€.
The security report dated July, 2007 might have informed the decision of the military to deploy maximum force in destroying the camp.
The Federal Government should, however, look beyond the use of arms in solving the seemingly intractable problem of the Niger Delta.
It is generally agreed that the most potent weapon for breaking the impasse is massive development of the region. Thankfully, the template for the prosecution of this all-important assignment has been prepared; namely, the Niger Delta Regional Development Master Plan.
This document, which was facilitated by the Niger Delta Development Commission [NDDC], has been described as a compass that would serve as the platform for the rapid transformation of the region
Despite this, nothing much has been done to effectively put the full implementation of the plan in motion.
In other words, there is a medicine for the ills of the region, but the stakeholders have been reluctant in administering it.
The state and the local governments rather than key into the plan are engaging in some wasteful expenditure, including sponsoring the controversial militants, some of whom politicians have built into dreaded warlords.
Since the master plan was launched in March 2007 by ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo , no major milestone has been achieved in the 15-year development compass.
The initial attempt to harmonise the budgets of the various stakeholders to avoid duplication of efforts was not followed through as some states and oil companies continued to operate as if the master plan was not meant for them.
This is in spite of the fact that the NDDC has gone round all the nine states of the region to ensure that their 2009 budgets reflect the goals set out in the master plan.
For some inexplicable reasons, the major stakeholders seem to have shifted the responsibility for implementing the plan to the NDDC, as if it were the Commissionâ€™s master plan.
Even the Partners for Sustainable Development [PSD] forum, comprising the state and local governments, oil companies, international donor agencies and the NDDC, which was supposed to serve as a clearing house to ensure harmonisation of projects, appears to have been abandoned.
This unfortunate development is more like putting spanners in the wheel of progress and that is the last thing the deprived people of the Niger Delta need.
The way forward, of course, is to urgently revive the PSD forum so as to provide the necessary synergy among the development agencies in the quest to lift the region from the doldrums.
The new Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs and the NDDC are well placed to co-ordinate the implementation of the plan. The Federal Government should encourage them to do so.
The Niger Delta will certainly be better off if the Federal Government releases the outstanding N326 billion it owes the NDDC from accumulated statutory allocations to strengthen its ability to play this crucial harmonisation role.
Another drawback is the failure to implement series of reports on the Niger Delta situation. Even the most recent report of the Ledum Mitee Technical Committee has been added to the long list of recommendations waiting to be implemented.
A report just published by the Global Conflict Think-Tank, International Crisis Group, entitled: Nigeria: Seizing the Moment in the Niger Delta, says the committeeâ€™s recommendations represent the â€œmost promising effortâ€ to develop a coherent strategy for resolving the crisis in the Delta.
The Brussels-based group, which ranks among the worldâ€™s leading conflict research and resolution organisations, observes that while the committeeâ€™s report does not address all aspects of the Niger Delta crisis, its recommendations are sufficiently comprehensive to serve as a catalyst towards resolving the conflict. It further observes that the lack of a definite response from the Federal Government since that report was submitted to President Umaru Yarâ€™Adua on December 1, 2008 is â€œdeepening disillusionment in the regionâ€.
In finding a lasting solution to the worsening crises, all parties concerned must embrace dialogue. In fact, that is globally acknowledged as a better solution than war.
This has been the message of many leading voices from the Niger Delta, including the Acting Managing Director of the NDDC, Pastor P.ZÂ Aginighan, who charged the elders to prevail on the youths to lay down their arms and take advantageÂ of the general amnesty granted the militants by President Yar ‘Adua to advance the cause of peace and development in the region.
Mr. Odum, a commentator on national issues, writes fromÂ Port Harcourt, Rivers State.