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Tompolo and the River Niger

By Ochereome Nnanna
CHIEF Government Ekpemupolo, also known as Tompolo, has come out of his hiding place into which he went when the Joint Task Force (JTF) destroyed his Camp Five in Gbaramatu Kingdom.

He has taken advantage of President Umaru Yar’Adua’s “unconditional” amnesty to return to civilisation and is thus now totally immunised from the fear of the JTF manhunt mounted against him after the invasion of his den.

On Monday, August 31, 2009, the Ibe Ebidouwei of Ijawland published a full page advertorial in Vanguard Newspapers, calling the attention of the President to matters arising in the Niger Delta side by side with the amnesty programme.

Of all the issues that Tompolo raised, the one that grabbed my attention most was the one subtitled: “The River Niger Dredging”. I summarise my understanding of Tompolo’s position as follows: Government has “enlisted” Chief Tony Anenih and the Minister of Steel Development and Solid Minerals, Mrs. Diezani Allison Madueke, to commence the dredging of the River Niger, and Tompolo believes that they want to use the JTF to enforce this project without minding the environmental hazards this will bring upon those who live at the mouths of the Niger River Delta.

He added: “I am opposed to it, and I am committed to confront by any means necessary any real attempt to dredge the River without recourse to universal standards that are acceptable”.

I have followed the controversies that have trailed the bid to dredge the Niger, develop ports along its banks, open up its sundry water resources, and thus leverage on the vast economic capital that countries all over the world do when they are blest with such a natural endowment.

The dredging is supposed to start from Baro in Niger State, descend through Lokoja in Kogi State, pass through the Onitsha/Asaba trough as well as the Oguta/Aboh axis and onward to the various distributaries that eventually empty into the Atlantic Ocean.

By the time it is completed and everything going as they should, it should be possible for medium sized boats, barges and even luxury yachts to traverse the lower River Niger, thus boosting commerce, river transportation and tourism.

Today, the River Niger is likened to a wild and uncharted forest where people go and hunt for bush meat and log timber indiscriminately which, over the centuries, they have depended on for their livelihood.

By dredging the River, it will become possible to halt the despoliation, regulate the logging and exploitation of animal resources, to avoid extinction of species while expanding the economic accruals to everyone, the local people inclusive.

A properly conducted environmental impact assessment (EIA) followed by programmes that safeguard the interests of people living and depending on the River is therefore a sine qua non before the actual dredging exercise should begin.

If I got Tompolo’s drift correctly, that is what he is saying, though in a threatening tone. Putting the threat part apart, it should be clear to anybody who has any sense at all that the dredging of the River Niger is of strategic interest to this nation.

It is for everybody’s benefit, both those living in the upper and lower ends of the River; including those who do not even live near it.

No sensible government will tackle a programme that is in everybody’s interest by neglecting the concerns of those living down-river and deploying deadly force such as the JTF to push it through, as Tompolo fears.

However, we need to bear in mind that some Ijaw leaders, some of whom are now militants, have been ideologically opposed to the dredging of the River Niger, simpliciter.

They would never hear of it. Some of them are clinging to an “acceptable” EIA to drive home their opposition. Some feel that opening up the River Niger will make the people of the coastal Niger Delta to lose their monopoly of “sea power”, since river ports will spring up in upland places like Oguta, Onitsha, Asaba, Lokoja and Baro.

For such people who have thusly politicised the dredging project, no amount of EIA will be seen to be of “universal standards that are acceptable”.

It is such people that have to realise that this nation does not belong to anybody, and nobody is bigger than Nigeria. No small section of this country can hold the whole nation to ransom.

Nobody can threaten this nation or stand in its way of development. Nobody holds the monopoly of violence or militancy. Nigeria is still very capable of asserting its right to develop Nigeria in the interest of all Nigerians.

So, when people talk, let them put their threats aside because the value of such threats has been tested. The River Niger must be dredged to the glory of God and prosperity of all Nigerians.

But we must learn from the experiences of people who have similar big rivers such as the Rhine in Europe, Tigris and Euphrates in Iraq, Nile in Egypt through Ethiopia and Sudan, the Amazon in Brazil, and the Mississippi and Colorado in the United States among others, to ensure that this dredging becomes a blessing to all.

No part of this should nation be hurt because we are dredging the River Niger.

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