By Emma Amaize
IN 2007, when Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan assumed office as Governor of Delta State, it was under an atmosphere of insecurity with militants and kidnappers on the rampage in Warri.
Though, the issue at stake was a larger Niger-Delta problem, he applied some diplomacy and pragmatism that brought the situation under control in his state. It took another two years, that is 2009, for the Federal Government, under the leadership of the late President Umaru Yar’Adua to see the wisdom in the approach, and subsequently modified and adopted it.
The result, despite the hiccups in the process, notably the October 1 twin-bomb blasts in Abuja, is the peace the nation is enjoying today through the grant of amnesty to militants.
Whenever, there was mayhem in Warri, it had a way of reverberating and it is not just the state that feels the impact, the entire country does, apparently because of the strategic location and importance of the oil city to the economic survival of the country. Today, conflict management experts in the state believe there is a bigger need for the governor to apply a better subtlety to avoid a political conflagration in Warri.
Warri with three local government areas, Warri-South, Warri South-West and Warri-North, is predominantly occupied by the Itsekiri, Ijaw and Urhobo ethnic groups, which claim ownership of the city in different ways but that is not the subject of this write-up. In all, however, what had always given birth to crisis in Warri is allegation of political marginalization against one another by the ethnic groups.
Turning the table around
As a ‘Warri boy’ from Abigborodo, an Itsekiri community in Warri North local government area, what Uduaghan did in 2007 was to identify the flashpoints and the agent provocateurs. The leader of the militant group, Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger-Delta, MEND, spearheading the crisis was Government Ekpemupolo, alias Tompolo, based in Oporoza, Gbaramatu kingdom in Warri South-West local government area of the state.
He came down to the level of the agitators to see and appreciate the plight of the people, admitted the living conditions terrible and promised to do something about it. But to correct the anomaly, he asked for peace to prevail for there was practically no way the much trumpeted dividends of democracy could come to the people, particularly those in the riverside areas if insecurity continued. Tompolo bought the argument and that was the beginning of his troubles with other leaders of MEND.
They saw his decision to back down from armed violence as a betrayal, but, Tompolo maintained that he would grant peace to the government as long as long as it kept to its side of the bargain. To satisfy the Ijaw people, whose first major battle against the Itsekiri, some years back, was the relocation of the headquarters of the Warri South-West local government area from Ogbe-Ijoh to Ogidigben, an Itsekiri enclave, the political leaders endorsed a power rotation formula, that saw an Ijaw man succeeding an Itsekiri as the chairman of the council.
Even though eyebrows were raised, the governor saw nothing wrong in Tompolo’s younger brother, Mr. George Ekpemupolo picking the council’s chairmanship slot. To the younger Tompolo’s credit, however, he has performed in office.
Bone of contention
The major contention of the Ijaw in Warri South-West then was that they were not in governance and the INEC delineation and ward arrangements were also against them, a situation, they, curiously blame on the Itsekiri people.
Available information showed that it was the anger of the Ijaw of Warri South-West over they termed perceived political imbalance that gave rise to the Warri/Ijaw fratricidal battle, and promoted the foundation for the latter-day Niger-Delta struggle. Tompolo confirmed fact to this writer in 2004 before he relocated from Warri to the creek to wage war against government.
The same political scenarios which gave rise to the consuming war that led to the senseless Ijaw/Itsekiri war in the past is playing out again in 2010 and the way Governor Uduaghan manages it, will in a far-reaching way, decide the way peace and security will go in his state and his political future in 2011.
First is the case in his local government, Warri-North, which the governor, by all standards, is the political leader, besides being a political leader in the state as whole. The issue of unequal political representation is causing tension in the area.
The Ijaw in Warri North, known as the Egbema-Ijaw, have stated and rightly too, that they have neither produced the chairman of the council nor the member of the House of Assembly, representing the area since the local government was created, 19 years ago.
Behind Governor Uduaghan, every top Ijaw leader from Warri North, including the ones in his government complain that government was marginalizing them. Several political pressure groups from the area have accentuated the point in recent times, but, the matter was brought under sharp focus recently by an ex-militant leader, “General” Ezekiel Akpasubowei of the defunct Deadly Underdogs, when the group celebrated its one year of disarmament in Sapele in September.
Ex-militants ready for battle
It was obvious that the ex-militants were warming up for another round of trouble in the state if the Egbema-Ijaw were not given a political space in the area in 2011. At the moment, Itsekiri produced the chairman of the council and the member of the House of Assembly for the area. Most Itsekiri people argue that their ethnic group is in the majority and there is no way leadership would be surrendered to an Ijaw man in the local government, going by population figure.
In a position paper made available to newsmen, the group said, “High on our disdain is the political imbalance persisting in Warri North Local Government Area. We state with displeasure that since the inception of the local council in 1991, no Ijaw person has had a shot at the chairmanship. Observably, the state and federal constituencies seats are been dominated by one tribe.
We thus, call on the respective authorities to critically examine our concerns with the aim of correcting these political imbalances. Our request is that: Ijaw men and women should be allowed access either at the local government chairmanship, state and federal legislative seats and other elective offices in the area. Failure to correct these imbalances can breech the peace in the area”.
Investigation showed that Warri North is a bomb waiting to explode in 2011 depending on how it is handled. Similarly, Warri South-West is tension-soaked. The political understanding in the area at the moment is that the Ijaw and Itsekiri ethnic groups rotate the chairmanship of the local government and at the time Uduaghan took over in 2007, Itsekiri was holding sway as chairman in all the three Warri local governments, namely, Warri South-West, Warri South and Warri North. He favoured an Ijaw man, Ekpemupolo, to succeed the outgoing chairman; Mr. David Tonwe, while an Itsekiri, Hon Daniel Mayuku got the House of Assembly portfolio.
An Ijaw youth leader, Chief Micheal Johnny, who recently urged the Delta Elders, Leaders and Stakeholders Forum to give Governor Uduaghan a breathing space received threat calls on phone. He said some Ijaw persons in Warri South-West were after his life because of his support for Governor Uduaghan.
“Since my last publication in Vanguard, I have been receiving all sorts of threat messages and calls from some people. The reason I made the publication I made the publication is because I am a peace- loving person, I did not insult or call anyone names, but, since they have decided to threaten my life, this is blackmail and bad politics”, he said in a text message.
“I wonder what kind of a leader will take laws into his hands to sponsor such evil and unspeakable acts against me because of the publication I made”, he asserted, adding, that he was committed to his stance that if the Itsekiri people in Warri South-West local government area were insisting on producing the next House of Assembly candidate, then, the Ijaw should produce the council chairman, but, the position presently occupied by Mr. George Ekpemupolo, should go to an Ijaw person from another ward to give everyone a sense of belonging.
Going by the existing political understanding, Ekpemupolo is supposed to vacate his position after his first tenure for Itsekiri, but, Ijaw is saying that Mayuku should drop his ambition to return to the House of Assembly for a third time for an Ijaw man since Itsekiri cannot hold both the chairmanship and House of Assembly positions in Warri South-West in the next political dispensation. A new Ijaw political entrant, Mr. Paul Bebenimibo is already on the mark for Mayuku’s portfolio.
The Itsekiri chairman of Warri South passed on from the earth, paving way for his deputy, an Urhobo to complete their tenure, and currently, Itsekiri is back to the saddle. The present arrangement in Warri South is going smoothly between the Urhobo and Itsekiri because once an Itsekiri is chairman; Urhobo automatically picked the House of Assembly slot and vice versa.
What Governor Uduaghan needs to do avoid another Warri crisis in 2011 is to balance the political demands at play. In Warri North, where the chairman, Mr. Godwin Ebosa has done well, a feat acknowledged by the Ijaw, he has to choose between allowing him to run for a second term and the Ijaw picking the House of Assembly slot for peace to reign.
Political pundits in the state think that it would be unfair for anybody outside the local government to tell the governor what to do in the local government but they were quick to add also, that his peace and security agenda could be threatened if he did not apply the pragmatism and novel approach he brought to bear in winning over militants in the state when he assumed office.
The same common sense is what is needed in the Warri South-West affair. It is either the Itsekiri go for the chairmanship seat and leave the House of Assembly seat for Ijaw or vice versa. But some are asking why the governor would be supporting a lawmaker who is going for a third term, saying it is better he allowed the Itsekiri to produce the next chairman of Warri South-West and leave the House of Assembly seat to the Ijaw.
The Warri South case is already taken care of with the manner Urhobo and Itsekiri are rotating the offices.
A source close to Governor Uduaghan, confided to this writer when contacted, yesterday, that “the governor had met with some of his political strategists to appraise the situation in Warri North and is critically studying the situation to know the best thing to do, as he cannot afford to allow the state to return to another crisis after successfully managing the one he met on ground”.