•Where militants missed the point
•Day Odi residents ambushed me
By Emma Amaize, Regional Editor, South & South & Perez Brisibe
SHE came to Nigeria about 45 years ago when many of today’s Niger Delta militants were yet unborn or still toddlers. Former militant leader, Government Ekpemupolo, alias Tompolo, was about three years at the time and since militancy manifested in the region, she has been actively involved in the process of resolving the conflict, interfacing with both government and militants.
Saturday Vanguard met the Executive Director of Academic Associates PeaceWorks, Chief Dr. Judith Burdin Asuni, Tuesday, in her office and it did not take time to comprehend the reasons why militants recognize her as part of the answer to the vexed problem of the region.
Asuni, a graduate of Cornwell University and OmotoyiboRovie of Ughelli Kingdom in Delta State, fondly called ‘Mama Militant’ said government could have averted the current chapter of militancy if it did not ignore early warning signals.
I fell in love with Nigeria
She said: “I have been here 45 years, after graduation from Cornell University, I taught in Ghana for two years where I had some good Nigerian friends whom I came to visit in Ibadan. I fell in love with Nigeria and stayed. Expatriates tend to either hate or love Nigeria; I was in the latter category.”
“I eventually married a Nigerian psychiatrist, Prof. Tolani Asuni and we had three beautiful babies. My husband died five years ago, but I am still here because I love what I do. I was running a study abroad for American undergraduates in Nigeria. People asked if it was possible for young Nigerians to do similar programmes in the US.
How it all started
“Rather than take them abroad, I looked at what I thought were the problems of Nigeria and decided that ethnic and religious conflicts were the biggest challenges. At that time, no one was working on conflict management in Nigeria. “Therefore, in 1992 I started the work, learning on the job and creating the field as we went along. It is very emotionally enjoyable to create a new activity and see the positive impact it has on people’s lives,” she added.
Asuni recollected, “Whenever I arrive at the Lagos Airport from abroad, Immigration Officers always try to put me in the foreigners’ line. Other people in the Nigerian line are amazed at my green passport. When I married in 1976, I decided that Nigeria is my country and I am determined to make it better.”
My chieftaincy title
On how an American woman became a traditional chief in Ughelli kingdom, Delta state, she smiled, saying: “The then Group Managing Director, GMD, of Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, Funsho Kupolukun, asked us to organize the first Niger Delta Stakeholders’ workshop in Port Harcourt in 2004. A year later, we held the second of such workshop in Warri. My staff told me they were taking me somewhere and I would come back looking different.”
“I thought that they wanted to tie double wrapper for me. I told them I was too busy, as we had the Minister of Petroleum, the GMD and other dignitaries coming to the meeting and I did not have time to leave the venue. After the opening ceremony, the Ovie of Ughelli told me that he was disappointed that I did not come, as he wanted to give me a chieftaincy title for my work on resolving the interethnic conflict in Warri.
“Later, we went to Ughelli and he, indeed, gave me a chieftaincy title, which means “the King’s favorite white person”. Ironically, since then we have worked in Ughelli Kingdom on building better relationships between communities and companies, and currently on reducing cultism in Ughelli. Therefore, my work has brought me back to my kingdom,” she said.
What went wrong with the agitation?
She told Saturday Vangaurd: “Since I started working with militants during the peace process in Rivers State in 2004, I have come to know ex-agitators like Tompolo, Ateke Tom, Henry Okah, Dokubo-Asari, Boyloaf and some of the newer players. I think that when MEND first came to the public in 2006, they had some principles.”
“For example, the MEND demands of March 1, 2006 outlined four conflict drivers in the Niger Delta: lack of political participation, lack of socioeconomic development, lack of participation in the oil and gas industry, and over militarization of the region. Unfortunately, many of these principles got lost for many of the militants through the introduction of money and patronage,” she asserted.
Early warning signals overlooked
The conflict management expert explained: “Many discussions have held on television, especially in the past few months on the problems in the Niger Delta, so I do not need to delineate them again. In 2006, I gave a lecture at the University of Port Harcourt outlining the four conflict drivers listed above.”
“In 2016, I gave another lecture at the University of Port-Harcourt, Uniport and pointed out that except for political participation, none of these conflict drivers has really been addressed. “So now, 10 years later, we have come full circle. For more than a year now, I have been trying to get the message to Federal Government for them to come to the South- South and talk to their citizens, the same for the South East.
“Unfortunate comments made by some federal government officials gave the impression that the areas that did not vote for APC would receive less attention. The warning signs have been building for a year; rumblings of Biafra agitation and discontent in the Niger Delta should have been detected and responded to much earlier,” she said.
Her words: “This could have prevented the current crisis in both the South -South and the South -East. Presentations were made in January/February 2016 about the impending attacks on oil and gas infrastructure, but the people in power did not take them seriously and did not take necessary steps to investigate and prevent the attacks.”
Asuni added: “In the alternative dispute resolution spectrum, communication is the very first option for any problem. From there, you go to negotiation. If that fails, you try mediation then arbitration. Litigation, that is going to court is the last resort. In the same way, bombing people is a last resort. The Niger Delta Avengers say that they are ready to dialogue with credible people. They want representatives of the international community there. Members of the international are very concerned and are ready to participate.”
Uyo meeting of 50 elders
On the meeting of 50 selected South-South leaders recently in Uyo, organized by her organization, she asserted: “As I said, for one year I have been encouraging federal government to come and dialogue with the people of the Niger Delta. When that did not happen, we decided to organize such a dialogue. The Vice President was invited and his office was interfacing with us. Unfortunately, for us, he became the acting President just before the meeting, so he did not attend and did not send any representative.”
“This is unfortunate, as the people of the Niger Delta want to talk to government and not just about the current militancy crisis. The chairman of our Niger Delta Dialogue, held on June 10, HRM Alfred Diete Spiff suggested setting up a mediation or contact group to intervene in the current crisis. We are working on this, bringing in genuine leaders (traditional rulers, elders and youth) from the region,” she added.
Militants killed an ex-militant in our office
The crusade has not been unpleasant incidents. Asuni recalled some. “In the course of my work, I have crisscrossed not only the Niger Delta, but also most of Nigeria, traveling by speedboat on rough seas and lorry on mountainous roads at night to meet various agitators. I have enjoyed a certain protection from militants, as they see me as part of the solution,” she said.
“Some of our workers have not had the same good fortune. For example in November 2006, we were putting finishing touches to a nonviolent election rally when militants stormed our office in Port Harcourt, using the opportunity of ex-militants from various groups being together in one place. They killed an ex-militant, Yellow Man, who was their target,” she added.
Day Odi residents ambushed me
She stated: “Unfortunately, another innocent by-stander was also killed and several other people suffered injuries. Another time I went to meet with Ken of Odi. When his people demanded a large sum of money to talk to him, I said I had no such money and tried to leave. They ambushed me, so I sat in my bus until they decided that I was not going to budge. Eventually we talked. Passive resistance is a useful skill for any peace worker.”
Saddest and happiest moments in Nigeria
She heaved a sigh, “My saddest moments have been the times that my stepdaughter Titi was killed in a car accident and my stepson Jimi, in a plane crash. Another sad moment was when one of the three Wise Men, Casi, had his head blown off by a member of his former enemy group. After the 2004 peace accord in Rivers State, three of the former militants- Casi of Icelando, Olo of KKK and JP of Greenlanders- formed the 3 Wise Men to work for peace.
“The ABC Triangle of conflict shows that you can change attitudes and behavior, but unless the C for context changes, peace cannot be consolidated. Indeed because the context had not changed, our peace builders were not safe and former enemies took them out, one by one. “Then of course, my six- week detention in 2007 came as a rude shock. I had worked closely with the Nigerian government and suddenly, they accused me of being a foreign spy. However, I knew that eventually truth would prevail and indeed, it did, with the charges against me dropped.
“My happiest moment aside from family joys was the 2004 Rivers peace process. In a meeting with the former governor, Peter Odili, Casi had expressed joy at having the crazy cycle of violence stopped. The militants themselves and anyone affected by that violence were very relieved that it had stopped. How sad that because of the fundamental issues that have not been addressed, we are now back at a new peak of violence in the Niger Delta,” she said.
Asuni added: “Before my detention in 2007, I was very absorbed in my work and sometimes, my family took second place, however, while in detention, I came to know who were my real friends and supporters. My family stood with me throughout. Now I am careful to spend time with them and be with them, especially at important times.”
“For example, I have spent weeks or months doing “omugwor” with each of my new grandbabies, whom I absolutely adore. My oldest daughter is in the US with her husband and three children, my middle daughter is in London with her husband and three children, and my youngest daughter is in Lagos with her husband. I move around to spend sufficient time with each of them. “They know that I love my work and will drive everyone crazy if anyone tried to make me sit at home in retirement,” she said.
My best Nigerian food…hmm
While she spoke with passion about every other thing, the conflict management expert refused comments on the Nigerian delicacy she loves more and the one she loves cooking. Her simple response was, “Let us not discuss food. It is not important, but yes, I eat mainly Nigerian food.”