By Muyiwa Adetiba
I had brunch with a small but select group some two weeks ago after the Sunday service. Good conversation flowed with the food and wine as the day’s dailies passed from hand to hand. It was inevitable that the issue of the Niger-Delta activists would come up especially since the papers had carried their latest acts of pipeline vandalisation. Two of the guests included a retired NNPC Chief Executive and his lovely wife who made it very clear that her view on the activities of the Avengers was different from the general view at the table. Many of those at the brunch table had posited that the group was cutting its nose to spite its face.
They argued on the long term effects of that high level of destruction on the nation’s economy and the economy of the region. They pointed at the environmental degradation which will take years to clean up and return to its natural state. It was all very glib as they pointed out the illogicality of destroying everything you have—soil, sea, ecology and industrial infrastructure—just to prove a point.
She quietly reminded everyone that she was from the area and was very aware of all the reasonable arguments raised. But that the issue had gone beyond logic and common sense. It had become emotional. She pointed at the arrogance and swagger of the new rulers and their determination to continue to throw pittance at a region that had fed the country for half a century. I looked at her husband to see if he agreed. His face was inscrutable.
About a week later, I ran into a very big player in the oil and gas industry and asked him how he felt about what was going on in the industry to which he belonged. He smiled and said his company had been trying to appease the activists and would continue to try that approach. When he reminded me that he was also affected by the blanket order that oil companies should leave the area, I asked him about the wisdom on the part of the activists in trying to paralyse the operations in the entire region —an action that would increase youth unemployment and discourage investment. His answer surprised me. He felt the government should have handled the situation with more sensitivity and empathy.
He stated that even if political power had shifted, economic power did not need to have shifted so quickly. He talked about economic strangulation and stated that the body language of Mr President had not convinced the majority of the people in the region that they would benefit in any shape or form from his presidency. He concluded by saying ‘the Daura boys are back in business’—a euphemism for northerners getting their teeth into the oil and gas contracts.
My third encounter on this vexed subject under two weeks was with a newspaper publisher who was entertaining some elders from the region. My understanding of the discussions which were extensive, was that while the elders did not entirely support the wide scale destruction, they nevertheless understood and empathised with the frustrations that led to it. The argument that their son was at the helm for over five years and did not do much for the region either was shot down by those who said it was not an excuse for ‘outsiders’ to come and plunder the place and leave crumbs for the indigenes. The host, the publisher, said, ‘We must all accept that the North desperately wanted political power back. Now it has it. And with political power comes economic advantages.’ An elder retorted: ‘Well, let them find their economic power from other regions for a change.’
As to be expected, these encounters shifted the paradigm for me as far as my previously held position on the Niger-Delta struggle and wanton destruction was concerned. I still think what they are doing is economic sabotage and might easily become an ill wind which might eventually blow them and the country no good. I still think there are manipulators and puppeteers who are playing on people’s emotions for stakes that are very high and not exactly altruistic.
I still think the area will suffer the most in the long run if care is not taken. But I have since paused to look at things from the other side, their side, and why it has been so easy for some people to fan emotive flames. The South-South and South-East lost both political and economic power at the national level in the last election. And in a country where the winner takes everything, they feared for their future. What have the winners done to assure them, to address their primary concerns? Instead, the winners by acts of omission and commission, seem to be compounding their fears.
It is in the light of this that I find the front page headline in a prominent newspaper last Saturday a bit disturbing. The newspaper had stated that all the major positions in the country’s military and security service have been allotted to the North. It is a divisive story that I do not think any responsible editor should have carried so prominently. And as it is with statistics, two can play the game. A counter quickly came out in the social media to state how the South controls the nation’s economy. Another list showed how sensitive security and economic positions were shared in the Obasanjo and Jonathan administrations—mainly to the South.
These lists are divisive and only provide ammunition to the Avengers and those who want to heat the country up. In the cold light of day, they will find out like UK did, that no side is entirely independent, no side is entirely parasitic of the other and that it is better to be part of a whole. In the meantime, this administration has to be more sensitive about the feelings of the South-South and South-East. Appointments must and should be inclusive. The argument that the President has appointed those he can trust with sensitive positions is not really tenable. The issue of derivation and some resource control deserves a second look. The dismissive attitude of Mr President towards the last confab is also not helping matters. Those who feel they are being exploited by the system need to be reassured and listened to.
Those who have been given the mandate to rule must exercise that mandate with all sense of justice and fairness. And caution. If Nigeria truly belongs to all of us as the President often says, then he must go beyond words to prove it. By the way, the recent three day holiday in the middle of the week to mark the end of the Ramadan fast is insensitive and unproductive. It is also another fuel for those who are peddling the Islamisation rumour.