By Patrick Dele Cole
WARRI was always a vibrant town. Its use of pidgin language is unique and you could see glimpses of what it might have been if the oil companies had not pulled out. The result is a town nearly going to seed. It is consumed by internecine politics among the Itsekiris, Urhobos and Ijaws, all of whom own or claim various parts of Warri. The few oil workers remaining there are heavily protected by Police and the military, whose presence is massive.
In fact, it is to all intents and purposes, military occupied town (JTF). The Warri Port has been abandoned; the entire infrastructures leading to the Port are in a state of massive disrepair. But the town has a network of good dual carriage ways in some areas. Kidnapping is rampant and at 7:30pm most of Warri is indoors, except a few hardy people and of course the military personnel.
Also thriving are pockets of well-known militants, graduates of the amnesty programmes, a sprinkling of very wealthy politicians and an army of successful bunkerers. The Joint Tasks Force (JTF) is hand in glove with the bunkerers who are protected when operations are on. Being posted to Warri in the military is a keenly sought assignment by officers. There are ground rules which protector, middleman and bunkerer live by. The last conflagration between Joint Task Force (JTF) and the bunkerers was when the former decided to go into the business of bunkering on their own. After a brief spat, matters have since returned to normal.
The brickbats between the various ethnic groups are now coming to an end as more serious matters face the South South and as the military presence continues to intensify. The South South leaders are now presenting a united forum to campaign for ‘resources control’. The Government is trying to breakdown this united front but so far it has not succeeded. The matter had taken a more serious turn with the activities of the Avengers and their campaign of blowing up pipelines.
What is their argument? They say that oil has brought them nothing but grief and poverty. That they are watching in their life time, oil and gas, to which they claim total ownership, is being shipped out to the rest of Nigeria and to the world with little or no regard for the states under whose territories the oil flows. They have witnessed the earlier militancy which ended with an amnesty programme. That programme was never fully implemented; the beneficiaries who went for training still have no jobs. That when coal and tin were mined in Nigeria most of the workers came from the catchment area of the mines.
They also hate being compared to Boko Haram which they say is a terrorist group, killing people who are educated and working for the establishment of a political Islamic State. Boko Haram they regard as cowards since they hide their identity and since their fellow countrymen by design or fear, refuse to identify them. The South South Avengers have only one economic agenda – let them control their resources. If that fails then the question of opting out of Nigeria would arise but has not done so yet.
They cannot understand why a simple request about controlling resources from their area is causing such problems for them and the rest of Nigeria. They have seen the amazing development oil wealth has brought to all parts of Nigeria, especially Abuja. Why should the South South remain so poor? Why should 97% of those who work in oil companies and who have oil concession be outside the South South? They are ready for talks; they are observing the ceasefire while the Nigerian Army is mobilising massively to bomb them, kill them and arrest them for what? They have never claimed that resource control means that the benefits of oil would go only to themselves.
They claim that every state has primary control of its resources – groundnuts, sorghum, cotton, marble, cocoa and other raw materials, etc. but in the South South the legacy of oil is despoliation of their environment, flaring of gas with its carcinogens effects, numerous oil sleeks that have destroyed farms and fish, unrestrained pollution, no single tertiary institution in all the oil producing communities, no roads, hospitals, electricity, schools, opportunities for jobs elsewhere; rather they are condemned to irredeemable grinding poverty. If, their logic goes, it is the oil and the pipelines that have reduced them to the penury and even to Hobbes’ state of nature with no hope of a change then the oil and gas will not leave their territory.
They are aware of the arguments against their stand; that they are terrorists, vandals, and even criminals destroying property which does not belong to them. That the oil they so passionately claim belongs to all of Nigeria, it is a national treasury: that they should seek pacific and political methods to chase their cause; that Nigeria had invested in the installations they are so wantonly destroying, that their requests should be channeled to the right sources; that the 13% derivation they have received since 1999 should have been enough, if properly spent, to bring development to their area; that if they are undeveloped, it is no fault of other Nigerians for their choosing selfish kleptomaniacs as their leaders; that the Federal Government has obligations to other states of Nigeria and obligations to defend Nigeria, run a military, represent Nigeria to the rest of the world, to secure Nigeria against internal and external enemies.
The South South believes that throwing these accusations against them is not helpful. If Nigeria wants to develop why has the area not changed in 55 years since Oloibiri was exploited and oil exported? Who would clean up the mess the oil companies have left behind? Other parts of Nigeria could farm, fish and develop solid minerals – what was stopping these developments? Why is the poverty index in the South South still constantly low and lower than most Nigeria?
These positions have been made known to outsiders interested in peaceful development of Nigeria. It would seem that dialogue is called for, not military action. But if military action is resorted to, they claim they are ready for the consequences and swear that not a single pipeline will carry anything out of South South. They would rather die than be enslaved and chained to poverty.
We progressed towards Onitsha passing the beautiful city of Asaba. The sparse population we had witnessed outside Epe was replaced by a bustling population rearing to go: people confident in themselves that nothing is above them and regardless of odds they would succeed. From Onitsha to Nnewi would seem to be one town. Nnewi is the manufacturing centre of Nigeria – creative, innovative, ingenious. Onitsha to Akwa is now one continuous town: the market in Onitsha is still boisterous and business is brisk and profitable. I did not hear one person mention recession in Onitsha, Nnewi or Akwa. If it is a problem they were ready to deal with it.