…Expresses worries over  2023 presidential election, influx of immigrants into N Delta

…Says N Delta traditional rulers should get more roles on security

BY JIMITOTA ONOYUME , Assistant News Editor

Chief Dr Judith Burdin Asuni  is the Executive Director, Academic Associates Peaceworks and Convener/ Chief Facilitator  of the Niger Delta Dialogue, NDD,  with support  from the European Union, EU.

In this interview she speaks extensively on the Niger Delta , her fears for the 2023 general elections and the problem of insecurity.  She has been in the region researching on peace building and conflict management for over 47 years.

She holds Masters degree in Sociology from the University of Ibadan and a PhD in the same discipline from Birmingham  university, United Kingdom.

She is American by birth and a Nigerian by naturalization. Among other things she enjoined the federal government to implement certain key   recommendation from the Niger Delta Dialogues  on sustaining  peace in the Niger Delta region.

Extract:

You just concluded  a  programmed on the  region under the name  Niger Delta Dialogue, NDD,   where you brought government, key stakeholders in the region over fifteen times to  evolve solutions  towards sustainable  peace in the region and the Gulf of Guinea.   What informed the series of  dialogue ?

Ans: In June 2016 when the region was on fire and the Avengers  were attacking facilities across the region, we thought about who was talking to the people and the government, who is bringing them together. And that was the beginning of the Niger Delta Dialogue in June 2016 at Uyo, Akwa Ibom state .

The dialogues were created to fill the gap by bringing key parties, government and civil society to the Niger Delta to work together to restore  peace and security to the Niger Delta.

The European Union, EU and the Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Programme , NSRP, provided funding for the first  meeting. After that the EU provided funds for all the other meetings.  We focused on militancy in western delta,  evolving a new development agenda for the region,  addressing maritime insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea  and its implications for stability in the region.

For the Presidential   Amnesty Programme, PAP,  to be more impactful, the NDD among others  recommended urgent need for the federal government to reform it  to achieve its mandate of reintegrating ex militants in the region. The government should conduct a verification exercise to  determine the actual number of persons registered in the amnesty programme.

The amnesty office should also conduct a labour market assessment in the Niger Delta .  It should show  what the labor market needs, this will help in designing training programmes for the ex militants being reintegrated.

The Niger Delta dialogue had continued to meet to discuss specific issues in the region.  In 2017  we met in Abuja to discuss insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea.

Piracy has become a major problem in the Gulf of Guinea,   more than anywhere in the world. It has moved from Somalia to the Gulf of Guinea. Recommendations were made. If the recommendations had been implemented there would have been less insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea.

We have launched a book from findings, Insecurity in the Niger Delta, a report on emerging threats in Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross River, Delta, Edo and Rivers states. The book captures insecurity in the South south in  the  six states. We have distributed them across security bodies and even the amnesty office. And to each of  the governors and other key stakeholders. We are going to do presentation on the book at the National Assembly.

We are distributing the book because it is the responsibility of government to reduce insecurity.

We  found out during the dialogue serious that there are a number of street children in Calabar that commit a number of street crimes. I had thought Calabar was relatively peaceful. But stakeholders from there spoke about insecurity there.   There are the Lakasari Babes , the Onombo Boys in Calabar going round  terrorizing people . There is also the huge problem of internally displaced persons,  IDPS. We still have people from Bakassi that have not been settled. We have people who have left southern Cameroon because of the  crisis there  to the Gulf  into the country.

I was surprised to hear about  cultists from Edo state moving  to Italy and they are controlling human trafficking trade to Libya. I would never have thought of that. There have been lots of cult problems in Edo state recently. Interesting thing that I never knew was that people from Bakassi moved to Cameroun and people from Bayelsa state  did too.

If you look at the map you can see that it is a short distance between Bayelsa and Cameroun.  They are both low points into the Atlantic ocean. So people use  small boats into Cameroun and back.  Many of them have taken into piracy and they move around the Gulf of Guinea .

I came up on a television station this morning  on the need for security agencies to come together to get a united consolidated approach to these problems.   Within the security agencies there is little coordination. The insecurity situation in the country is so bad now that we will  need to get all the security agencies working together as one, rather than taking territorial approach to things.

You are acquainted with the region what are areas you think the Petroleum Industry Bill,PIB , should focus on ?

 

To be honest I don’t know much about the PIB. It was introduced when I was a visiting scholar in Washington about ten  years ago or more.  But I will say that we funded four young men to go to  Abuja to present the position from the Niger Delta dialogue.

The Niger Delta Dialogue has come to an end. And it  contributed  largely to peace in the Niger Delta region. How can  this found  atmosphere of peace be sustained ?

If not for the dialogue things would have fallen apart. Even though you cant quantify what has been done you can talk about what has not been done . I picked up early warning signs on attack

The last event of this project was a meeting in January in Port Harcourt. We  brought civil society, security, traditional rulers to look at how traditional rulers can work together with security to reduce insecurity.  Traditional rulers said they will like a larger role in security issues. They know their kingdom, they know the trouble makers, they can identity them. Many times security officials will come into their kingdoms without telling them what they are doing.

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They said they are willing to work with security agencies, they have data base  of the trouble makers, their people, they can assist security people to keep them under check . One thing they do need is protection and anonymity.  They want to ensure that  nobody will come to harass them.

Again there is this thing about immigrants coming into the region. Are they real Fulanis ? Are they  foreigners ?  These  things need answers . We have traditional rulers all over the Niger delta who should be in touch with their grassroots. The traditional rulers can really work with security to achieve results.

But I think sometimes the traditional rulers, political leaders and religious leaders are sometimes involved in sponsoring criminal activities. Here in the Delta it is not much but may be in the north. Traditional rulers can help security operatives get the nation out this problem of maritime crime.

We  already know that sea  pirates operate in groups, that each piracy group has a colony. Your colony may be in Bayelsa state ,  and you launch and bring your hostages to your colony, bring your  stolen goods to your colony.

So the king should know what is going  on their. They can happily be part of stopping these crimes. The honest  traditional rulers know that the problem of insecurity is a problem to everybody including themselves.

Most of the traditional rulers especially the honest ones will like to be involved in effort to stop the criminality in their areas , piracy thing, armed robbery, kidnapping.

They will need government support. The government has to involve them in the security plans. Government cant think they can do everything themselves. We are the citizens, it is our protection they want to ensure. This is where the traditional rulers come in, it is my kingdom, I should be able to protect it in partnership with security people.

We have very great educated people now as traditional rulers. They have a big role to play in securing their kingdoms and the entire country at the end of the day.

Do you think the peace in the Niger Delta is fragile ?

Absolutely.  I pick up early warning signs all the time. Zamfara, Kaduna, Niger states,  they are very insecure. The Niger Delta looks peaceful but it is a temporary peace.

Fundamental issues have not been addressed. One thing that concerns me is the influx of immigrants into this region. We have been identifying over a year now the influx of young men who come in. People say it is economic thing, I don’t think it is just economic thing.

We all have a responsibility of ensuring our security. We should encourage the security agencies to work together, civil societies should work together.

People assume everything  is peaceful in the Niger Delta but it is not. Government needs to address a number of issues in the Niger Delta and not just sweeping them under the carpet. Kidnaping is now in the north but it is also here.

We already see tension building up ahead of the 2023 election, any worries?

I am worried because every single election mobilizes young men to  go out and be used as political thugs. It is even worst because at the end of the day  the guns are not taken away. People are armed and they are never demobilized. That is how I got involved with cult groups in the Niger Delta.  In 2003 we had some persons that were armed in elections and nobody took the guns from them. We know how devastating it was at the end of the day

We see the current spate of kidnapping.  I pray the  2023 presidential election  is not  extremely violent,  especially  with some parts of the country saying it is their turn others saying no.  So  I think it is  going to be a very hard elections.

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