May 16, 2022

Delta 2023: What do the Ijaws want?


By Michael Veritas

AFTER several years of political calm, Delta State is perhaps on the cusp of a massive dialectical storm. And this threatening antagonism is hoisted on rival claims by different ethnic groups as to who should become governor of Delta in 2023.

The tradition of agitation and turmoil in the region now seems to belong to a fairly distant past. Through the adoption in the Delta of deft social and political engineering initiatives, President Umaru Yar’Adua before his death in 2010 had been able to establish a fairly enduring peace in an area once widely known for militancy and agitation.

The Federal Government was perceived then as a mortal adversary. So, in these parts, sensitivities have been sharpened in such a way that a mass consciousness for social and political justice has become part of society. Those who regard the Niger Delta and the Ijaw as the capital of populist assertion in Nigeria evidently have a point.

Insurrectionist agitation was in fact pioneered in Nigeria when on February 23, 1966, Adaka Boro, an Ijaw, a former policeman and an undergraduate of the University of Nigeria, led out his Niger Delta Volunteer Force and announced the secession of the Niger Delta from the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

The effort was chimerical and was put down in a matter of 12 days. But very loudly, it had proclaimed a determination to attack the injustices heaped on the people of the Niger Delta by the Federal Government and the then Eastern Regional Government.

In the nearly 60 years since Adaka Boro’s challenge, rights activism has become more widespread, and is now employed by several communities in and outside the Niger Delta for seeking redress to social injustice and political oppression. The road from the Niger Delta Volunteer Force in 1966 to Niger Delta Avengers in the 1990s and on to MEND and MOSOP in the same era is now in the past.

The disputes which now challenge the Delta State polity are driven not by the barrel of the gun, but by rhetorical presentations. The popular consciousness in Delta State is currently dominated by discussions about who becomes Governor in 2023. Even though the rhetorical exchanges have been sharp and acute, the enduring prayer is that the ongoing debate will not give way to militant aggression at any point.

Political balancing is widely accepted among our elite as a method of ensuring inclusiveness and fair representation. Given the highly plural nature of Delta State, it seems there has been a quiet understanding that the office of the Governor should be rotational. If this principle were to be consistently upheld, it would be the turn of the Ijaws to serve as the Governor of Delta State.

The Ijaws control over 60 per cent of the state’s oil and gas resources and have been active participants in the the march of Delta to a brighter tomorrow. Even though since 1999 the Ijaws have posted solid and impressive electoral returns to the Delta PDP, and never received the governorship prize as recompense, they have remained uncomplaining supporters of the PDP.

In 1999, for example, the Ijaws supported James Onanefe Ibori; they also gave all their heart to Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan to become Governor in 2007. Now with Dr. Okowa in the saddle, the Ijaws have remained loyal and constant supporters of the PDP fraternity. In constructive terms, therefore, the Ijaws have remained loyal supporters even as the governorship prize has swung from one ethnic group to the other or from one senatorial zone to the other.

The Urhobos, the Itsekiris and the Igbos have one after the other been blessed with the gubernatorial office. Only the Isokos and preeminently, the Ijaws have not had a bite of this political cherry! In the ongoing power struggle in Delta State, the Ijaws stick out like a sore thumb. They are a significant force, being the third largest in the Delta State and about the fourth most populous ethnic group in the entire Nigerian federation.

It is also worth mentioning that through years of active populist activism, the Ijaws know a bit about how to look after their rights. Happily things have remained only at the level of rhetorical banter.

The Ijaws have continued to emphasise that in spite of what they bring to the table they have never served as governor, some of them making the point that nothing would be tidier than having the deputy governor, Mr. Kingsley Burutu Otuaro, leap over as the Governor in 2023.

Heavy resistance continues to come from the Urhobos of Delta Central. They say the rotation principle which uses senatorial district as determinant has run its full term and that it is now time to use the hierarchy of ethnicities.

This has been difficult for some, particularly the Ijaws, to swallow. This for the Ijaws would mean burning their candle at two ends. The positions taken by the rival ethnic groups in the emerging tussle for the governorship prize do not lack clarity.

More sophisticated minds would perhaps be appalled by the primitive considerations involved in the contest for office and political primacy. But this is Nigeria, a country in which identity politics is an important signifier.

Where you come from often determines political choices and the road you travel. The Ijaws are anxious to be hauled on to the peak and are therefore deploying every legal resource to accomplish their aim.

Veritas, a political activist, wrote from Warri