Nigeria: Niger Delta – An amnesty doomed to failure

Working class solution urgently needed

Suddenly, peace in the Niger Delta has become its most sought after commodity, almost at par with oil. The present chorus for an end to the war in the Niger Delta almost gives the impression that the hundreds and thousands killed or uprooted from their communities in Gbaramatu area of Delta State in military assaults never existed! All that matters now is ‘peace’. The refrain now is that ‘we need peace, first and foremost to be able to carry through the required development of the Niger Delta area! All militants that are willing to lay down arms and renounce militancy will be paid certain monthly monetary allowances under the government’s new Amnesty. In addition, government has freed from jail, Henry Okah, a prominent leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND), currently the most active militant group in the Niger Delta. For its part, the Niger Delta militants have announced a 60-day ceasefire. A major question now being asked is whether government’s latest approach to the Niger Delta crisis is the best approach to resolving the crisis in the long run? To correctly evaluate the amnesty programme being put forward by the Yar’Adua government, the best point to start from is to examine the motive behind the entire programme.

To say that the militants’ activities since 2006 have had serious negative effects on Nigeria’s economy is stating the obvious. To start with, the Nigerian state relies, for up to 80% of all its income, on the exportation of crude oil and natural gas of the Niger Delta nation. Thus, the Niger Delta’s oil wealth is absolutely crucial to the sustenance of the Nigerian state itself. In the context of the still unravelling global economic crisis, the income being earned by Nigeria from oil and gas exports have already experienced a sharp decline, as a result of the global meltdown. Very worryingly, the activities of the militants are said to have caused about 20% fall in oil output. Nigeria is said to have the capacity to produce 3.2 million barrels of oil per day (mbpd). It was producing about 2.9 mbpd at certain stages in 2008.

Government offers amnesty for militants

However, owing to an increase in militant acts of sabotage, oil bunkering, hostage taking etc, oil production actually fell to between 1.2 and 1.3 mbpd. The number of persons reportedly kidnapped or held hostage has increased from 353 in 2008, to 512 in the first 4 months of 2009. In addition, the continued disruption being caused by the militant activities has also been cited as a major threat to the operations of the electricity projects and the local refineries. Therefore, the point ought to be clearly underlined that it is the combination of these economic factors that has forced the government to come up with its amnesty package, in the hope that it will pacify the militants and enable the multinational oil companies to resume full exploration and exportation of crude oil and gas.

The Government’s amnesty package is not a product of any change of heart and does not signal any remorse for all the past and ongoing economic and political atrocities being perpetrated in the Niger Delta. Shortly after President Yar’Adua announced the amnesty package, Henry Okah was released from a 23-month prison detention. The charges of treasons and sabotage preferred against him were also withdrawn. In consequence of this development, MEND, one of the most active Niger Delta militia groups announced a 60-day ceasefire. Amongst other issues, MEND has demanded the withdrawal of the army and the Joint Task Force from the Gbaramatu area of the Delta. In addition, it has also demanded that processes be put in place that can facilitate discussions and dialogue on the main issues that gave rise to armed militia activities in the first instance.

Responding to these demands, Nigeria’s Defence Minister, Godwin Abebe said, "They cannot give conditions to government. The government will make decisions on the effective deployment of troops when the conditions become ripe enough. And when law and order is comfortably established". Within this context, the amnesty package is clearly a device to dodge the major issues at stake and not to tackle them. Also evident from this is the fact that government is not prepared to relent from its strategy of using military force to have its way in the Delta region.

Of course, this is characteristic of the Yar’Adua government’s response to agitation by mass organisations. The nation’s public universities have been closed down for over 8 weeks now. Instead of striving to meet demands of the education workers, the government has instead pulled out of negotiations with the striking workers, insisting that their strike must first be called off. In the same arrogant fashion, government has now stated that unless the militants stop their activities, it will not be able to carry out necessary development programmes in the region. It is however very instructive that despite the prevailing war-like situation which exists in the Delta, excavation and exportation of crude oil and gas have never stopped for a day and no government official has proposed to stop oil exports, even for a day, in order to sort out the problem!

As presently packaged, Yar’Adua’s amnesty is thoroughly saturated with the spirit of a "Ghana Must Go" (‘take the money and run!’) mentality. Blindfolded by the Niger Delta’s oil wealth, Nigeria’s capitalist ruling elites have over time, developed the attitude and habit of using money packed in "Ghana Must Go" bags to bribe over their opponents and allies. Therefore, the government apparently believes that the lure of money stashed in "Ghana Must Go" bags will be strong enough to make a significant number of militants, especially key leaders, to come forward and renounce militancy

From the beginning, this strategy was doomed to failure, precisely because the militia organisations, through their own independent activities, are in position to guarantee more money for their members than the paltry and uncertain amounts being promised by the government.

As we write, the amnesty centres have been opened to would-be repentant militants for over 2 weeks. So far, government expectations have been woefully disappointed. However, going by the culture of corruption, which reigns supreme in all government institutions and commissions, it will not come as a surprise if at the end of the 8 week period given for this exercise, tens of billions of naira is claimed to have been paid to "repentant" militants without anybody ever being able to determine the veracity of such a claim. Even if real and prominent militia members and leaders in fact accept government amnesty, this could ,at worst, only have a temporary effect on the scope and activities of armed militias. Sooner rather than later, a new and more daring generation will evolve to carry on with the campaigns especially against the background of little or nothing being done to address the fundamental issues of mass poverty and economic decay which dominate the region.

Terrible conditions in resource-rich region

Beyond amnesty

It is not a matter of if, but when, government’s amnesty package will be seen by all and sundry as a total failure. MEND, on its part, has announced a 60-day ceasefire, which is set to expire around 28 September 2009. On the other hand, government’s amnesty exercise is expected to run from 6 August to 6 October 2009. Going by events so far, the government is not likely to meet with much success with its amnesty "carrot". And, without addressing many of the fundamental issues giving rise to militant activities, it should be clear that the graveyard-like peace which presently exists in the Niger Delta will soon be shattered. This scenario of course raises once again the necessity of charting out a working class, socialist perspective for what has certainly become a political quagmire for both the militants, and the Nigerian state.

Firstly, the government’s recourse to the amnesty package is partly an admission of the futility of its age-long "force option" approach. But it would be mistaken to believe that government will now concentrate on purely peaceful options and a substantial economic development of the entire Delta region. In fact, government’s propaganda is that without a total stop to militant activity, they would not be able to carry out necessary economic and infrastructural development in the Delta region. There are also those whose still wrongfully believe that the capitalist elites can be relied upon to carry fundamental development of the Niger Delta region and by extension, Nigeria as a whole.

In its editorial statement on 30 July 2009, Vanguard newspaper made the following submission: "Amnesty for the militants is a good idea. However, the Federal Government must have the political will to muster resources for development of the area. The government so easily finds funds for peripheral matters in the Niger Delta and not the core issues". Frankly speaking, this kind of sentiment completely betrays a deep misunderstanding, or covering up, of the workings of capitalism in general and the especially short-sighted, kleptomaniac characteristic of Nigeria’s capitalist elite. Despite all the noises that have been made to accelerate the development of the Niger Delta area through special commissions like OMPADEC and NNDC, only a paltry sum of money, compared with what is usually available for military expenditure as well as the salaries and allowances of a few thousand federal political office holders, is usually budgeted for developmental projects in the Delta. Between 2004 and 2007, a total sum of N436.54 billion has been appropriated for the NDDC, but only N110.31 billion of this sum was actually released.

Meanwhile, most of the little resources ever received are usually looted by the capitalist elements in charge of the NNDC. The creation of a Niger Delta ministry would only exacerbate the orgy of corruption and competition going on in the Delta, as the various capitalist elements in NDDC, the newly created bureaucracy, Niger Delta ministry and the governors intensify the war for supremacy. A central point also needs to be made, that it is not the lack of resources that has been preventing sufficient development of Niger Delta and Nigeria as a whole, but the inherent wasteful and elitist approach of the capitalist system, which often inflates outrageously the actual costs of projects, at the expense of dire needs of the economy and the masses.

In this situation, it is almost certain that far from diminishing, the armed militias’ acts of sabotage, bunkering and hostage-taking will become more pronounced in the coming period. Already it is being alleged that the militants possess limited powers to refine petroleum products including kerosene, which is being sold at cheaper prices to consumers in the creeks. This and the necessity to survive will most likely make militancy a very attractive preoccupation for Niger Delta youths who otherwise would not have a future under the Nigerian state. Nevertheless, the militants, based on campaigns of bombings of oil installations, bunkering and hostage takings etc, exclusively by trained militia, not connected or accountable to the ordinary masses and their organisations will most likely never be able to defeat the Nigeria state, together with its oil multinationals allies.

Faced with the prospect of an endless warfare, there is the tendency for the militants to become more desperate to try and extend their activities beyond the Delta creeks to major Nigerian cities like Lagos, Abuja, Kano, etc. In fact, shortly after the release of Henry Okah, MEND carried out an attack on Atlas Cove jetty depot, the main oil facility serving Lagos, the industrial heartland of Nigeria. This attack temporarily created a big political firmament from which sections of the Yoruba bourgeois elite tried to profit from. If such activities become more pronounced, there is the danger that it will give the opportunity to the bourgeois elites across Nigeria to once again exploit any local anger at attacks to mobilise and divert ordinary people’s rage along ethno-religious lines, against the struggle of the Niger Delta’s people.

This is because the ordinary, innocent Nigerians who would have their relations killed and/or have their means of livelihood destroyed or disrupted as a result of attacks by the militants are more likely to be susceptible to government, or chauvinist ethnic leaders’ propaganda of waging the proverbial war on terrorism rather than strengthening the struggle in the Niger Delta.

There is also the fallacious assumption being echoed by the militants which gives the impression that once Fiscal Federalism (a situation like that which existed in the First Republic, when the regions used to control the revenues being generated in their respective areas and only contributed a percentage to the Federal Government) is embraced by the federal government, all the plights of the people of Niger Delta will become a thing of the past.

This idea absolutely contradicts the reality of life in Nigeria as a whole and in the Niger Delta itself. The super-abundant natural and human resources which Nigeria possess have never translated into a quality life for its citizens, who still belong to the group of the world’s most impoverished and deprived. Here, it should be underlined that the Niger Deltan capitalist elites have equally shown that they are not any better than their counterparts nationally and internationally, especially when it comes to sacrificing peoples basic needs on the alter of personal greed and aggrandisement. Most of the additional resources received by the Niger Delta, courtesy of the 13% derivation provided under the 1999 constitution of Nigeria, are being routinely looted by its leaders.

Unfortunately, whenever this point is debated, the militants’ spokespeople tend to dismiss it as a secondary point that would be resolved after the battle for full "fiscal federalism" is won. This approach, it must be pointed out, is a variant of the bankrupt bourgeois perspective put forward by the majority of political activists during the struggle against the military in the 1980s and 1990s. It used to be stated that once we get rid of the military, every other thing would fall in place. But ten years after, and despite the stupendous money made during this period, the overall state of health of Nigeria’s economy and the masses’ living standards are in worse shape today than before. While the ending of Abacha’s military dictatorship was welcome, the civilian rulers that have held power since 1999 have not behaved any better as there has been a continued battle at the top between the competing elements of the ruling elite on how best to loot the country. The struggle in the Niger Delta cannot be allowed to sink to the level of battles between rival gangs of exploiters to get their own hands on the country’s wealth.

Way forward

As Marxists, the DSM right from its inception has always defended the right of nationalities, including those in the Niger Delta, to self-determination, up to secession, if democratically resolved by the majority of people of a given nationality. Within the seceding nation or federation we will always insist on full freedom and democratic rights to all minority tribes, creeds or religions. However, the achievement of these kind of aspirations will remain mere pipedreams as long as the colonial contraption called Nigeria remains under the rule of the capitalist elites who would forever continue to use ethno-religious divisions to maintain the prevailing unjust socio-economic order.

To be able to successfully defeat the alliance of oil multinationals and their local capitalist allies would certainly require a working class strategy, which is primarily built around the mobilisation of ordinary Nigerians of all nationalities living in and around Niger Delta. This approach, combined with necessary armed activities, under the strict control of democratically elected committees of workers, youths and grassroots activists represents the only viable way to defeat the Nigerian state and their imperialist backers with the cheapest cost, materially and in human casualties. However, to inspire and sustain this kind of political force, an outright socialist programme and strategy is an imperative. All over the country the ordinary working masses need to know, from the beginning that the struggle is about using the Niger Delta’s oil wealth for the development and needs of all Nigerians unlike the present practice where this wealth only helps in sustaining a tiny layer of the rich.

Specifically, such a movement has to be prepared to fight against the privatisation of the oil wealth together with other major resources, by neo-liberal capitalist elements, under whatever guise. As against privatization, deregulation and all other neo-liberal policies, the kind of movement being canvassed has to be able to boldly fight for the nationalisation of the commanding heights of economy including banks, finance institutions, the oil sector etc, under a government of workers and the poor. On the basis of a central plan and strict democratic control by the elected representatives of the trade unions and communities, a real basis and foundation can then be established for the achievement of genuine peace in Niger Delta and across the rest of Nigeria. DSM members will continue as before to campaign and argue in the labour, youth and community movements for the adoption of this kind of programme and approach towards permanent resolution of the Niger Delta quagmire.

All this points to one thing: working and poor people need a fighting organisation that will raise the demands of the working people for a genuine government in Nigeria. This is the time for labour and pro-masses’ organisations to build a working class political party with a socialist orientation which will demand public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy under the democratic control of the working people themselves and provide adequate resources to make life better for the poor people. The Labour Party, which was formed but abandoned by the NLC, should be built as a mass-based working class party that campaigns on a programme against neo-liberalism to wrest power from the thieving ruling elites. Without such a political alternative, the poor masses ultimately will seek other ways and you can be sure Boko Haram and other reactionary groups could gain ground. There is also an urgent need to restructure the labour movement across the country (especially the state chapters and affiliates) so as to serve as a fighting platform of working people which will link the anger of the poor people across the country rather than being divided along reactionary ethnic lines. This is now the central challenge!

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September 2009