First step to peace in Delta

Most people get perhaps one chance in a lifetime to make a truly grand entrance. Not so Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, the Ijaw leader of the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF) who was released on bail and returned to Port Harcourt in late June after spending 20 months in detention on charges of treason.

The huge crowd that turned out to welcome him was even bigger than the crowd of October 2 2004, when he returned from peace talks with then-president Olusegun Obasanjo after months of violence between the NDPVF and the Niger Delta Vigilante, an armed group funded by the government of Rivers State.

Asari was arrested in 2005 after he said during a newspaper interview that he would work for the break-up of Nigeria.
Following his incarceration, violence in the Niger Delta escalated and a new group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, emerged and began taking foreign oil workers hostage.

The huge support for Asari confirms his charismatic leadership, but it also underlines the fact that people in the Niger Delta hunger for a change in their poor living conditions.

Dr Sofiri Peterside, a director of the Centre for Advanced Social Science, based in Port Harcourt, said: “Asari has demonstrated that he is a charismatic hero of the people, going by the massive crowd that went to the airport and lined the streets to welcome him from Abuja. His return also underlines the reality that there can be no dialogue on the Niger Delta without the participation of people like him.”

A source from the Ijaw community told the Mail & Guardian that Ijaw leaders had worked hard to get Asari released before he was scheduled to appear in court because they were concerned that Asari, known for being mercurial, might have insulted the judge and frustrated efforts to free him.

Asari said he was “not aware of any conditional release. I was not in court when it was decided that I was granted bail. I was surprised to hear that I had been granted bail.”

Asari has returned to a Niger Delta of rising acts of violence, including hostage-taking of foreign oil workers for ransom, attacks on oil facilities and bunkering, the illegal siphoning and sale of crude oil by armed groups.

As if to underline the gravity of the tension in the area, the Nigerian Agip Oil Company recently had to declare force majeure, following its failure to meet supply obligations. This followed an attack by armed men on a flow station at Ogboinbiri, which has a daily output of 40 000 barrels. At least 11 Nigerian soldiers are believed to have been killed in the attack.

The attack followed another by the Joint Task Force, responsible for security in the waterways of the oil-rich area, which led to the killing of nine men believed to be militants. After the attacks, the government ordered more gunboats to be deployed in the area.

Meanwhile, Asari’s release by the new government of Umar Musa Yar’Ardua is seen as a conciliatory gesture by an administration that seems intent on sending a message that it will not pursue the hardline military approach of the previous government.

The Obasanjo government displayed a brittle intolerance for any challenge from the militant groups and continued to deploy troops to troubled areas, even though the soldiers often ended up being humiliated by the fighters.

Asari’s return to the Niger Delta is expected to be the first step in a process of dialogue with the people of the region, who have been engaged in decades of conflict with the Nigerian state over issues of self-determination, the practice of true federalism and the adoption of revenue sharing between the central government and the Niger Delta states.

Much is expected of Asari. He started off well by continuing to condemn the practice of hostage-taking by many of the militant groups, a position he held even in detention. When he was released he said: “The criminality that is going on now has nothing to do with the Ijaw people. Some of these groups exist only on the internet and others on the pages of newspapers.”

Many of the groups that engage in violence claimed they did so to compel the government to release Asari and Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, the former governor of Bayelsa state, who was detained in 2005 and accused of fraud.

Although Asari commands respect among many groups, a factor that aided his NDPVF group in its battles in 2003 and 2004, many of the Niger Delta militia groups have grown wealthy and powerful as a result of the hostage-taking that started last year. Their influence has been linked to the protection of and collaboration with certain government officials.

There are fears of clashes between Asari and such groups, which might worsen tension in the area. At the same time, most of the militant groups are of Ijaw stock. The next few months could see incidents of Ijaw-on-Ijaw violence that could worsen the situation.

Professor Kimse Okoko, president of the Ijaw National Congress, said: “We welcome the release of Asari from unjust detention, but the issues of the Niger Delta go beyond him. Now that he has been released, we wait for the Yar’Ardua government to demonstrate its sincerity by initiating dialogue with the Ijaw and other peoples of the Niger Delta.”

Okoko’s sentiments are echoed in Peterside’s warning of the consequences of treating the situation in the Delta simply as a criminal matter.

“Yes, many people condemn what has emerged as the proliferation of armed groups in the region. But, the truth is, even the emergence of the militant groups, including those involved in hostage-taking, is a result of the failure of the Nigerian state to deal with the issues at the centre of the agitations in a just manner. The solution is a process of dialogue with the people of the region to culminate in a constitutional resolution of the issues,” Peterside said.

Asari agrees, saying that the way to resolve the conflict in the Niger Delta is to turn attention to the demands of the various ethnic nationalities. “The Niger Delta struggle is focused. You can find that in the Kaiama declaration of the Ijaw people, the Ogoni Bill of Rights and the Aklakla declaration of the Egi people. A sovereign national conference is requisite for the resolution of the Niger Delta issue.”

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