Poor peace prospects for Niger Delta

Temperatures in the Niger Delta’s swelling creeks are up again following threats by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend) to resume attacks on oil infrastructure and kidnapping expatriates in the area.

Mend made the threats last week after the arrest in Angola of Henry Okah, aka Jomo Gbomo, the leader of the main Mend faction. The man variously described as a business-person, gun-runner and militant was arrested on September 3 at Luanda airport on charges of gun-running and money laundering.

Okah’s arrest and the subsequent threats have renewed concern about a resumption of violence in the region. Chris Ekiyor, president of the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), the main umbrella body for Ijaw youth groups, said this week that “we are investigating the matter still.
Naturally we are deeply concerned in view of the ongoing negotiations between us and the federal government. It would be unfortunate if this arrest of … Henry Okah results in upsetting the peace efforts.”

Ekijor’s group and others in the region have been involved in a continuing dialogue with federal government officials, initiated by the new government of Musa Yar’Adua soon after he took office in May this year. Mend, which says that it is fighting against the marginalisation of Nigeria’s main oil-producing region, has been observing a ceasefire since May to allow the dialogue to proceed.

In June Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan, an ethnic Ijaw whose ascendancy to the position is the first time anyone from the Niger Delta has held such a high government post, visited the militants in their camps to demonstrate the government’s commitment to the process.

In another attempt to jump-start the peace talks, the government released Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, a former governor of Bayelsa State who was impeached in 2005 and subsequently held in detention in Abuja on money-laundering charges, and Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, the leader of the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF). The arrest of Alamieyeseigha and Dokubo-Asari had been at the centre of much anger in the Ijaw areas of the Niger Delta.

Ekijor said this week: “We were able to effect the release of Alamieyeseigha as a pre-condition for dialogue with federal government. This is the reason for our concern over the latest development concerning Mend. We hope to use the usual avenues to settle the issues.”

Kingsley Kuku, secretary of the Peace and Reconciliation Committee, set up by the federal government, said: “We will reach out to leaders of the movement to ensure that talks continue and that they do not resume attacks. If the arrest upsets the peace process, we will call on the Nigerian government to use its influence so we can continue with our peace process.”

Okah’s arrest has sparked fears that the tenuous unity of the various militant groups at the talks will crumble. Relations between Dokubo-Asari’s movement and Okah’s Mend have long been strained and Dokubo-Asari, who played a leading role in the latest peace initiative, openly condemned Okah on radio this week, describing him and his group as “criminals”. In the past Dokubo-Asari described Okah as an “internet militant” and condemned Mend’s strategy of hostage-taking.

Certainly Okah’s arrest will have far-reaching effects on the peace efforts. One of the earliest fallouts will be how much confidence the federal government has in the ability of the members of the Peace and Reconciliation Committee and the IYC to represent and influence events in the Delta. When dialogue began in June the IYC was considered influential enough to demand and secure the release of Alamieyeseigha. It is not so certain now if it can ride the rough waters set off by the arrest of Okah and keep the peace talks together.

Some expect the federal government to use its influence to secure Okah’s release to cool down his supporters. But Dokubo-Asari is not one of them and Okah’s allies have already accused him and Alamieyeseigha of being behind a plot to have him arrested. Asari has not helped matters by continuing to condemn Okah since his arrest.

Sources close to the talks indicate that just weeks into discussions with the Ijaw groups, the federal government negotiators might have come to realise how uncoordinated the Ijaw groups are. “This arrest certainly compounds issues in the ongoing negotiations,” one source said.

The threats of open disunity come amid growing pressure to produce results, said one analyst. “Goodluck Jonathan might want to see that a semblance of stability is achieved in the region and for oil production to continue without interruption in the foreseeable future. That might be considered some success. But will this last without addressing some of the age-long issues that gave credibility to groups like Okah, call him whatever you wish today?” said an analyst in Abuja with connections to the peace process.

Indeed, many view the continuing process with misgivings. There are concerns that many of those involved might not realise how critical the process is to the 25-million-strong population of the Niger Delta region.

There are lingering perceptions that some of the those at the negotiating table view the talks as an opportunity to quietly feather their private nests.

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