Several decades before what eventually came to be known as Nigeria emerged in 1914, the Niger Delta region was known for its revolts and protests against iniquities. The British, the Portuguese, and other Europeans who came to the region in search of holy and unholy enterprises had a first-hand experience of the people’s anger. But as the country marched toward independence, it became clear that many of its disparate nationalities wanted a different political arrangement – not what colonial-Britain was designing.
Many – especially the Ijaw – did not want to be part of the new nation. They wanted autonomy. Their fears, and the fears and misgivings of many minority groups, can be found in the 1957/58 Willinks Commission Report which detailed the concerns of these groups. Regrettably, post-colonial Nigeria did not fully address many of the problems and challenges expressed. Consequently, almost fifty-three years after independence, many groups still feel stifled and cheated.
The Igbo are not a minority group, nonetheless, many of the factors that led to the 1967-1970 Nigeria-Biafra War can be traced to the inequities expressed in the Willinks Commission Report. One of the absurdities of the Nigerian situation is that 43 years after the war, many of the grievances that were expressed by the Igbo have yet to be fully addressed. It is as if nothing happened: As if there were no grievances and no dehumanising war that brutally claimed untold number of lives and possibilities.
And of course there was the revolt and militancy of Isaac Adaka Boro in the 1960s. He did not think the region and its people were being fairly treated. In the forty-five years since his death, the region has witnessed several cases of peaceful and violent agitation. The most violent of these was the 2005-2009 low intensity conflict between the Ijaw-dominated group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, MEND, and the Nigerian government. We seem to have forgotten that about a dozen Ijaw-dominated militant and semi-militant groups preceded MEND.
Because the Ijaw are housed in several federating states (Ondo, Delta, Akwa Ibom, Edo, Rivers, and Bayelsa), it is difficult for them to speak with one voice. They’ve never truly had a central figure like the Hausa, Yoruba or Igbo. Hence, articulating their grievances through a central body or leadership has been difficult. Nonetheless – since the 1970s at least, their complaints have revolved around (1) the suffocating environmental condition caused by oil and gas activities; (2)The high rate of unemployment; (3) the question of oil ownership and how to share the oil wealth; and (4) the lack of federally funded infrastructure.
What’s more, there was this unending sense of exclusion and marginalisation when and where political and economic goods are being shared. And of course, there was the issue of state creation. They want more Ijaw states. Added to this mix were the high-handedness, the indifference, and the arrogance of the oil companies.
Despite the creation of the Ijaw-dominated Bayelsa State in 1996, the Ijaw grievances remain the same. In many instances, the local problems have worsened. For instance, the militancy and the subsequent presidential amnesty have given birth to many unanticipated problems, i.e. greed and materialism; kidnappings and assassinations; and social dislocations and general disorder. The militancy/amnesty also gave rise to shady characters.
For instance, we now have men and women who should be hundreds of miles away from the seat of power, but became governors and ministers and commissioners and advisers of some sort. In many Ijaw enclaves, you see half-educated men or stark illiterates with money and new-found power, holding court and dispensing justice or lording it over their superiors. Many more have gone on to become instant millionaires. It is freaky! Years after the militancy “ended,” and years after the presidential amnesty began, nothing has changed for the better.
What was the purpose of the MEND-led agitation if the Ijaw were not going to do the right thing afterward? Why did Isaac Boro give his life? Did he die so the Ijaw could betray future generations? Did he and countless Ijaw nationalists sacrifice their lives so malfeasances and avarice can align with Ijaw culture? Today, the Ijaw elite and moneybags are doing to the common man what they accused others of. The theft, the waste, and exploitation of the underclass are at a grander scale than it was in 1999.
In spite of the several billions of naira that have been allocated to Bayelsa State, infrastructure and industry of any kind are negligible. And amongst the states that were created in 1996, it has the least passable roads and the least of the seven elements of basic human needs. Today as it was in 1900, 1945, 1960 and 2000, a sizeable number of the people still drink and bathe from the same river they vomit and defecate in. Where has all the money gone?
As bad as things are for the Ijaw, they have taken on a new persona: unflinching support for their leaders who also happen to be their oppressors. No dissent is allowed. No criticism is allowed. If you do, well, you do so at your own peril. The penalty is usually swift. Otherwise, they assemble a group of foot soldiers to rubbish your good reputation.
For the Ijaw at the federal level, there is a new mantra: “It is our turn to chop and chop and chop.” And what if there is no “2015-2019”? Well, the strategy is simple: “A return to the creeks…lower or stop oil production until they acquiesce to our demands.” What type of development strategy is this? And who is going to do the next round of fighting? I know this for sure: It won’t be the children of the elite who are safely ensconced in Abuja, Lagos, or overseas.
With no short or long -term strategy for development, what will happen to the Ijaw when the oil dries out? And assuming Nigeria breaks up today, what will the Ijaw do the day after? What is their survival and development strategy? After all, grumbling is not a winning strategy; unbridled militancy is not a development strategy; and misguided support and sycophancy have no real place in the modern world.
And so I ask: What is wrong with the Ijaw ethnic group? Have the Ijaw forgotten so soon why they started the protests and the wars? Have their problems gone away? Are the problems being solved? Well, keep stealing and keep misleading the people, the day of reckoning is fast approaching!