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Democracy in Nigeria: Oil, the Niger-Delta, Peace-Building and the crisis of Sustainable Development

Address Delivered by Chief Werinipre Noel Digifa, Chairman, Supreme Egbesu Assembly, at the 2-day summit on Promoting Peace, Democracy and Stability in Nigeria through the Media, Socio-Cultural Institutions and Youth-Driven Community Based Groups. Organized by the Journalists for Democratic Rights, JODER and the FORD FOUNDATION West Africa Regional Office held in Lagos on April 26, 2016 held at Berkeley Hotel, GRA, Lagos

I bring greetings from the people of the Niger-Delta. I bring greetings from my people in Ijawland, a people located in the West Coast of Africa, with a history dating back to over 10,000 years. As you may all be aware, we are an indigenous people that God in His wisdom gave land in the coastal areas which is our ancestral home. My people send their greetings to you from the creeks and the forest of the Niger-Delta where the mainstay of Nigerian economy, that is oil, is derived.

I do not intend to bore you with the history of my people, the Ijaw which is one of the largest ethnic nationalities in Nigeria and by far with more people than the population of Israel, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. Ijawnation is more that Scotland and Wales put together. We are in fact bigger in population than some 100 countries in the world.

God gave us a beautiful land, a rich and wonderful territory with amazing trees, mangrove and almost an endless varieties of creeping plants, birds and animals from whence our people derive their livelihood.

There are two types of Niger-Delta. The Niger-Delta they want you to know and the Niger-Delta that we know. The Niger-Delta they want you to know is the hotbed of violence, of kidnapping, of killings and of brigandage. It is the Niger-Delta of poor and uneducated people, a land where the children do not want to go to school and never cared about what happens to them, a Niger Delta without culture, a people without a name, a people that are only good as pawns in the political chess game of Nigeria.

But there is a Niger-Delta that we know, a Niger-Delta of truth that our enemies do not wish to talk about. Our territory is home to some of the world’s richest resources, yet our people remain poor, deprived, marginalized and undermined by successive Nigerian states.  The Niger-Delta was at a time, one of the largest Mangrove Forests in the world. We are proud and happy with what God gave to us. Today, human activities continue to destroy and lay prostrate the creation of God. Our water is polluted. Our air is fumed with dirt from oil exploration. Daily, poisonous substances are poured into our ocean. Our fishes, the crabs and the shrimps are poisoned all in the name of profit. Our land is no longer fertile. Our women bear the brunt of infertility due to the poison in the only water available to drink. Our men are choked. Our children and wailing and dying. Our future is at a peril. When we talk, they bring out guns, when we shout they bring out armoured tanks to maul down our people like they did in Odi, November 1999 and Odioma in the year 2001. More than 1000 people perished in these two incidences and many were declared missing, including old and young, including children and infants.

Since 1950s when oil was found in our territory, more that 500 trillion dollars have been taken away by people mostly unknown to us, by authorities that view us with contempt and by companies that hate and deride our values and our agelong heritage.

The Ijaw people did not make a choice to be where they are today. God made the choice for them and they found it good. The Ijaw people did not create the oil, but God in His wisdom gave them the oil so as to develop their homeland and make it the pride of the people that own the land.

For centuries the Ijaw nation had enjoyed her peace. We fish in the vast oceans, we farm in the Mangrove forests, we till the soil to earn a living, we spend days and nights in the belly of the sea and down the bottomless pit of the oceans to eke out a living. We cherish our tradition. We cherish the territory that God gave to us.

The Ijaw people had lived in peace with her neighbors long before the coming of the Europeans. We had trade and commerce relationship with our ethnic neigbours and our people traded up to Ghana, Gabon, Southern Sudan, Cameroon and the Central African Republic in the 17th century.

In 1914, the British lords decided to merge Nigerian nationalities together. There was nothing wrong with living with other people, but what was wrong was the conscious attempt to shave our head in our absence. Our leaders were not consulted, our people’s opinion was not sought, the conditions of the union were not discussed with us and our aspirations and fears were swept under the carpet.

For many of you who may be aware, our leaders in 1959 made several presentations at the Willink Commission of Enquiry on the fears of ethnic nationalities of the Niger-Delta of which the Ijaw nation is one. Since that presentation at the commission was made, there has not been any conscious attempt by the Nigerian government to seek our opinion and to understand our attitude to governance. Every other conference has been to masturbate the ego of the people in power and to deceive the world that things would be better.

There is no doubting the fact that since oil became the mainstay of Nigerian economy, the Niger-Delta has been continuously criminalized. We are portrayed as people that are lazy. We are portrayed as people that cannot government themselves. We are portrayed as aggressors all in the bid to demonise us before the local and international communities so as to steal our resources and degrade our birthright as a people. One of the major causes of conflict in the Niger-Delta is the derivation formulae.

Since 1960, the derivation formulae have been determined by those who do not produce oil. They are the ones that tell us what the oil producing states should get. You can imagine you producing yam in your backyard and some people from 1000 kilometers away are telling you what price to sell the yam and what profit should go to you the farmer and how you will spend the profit made. Nigeria must wake up from the odd tradition of repression and practice Federalism the way it has been defined by the originators of that system of government. A garrison state will not auger well for peace in Nigeria.

Today, the Nigerian state pays 13 percent derivation to the oil producing communities. But this can never compensate for the half a century exploitation and exploration of our resources. This can never compensate for the millions of years that await our existence and generations unborn.

 

It is very unfortunate that successive Nigerian governments have chosen to deliberately malign the Ijaw nation and her people. Institutions of the Nigerian state were created to our disadvantage. Take a look at the creation of states where the Ijaw nation has only one homogenous state of Bayelsa. The Ijaw people have been deliberately balkanized into different states of Ondo, Delta, Rivers, where they are in minority and their voices stifled. Take a look at the National Assembly. There are 109 Senators out of which the Ijaw nation cannot produce more than 5 Senators. At the House of Representatives, the Ijaw Nation cannot produce more than 10 out of 360 members. You can imagine: What bill of utmost Ijaw interest can ever be passed by the National Assembly? What resource allocation can go into the purse of the 774 local governments that will ever benefit the Ijaw Nation that has less than 20 local governments in all?

To be precise, we have been so marginalized to the extent that when it is time for the Ijaw to produce political leaders, the system is skewed to ensure that the best does not come from our homeland. When ever the anti-people system and institutions produce an Ijaw leader that will only oil the malicious and draconian system, the same people turn around to blame the Ijaw people who were neither contacted nor consulted when such leaders were being selected.

I say that the fundamental question of power in Nigeria has been the contest for oil. Most of the major crisis Nigeria has witnessed revolves around oil and the desperation of the ruling class to take control and manipulate the entire resource mechanism. The Nigerian civil war was more about the battle for control of resources. The elections we have been having in Nigeria have been about the battle for control and manipulation of oil, which is the natural gift of the Ijaw nation.

Today, I stand before you to proclaim that peace will last for a long time in Nigeria if there is justice. The Ijaw nation has a very simple demand: Give us what belongs to us. We do not demand for what is not ours. What we ask for are those things that are owned by us.

The anger and frustration you find in the Niger-Delta today are as a result of the lack of governments with a human face, the lack of institutions that care about human liberty, the lack of a political leadership with a clear vision not to rob Peter to pay Paul.

Our people are as desperate for peace as they are for justice.  They are as desperate for liberty as they are for sustainable livelihood.

The Ijaw nation is ready to work together with stakeholders, driven by the people to bring peace and justice to Nigeria. We are ready to work together to ensure that people make their demands in a peaceful way and that the government should also adopt peaceful mechanism for resolving the issues raised by the people.

We support the Journalists for Democratic Rights and the Ford Foundation for this noble cause. We are ready to give our time and energy to ensure we work with other nationalities to bring peace and justice to this country. We are ready to work with the various networks, both locally and internationally to achieve the goal of peace with liberty and justice. This is a difficult task but with truth and honesty of purpose, it can be achieved.

I thank you all for your time

 
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