By Fred Edoreh

Seventeen soldiers of the Military Joint Task Force gruesomely murdered in a remote village in the creeks of the Niger Delta, not in war but on a peace mission: How could that have happened! Across Nigeria, outrage followed disbelief.

The first impression was that the dastardly act was committed by the people of Okuama community in Ughelli South, following a protracted boundary dispute between them and Okoloba community in Bomadi LGA, on one hand, and what may have seemed to them like bias officiating with undue use of force by the JTF personnel, on the other hand.

The Delta State Governor, Rt Hon Sheriff Oborevwori, had taken steps to call a truce between the Okoloba and Okuama people, bringing their local leaders into signing a peace accord in Asaba on 7 February.

The Governor had been focused on infrastructural and social development across the state and, accordingly, upbeat about ensuring enhanced peace and security as requisite condition for progress.

For the Bomadi and Ijaw area which includes Okoloba, he had speedily completed the Bedeseigha Bridge, and for the Southern Urhobo area, work is on top gear on the Orere Bridge connecting a number of communities in Ewu Kingdom which Okuama belongs to.

His efforts towards the development of those areas, and in further mediating and calling the people to a peace accord, shows that the Governor and the state took their development to heart.

How then could the people of those communities have let him down in the face of his glaring commitment to their development?

There have been a series of claims, counter claims, accusations, counter accusations, disinformation and misinformation from the different sides, but the corpus of the conversations around the occurrence indicates that what happened goes beyond the surface of a boundary dispute between Okoloba and Okuama, but into what seems like a territorial warfare between criminal oil bunkering sub-communities.

This much was indicated by Nigeria’s Chief of Defence Staff, Christopher Gwabin Musa, who disclosed that, following the need for Nigeria to increase its oil production output, Lt Col Ali who led the soldiers to Okuama, had insisted that all illegal activities in the oil creeks must stop, and for which he began to take measures to stop their operations.

He revealed that the attack on him and his soldiers was a reaction by the criminal bunkerers, that the Army knows the killers and are going after them, not just to retrieve the weapons they seized from the killed soldiers but especially to bring them to book.

This has taken the military to Ighomotoru II community in Bayelsa State where the bunkering kingpin and prime suspect in the murder has been traced to.

Indeed, the king of Ighomotoru community has also testified that the criminals have been in his constituency for some years now, carrying out series of illegal activities, and that he had reported to the Federal Government, the Bayelsa State Government, the DSS and the military, but that with no decisive response from the government authorities and security agencies, the criminals subsequently banished him from his kingdom to Yenagoa in the past three years.

This means that the ordinary, innocent and everyday people of Okuoma really have nothing to do with what has happened.

Sadly, many of them have been killed, others sacked and displaced from the community, in the anger of the military, just as the military is also said to have killed many others in Ighomotoru in their search for the kingpin.

With the revelation of the Chief of Defence Staff, we know now that the killing of the soldiers derived not merely from the boundary dispute between Okoloba and Okuama, but from a gang war in which some of the bunkering criminals were angry with the JTF for constraining their illegalities, allegedly in favor of other like criminals, just like we hear about the drug cartels of Mexico and Columbia.

This brings us to the main issues that the government of Nigeria needs to properly address.

First, we cannot pretend not to have heard that postings to the JTF in the Niger Delta is a lucrative thing, and that members of the military justle to be posted there.

It is said that if posted there, in less than a year, the life of the personnel becomes handsomely economically elevated. How so? It is suggested that it is because they get involved in the activities there, with disregard to their mission.

In trying to understand this, some people have wondered how come the formal national security agencies, like the Navy, and Tantita get into open disagreement over whether a vessel was legally loaded or not, as if there are no definite clearing houses for our crude oil allocations.

Some persons have also suggested that there is something not right in having a list of soldiers going for a peace operation in a local area without having any body from such a local area in the number, such as is often necessary to possibly create and build confidence about their mission in the mind of the locals. Why and how did that happen?

What about the primary intelligence of ascertaining what was on ground in the area before embarking on the mission? It seems that we underestimated and neglected facts on the ground: Like how could some local persons simply have had the organization, weaponry, firepower, intelligence and fighting strategy to upstage a group of 17 well trained army officers and under-ranks, under any circumstances, peace keeping or not? What does this say?

But the most important of it all is that it seems the Federal Government, not particularly President Ahmed Tinubu’s regime, but over time, has not properly, sincerely, purposefully and targetedly understood and addressed the Niger Delta issue.

If nothing else, we have seen the Odi treatment by President Olusegun Obasanjo prove ineffective as a solution. This is because the number of jobless, unemployed, misinformed, disoriented and mal-mentored youths in the region is still legion.

Rightly or wrongly feeling cheated or deprived, boys are still in the creeks doing all sorts, in the face of the underdevelopment, ecological degradation, environmental pollution and single track and high tech oil production economy that essentially excludes the ordinary people, while the presence of the oil companies, low access, poor connectivity and zilch industrialization drop high inflation on them.

The reality is a “penkelemess” and the only answer is to provide the people meaningfully gainful alternative opportunities to face, pursue and fulfill life, not the adhoc measures of military actions to subdue them just to lift the oil in their land.

What made the situation that difficult for the soldiers? I imagine that they could not have been sufficiently armed, since they were, ostensibly, on a peace mission but, most importantly, their call for reinforcement, if any, couldn’t have got quick response, minding the access and communication difficulties in the area.

If there were adequate roads linking the various Niger Delta communities, policing the area and response to threats would come easier.

The argument or justification for the underdevelopment of the area has been that, because of the riverine and swampy terrain, it is too expensive to provide adequate roads to connect the uplands and inter-link the communities

True, construction in the area is expensive compared with other terrains, but the other argument is that they have been the goose laying the golden egg for the Nigerian economy and the development of the other areas in the past over 60 years of our independence and since oil was discovered, but while, as a nation, we have reclined to enjoy the process from crude oil as our mainstay, we have consciously neglected the need for the development of the producing areas.

I state this advisedly and cautiously because I am aware that the Federal Government had instituted the NDDC and the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs in the past two or so decades, but how effective have these been in addressing the issues of development in the area in the face of the undeniably “more politics and less delivery” in the governance of those interventionist institutions? At least, we know about “off your mic.”

What is wrong in investing as much in the area that produces the mainstay of the national economy and deliberately, concertedly and orchestratedly making sure that the investments do not end up in mere political patronage that deliver nothing to the people, but in clearly visible and effective functionality?

Talking about roads, for instance, the Niger Delta is grossly and miserably underserved. At least, we all know how the project of the East-West Road has thrived or un-thrived for over two decades now.

In various advanced countries, there are bridges that run across waters, and those nations constructed them because they understand and value the contributions of those communities to their national economies.

China is now shining in the world stage of economic development, but their productivity is mostly enhanced by the construction of several roads and railway connections to important economic, agricultural, manufacturing, commercial and business axis.

For instance, the Danyang-Kunshan Grand Bridge crosses over 102 miles of rivers, lakes and canals. The Weinan Weihe Grand Bridge which crosses the Wei River twice is about 50 miles and the Beijing Grand Bridge connecting Beijing and Shanghai is about 30 miles long.

These are all across waters and there may be no need to ask how and why China has emerged a world leader. They simply put their money where their mouth is.

Similarly, in the United States, the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway in Southern Louisiana is about 24 miles. It runs continuously over water and is about the longest bridge in the US. Built as far back as in 1956, “e get why dem build am.”

In the same vein, the Manchac Swamp Bridge is almost 23 miles long. Built in the 1970s when our Naira was above the dollar, it only cost about $7 million per mile.

Imagine that we had been building similar bridges in the Niger Delta and other high productive economic zones from the 1970s when we had an oil boom and into our subsequent administrations!

Not just that we would have long passed where we are in national development, policing the Niger Delta would have been easier, and the youths in the area would have embraced various other opportunities that such infrastructure and the development of the area would have thrown up overtime.

Indeed, there may not even have been any need for a JTF and the various adhoc measures being taken by the Federal Government just to particularly ensure forceful peace in the Niger Delta to facilitate sufficient crude oil production to sustain the national economy.

I say so because there was Odi, there was Isaac Adaka Boro, there was Ken Saro Wiwa and the Ogoni experience, there was Choba, we have had Niger Delta militancy, we have had civilian Generals commanding troops of several camps in the creeks and we have had an Amnesty Programme.

None of the treatments, including the hanging of Saro Wiwa has helped to address the issues. Rather, they throw up more hard men and “bados.”

Sad that Lt Col Ali and the 16 other officers and men have paid the supreme price, but they died not because Okuama people are savages as may have been portrayed, but because of the contradictions and inconsistencies in our nation building process. It is just like “we are not serious about us, who we are, what we want from ourself and how,” to put it softly.

I wish Nigeria can begin to understand that it must get to terms with the basic philosophy of development in order that we do not always have to come to this curve often. It starts with clear definitions of priorities, like “let there be light,” by which the power and energy needed for the creation of all other things was first released, the only way photosynthesis can take place and plants can grow to produce food, and then soak our carbon dioxide, to give us oxygen.

The development of societies follows the same pattern of preconditions. No back doors, no false moves, because no one cheats the natural order.

It can never be too late to re-assess our journey on the course so far, to rediscover ourselves, to re-compute our priorities and begin to do the essential and right.

That, in my view, would be the most fitting burial, empathy and celebration of our seventeen lost soldiers and heroes past, that their death would not be in vain.

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