The Federal Government of Nigeria is amassing troops, arms and ammunitions in the oil-rich Niger Delta region in readiness for war with the militants who have been destroying oil infrastructure. In the last week of last month, the Director of Army Public Relations, Col. Sani Usman, announced that the military had launched “a precursor operation” to a planned offensive codenamed “Crocodile Smile.” This is aimed at supporting a wider operation codenamed “Operation Delta Safe.”

Most people in the Niger Delta have condemned the activities of these militant groups which are now sprouting like mushrooms and making both sensible and senseless demands. The Niger Delta people have suffered a lot since the discovery of oil in 1956. Their environment has been savagely spoilt. Their fishing waters and farming lands have vanished leaving them impoverished. Strange diseases have emerged that apparently have no cure. The reckless activities of these militants have done considerable damage to the Niger Delta ecosystem apart from the loss of oil revenue to the Federal Government. The Niger Delta leaders are pleading with these militants to give a peace a chance since the Federal Government is offering them the peace reed.

A few weeks ago, Alfred Diete Spiff, a former military governor of the old Rivers State who is now a traditional ruler, had a meeting with Niger Delta leaders in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State. A couple of weeks later, Edwin Clark, a former Federal Information Commissioner and a prominent leader in the region, also had a conference in Warri, Delta State, trying to find ways of resolving the matter without bloodshed. On his part, the Minister of State for Petroleum, Ibe Kachikwu, has been touring the region in search of an amicable solution to the conflict.

Since President Muhammadu Buhari has said he is interested in a negotiated settlement of the matter I think the soldiers who are in the creeks of Sapele itching for action should tarry a while. Before hostilities begin, let me warn that this is an unwinnable war. No one will win. The militants will not win and the Federal Government will not win either. Men, women and children will be killed and maimed, property will be destroyed, the environment will be damaged. No oil will be produced because oil companies do not work with soldiers holding guns to their heads. The price of crude oil will go up but Nigeria will not benefit from the rise in price while the fight goes on in the creeks. New refugees will emerge; we will look for food, shelter and medicine for a new set of internally displaced persons (IDPs). We will then go looking for money to rebuild what has been destroyed in an economy that is already suffering from asphyxia. The only winners will be the generals who will be doing arms deals, food supply deals, drug supply deals and the women who will be available, willingly or unwillingly, to comfort the troops during the war. Crocodile, don’t smile yet. Keep your teeth hidden.

The militants seem to have a largely incomprehensible shopping list. They talk of a Niger Delta Republic which is totally unrealisable in a setting where you have nine oil producing states (now ten with Lagos as the new entrant) dispersed in three regions that speak more than a dozen languages. Niger Delta Republic is hereby shot and killed dead. Before now, the Niger Delta Republic had died twice on arrival. Have they asked Niger Deltans if they want to be citizens of their so called Niger Delta Republic?

Next, the militants are talking of restructuring the country into a truly federal system. Good idea but it is an idea that grabs more people other than Niger Deltans. It is an idea whose time has come because the present unitary system of government is not working. But you cannot achieve restructuring by the barrel of a gun. Restructuring is a national issue that must involve a conversation among all sections of the country. Some of those who oppose restructuring think it is the equivalent of a confederation or “pulling apart,” a reference to Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s position at the Aburi talks before the Nigerian civil war broke out in 1967. But it is not a call for confederation. The current uniformisation of virtually everything is stifling. It is killing the people’s initiative, creativity and their sense of adventure. That is part of why our economy is flat on its back despite the abundance of solid and liquid minerals all over the country. But you must be able to win people over to your point of view rather than intimidate them with the dictatorship of an AK 47.

A few critics have accused Goodluck Jonathan who was President for six years of neglecting the Niger Delta, his own region, and allowing the festering sore to become cancerous. Oil has been exported from the region since 1958, that is precisely 58 years now and for that long that region has suffered from unconscionable neglect. Jonathan could never have been able to reverse a 58-year extortion and neglect within six years. Besides, Jonathan was chosen not by the Niger Deltans but singlehandedly by Olusegun Obasanjo for reasons best known to him.

Jonathan was not an assertive President. He was hesitant and tentative in dealing with issues that needed surefootedness, assertiveness and an unmistakable sense of direction. He was helmed in by those who own the country and he therefore was only able to manage the country with the abhorrent tentativeness of the uninitiated.

Please don’t start a war in the Niger Delta because it will not end soon. The Niger Delta has a more treacherous topography than Sambisa Forest. The Niger Delta has dozens of creeks that are extremely inaccessible. It also has between 7000 and 8000 kilometres of pipelines that may be impossible to protect from vandalisation except an agreement is struck. Let us learn a lesson from the Boko Haram war. One of the reasons it hasn’t yet ended is that lots of people, generals included, benefit from its continuation. If the war ends there will be no more supply of arms, food, drugs at inflated prices and no diversion of funds to buy houses for children, wives and concubines. A war in the Niger Delta will not be different. In any case, fighting two wars in one country at the same time not to mention skirmishes from the herdsmen and other trouble makers will be a needless distraction for the Federal Government. It can do better things with its time and resources. The militants say they are ready to talk.

The government says it wants to negotiate with the militants but no one knows the leader of its negotiating team. Ibe Kachikwu, the Minister of State for Petroleum, has been doing a tour of the region making statements about the need for peace but he is apparently doing so because of his ministerial portfolio. I urge President Buhari to take the bull by the horns and name his high calibre negotiating team as evidence of seriousness. A man like Abdulsalami Abubakar, former head of state who, during his time, had set up the Popoola Committee on the Niger Delta problem would fit the bill. He knows a thing or two about war and peace. He was the ECOWAS chief mediator on the Liberian crisis between Charles Taylor and the rebels. He successfully discharged his mandate. He was also the leader of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Observer Group to the 2000 elections in Zimbabwe.

He earned the respect of the various observer groups with varying agenda by the fairness and evenhandedness, he brought to a very difficult assignment. He also handled the peace process of the 2015 Nigerian election fairly.
I believe he is a man that would be respected by all the parties in the Niger Delta conflict. His easy access to the President which his stature guarantees would make decision-making less difficult than if a public servant is chosen to lead the team. Mr. President, think about it.

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