Recent bombings of oil pipelines in the Niger Delta again raise the spectre of escalation of conflicts in the region. While we cannot say the reasons for the incidents, it does appear to be calculated acts of sabotage rather than mere vandalism. In cases of vandalism the motive routinely is the stealing of crude oil or refined petroleum products. Where pipelines are bombed in the manner the current incidents have been reported, the signal is that these are political actions. However, no one has claimed responsibility. That is against the grain.
It should be noted that political actions do not have to be partisan in nature as they can be carried out by persons or groups that are simply disenchanted with existing political system. They could also be orchestrated by persons or groups whose vested interests are threatened. If these are agreed as possibilities, we should be able to come to the conclusion that the recent bombings may not necessarily be the hand work of militants. Fishing for culprits would require extra-wide nets.
Militancy in the Niger Delta arose as a result of accrued disenchantment with both the government and the transnational corporations over minimal expectations from the local population. The fact oil being so alluring cannot be denied. It always offers communities dreams and hopes of social services, employment, infrastructural improvements and dramatic societal transformation. What is offered in reality has routinely been environmental degradation, disruption of social structures, corruption, disease and death.
Sadly, communities in countries where crude oil is discovered are still being offered the same promises that the resource scarcely delivers. And as sure as fire burns, the hopes and promises are bound to be dashed. And then the conflicts start.
Oil theft, bush refineries and related businesses operate at an industrial scale in the Niger Delta. Unfortunately. When poorly maintained facilities are added to the mix, the result is extremely toxic and the consequences are well documented. Responses have often reinforced the crises, rather than mitigate them.
What has been the response to the recent bombing of pipelines including those in the Gbaramatu area of Delta State? Predictably the response has been heavy militarisation of the area. The question is, to what extent can militarisation protect the over 7000 kilometres of pipelines in the Niger Delta. We hope the reign of the gunboats in the Niger Delta will not lead to a replay of the levelling of communities that was virtually routine a few years ago.
Looking back, we recall that in 2009 attacks at Odi cut down 2,483 persons, while another heavy handed attack occurred at Odioma in 2005. In May 2009 the military response to militancy saw the massive destruction of Gbaramatu community. In December 2010 there was a replay of the same scenario at Ayakoromo, where at least 20 persons were killed.
All these avoidable attacks on communities were said to be legitimate ways of smoking out militants from their hideouts in the communities. It is not clear how many militants were captured through those punishing assaults on communities.
Government should ensure that the current patrolling of the creeks of the Niger Delta do not lead to attacks on communities. Where individuals offend the law, such individuals should face the law. Whole communities should never be punished for the sins of one person or groups of persons. Military actions in fragile communities only entrench miseries and further ecological tragedies.
Militancy based on the platform of political (non-partisan) agitation requires deep interrogations. Often, such conflicts require political solutions. Some of us were surprised at the success of the amnesty programme especially when seen that the programme was in part a panic measure as pipelines were erupting and oil production and related revenues were dwindling.
More than the cash pay-outs, it must be the other actions, including education and skills acquisition that did the trick. Despite the success of the amnesty programme and the militarisation of the Niger Delta we cannot say that sustainable peace has been constructed in the region. We can understand why some persons are perplexed that despite the heavy investment in infrastructural projects disenchantment is still endemic in the region. That is why the petroleum economy is a negative economy – whether the price of crude is as high as gas flare stacks or as low as the bottom of the barrels.
Much more than patrolling the creeks and cowering innocent citizens to raise their hands in surrender to military might when then pass the ubiquitous checkpoints wherever pipelines crossed the creeks. There must be ways or rebuilding dignity among our peoples. Respect. We have to rebuild our brotherhood and sisterhood with one another and restore the motherhood of the earth. We need conversations more than contracts. We need listening posts not more trenches. Open the prison doors. Those locked up outside of this country should be brought back home. We have to rebuild our communities. Inclusively. Communities are the best policemen of pipelines in their environments.
By Nnimmo Bassey (Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation – HOMEF)