by Ijeoma Daberechi Odoh
The current situation in Nigeria could be likened to an inferno drawing both the old and the young; the rich and the poor; and the local and the international communities to itself. Hardly a day passes in Nigeria without kidnapping incidents making the headlines. Kidnapping is now a lucrative venture with some jobless youths manning the business. No one is safe anymore. Every day, tens of Nigerians are kidnapped for various reasons ranging from economic, political and personal grievances. Some are killed before they were rescued while others are rescued by their relatives after paying ransom. The worst scenario was the kidnapping of 15 school children on their way to school last week. These are innocent children who became victims probably because their parents are considered rich. Another gory incident involved the abduction and killing of Dr. Stanley Uche, proprietor of Victory Christian Hospital, Aba, who was murdered in spite of the payment of a N30 million ransom. The story is endless and alarming. Underlying these acts of callousness is the fact that the youths are idle and live in a society where a man's importance is measured by his material acquisition.
However, kidnapping for ransom is a part of a larger story. The current wave of kidnapping began with the abduction of expatriate oil workers by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger-Delta (MEND, a youth group) in late 2005 as a means of alerting the world of the many years of injustice, exploitation, marginalization and underdevelopment of Niger-Delta region. The apparent negligence and the underdevelopment of the region have always been explained with limp reasons. The oil companies claim not to be responsible for the development of the region by virtue of the fact that they work for Nigerian government and pay royalty to the government. Federal government on its own blames the ministries constituted by it to tackle the problems of the region and the ministries blame the youths for disrupting projects. It is a vicious cycle where only the poor are adversely affected. In a statement released by the leader of MEND group, “the taking of foreign hostages is to draw the attention of the people of these countries to happenings in Nigeria. Their governments know and suppress this slavery and economic genocide from their people. These truths will now be forced into the open” (Guardian newspaper, 21 January 2006). The crux of the matter is that not only are the Niger-Delta people marginalized and excluded from the benefits of oil wealth, they are treated as inferior or less human. What happened in Louisiana in April this year is a tip of the iceberg of what the people of Niger-Delta have been subjected to for over 5 decades of oil exploration. While it was easier for British Petroleum (BP) to explain to the whole world the causes of the oil spillage in the Gulf of Mexico and came out with a responsive plan to clean up the affected areas, the same BP, along with the Dutch-owned Shell Petroleum Company and other American and European owned oil explorers who own oil blocs in the Niger Delta have been silent for years over their activities in the Niger-Delta region which have resulted in constant oil spills, environmental degradation, and gas flaring.
Nigeria is one of the largest oil producing countries in the world. The home to these oil deposits is the Niger-Delta region, made up of Bayelsa, Rivers, Delta, Cross Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Imo, Edo, Ondo and Abia states, all in the Southern part of Nigeria. Niger-Delta ranks the sixth world's largest exporter of crude oil and ranks third as world's largest producer of palm oil after Malaysia and Indonesia.
The region is also rich in other agricultural produce such as cassava, rubber, timber, pineapple, cocoa, cashew, rice, yam and orange. In spite of the enormous resources that abound in the region, the region still has majority of its people living and dying in poverty. The people have watched for many decades how politicians, foreign nationals and government officials have enriched themselves from the proceeds accrued from oil exploration, while leaving them impoverished and their environment degraded and polluted. There is high mortality rate, poor health facilities (in most cases one doctor for every 150,000 inhabitants), inadequate or lack of transportation facilities, lack of schools, epileptic electricity supply (in some regions, the only light that shines at night comes from gas flare from the oil wells), lack of portable drinking water, environmental degradation yielding poor and unhealthy agricultural produce (in some cases fishes smell of crude oil). Coupled with these is the hostility of the oil companies towards their host communities and the reprisal attacks on the side of the federal government when it comes to handling any dispute between the oil companies and the host communities.
Several attempts made by the Niger-Deltans in the past to draw the attention of the government and oil companies to their plights were repressed and silenced. Eminent personalities such as Isaac Adaka Boro, Ken Saro Wiwa and other Ogoni elites have lost their lives in their bid to fight for the development of the region. Isaac Boro was arrested for challenging the Federal Government in 1966 and sentenced to death by then Military head of state, Major-Gen Aguiyi Ironsi but was later pardoned by Gen. Yakubu Gowon who took over power from him. Ken Saro Wiwa, a writer and human rights activist, made several attempts to draw the attention of both the Nigerian government and other foreign governments to the suffering of his people but his attempts were repressed. He was accused of murder and sentenced to death by hanging with other eight Ogoni elites in 1995 by the military dictator, General Sani Abacha.
Perhaps for years, what has preoccupied the minds of the Nigerian government and the oil companies is how much wealth could be accrued from oil exploration and exportation. The least item on their agenda is human and infrastructural development, which is needed for human existence. This apathy to human and infrastructural development has created a culture of violence as the people have resorted to various means to make ends meet. It is intuitively true that in a country where politicians are more interested in amassing wealth for themselves against the welfare of the citizens of the state; where the citizens have no confidence in government; where the future looks bleak and where a greater majority are treated like the “other,” there is bound to be disorder. Every year thousands of youths graduate from higher institutions with no hope of gaining employment. Those who work in the oil companies are left with menial jobs. Many are not even educated, not because they wished to be uneducated but because there is no means of education. Yet in the same society, the wealth of the nation is left in the hands of a very few. The little money mapped out for the development of the region is misappropriated by corrupt leaders and politicians who manage these offices, thereby widening the gap between the rich and the poor.
As J.P Clark rightly states “the casualties are not those who started a fire and now cannot put it out; thousands are burning that had no say in the matter; the casualties are many, and a good number well outside the scene of ravage and wreck.” Ironically, those who started this Harmattan fire that is burning the entire country down are well outside the scene. The Federal government of Nigeria who failed to pay attention to the suffering of its citizens; the foreign oil nationals who were indifferent to the plights of their hosts and the politicians who armed the jobless youths with guns with which they fought their opponents during 1999 and 2003 elections. It is true that Nigerian government and foreign oil nationals have lost so much money because of the lingering crisis but those who bear the brunt are those who have been taken hostages. Many of them have no say in the matter. The shift in focus has been tremendous, from kidnapping of expatriate oil workers to relatives of politicians to relatives of those in the Diaspora and now anybody on sight.
Kidnapping takes place anytime and anywhere, in the churches, on the streets, in the hospitals and even at home. Like an inferno, other states outside the Niger-Delta region are drawn to this evil practice, mostly for monetary purposes. No longer is the statement that the rich can no longer sleep because the poor are hungry and prowl the street aptly true, both the rich and the poor can no longer sleep because nobody is sacred anymore. The rate of kidnapping is so alarming that Nigeria will lose a whole generation or more if nothing is done urgently. The truth is that a lot of people are idle and cannot find a sustainable means of livelihood. Job creation should be attended to adequately to ensure that many people are gainfully employed. Apart from the get-rich-quick syndrome that pervades Nigerian society, many of the youths have taken to kidnapping as a means of livelihood. Nigeria has money that could comfortably take care of some of these pressing issues but misappropriation of public fund is a major threat to Nigerian development. On the other hand, the ecological problems as well as other pressing issues that plague the Niger-Delta region should be attended to immediately. It is because these issues are left unattended for decades that many militia groups have evolved in the Niger-Delta, giving rise to the present situation that is affecting not only those in the Niger-Delta but everybody in Nigeria. This will in many ways calm the nerves of many militias groups who have taken to violence to press home their points.
This column was printed in the October 24, 2010 - November 6, 2010 edition.