This question which agitates the minds of an ever larger number of citizens in the Niger Delta ought to underline every domestic policy consideration of President-elect Muhammadu Buhari, as he gets ready to assume office, and of the leaders of the victorious All Progressives Congress. The voting pattern in the election that saw to Buhari and APC making history as the first opposition candidate and party to defeat a sitting president and the ruling party may have led to other geo-political regions assuming centre-stage in the inevitable jostling for political appointments and relevance. For obvious reasons, however, it would be a grave error to mistake the current calm in the creeks for the Niger Delta’s acceptance of its political annihilation to go with its economic expropriation and environmental despoliation. If any socio-political issue poses a highly inflammable problem and a potent pitfall to President Buhari’s vision of change, it is the still simmering anger of the Niger Delta. And not merely from any so-called “gang-up of the North and South-west” to deny their son a second term, as some aggrieved indigenes claim.
I believe it is not necessary to spell out the reasons why the Niger Delta crisis is the National Question in microcosm and any sensate adult who needs to be told why is a sworn enemy of Nigeria. Happily, Buhari does not need to be reminded of the place of that simmering wetland in the political economy of the nation. Simply put, our economic security, and arguably, our corporate integrity, depends on that harried region’s peace and tranquillity. Perhaps it is too soon to ask him for his Niger Delta “Marshall Plan,” a comprehensive programme of transforming that seething swamp of anger and resentment into a hub of infrastructural and human resource development, a glittering belt of petrochemical and metallurgical investment and job creation that would drive Nigeria’s industrial revolution.
It is not too early, however, to ask that the Niger Delta be—to use the political language of the times—“adequately represented” in the change government. If the geo-political regions flexing their muscles over the zoning or sharing of key public offices are staking their claims on their votes, the Niger Delta can make an even more compelling claim: its resources, the veritable oil (and gas) that keeps the wheels and joints of the creaky nation lubricated and able to function at all. At any rate, a democracy presupposes differences in voting patterns and requires healthy dissent. And citizens must have the assurance that irrespective of the general verdict, their individual or group interests would not be adversely affected.
Moreover, there is always the question of winning hearts and minds, of making those who voted against the winning candidate and party review their decision. As it happens, I was recently involved, behind the scene, in formulating a strategy for wooing the South-east which, quite curiously, “voted” literally to the last man and woman for the PDP, thereby denying itself what it would have had on a platter: speaker of the House of Representatives or president of the Senate. Yet, as I pursued my thoughts on what ails the East and what must be done as a remedy, I couldn’t escape the irony: an indigene of the Niger Delta, from a region with the same “voting” pattern as the East and an arguably stronger case of marginalisation, labouring on ways in which that other group’s interests might be protected nevertheless. By the way, I insist on the caution signalled by the inverted commas around the words “voted” and “voting” as a result of the indisputable irregularities, not to use a stronger word, which marred the elections in the South and South-east.
As if to bring the irony home, I began to receive queries along the lines of my title: “So, na wetin Niger Delta go get for this government?” As an activist first and foremost, it was not a question I wished to entertain, knowing what informed it: the aforementioned zoning or sharing of political offices currently exercising the ingenuity of the winning party. But then it dawned on me that in a clamorous multi-ethnic society such as ours, further bifurcated by two foreign religions, who gets what in the allocation of political benefits, especially now that every region cries marginalisation, is as vital to the sense of participation and involvement as the monthly allocation from the federal purse. There is a reason, after all, for that awkward enshrinement of federal character in the constitution. But while the Niger Delta might be calm now, thanks to President Jonathan’s timely and laudable acceptance of defeat that defused the tension which threatened to unleash mayhem and fulfil the cynical prophesies of the end of Nigeria in 2015, the boiling rage of the region caused by mindless exploitation and environmental degradation since 1958 requires the most astute and beneficial handling, else we may just have merely postponed a looming catastrophe. I wouldn’t urge any specific policy step yet—for instance, whether or not to discontinue late President Yar’Adua’s amnesty programme which saved the oil sector and so the economy from total collapse—but I would suggest an immediate engagement by Buhari with genuine leaders of the Niger Delta.
I cannot, of course, say what will become of the Niger Delta, not being a soothsayer. I can, however, urge my interlocutors to be optimistic. Beyond Buhari’s avowed commitment to change, I was glad to note that the unrelieved plight of the Niger Delta was at the very top of his list of problems requiring immediate attention and regarding which he sought the co-operation of the National Assembly in his speech at the induction of newly-elected parliamentarians. His own phrasing is apt: “Devastation and environmental degradation in the Niger Delta area which must be attended to.” The Niger Delta waits with great expectations.