Urhobo Historical Society

The Guardian [Lagos] Editorial Opinion:

LAGOS, NIGERIA.     Thursday, October 09 2003

The president and the Warri crisis

NEARLY four long weeks after cessation of hostilities in Warri, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo finally paid a one-day official visit to the war-ravaged city, two weeks ago. The visit was meant to provide Mr President a first-hand assessment of the effects of prolonged fighting between Ijaw and Itsekiri ethnic militias. It was also meant to show the harassed people of Warri that their President was in touch with them in their moments of sorrow and pain. The feud was disastrous, considering the degree of destruction of lives and property. Although there have been no official figures, it is believed that goods worth millions of Naira were lost to the unfortunate incident.

During the visit, the President spoke on the criminality of some of the actions of the youths and their sponsors. He listened to stakeholders and opinion leaders from the three ethnic groups in Warri. Most of the groups rejected the Danjuma Report and called on the President to implement the Justices Nnaemeka-Agu and Idoko reports. The Ijaw and Urhobo also called for the creation of separate local governments for the three ethnic groups, a call opposed by the Itsekiri. The President had a word for the men who have perfected the scourge of illegal oil bunkering. This was the essence of the President's visit.

Still, there are many questions that need to be asked. Why did the President delay his visit to the war-torn area? Why did he not put forward any concrete proposals during the visit? Of what use was the visit if all the President did was to give the impression that his mind was already made up on certain issues? Why did he spend only a day in Warri? Why did he inspect the devastated town from the air when his physical presence among displaced citizens would have created a personal touch?

In times of crisis, the people look up to their leader. A leader is one who inspires confidence in times of extreme distress, and whose capacity to provide hope is sufficient to keep the people going. It was strange that the President did not visit Warri throughout the crisis for an on-the-spot assessment. Such a visit would have gone a long way to show that he cared about the plight of the people and the state of the economy.

The general thinking was that the president delayed his visit because a broad policy was being fashioned out. However, there was great disappointment when he arrived in the town, held a meeting with stakeholders, flew over Warri in a helicopter and left the town on the same day. An all-night stay, interspersed with meetings would have helped him to sound out people of different persuasions. It is clear that in all the cases of ethnic violence in different parts of the country, the real issues have not been resolved. There is still disenchantment in the Warri area. Whereas the President boldly and triumphantly walked the streets of Monrovia, he could not muster enough confidence to do same on a war-ravaged home soil. This is indeed ironic. The Governor of the State aptly demonstrated his concern for the enormity of the problem at home.

At the peak of the crisis, he relocated to Warri. Although the fighting did not cease, that singular act showed him as a leader who was ready to take symbolic actions. This is what the nation expected and continues to expect from the President in times of distress. He should endeavour to build a consensus in the Warri area. If the solution is in creating local governments for the contending groups as the two previous panels had recommended, this should be done without delay. Failure to do this may cost the country another round of hostilities and millions of barrels of crude oil. Above all, it would continue to reiterate the claim that the nation is prone to ethnic strife.

As it is, the people of Warri have nothing to show for the enormous oil wealth in their area. As a result, there is increased poverty and frustration. Indeed, in a sense, the crisis is a manifestation of deep poverty and an ambiguous approach to wealth distribution. The city is currently in the throes of a deep recession, with the exodus of oil firms to more friendly towns. The large army of youths should be catered for in terms of employment and social services. Often, they are ready canon fodder for the warmongers in the area.

The situation in Warri requires direct and massive government investment. The NDDC alone, is not a solution. Currently, the Federal Government has neglected the constitutional provision that makes 13 per cent allocation to oil-bearing states mandatory. This should be redressed. The Governors in the Niger Delta should also learn to use these funds entrusted to them judiciously by embarking on projects that would make a difference in the lives of the people. There should be a deliberate and responsive policy put in place to address the high level of unemployment in the entire region.

It does bear reiteration that a decision, firm and sound, has to be taken on the Warri crisis. There has been too much procrastination and too many postponements. The Idoko and Nnaemeka-Agu reports ought to have been implemented. The reports contained detailed recommendations on Warri and its administration. Certainly, government's decisions may not please everyone. But inertia or simply postponing the evil day is tantamount to failed leadership. We should not pretend that the issues would go away. They will always return to haunt us.

Finally, it behoves the people of Warri to learn to live in harmony and peace with one another. These peoples are so bound together by blood, culture, marriage, geography and politics that their fate is mutually intertwined. When a fitting solution is ultimately found, they would still have to live together and build the area as part of their contribution to the growth of the nation. They should realise this and champion the cause of violence with less enthusiasm.