BY DEACON KINGSLEY BURUTU OTUARO
Everywhere, one of the footprints of wars and conflicts is social and economic dislocation – loss of lives and valuable economic and cultural assets. Communal conflicts, including the much talked about WARRI ‘96, which was generally a crisis between Ijaw, Itsekiri, and partly Urhobo, are not an exception.
The ashes of this ethnic conflict are still very much visible in the city of WARRI, overturning the prospects of the most socially inclusive and vibrant cities in Delta State. The city, and all other communities impacted by the crisis, has never been the same. Women and children became vulnerable. Educational downtime. A new definition emerged for the city and things fell apart. The onetime economic powerhouse of Delta lost all her beauty as economic discomfort and insecurity caused the mass exodus of companies and jobs out of one of the most vibrant metropolitan cities in the Southern region of Nigeria.
Social instability took the centre stage as idleness altered the psyche and caused social disorientation among our youths. Halliburton, McDermott, Schlumberger and Julius Berger, and several other multinational corporations, including multinational oil companies, left for a safer haven. Factories and major warehouses closed down. UAC, Michelin, Gold Spot, Toyota, and African Timber & Co. (AT & C–Sapele) closed their doors. The engines stopped grinding.
The ships also sought a safer harbour, and the ports became dry docks. Importation of cars and other valuable products also stopped. Women went out of various legitimate and profitable businesses. As misery multiplied, so did jobs for young people. The city became cold. Day gave way to night. The lights were taken out of the streets. Foreigners moved back to their countries of origin. In addition, Port Harcourt and Lagos became the new destination. The misfortunes of the greatest home to talents and natural resources suddenly became the prosperity of the Lagos economy. The Lagos Port was enlarged and WARRI Port lost it all and Ogun State became the next industrial hub as companies sought refuge to set up factories and industrial estates where they could carefully exploit the massive Nigerian consumption market.
In less than a decade, WARRI became a shadow of itself, much like other impacted communities. Drainage doesn’t matter anymore, and natural watercourses were disregarded. Environmental abuse, negligence and pollution became a norm and dirt occupied the streets. Social disorder became the order of the day.
It is well over two decades but the impact of this crisis is still visible across the city of WARRI and affected towns and rural communities even as the Senator Dr Ifeanyi Okowa-led Delta State Government is visibly doing all it can to bring back the lost glory of Warri.
These were my opening assertions at the recently concluded IJAW-ITSEKIRI Leaders Summit under the auspices of the Warri Multi-Stakeholders Platform (MSP) and supported by the Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta (PIND) that was held on September 23, 2021 at the Wellington Hotel, Effurun-Warri.
Examining the topic, “the role of leaders in fostering peace, co-existence, security and development”, I can’t agree more that the next phase of the discourse of these two notable ethnic nationalities is a leadership question. Everything rises and falls on leadership, in the words of John C. Maxwell.
We can’t disagree forever. Where do we go from here? And that is “one more river these two revered ethnic nationalities must cross” in the words of Niger Delta music maestro Barrister S. Smooth. And that river is unity and walking for a better future for the next generation.
The ruins of war bring regrets and breed bitterness. But at the end of one season begins another. Light can break out of obscurity and hope in the darkest of all situations. Towards a better future, we must not be prisoners of our past. There is a place called tomorrow and must not be left behind.
There is work to be done.
1. Mutual understanding and purpose. Purpose is a more effective tool for unifying a people than a vague call for unity.
A practical case of the power of mutual understanding is an excerpt from the Vanguard July 12, 2020: “20 years after Warri war, Ijaw, Itsekiri unite against oil companies” by one of its veteran journalists, Jimitota Onoyume.
The issues highlighted on the common front between the two ethnic groups border on the inclusion of sons and daughters of Ijaws and the Itsekiri nation into the bidding process for the 57 marginal fields, or else, halt the process. Significantly, this unity of purpose played out in the support and demands of other ethnic groups for stakes in the marginal fields bidding process. Demand for the re-entry of the abandoned multi-billion-dollar Gas Revolution Industrial Park project, GRIP, and the deep seaport both in Warri South-West Local Government Area. Call for the reactivation of the dormant Omadino-Excravos and Koko-Oghoye Road projects, which have been dormant since the inception of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration.
This is a clear demonstration of unity of purpose and coming to the knowledge of the actual enemy—underdevelopment and the deprivation of the host communities by the federal government.
Fundamentally, one of the principal causative agents of these conflicts is the quest for a better life, defined by good roads, access to quality healthcare, and education for children, electricity and improved standard of living as a benefit for their contribution to the nation’s treasury. But continued inter-ethnic conflict could be a bullet in the wrong direction as both ethnic groups are vulnerable to the same environmental degradation, cave-in, loss of biodiversity and means of livelihood (flora and fauna), and outbreak of diseases occasioned by oil and gas exploration and exploitation activities, intermittent oil spillage, and constant gas flaring.
This age-long deprivation by the Federal government is enough motivation to explore a common front. We are stronger together. One voice is greater. Dissenting voices can undermine the cause.
Divergent interests cause conflicts, and seeing the semblance of needs and resources, it is enough reason to pursue a common cause for the good of our people. Let’s not look at issues that further divide us and take us back in time while others capitalize on our disunity for their gains.
Our cultures and occupations are intertwined and generally blessed with both good soil, fish, and large deposits of crude oil and other natural resources. Delta is almost seamlessly interconnected. What happens in Itsekiri land and whatever happens in Ijaw land will definitely impact on each other, just as what happens in Isoko, Urhobo, Ika, Ukwani, Aniocha-Oshimili, Olukumi affects them. We are one Delta. One people. Mutual understanding means that we must love and treat each other with respect and dignity, seeing that the interests of all parties are captured in the deal.
2. Warri like New York and Lagos.
The city should work for the greater good and its people. Warri is a metropolitan city. That implies that it is multi-cultural with different ethnic groups, some by birth and some by origin; predominantly Itsekiri, Ijaws, and Urhobo.
The task of rebuilding this great city requires that inhabitants/dwellers possess a citizenship mentality—a commitment to respecting the rights and privileges of all dwellers. This is the most effective way to tap into the enormous economic potential of this great city.
We should rise above ethnic and political sentiments and build the city of our dreams that will serve as a model for all. If Warri can be fixed, given its high cultural diversity, then every other city can be easily fixed.
Let’s rethink the future of Ijaw and Itsekiri leadership and create paths of peace and prosperity for the future generation. It is not a crime to look beyond the trivial issues and focus on our collective suffering from poverty, youth unemployment, and economic deprivation. Our children and young people deserve better than to be used as a propellant for conflicts and social disorder. It behoves us to secure and create an admirable future for the next generation. This should rather be the 21st century mind-set. How can we develop technologically and build great industrial cities? We can’t continue to spend our hard-earned resources dividing ourselves and allowing people to monetize our miseries.
Warri can work by rethinking it as the most viable seed for the economic prosperity of Delta State. Togetherness is possible. One reason is to leave something to future generations that they will be proud of.
3. One voice. Common front: Alone can just do much. It is practically impossible for anyone to achieve an extraordinary feat while walking alone. There is a reason why God has brought us together. There are a lot of similarities between occupations and natural resources. Our pains are common.
Let’s convert these pains into purpose for unity and walk together so that we can build a great estate that will benefit our people. Let’s look beyond political and ethnic lines and stop the continual relocation or abandonment of important/crucial social and economic projects by the Federal or State Governments due to ethnic disputes. Let’s not defer our progress. We can’t be deciding backward while others have gone ahead of us. Notwithstanding the location of a project, it is primarily for the good of both, indeed, all ethnicities. Delta for all. Delta first.
Finally, let’s understand the essence of cultural diversity. Diversity is colourful and beautiful. Variety is the taste of life. Let’s unlock our potential by capitalizing on our common pains and enjoying the flavour of our cultural differences.
It is time to unite and conquer in order to leave the next generation with cities and communities to be proud of, rather than conflict-torn communities and towns. Let’s build forward better. Let the factories reopen. Let the steam engines start to work again. Let the ships start anchoring at the Warri port again. Let’s use all our political and intellectual and media platforms to promote peace and unity. Let’s prioritize progress over ethnicity. The investors will smell our nectar again and the jobs will return. The glorious night of Warri will resurface and consequently across the Delta, and certainly, the greatness of Delta will be realized.
The model carefully discoursed in this paper, which is an excerpt from the Summit using Ijaw and Itsekiri as a case study, should serve as a model for all ethnic groups across the Delta. Let us, going forward, prioritise progress over ethnicity. Let Delta be great and have a place for all its citizens. No more scenes of the rocking horse.
Thank you to PIND and its strategic partners for their continued efforts to build synergy among communities, fostering peace and development across the Niger Delta.
•Deacon Kingsley Burutu Otuaro, Esq. Deputy Governor of Delta State.