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Will Okah’s release end militancy in Niger Delta?

Spokesman for MEND, Mr. Jomo Gbomo had severally demanded the release of Okah by the federal government as a pre-condition to ending the armed agitation…

Spokesman for MEND, Mr. Jomo Gbomo had severally demanded the release of Okah by the federal government as a pre-condition to ending the armed agitation in the Niger Delta. Other demands made by the MEND include the abrogation of laws regulating the nation’s oil and gas industry, provision of infrastructure in oil producing communities, increased revenue allocation to oil-producing states and the withdrawal of soldiers from the Niger Delta region as well as the rehabilitation of displaced persons following the military offensive in Delta State.

Responding to the news of Okah’s planned release, Gbomo expressed pessimism that the release of their leader is a permanent solution to the armed struggle in the Niger Delta, saying that the amnesty offered by government doesn’t allow room for the MEND “to ventilate on issues that led to the armed agitation in the first place.

“MEND doesn’t believe the current amnesty offer is directed at freedom fighters because there is no room for any form of dialogue and the issues that provoked armed agitation were never featured. We support Henry Okah’s decision to accept any deal that will ensure his early release to attend to his health under the current circumstances.

“Since he has no weapons to surrender, the deal should be a straight forward one except the government has another trick up its sleeves,” Gbomo said.

Prominent Ijaw leader, Chief Edwin K. Clark in his reaction said the amnesty offered Okah by the federal government shows President Yar’adua as a listening president, adding that the MEND leader didn’t commit any crime that warranted his incarceration and trial.

“Okah didn’t commit any crime against Angola or Equatorial Guinea. But this is a welcome development and the president should be commended for heeding wise advice,” Clark said.

However, as reports of the impeding release of Okah heightened in the media before Thursday presidential proclamation, the MEND has continued its attacks on oil installations in the Niger Delta to demonstrate that the struggle in the Niger Delta is beyond an individual. The latest attack by MEND occurred at the Chevron pipeline linking Alero creek through Abiteye to the Chevron export terminal in Delta State.

A MEND statement by Gbomo said its fighters on Friday at dawn damaged the recently repaired Chevron pipeline and destroyed it, declaring that the group would damage any pipeline repaired by the government.

Gbomo said the federal government and oil companies care more about the flow of oil than the return of displaced persons. “If the government can show the same speed in which it exhibited in repairing the lines as returning the displaced communities, the region will be a better place”, Gbomo emphasized.

The group intimated that government’s nonchallant attitude to the plight of displaced persons has provoked it to decide that even when talks are on-going there will be no repairs on any destroyed facilities until both parties agree on a common position on the region’s future.

The question therefore is how confident is the Yar’adua administration that the release of the MEND leader would bring an end to the lingering and escalating violence, and kidnappings in the troubled region.

When eventually Okah regains his freedom, analysts will be watching to see how the MEND  will navigate from being an armed group to a civil organization and how the group will chart a new course in the agitation for a better deal for Niger Delta communities.

For one, following the military initiative by the federal government to dislodge the militants from their camps, there is the gamble of measuring how influential Okah will be in convincing his fellow arm bearers to lay down their weapons and embrace dialogue in resolving the problems confronting the Niger Delta. Whether he will succeed or fail, only time will tell. Secondly, there is the issue of the emergence of rogue militant groups that lack focus in terms of the agitation for resource control, but have hidden under the cover of the struggle to perpetrate criminal acts such as kidnappings for ransom, oil theft and illegal bunkering.