By Kennedy Emetulu
It seems true that President Muhammadu Buhari is not visiting Ogoniland for that much-publicised flag-off of the implementation of the UNEP Report on the cleaning up of Ogoniland and the Niger Delta. Honestly, this is a shocking and depressing development and it calls to question again the kind of advice President Buhari is receiving in Aso Rock. He may have the best of reasons or excuses for not going, but perception is reality in politics! Cancelling that visit is the last thing he should have contemplated today. Here are 10 reasons why it’s bad:
(1) The Niger Delta Avengers have threatened that he shouldn’t come; not going there, despite the whole show of military force by the Nigerian Armed Forces for the visit of the Commander-in-Chief, hands the initiative to the Niger Delta Avengers. They have showed they control the agenda of his government and his own movement within the nation. Of course, the truth is nothing would have happened to the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in Ogoniland; but, again, perception is reality.
(2) The Minister of Environment, Amina Mohammed talked up Buhari’s impending visit thus: “Buhari would return to Ogoniland where he inaugurated a fish pond in 1984 where the once flourishing pond regrettably had been destroyed by oil pollution. The Federal Government is coming back to restore the ecosystem to what it used to be and as such restore the peoples’ source of livelihood”. Obviously, mentioning that the president was going to Ogoniland again after his 1984 visit as a military Head of State in the circumstances of both visits was a way of making the case that between then and now life has been snuffed out of the environment there and Buhari is now returning life to the people and that environment with his visit. The symbolism would have been nice. But what have we now? The president is after all not coming!
(3) Buhari’s visit would have been the most significant thing in Ogoniland since the judicial murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa and for Buhari, it would have been a personal victory and a personal exorcism of some sort as well. Remember that Buhari was General Sani Abacha’s head of the PTF that was spending the oil money at the time Saro-Wiwa was killed. Buhari supported that killing as part of that government and Nigerians and the world condemned it strongly. As the world knows, Saro-Wiwa’s main message was not the political aspect of the Ogoni case, but the environmental aspect. Saro-Wiwa was essentially killed because he drew attention to the environmental destruction oil exploration brought to the Niger Delta. As president, Buhari would have used this opportunity to show with his presence his genuine commitment to cleaning up Ogoniland particularly and the Niger Delta generally. With that he would have come a full circle from his Abacha days. He would have used his presence to call for the unity of the Ogoni and the Niger-Delta with the rest of Nigeria, so we all find solutions to the problems of lack of development and environmental degradation ravaging the area.
(4) One of the worst perceptions created by Buhari’s non-appearance is that it has sent more shockwaves through the Nigeria-related international business community involved in the oil business. True, everyone has been hearing of the Niger Delta Avengers and all they’ve been up to, but there would have been no better opportunity to pooh-pooh their claim than landing at the epicentre of oil production and carrying on government and international business as if they do not exist. This is what gives international investors confidence in the real sense. Not going there is simply a huge advertisement for the viability of the Niger Delta Avengers’ insurgency. Buhari has just inadvertently made them seem stronger than they are in the eyes of the international business community.
(5) Of course, as with the cancelled Lagos visit, the real loss for Rivers and Nigeria will be economic. Lagos is the business capital of the country and in a situation where the country is going through tough economic times and where the singular most important figure in government should be projecting the country as open for business, Buhari staying away did not help the Lagos and the national business community to make the case to the international community that Lagos is open for business. In a way, the same thing is happening with this cancelled visit to the oil capital of the country. Buhari is simply telling the international press that’s been full of negative stories about the state of our oil business that it’s as bad or worse than they’re claiming. A visit would have sent out a more positive message with regard to the state of the oil industry in Nigeria. But, no matter what gets published, the feeling cannot be shaken off amongst some that once again at a time the oil industry needed the biggest political support on the ground, Buhari backed away.
(6) Even if Buhari does not know it, his advisers must know that his stock in the South-South and the South-East is really, really down. His political allies from these areas might want to give him a different impression, but this is just the plain truth. After Buhari’s ill-advised rejection of the 2014 National Conference Report, here was an opportunity to show Nigerians and the Niger Delta that he was still committed to the Nigerian project based on fairness, equity and good governance, but he simply blew it by not coming. The political symbolism of Buhari’s visit to Ogoniland, which was the first community to prepare their own Bill of Rights under the military pursuant to a National Conference would have been immense! In fact, he was bound to gain politically from it throughout the South-South.
(7) Now, there’s also the problem of what passes for news in the circumstances of this type of impromptu cancellations. Every action of the president must have an explanation and where none is provided, people will find something, because news abhors vacuum. Call it rumour if you like, but it would serve. The president has cancelled a visit which up till this morning everyone thought he was prepared for. No matter what reason anyone gives now, alternative narratives will make more sense to some huge sections of the worried public. For instance, when he cancelled his Lagos visit, it was interpreted in some quarters as a chastisement of Bola Tinubu for going to the Ayuba Waba faction of the NLC without clearance from the government, especially when the same president was seen welcoming Governor Ibikunle Amosun of Ogun State to Aso Rock at the time he was supposed to be in Lagos for the visit. This alternative narrative made the president appear petty against the background that everybody knows Amosun is the closest person to the president politically in the South-West from their days in the ANPP and it didn’t help that Amosun is viewed as some sort of rival with Bola Tinubu for Aso Rock’s ear. While I’m not sure who the president would be welcoming today at Aso Rock, this alternative narrative is even worse in relation to this Ogoni cancelled visit. Everyone has been witnessing how Governor Nyesom Wike has been out there robustly ensuring that this visit goes hitch-free, despite the report of a directive a few days ago targeting him and Governor Ayodele Fayose over foreign travel. Wike has risen to the occasion and hasn’t allowed politics to blind him in preparing for this visit. He warned politicians from all sides not to politicise the visit, he enhanced security in areas the president is visiting by banning motorcycles and was generally making sure the president gets a proper welcome. He declared: “Mr President’s visit to the state is both historic and significant. It is historic because it marks his first official visit to the state since assuming office as the president of this great nation. It is most significant because Mr President is not on a political mission, but to kickstart the largest environmental clean-up in our nation’s history, for which Rivers people and, indeed, the Niger Delta will remain grateful.” But by cancelling the visit, it’s the president that would be seen now as politicising this, because people would think that he is indirectly backing his Transport Minister, Rotimi Amaechi in his fight against Wike by ensuring that he is not seen standing with Wike in Rivers State as his guest. That is pure pettiness; but it would be the story.
(8) Buhari by not going to Ogoniland is letting the impression stick that he is not interested in domestic visits to states, but only to foreign climes. As funny as that might sound, many people take this view seriously when they claim he has made more than thirty foreign trips since his election a year ago, while he has only visited Cross Rivers State on a state visit domestically. The implication is that he is a leader not interested in his own people.
(9) Clearly, the non-appearance has totally diminished the importance of the exercise he was supposed to come for, which is to flag-off the UNEP Report to clean Ogoni and the Niger Delta. From now on, over the time of implementation, every hitch would be viewed from the prism of the president’s absence. That cannot be good.
(10) The President had everything to gain by the optics of this visit. The national mood needed it. A no-show is simply not going to give the president any plus, no matter what excuse he ultimately comes up with, that is if he actually comes up with one. Gradually, he’s giving the impression that he’s being overwhelmed by the demands of being president.
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