By Abdul Mahmud
The Nigerian apocalypse dawns anytime soon. That is if the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger-Delta (MEND) makes good its threat to rain nuclear on our people. Not that the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has ever listed MEND as a rogue group that possesses nuclear capacity, or near capacity for unleashing human destruction on the scale America unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for us to take its threat seriously.
This piece isn’t about the apocalypse, neither is it about the end of history, nor the defining point when historians look back at our imagined past and record our end as an act of delinquency. This piece seeks to draw attention to the threat of MEND. Empty as the threat may appear, it does not permit us the fantasy of drawing on the repertoire of jokes to mimic our condition nor does it invite us to ponder the fiction that the group can willy-nilly create conditions in which the escalation of conflict becomes a sad reality.
The reality on the ground suggests it cannot. We cannot be too certain. What is however certain is that we cannot afford to sit on our palms believing that the government is capable of protecting us. Those who believe that the government can provide them panoply of protection will never know when that moment of ‘you are on your own’ arrives.
Before the nuclear rain comes, there is this small matter of ban. Last week, MEND warned Elder Orubebe to stay away from the Niger-delta, the wetland of his birthplace, or face its wrath. The ban infringes on the fundamental right to freedom of movement; but what does Orubebe’s right to freedom of movement mean to a group that claims its leader, Henry Okah, is unjustly bound to the bricks and bars of the South African prison by the triangle of interests of President Jonathan, Orubebe and the South African state.
For MEND, there are no definable rules of engagement. Taking out Elder Orubebe by any means necessary is fair. MEND also warned that its impending bloody campaign won’t end at the doorstep of the Ijaw-born politician. It warned that South Africans would pay with their lives for the complicit role the Pretoria government played in the jailing of Henry Okah.
The warning is not the xenophobic type, nor is it akin to the type skinheads issue to immigrants across Europe. This one, in its lethality, provides the Pretoria government the window for negotiation: release Henry Okah or we will visit Armageddon on your nationals. The question that naturally follows is: can MEND unleash terror that would serve as a response to the shenanigans of our government and of South Africa? The answer is yes and no.
Yes. Our first millennial decade was birthed by conflicts. From Zaki Biam to Odi, where the state violently put down the people’s revolts against poor governance and governmentality, the state unwittingly established the paradigm for which subsequent communities during the decade and beyond engaged it. By exploring the geography of violence to secure pyrrhic victories over harmless communities the state weaned itself off other communal interests that once converged with its own and ensured the primacy of its interest.
The weaning unleashed an epoch of real social violence, of broken social contract, that denied the state as the primary site of identification. A state that seeks to enhance pluralism must be neutral, must respect genuine right to self-determination, must promote progressive form of citizenship; and above all must not behave the way our state behaved in Zaki Biam and Odi. Unfortunately, the state was dulled to the foregoing, so it entered into conflicts from which it emerged conflicted and extremely weakened. Witness the births of MEND, Boko Haram and the group whose birth was recently announced, Ansaru.
Let’s be clear about the nature of those conflicts. They were, and still, on the one hand, conflicts over the ownership of natural resources. And on the other hand, conflicts over securing the state. Whilst the state and the armed groups appealed to a common political symbol, ‘we the people’, they strenuously denied the people their agency, the capacity to make choices. Sadly, the people were, and are still, the victims of conflicts. For all its threats MEND made good its promise when on Independence Day in 2010 in Abuja it detonated bombs that killed scores. Who says MEND cannot repeat same and on a wider scale?
The second millennial decade began the same conflictual way the first ended. Since the 2010 attacks on Abuja, MEND has not launched any major offensive, which suggests that the removal of Henry Okah from the ‘site of action’ impacted on the group. If this assessment is correct, what the absence of Henry Okah conveys therefore is that MEND has no mass followership, the kind that can embark on terror offensive of a grander scale; or that its sleeper cells, if they do exist, are not in any fighting shape.
A point to be made here: the convergence of former militants and the state around the Amnesty Programme isolates the group. And with the objective conditions on the ground not favourable to MEND, “we will rain nuclear on Nigerians” becomes farfetched, pure fantasy. May we sound a note of caution, here, too: with the un-fixity of conditions, no one can tell with all certainty how it will reinvent itself.
In undeveloped civil democracies, lacking democrats and institutional structures that make the civil content of democracy profound, it is extremely difficult to place a handle on how non-state groups, intent on exacting demands on the state, go about articulating those demands. For MEND we can only hazard a guess, contingent on our knowledge of what it is capable of.
We are at the dawn of the second millennial decade and nothing challenges us than the threats homegrown terror groups represent. When such threats are neutralised by a superior force or are made harmless by the state, reordered to accommodate shared humanity, social justice and equality, only then can we beat our chests and say: “this threat too shall surely pass”.
• Mahmud, a lawyer, is the president of the Public Interest Lawyers League (PILL).
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