Brother against brother: Reigniting Itsekiri, Ijaw tensions

THE NATION Newspaper- Shola O'Neil

To say that the $16billion Delta Gas City project (also known as the Ogidigben Export Processing Zone (EPZ)) in Delta State has been dogged by controversy is to understate the crisis that has ravaged the project since it was conceptualized over five years ago. The federal government had to move it from Koko, the headquarters of Warri North local government to Ogidigben, Warri South-West area. Since that relocation neither the project nor the Itsekiri people of Ugborodo have known peace. The sleeplessness is now gradually seeping into the creek and other parts of the state. The crisis bedeviling the laudable project climaxed last Thursday, November 13, when a terse statement from the Ministry of Petroleum Resources announced that the ground-breaking ceremony, slated for the next day, had been scuttled by security report. The ceremony was to be performed by President Goodluck Jonathan. The report did not reach the people of Ugborodo early enough or they merely hoped against hope. The Itsekiri Leaders of Thought, one of the highest organs of the ethnic group, took a coloured full-page advertorial to "Welcome the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces" to the epochal ceremony. Julius Berger Nigeria Limited one of the major contractors on site and locals were in hyper mood. The company deployed its years of experience and engineering know-how to erect a massive rostrum and a stage that would make international event planners green with envy. The Ugborodo people and entire Itsekiri nation were in frenzy and eagerly awaited the ceremony, which would lay the controversy and uncertainty over the project to rest. The aged, women and youths rehearsed signature Itsekiri dance steps to enthrall and thank President Jonathan and the foreign investors, most of who had flown into the country days earlier. But the discerning ones knew that the few hours before the ceremony were very long, particularly after the Ijaw people of Gbaramatu Kingdom, led by former MEND leader, Chief Government Ekpemupolo (aka Tompolo) issued a threat of war if the President performed the ceremony without addressing their grievances over the project. Their counterparts in Seikebolou in Ogulagha clan of Burutu LGA also made their views clear. The protest by the Gbaramatu started months earlier and picked up steam at the end of July, when they claimed that the site earmarked for the project sits almost entirely (75percent) on their land. Chief Godspower Gbenekama, who was the arrowhead of the agitation, said a number of Ijaw clans in the area, including Ikpokpo, a land in dispute between them and the Itsekiri, would be wiped out by the project. Nevertheless, the 'security report' on which The Presidency and President Jonathan hinged his failure to kick off the project was the massive protest held at Oporoza, headquarters of Gbaramatu clan on that Wednesday, barely 48 hours to his arrival. Scores of masked youths stormed the community in dozens of boats dressed in the traditional red and white Ijaw war attires and sang their 'Egbesu' war songs. They were joined by women and other youth groups, who displayed several placards condemning the handling of the project and alleged undue influence and bias of the state government and Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan. They were particularly riled that the governor set up a committee in Ugborodo without doing same for them, even though the committee was established to unite Itsekiri warring leaders. Chief Gbenekama, who read the text of the speech, alleged: "We are convinced that the NNPC/the Federal Government is taking sides with the Delta State Government, which is bent on promoting an Itsekiri agenda aimed at continuous oppression and marginalization of the interest of the Ijaw of Gbaramatu Kingdom in a project that we the Gbaramatu people have a major stake." Explaining that the protest was not against the "EPZ project per se", he said their grouse was with perceived "grand design by the NNPC/Government to oppress and marginalize Gbaramatu Kingdom in a project that cuts across major part of our land. We demand that two interface committees be set up for the Ijaw of Gbaramatu and those of Ogulagha respectively. We have a 23-man committee in place to negotiate Gbaramatu interest in the EPZ project. The committee's list and names of members have since been submitted to the Delta State government and the NNPC." He warned that if the peace in the area was to be maintained along with unhindered operation by contractors working on the project, the NNPC must open a channel of discussion with the various Ijaw groups, especially the host communities of Gbramatu kingdom. The protest was on the heels of a similar position canvassed by the 'EPZ host communities Gbaramatu Kingdom', in an open letter to President Jonathan published as advertorial in several national dailies on Monday, November 10. The message of the advertorial was the text read by Gbenekama in the Oporoza three days later. How Tompolo stopped Jonathan At the height of the uncertainty and doubt about the President's visit, Governor Uduaghan was forced to issue a statement assuring Deltans that the 'show would go on'. The governor promised that no amount of threat would deter Jonathan from coming to break the ground for the take-off of the project. Sources close to Uduaghan said he made the announcement after consulting with Jonathan, who also assured Nigerians during the flag-off of his re-election campaign at the Eagle Square that he would be in the state. Some Itsekiri leaders said the plot to scuttle the ceremony was perfected between The Presidency, Ministry of Petroleum Resources and Tompolo several days before the protest and advertorials. It was learnt that President Jonathan had been under intense pressure from the former Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND) leader and the Gbaramatu people to stop Jonathan from going to Warri. It was further gathered that having bowed to the pressure, the president got into a fix on how to cancel the ceremony with minimal damage to his reputation and his relationship with Governor Uduaghan, who was also pressing the president to keep his promise to Deltans. It was learnt that before Uduaghan gave the assurance, he got strong pledge the president would be in Ogidigben. An Itsekiri source said they were reliably informed by their source at the Ministry of Petroleum Resources that the use of 'security report' to get out of the sticky situation emanated from there. "The decision was taken by very high people in the ministry and it was sold to those who did not want the president to perform the ceremony. The Gbaramatu people were asked to perfect it by going back home to create the enabling atmosphere for security operatives to give the report." And if the purpose of the Wednesday protest at Oporoza was to obtain an adverse security report, the masterminds couldn't have performed the task better. Hundreds of fierce-looking youths who stormed the community in dozens of speedboats when the protest was on performed creditably. They vowed to return to the creeks and unleash mayhem. A very reliable security source in the region also told our reporter that the Gbaramatu protest was given detailed attention and as soon as the Ijaw youths stormed Oporoza with boat, the Department of State Security and other security arms were briefed by their men on ground and same was relayed. One of those propounding the theory, remind this reporter that "the president would have performed the ceremony when he visited the state for the NIMASA university, but the Ministry of Petroleum Resources and the NNPC said they wanted another date. It is now beginning to seem that they had it all planned." Accusations and counter-accusations Apparently sensing foul play in the 'security report' that scuttled the ceremony and the power play that led to it, at a hurriedly summoned press conference held at the home of Pa Jos Ayomike, renowned historian and leader, he said, "We cautioned President Jonathan that he sits above and beyond the ebbs and flows and rough seas of the Nigerian society and as the father of all, he should ignore the baseless threat of war with Itsekiri from his Ijaw brothers and perform the ground-breaking ceremony of the EPZ. He didn't heed to the warning, but rather pitched his tent with his Ijaw warlords and did the wrong thing. Itsekiri, Nigerians and indeed the world now know that President Jonathan is pursuing an Ijaw agenda. This agenda is to exterminate the Itsekiri in their God-given land. Nigerians and indeed the world are watching. We will resist it and we will never be intimidated by threats of war and genocide against the Itsekiri," Itsekiri leaders in Ugborodo also organized their own protest on Sunday to express displeasure. They were joined by the Ilaje from the neighbouring communities at Ogidgben. The protest led by controversial and outspoken Itsekiri traditional title holder, Chief Ayirimi Emami, Pa Maku Utieyin, John Anderson and Madam Mercy Olowu, Ugborodo Women Leader, among others hinted that President Jonathan played ethnic politics with the project. The text of the conference issued by the protesters and read by Mr. Elijah Itse-Wilkie, regretted that the president "listened to the threat of Tompolo and some of his Gbaramatu brothers barely 24 hours to the eagerly anticipated ground breaking ceremony." They regretted that the President's U-turn was done after he had told the world during his Presidential re-election speech at Abuja that he was coming for the ceremony, expressing shock that "even the Governor, Dr. Uduaghan declared that nobody can stop the president from coming to Delta State to perform the ground breaking ceremony of the EPZ," did not sway The Presidency. They were also unimpressed that Jonathan did not bow to Boko Haram threat to bomb the Eagle Square venue of his re-election campaign flag-off, but succumbed to his own brothers' threat. "How come the threat from Tompolo and his Gbaramatu kinsmen stopped the much-desired ground breaking ceremony of the EPZ that will guarantee economic growth and snowball Nigeria into the proud place in the world economy was aborted?" they wondered. Ilaje leaders, Durojaiye Ogunsemiore and Prince Abayomi Olufeyinmi were very piquant in their reactions. The latter urged that "President Jonathan must show that he is not an ethnic President, but of the entire country. He should do that by showing that his people's threat cannot prevent him from doing what is right. We are not happy." Ogunsemiore hinted of conspiracy as he recalled that months earlier, Tompolo and other Ijaw youths from Gbaramatu had visited the scene with Governor Uduaghan, Emami and their Itsekiri counterparts, adding that "They ate and drank at 911 (Emami's resort in Ajudaibo)". He then wondered why the same people would create the impression that the place was not safe for the president to visit and perform a task that is important to the development of not only the immediate beneficiaries, but the entire country. Besides, they insisted that there was no doubt that the disputed land belongs to the Itsekiri of Ugborodo, who had hosted both the Ilaje and other tribes for several centuries without any contest. However, Governor Uduaghan exonerated Jonathan of any blame in the perceived conspiracy theory and allegation of bias by his Itsekiri kinsmen. He said, "I found it very unfortunate and objectionable for anyone to accuse Mr. President of being partisan and ask him to resign. If the President did not love Delta State he would not have brought the project here." The governor reminded those accusing the Jonathan-led Federal Government that the President had been to state at least twice in 2014 and in one of the occasions his assignment was to flag-off a very key project, the NIMASA Maritime University in Okerenkoko in Gbaramatu clan. "Is that a man we should be accusing of having hatred for us? I don't think it is right for people to ask him to resign and as I told them when they said it, I said they must separate the issues, let them deal with the issues and stop being personal. If you have personal issues with anybody don't bring it to the issue of this gas project because Mr. President means well." Caught in the middle of a dangerous media war between the Ijaw, who accused him of bias and his Itsekiri kinsmen, who feel the governor is allowing his political interests and relationship with President Jonathan, rather than the truth to guide his decision. He is between a rock and a hard place, but in his words, "I mean well and we (with Jonathan) are determined to ensure that that project kicks off."


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