President Muhammadu Buhari, who was due to kick-start the clean up exercise for the environmental damage done by oil exploration in the Niger Delta, pulled out of the trip this morning. The clean up of fishponds and land was due to start in Ogoniland, Rivers State, today and the president’s visit was heralded by Environment Minister Amina Mohammed and Buhari’s spin-doctors as a sign that he will not neglect the region.
But a new militant group, the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA), who have been blowing up oil installations in the region in the past few weeks, made it clear that Buhari was not welcome. A man claiming to represent the NDA said in a recorded phone call: “Buhari is trying to visit Ogoniland, but he should sign his death warrant before coming to Port Harcourt or try to visit any state of the Niger Delta community, Biafra land. We are starting a dance he cannot finish. We shall dance like vultures. He [Buhari] has dared to wake a sleeping lion, but I promise him this time around if he tries to step his foot in any community of the Niger Delta, in Biafraland, he will not go back alive. Any Niger Deltan who will try to walk with Buhari shall also go to his grave that day. This is our assurance.”
The NDA seem to have allied themselves with the Biafran separatists, seeking independence from Nigeria.
Responding to the NDA threat, Brigadier General Rabe Abubakar, Nigeria’s director of defence information, told the International Business Times UK: “Niger Delta is part of Nigeria and will remain part of Nigeria for life. Buhari is the president, he is number one, he can go anywhere he wants. [The] NDA are just criminals and we are treating them as criminals. We are not being intimidated, we remain focused to ensure security in the country and that Nigeria remains one. Nobody is above the interest of the country.”
Despite the bluster from General Abubakar, it appears Buhari can’t go anywhere he wants. A president who has visited 29 countries in his first year in office, has hardly been to any Nigerian state beyond his own, Katsina, since coming to power in May last year. Last week, he cancelled a scheduled visit to Lagos and also cancelled another one to commission a monorail in Calabar. He is yet to visit the northeast – the hotbed of the Boko Haram insurgency.
Now, following threats from the NDA, a president who rose to the rank of general in the Nigerian army, has pulled out of a planned visit to the Niger Delta. No matter the excuses wheeled out by the Buhari propaganda machine, this smells worse than an oil spill. Part of Buhari’s appeal as a former soldier was based on the belief that he would be operating in his comfort zone in dealing with Nigeria’s security challenges. Ducking out of this visit on the back of threats by militants, paints Buhari, in Nigerian eyes, just like former president Goodluck Jonathan, who cancelled Independence Day parades due to bomb threats. Buhari’s pulling out of the trip and sending Vice President Yemi Osinbajo has already been ridiculed on social media. One commentator quipped killing the VP “will amount to waste of bomb!”
A failed state is one in which the government has lost control of its territory. It is clear that Nigeria’s security agencies can’t secure Ogoniland long enough for the president to undertake his photo-op. It is even worse news for ordinary Nigerians when the president is not safe in any part of the country.
Earlier this week, journalist Donu Kogbara, an Ogoni, spoke on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story programme about the need for Buhari to “win hearts and minds” in the Niger Delta. The president is not only losing that battle, he is losing whatever is left of his credibility.