Two weeks, three troubles: The trials of PANDEF

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By Emma Amaize, Jimitota Onoyume and Davies Ihemnachor

PORT HARCOURT-  FROM the last week of October to preceding weekend, it has been two weeks, three problems for the Pan-Niger Delta Forum, PANDEF, which prides itself as the authentic body of the people of Niger Delta region.

L-R (Sitting) Alabo Tonye Graham-Douglas, Former Minister of Aviation and PANDEF Leader, Rivers State; His Excellency, Prof Oserheimen Osunbor, SAN Former Governor of Edo State; His Excellency, His Royal Majesty, King Alfred Diette Spiff, Pioneer Military Governor of Old Rivers State, Amayanabo of Twon Brass and Co-Chairman, PANDEF CWC; Chief Dr Edwin Clark, National Leader, PANDEF, Mrs Marie Ebikake, Former Commissioner for Transport, Bayelsa State in a Group Photograph with other Members of PANDEF when Pan Niger-Delta Forum [PANDEF] Held its 4th General Assembly Yesterday in Port Harcourt. Photo: Nwankpa Chijioke

Though the group led by former Federal Commissioner for Information and eminent Niger-Delta leader, Chief Edwin Kiagbodo Clark, had been weathering internal storm, especially since August when a rival body, Pan-Niger Delta People’s Congress, PNDPC, emerged to torpedo it, but it did not prepare for the present adversity.

Resignation letter

A plain sign that something was wrong came on the eve of PANDEF’s fourth general assembly, October 26, in Port-Harcourt, Rivers State, when renowned Niger-Delta environmentalist and activist, Mr. Ledum Mitee, turned in his resignation letter as secretary of the regional group.

For those who know Mitee, a lawyer and his pedigree in the Niger-Delta struggle, it is a matter of concern that he decided to quit the body for reasons he kept to himself, but which obviously are not palatable to the ears.

As if it that was not enough, security operatives, within 24 hours, aborted the much-publicized meeting of the group, which since inauguration last year, has bulldozed itself into national prominence, brushing aside different oppositions and boasting in its rank, prominent monarchs, elders, leaders and stakeholders of the region.

The October 26 “invasion” of PANDEF, which is the second trouble in three weeks, was completely unexpected and until yesterday, it had not fathomed the cyclone that hit it and why.

Most devastating blow: In fact, the dumbfounded leaders, who demanded explanation for the “assault” by security agencies on Niger Delta elders and leaders from the Federal Government were preparing to storm Abuja for answers to their posers when they ran into another storm, the third calamity.

For the group that boasted of its grip on the region and mandate from the militants to discuss with the Federal Government on behalf of the people, the proclamation by the most dreaded militant group in the region, Niger- Delta Avengers, NDA, which suspended their bombing in deference to the leaders, was alarming.

NDA in a statement by the spokesperson, self-styled “Major-General” Murdoch Agbinibo, November 3, took PANDEF and ex-militant leader, Chief Government Ekpemupolo, alias Tompolo, to the cleaners, just as it repudiated the suspended ceasefire, indicating a return to “bloody and brutish” hostilities in the next few days.

It stated with a tone of indifference, “We have since lost faith in you, Tompolo and PANDEF and have vowed never to heed any such retrogressive call or advice from you in the future.

Operation Red Economy

“The recent disruption of  PANDEF’s fourth general assembly by the Nigerian government is the final evidence we needed to conclude that the Federal Government of Nigeria reserves not even an iota of respect for you (Tompolo) and the Niger-Delta elders.

“As the position of the Nigerian government is made emphatically known to the Niger-Delta people that its only interest remains the flow of oil from our region to the Central Bank of Nigeria. We want to make it known to the PANDEF and the Nigerian government that our call for halt on “Operation Red Economy” is officially over,” the group added.

Contempt: “To the elders of Niger-Delta, PANDEF, we warned you against the antics of the Nigerian government, yet you requested a chance to broker a new vision for our people. We told you and the rest of the world that the Nigerian government is only interested in our oil wells and not our wellbeing, yet you told us the signs are different this time around.

“Instead of allowing us to continue our quest to bring the Nigerian economy to our targeted zero-daily production, which recorded huge success; you threatened us with Tompolo to stop the struggle. Out of respect for elders and not to the threat of Tompolo, we adhered to the call and halted our strike actions hoping that you (PANDEF) would keep your own side of the bargain,” it asserted.

Apparently mocking PANDEF and Tompolo, it said: “The question to Tompolo and the PANDEF is to tell us what progress they achieved since we heeded your retrogressive call, to whose benefit is the move by Tompolo and the Niger-Delta elders to impede a mission sanctioned by our ancestors and the Almighty?

Shocking tales about Mitee’s exit

Though an official of PANDEF contacted by NDV dismissed the resignation of Mitee as a non-issue, saying, “His resignation did not affect the body, we have already filled the position,” we gathered that the group has organisational and ethnic-chauvinistic problems.

A member of PANDEF and national representative, Host Communities of Nigeria Producing Oil and Gas, HOSTCOM, Dr. Osasu Ekpen Isibor, however, told NDV that there was no internal dispute to have resulted to invitation of security by any of the factions to cordon off the premises.

A source confided in NDV, “His anger was that on many occasions, he came to know of publications of the forum in newspapers like other Nigerians, yet he was the Secretary whose office was supposed to be the secretariat of the forum.

“They demoralized Mitee with the apparent marginalisation and he believes that some persons cunningly used him to confer legitimacy on the body. You know Ledum with a long history of environmental struggle would make the forum enjoy acceptance when he is in the leadership. I think that is what he felt when he saw that he was being marginalised, “he added.

Saved from humiliation

Another member, who also preferred anonymity, asserted that “Ledum resigned. The fact was that he was not being consulted. You also see the Ijaws are more in PANDEF. Some think that anytime there is reward, only one group appropriates all.”

Those who think that PANDEF leadership paid back Mitee with a bad coin point to the zoning of secretary position to Delta State. They argued that even if he had not resigned, he would have felt more humiliated if after holding the office to stabilize the body for over a year, they threw him out at the time of an official election to fill the position.

Mitee hails from Rivers State and at the last meeting of PANDEF, where members ratified the constitution; the Zoning Committee allotted to his state the positions of national treasurer, national publicity secretary/public relations officer and national assistant secretary. Delta got national secretary, his earlier position, national auditor and national assistant youth leader.

Alleged Ijaw domination

A leader from one of the tribes, asserted, “There is this feeling by one of the ethnic groups that they are the master tribe in the region. This is another problem in the body. There were attempts to do ethnic balancing in the leadership of the body, but the  complaint is still there.”

The ethnic balancing actually saw the former governor of Akwa Ibom State, Obong Victor Atta and His Royal Majesty, King Alfred Diete Spiff emerging as co- chairmen of the Central Working Committee of PANDEF. The other ethnic groups are not actively involved, there is envy and jealousy.   Government created three marine institutions, including Maritime University and Maritime Technical College, all in Ijaw areas. Some individuals have the fear of internal domination.

“This is also the  problem  you find in the Amnesty  Programme in the region. It is as if it was designed to cater for only an ethnic group in the region,” he said dejectedly

According to him, some communities with  oil-rich deposits were insisting they should lead the forum since they have more oil. He pointed out: “This is another problem, so you see in considering those for responsibilities, this factor beclouds merit.”

Why I don’t want to explode – Mitee

Mitee, who spoke to NDV before the latest eruption by NDA, stated that his decision was borne out of his personal principle, which he would not compromise.

He said what the region required now was a visionary body that will be ready to build institutions to achieve the cause of the people of the area. The environmentalist added he was willing to do anything in the pursuit of the region, adding that PANDEF will only be strong if it builds institutions.

His words: “I am not aware of two factions in PANDEF and I do not belong to any faction. I am an individual and if I belong to an organisation and I have sentimental disengagement on principle on issues, which daily the majority takes, you go with the majority or you resign.

“I resigned purely on principle. If I disagree with the group on any issue bordering on development, I have an option to either follow the view of the majority or resign and I opted to resign purely on principle.

Tremendous sacrifices

“I do not know of any person trying to impose his or their will on others. I said for now, it is in the interest of the organisation and the people of Niger-Delta that I do not go to the public to say the areas of my disagreement.

“It is purely on principle, if I feel that certain things do not go well with me, I leave. I am there in PANDEF because there are people whom I represent and people, therefore, expect that so far as I am there, if I cannot meet the aspirations of those people, I have to leave.

“I hold the issue of Niger-Delta very dearly to heart. Those who are aware of my pedigree know that I have made tremendous sacrifices for it,” he added.

How PANDEF can survive

On whether PANDEF can achieve that same aspirations that made him to leave, Mitee emphasized, “What we need is not any other organisation, PANDEF is okay, it is to build institutions and those institutions would be able to outgrow us and the leadership of such organisation.

“What I want to see is PANDEF that has strong institution, I am always prepared to do anything to make sure that the issues of Niger-Delta are properly articulated and even if that means not gesticulating my grievances in the public, I will take that as worthy sacrifice for the cause,” he said.

RNDA/PNDPC infraction

The emergence of the Reformed Niger-Delta Avengers, RNDA, and PNDPC, led by a former national chairman of the Traditional Rulers of Oil Minerals Producing Communities of Nigeria, TROMPCON, HM Charles Ayemi-Botu, alias Lion of the Niger, some few months ago, also caused nightmares to PANDEF.

Ayemi-Botu, the paramount ruler of Seimbiri Kingdom in Delta State was a one-time member of PANDEF and among the delegation that met President Muhammadu Buhari under the auspices of the forum, November 1, 2016.   The bad blood in PANDEF, occasioned by leadership crisis emboldened the RNDA, headed by self-styled “General” Johnmark Ezonbi, to proclaim the disbanding of PANDEF and replacement with PNDPC.

All was not well with PANDEF since PNDPC stormed the arena and the threats by RNDA to commence bombing of oil installations if the Federal Government continued its dealings with PANDEF, was the major reason for the security siege against the group. However, both the leaders and militants got themselves entrapped in a security decoy.

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