From Femi Folaranmi, Yenagoa
It started as a peaceful protest. It was meant to draw the attention of the Nigerian Agip Oil Company (Agip) and probably the state government to the plight of the people of Twon Brass in Brass Local GovernmentArea of Bayelsa State.
Twon Brass, made up of Ada-Ama, Cameroun Ama, Sambo-Ama, Shidi-Ama, Imabikiri and Kemmer, is host to Agip Oil Terminal, the largest Agip in Africa. The people have been enjoying uninterrupted electricity, courtesy of Agip’s corporate social responsibility, for years, until a few months ago when the power situation became epileptic without any explanation from Agip.
The power situation got bad when Agip began rationing electricity between Twon Brass and Okpoama Kingdom, also in the same local government. The people first thought it was a temporary measure and endured. The situation grew from bad to worse and the patience of the people thinned out. Things got to a head on May 7 when the electricity was turned off completely, and the people reacted.
According to investigations, protesters, comprising youths, women and men, on Friday May 14, armed with placards with inscriptions like “Enough is enough with Brass Blackout”, “NAOC Give Us Light” and “NAOC Pay Community Workers”, marched to the Agip gate, barricaded it and declared they would not leave until their grievances were addressed.
The protesting women and youths made it clear that the action of NAOC had paralyzed business activities, which had affected their means of livelihood and plunged the kingdom into darkness. And to ensure full solidarity with the protest, they directed that no shop, beer parlour, market and any other business venture should be opened, placing a fine on any business that defied the directive.
“We have suffered for so long. We wrote to Agip that light was the only benefit we were getting from them and pleaded that we should be given the electricity, but they ignored us. This is the action we have decided to carry out to show our displeasure with the way Agip is treating us,” said Mrs. Rebecca Wilson.
The immediate past vice-chairman of Twon-Brass Council of Chiefs, Chief Bendik Tonworio Williams, who also doubles as the electricity committee chairman, expressed solidarity with the protesters on their grievances over what he called NAOC’s nonchalant attitude.
“We had written several letters to NAOC to rectify the power supply, instead of rationing. But it is quite unfortunate that the authorities of the oil company had failed to meet their responsibility of restoring power supply to the kingdom, which has been enjoying 24 hours power supply,” he said.
The people continued the protest on May 15, 16, 17, 18 and 19. They vowed not to dismantle the barricade until their grievances were addressed. Efforts by some officials of the company to placate the protesters were abortive as they stood their ground. Even when the protesters were told to send 20 people representing youths of the community to fix new cables, the protesters insisted on having power restored first.
The Amanayanbo of Twon Brass, King Alfred Diete-Spiff, had to wade into the crisis on May 19. He addressed the protesters and told them to disperse and dismantle the barricade so that discussions could commence with Agip
However, unknown to the monarch, some people who had been fed stories that the Council of Chiefs had been compromised by Agip started shouting to drown Diete-Spiff’s appeals. This group of protesters became restive and, in the twinkle of an eye, sachets of water were used as missiles to pelt the monarch, accusing him of being complicit in the plight of the people.
The situation got more tense when the protesters said they no longer had confidence in the monarch. At that point, the protesters had become unruly and security operatives were deployed to whisk the monarch from the scene and disperse the crowd.
In the process of taking him away, one of the soldiers mistakenly shot a protester in the leg. The shooting enraged some of the protesters and they marched to the palace, and vandalised the building.
Mr. Edward Edison, the youth president of Twon Brass, said the monarch had to leave the community to avert escalation of the situation. He said the timely deployment of the military to the premises of the oil company further saved the situation.
Also, Chief Benjamin Obuala, chairman of Twon Brass Community Development Committee, explained that the people of Twon Brass will continue ventilating their grievances over the power outage.
Meanwhile, the Brass clan of the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) condemned the attack on King Diete-Spiff. In a statement signed by Mr. Hello Richard and Benjamin Tuaton, chairman and secretary, respectively, they regretted that the peaceful protest was hijacked, leading to the attack on the monarch and destruction of the palace.
“As the apex body representing all Ijaw youths in the clan, we condemn in strong terms the brazen disrespect of the King of Twon Brass. We will not condone an attack on his person from anybody, be it Ijaw person or stranger.
” We wish to appeal to King Diete-Spiff to forgive those that acted in error by attacking him and mobilise all leaders from the area to intervene in the matter to ensure lasting peace is restored.”
The member representing Nembe/Brass Federal Constituency, Hon. Israel Sunny-Goli, also in a statement, lamented that the peaceful protest turned rowdy: “It saddens me that a supposed peaceful protest has degenerated into an orgy of violence that left in its wake bodily harm and loss of property. While I consent to the people’s right to a protest, as a way of ventilating their grievances over conditions they deem unfavourable, such a protest should be within the ambit of the law. Violence should never have a place in our discourse as a people.”
“We must shun all forms of violence and embrace peace, bearing in mind that peace is priceless and violence is senseless, because, in the long run, violence leaves us all as losers,” he said.
On thetreatment meted out on King Diete-Spiff, Sunny-Goli, who said it was unfortunate, sympathised with those who suffered bodily harm and loss of valuable property.
“His Majesty is not just a father to all of us, he is the custodian of our culture and tradition as a people, thus, the desecration of his palace by fifth columnists masquerading as protesters should never have taken place.
“Finally, I would like to profoundly thank HRM (King) Alfred Diete-Spiff, for handling the crisis with equilibrium. His fatherly role has, ultimately, resulted in the restoration of power supply to Twon Brass Kingdom, which was one of the protesters’ demands.
“I appeal for the maintenance of peace, as I am sure other demands would likewise be looked into, with tailor-made solutions proffered,” he said.
In a meeting with leaders of Twon Brass, Bayelsa State Governor, Senator Douye Diri, condemned the attack on King Diete-Spiff by youths of the kingdom. Diri, who met with the leaders on Monday, May 24, however, promised to intervene and resolve the misunderstandings in the area.
The governor, while acknowledging the right of people to embark on peaceful protests, disapproved of the recourse to the misguided attack on the monarch. He warned the youths to shun violence, adding that government would not condone further attacks on the revered king under any pretext.
Governor Diri also urged Bayelsans to explore other means of resolving grievances, instead of the penchant for embarking on protests at the slightest disagreement.
His words: “Let this be a warning to those who perpetrated that act. We are happy with the relative peace in Bayelsa and would like to maintain and sustain it. There are other avenues to explore. We have the local government chairman there. If all avenues fail, protest should come as the last resort. Let us not wake up every minute to protest. I, however, applaud your peaceful disposition with the Nigerian Agip Oil Company over the years.”
Describing Twon Brass, host to Agip and Shell, as important and strategic to the state and Nigeria in general, Diri stated that all avenues would be explored to resolve the contentious issues and prevent a breakdown of law and order.
According to him, government was aware of the divide-and-rule tactics employed by companies in host communities, and condemned the act of compromise by community leaders that shortchange their people for selfish interests.
He said, as one of the safest states in Nigeria, Bayelsa residents should work with government to maintain the peace, adding that, as the only homogeneous Ijaw state, the people should live in unity.
In his response, King Diete-Spiff stated that power supply, which led to the protest, had been restored. He added that the blockade had also been dismantled by the protesters.
The monarch also noted that the protest must have been hijacked by youths who were not from his domain as he earlier had a peaceful and meaningful interface with the protesters, who had invited him to maintain peace in the kingdom.
For now, peace has returned to Brass and the hope is that peace would be sustained for the benefit of all stakeholders.