Strengthening Governance, Promoting Citizens Participation in Decision-making in N’ Delta

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Silas Akpe
Nigeria’s oil rich and revenue spring region, the Niger Delta, has been subjected to neglect and marginalisation, causing many to opine that its inhabitants are being given little or no deserved attention by the government.

Although the region is the main source of government income, it is poor and poorly governed, suffering from violence and corruption and has been the centre of international controversy over pollution, corruption and human rights violations. Activists have called for responsive governance, infrastructural development and jobs creation in the region.

In a bid to strengthen governance and promote participation of citizens in decision making at the local level, RTI International, a world leading nonprofit research institute with a vision to improve human conditions by addressing complex social and scientific challenges, extended the USAID-funded Leadership, Empowerment, Advocacy and Development (LEAD) project to the Niger Delta in 2013 through a partnership between USAID and PIND.

After a rigorous selection process, Rivers State emerged as the LEAD State. The project was implemented in Rivers from 2013 to 2016.

The LEAD project held an end of Programme review on August 30, 2016 to bring the project to a close in the State. The top-notch state event with the theme: ‘Documenting, Sharing and Learning from LEAD Partnership Project’ held at Golden Tulip Hotel, Port Harcourt, witnessed participation from the state and local governments, project partners, development partners and beneficiaries.

The forum provided an interactive platform for stakeholders and beneficiaries to share and brainstorm about the LEAD project achievements, lessons learnt and best approaches to employ for the benefit of related future projects.

At the one-day event in Port Harcourt, RTI/LEAD Chief of Party, Tijjani Muhammad set the stage for discussion, “In a few minutes from now, you will get to hear narratives and testimonies from LEAD partners and staff on collaborative learning, accomplishments and challenges that were realized and encountered since we set out in August 2013 with a mandate to create partnership between states, local governments, private sector, civil society organizations and communities, that will engender a sustained momentum for improving local governance in Rivers state and the larger Niger Delta Region. Three years later on of working under the 3 LEAD objectives for: Strengthening the capacities of local governments and increasing transparency in their operations, increasing the capacity of local civil society organizations, improving service delivery and support local economic development; our partnerships have created a “LEAD community” that has facilitated processes of iterative learning, innovations and adaptations.”

Muhammed gave assurance on sustainability of the impact of the LEAD project: “Our hope is that the ‘LEAD community’ will continue to thrive and expand in Rivers state, within the Niger Delta region and beyond, and for the local solutions and best fit practices that have shown the potentials for establishing inclusive governance and the emergence of more prosperous and resilient communities to be sustained.”

The Chief of Party appreciated commitment of co-funders: “On behalf of LEAD partnership, I will like to sincerely thank Foundation for Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta (PIND) and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for their funding and support to LEAD in Rivers and other locations in Nigeria. We really hope that we can count on your continued assistance to build up on this partnership in the near future.”

Another centerpiece from the event was the heartwarming opening remarks by the Executive Director of PIND – Sam Daibo who spoke through the Programmes Director, Dr. Dara Akala recalled how the RTI-PIND-USAID partnership to implement LEAD in Rivers state was arrived at: “PIND and USAID through a partnership signed in 2011 to reduce conflict, improve institutions and foster socioeconomic development in the Niger Delta agreed to build accountable and effective local government operations in the Niger Delta through the LEAD project which had started implementation in Bauchi and Sokoto since 2009. It seems just like yesterday, expanding the LEAD project from Bauchi and Sokoto to Rivers in August 2013.”

Daibo continued: “I recall vividly and with nostalgia the conversation between USAID, RTI and PIND on modality for selecting a Niger Delta state for LEAD. After setting criteria and following series of assessments across Niger Delta states, Rivers emerged as the LEAD state having met and even surpassed set criteria … Following the selection of Rivers state, LEAD agreed to mobilize staff from Bauchi and Sokoto to commence the project in Rivers state. One of PIND’s immediate considerations then, was the opening of the Foundation’s Economic Development Centre (EDC) in Port Harcourt alongside a Guest House to provide conducive work environment and accommodation for the project in the state.

It may interest you to know that LEAD became the first project to occupy the facilities of PIND EDC in Port Harcourt in August 2013” he said adding that, “Today, PIND EDC Port Harcourt has metamorphosed, transforming into a center of convergence for a broad range of development partners operating in the Niger Delta, providing space and opportunities for integrated development planning, pooling together technical skills for shared learning and support to diverse institutions, communities and stakeholders in the region. This EDC has facilitated LEAD’s activities and operations in Rivers state”.
With this sort of fruitful partnership, LEAD has rapidly transformed, witnessing an expanded and robust team owing to subsequent recruitment of staff from the region.

It is of keen interest to also note that the Rivers LEAD project was formally launched in November 2013, with three LEAD Local Government Area Councils (LGAs) selected as pilot States through a competitive self-nomination process involving all 23 LGAs in the state. Akuku-Toru, Khana and Okrika, each representing the three senatorial districts in the state became LEAD LGA partners.
Following a participatory evaluation of the project in June 2014, which confirmed the effectiveness of the project, three additional LGAs – Bonny, Obio-Akpor and Tai were added also using the self-motivation competitive process. From this point onwards, the LEAD project has recorded tremendous success with programmes such as the Youth Economic Empowerment Program, YEEP. YEEP beneficiaries, mostly artisans were trained in different crafts around agropreneur like snail farming, fish farming and baking through which they can gain specialization and develop into business tycoons.

The end of Project review for Rivers LEAD created a forum for interaction and a platform for dialogue between partners and beneficiaries with highlight of experience sharing, achievements, challenges and salient recommendations for improvement in future projects.
The event effectively showcased LEAD’s resolve to foster an egalitarian and peaceful society that guarantees equal rights and equitable access to and control of productive resources; ensuring that individuals are empowered to create wealth and overcome poverty and disease irrespective of sex and other demographic differentials.

The forum also provided an opportunity for beneficiaries and community representatives to share testimonies of various empowerment and intervention benefits gained courtesy of the LEAD project.

In persuasive and wooing remarks, all beneficiaries, community representatives and key state partners unanimously urged RTI International and its funding partners not to end the LEAD project in Rivers, acknowledging how much it has benefited them, thus, strongly desiring its continuity. The community representative from Bonny LGA clearly tried to lobby his way, remarking that: “the people of Rivers love this Project and we have benefitted from it but like Oliver Twist, we do not want it to end, rather, we want more of it even if it means changing the name while still maintaining the objectives.”

Within the last three years, LEAD has worked to improve the capacity of local government councils; facilitated the development and adoption of fiscal transparency and accountability policies and practices in the State local government councils; enhanced the capacity of various organizations working in the project focused areas and sectors and improved service delivery in the target LGAs, other LGAs in the State and Rivers State at large.

The end of project review in Port Harcourt, which has examined how LEAD has met the project objectives and discussed the project challenges making recommendations for sustaining impact and for follow-on initiatives means LEAD has formally ended its intervention work in Rivers state.

The effects of oil exploration and environmental degradation in the fragile Niger Delta communities and environment have been enormous and have been the key aggravating factors of numerous environmental movements and inter-ethnic conflicts in the region. Local indigenous people have seen little if any improvement in their standard of living while suffering serious damage to their natural environment. According to Nigerian federal government figures, there were more than 7,000 oil spills between 1970 and 2000. It has been estimated that a clean-up of the region, including full restoration of swamps, creeks, fishing grounds and mangroves, could take 25 years.

Former President Olusegun Obasanjo in the year 2000 established the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC and his successor late President Umaru Musa Yar’adua created the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs. Both institutions have a mandate of developing the oil-rich Niger Delta region of southern Nigeria. After years of existence and operation, doubt is being cast on the efficacy of these interventionists regional agencies.

In recent times, we have been witnessing the re-emergence of militant groups in the region such as the Niger Delta Avengers that have resorted to violence as a means of communicating their grievances to the federal government. For those who would rather take the peaceful route and embrace more pragmatic and palpable programmes such as the LEAD project implemented by RTI-PIND-USAID partnership, they do not want an end to a purpose-driven and efficacious alleviation project like the LEAD project.
––Silas Akpe works with Media Insight in Abuja