By Caleb Fubara
A public affairs commentator once postulated that Nigeria can truly begin to address her problems the day the Niger Delta question is given a dispassionate answer. I make haste to add that it is a dispassionate answer that is predicated on the principles of fairness, equity and social justice. While some will argue with vehemence to the contrary, the fact remains that the Niger Delta has become a tumour on Nigeria’s conscience. For instance, it is the only region of the country that has become a selling point in manifestoes of the various political parties angling to rule the country. The Obasanjo presidency could hardly take off without addressing the Niger Delta question. As for the late President Umaru Musa Yar’adua, addressing the Niger Delta question was a major in the delivery of his seven point agenda. Many have had cause to refer to the region as Nigeria’s lifeline, while others simply shy away from such assuming admittance. Whatever it is, the strategic importance of the Niger Delta region to Nigeria’s economic survival since the last 46 years can hardly be overstated.
Notwithstanding the ill-fated existence of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Yar’Adua, in keeping with his promise, created a separate ministry for Niger Delta Affairs. He even went a step further to proclaim a presidential amnesty programme for the militant youths of the region within his brief reign as Nigeria’s president. A ministry to appease a people whose resources have over four decades been so ungodly exploited. As a matter of fact, creating a Ministry for Niger Delta Affairs was a particularly bold attempt at responding to one of the cardinal recommendations of the 1957 Willinks commission of enquiry. By Nigeria’s political structure, only a ministry headed by a minister who sits in the federal cabinet will accord the region that semblance of a special area singled out for the purposes of development.
But long before Yar’Adua’s emergence, years of criminal neglect had created an imbalance in the socio-economic wellbeing of the region, which eventually triggered the violent militant agitation at the time. The presidential amnesty was therefore a stop gap measure aimed at addressing and most importantly, forestalling any future occurrence of violent agitation from the youths of the region. The youths have been up in arms protesting the inequitable exploration, exploitation and distribution of their God-given wealth to the detriment of the region. In other words, while the ministry is saddled with the long term planning and sustainable development of the region, resolving the alarming state of insecurity, which at the time had engulfed the region and its unsavoury impact on the multinational economic activities was a task President Yar’Adua had to tackle head on; hence the proclamation of a presidential amnesty programme in June 2009.
Because Yar’Adua as a leader approached the Niger Delta issue with a degree of sincerity and the right political will, the youths were naturally bound in patriotism and the spirit of nation building to lay down their arms and embrace the offer of amnesty from their president. The declaration of the presidential amnesty instantly brought restored the requisite peace necessary for oil business to once again thrive in the region. Thus, re-igniting the fact that political and social justice is a sine qua non to an egalitarian society. Unfortunately, Yar’dua didn’t live long enough to drive this vision to its logical conclusion. Then came President Jonathan who inherited the hitherto five-year programme. That the Jonathan administration injected a certain boost into the programme has since become a subject of debate in a country where ethnic allegiance still holds sway. In his inaugural speech, referring to the presidential amnesty, President Muhammadu Buhari pledged that his government “intends to invest heavily in the projects and programmes currently in place…” He even shocked mischief makers when upon assumption of office he extended the lifespan of the programme by two years to ensure that no beneficiary is short-changed or left out. He was well applauded. But the drastic cut in the budgetary allocation of the agency-the worst since its creation hardly reflects the president’s assurances. It can be argued that Nigeria’s present economic realities do not speak in favour of an upward review of the agency’s allocation as against last year. But a shortfall of more than 70% for an interventionist agency with a deadline is just unacceptable. Extending the life’s span of the programme is not an end in itself, but ensuring that its set target is met is incumbent on the Buhari administration. Reducing the budgetary allocation of the amnesty programme from N63 billion as obtained in 2015 to N20 billion in 2016 is to say the least absurd. Only a reasonable allocation of funds will avert an undue elongation of the programme as well as guarantee a date with the 2018 deadline.
Of particular concern is the temperament of those for whom the presidential amnesty is granted. These aren’t aristocrats, clergies, MPs, technocrats and what have you; who understand the politics of political economy. They are a people as volatile and unpredictable as they could get at the slightest stimulus. The presidential amnesty team shouldn’t be left at the mercy of those we truly believe deserve rehabilitation and reintegration. I foresee rowdy demonstrations to say the least, within and without as they try to explain the 70% shortfall in allocation to the beneficiaries. Latest reports from the region are by no means encouraging. The federal government must not be seen as unwittingly creating the atmosphere for agitation by subtly reneging on what should be done right.
The extreme reduction in the amnesty allocation in the 2016 budget somewhat points to an opaque move to tactically frustrate the programme. It smacks of unleashing psychological warfare on a people. The crude oil price may slump, even the black gold itself may dry up, still, it behoves the federal government under Buhari’s watch to drive the amnesty programme to a logical conclusion.
All that is required is the right political will, dispatch and commitment. Viewed side by side, the unprecedented slash in the allocation for a running programme as the amnesty and the contrasting speed with which the federal government is set to import grasses for herdsmen, as remedy to their wanton invasion of peoples farmlands and communities, and the consequent maiming and killings is suspect. It makes one wonder if the recent attacks weren’t a well thought out plan by the herdsmen to ‘arm twist’ the federal government to grant them that special concession which was initially advocated for the Boko Haram?
With the mind-blowing recoveries so far made, accompanied by the federal government’s boast to implement the 2016 budget to the letter, Buhari could still live up to the true meaning of his creed, “I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody”. Transmitting a supplementary bill to the National Assembly for an additional budgetary allocation for the amnesty programme to facilitate a timely execution of its mandate is but a necessity and a test of his creed.
– Caleb Fubara lives in Port Harcourt.