Time For Synergy in Niger Delta

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Lawyer and environment activist Ledum Mitee made an observation on Arise Television in Abuja yesterday that is worth the attention of Acting President Yemi Osinbajo. Mitee, an acknowledged veteran of the struggle for justice and development in the Niger Delta, pointed to a dissonance between the agenda which government unfolded last week and the demands submitted last November to President Muhammadu Buhari by the Pan- Niger Delta Forum. According to Mitee, for the issues in the Niger Delta to be resolved on the side of equity, government should “engage the people in conversations” on the basis of their demands. In other words, the government should not seek to impose an agenda on the Niger Delta. There is, perhaps, no better time for a synergy of purpose between the government and the people of Niger Delta.

Not a few have remarked that Osinbajo’s recent visits to the region could mark a turning point in the federal government’s approach to resolve the Niger Delta Question. The style and substance of the visits have held a promise of honest engagement with the people of the Niger Delta and their leaders. There is, therefore, a tinge of irony when a leader in the region says that government seems to be ignoring the agenda proposed by the Pan-Niger Delta Forum led by Chief Edwin Clark, HRM Alfred Diette- Spiff and Obong Victor Attah among others. The gap could be quickly filled with proper articulation of policy and structured engagement.

The issues raised when the Niger Delta leaders met Buhari were fiscal federalism, the Bakassi Question, amnesty programme, key regional infrastructure, the Niger Delta Ministry, the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), imbalance in the ownership of oil and gas assets, inclusive participation, economic development and empowerment.
Other items on the agenda were maritime university, the Ogoni clean-up and environmental remediation, increased military presence, delay in law and justice matters, protection of oil and gas infrastructure and the relocation of the headquarters of the IOCs.

It is noteworthy that for the Niger Delta leaders the problem in the region is not merely insecurity affecting the exportation of crude oil. From the items on the agenda presented to government, they have defined the problems in developmental terms. At least, that is the angle from which they view the problems. This is a sharp contrast from the perspective of some observers outside the region who see the Niger Delta just as a byword for militancy, insecurity and vandalisation of oil and gas facilities. The agenda ought to be given a more serious study than the government appears to doing at the moment.

On its part, the government has announced a “roadmap to closure” of the Niger Delta crisis. On the face of it, it would appear that some of the elements of the government’s agenda are meant to address the issues raised by the Pan-Niger Delta Forum. These include the creation of 100, 000 jobs in each of the oil-producing states, the decentralisation of the amnesty programme and a focus on education of the youth. Other items on the government’s agenda are the engagement of the communities by the oil companies, inter-agency collaboration, business-start-ups for militants, domestication of oil and gas activities, security measures, justice for stakeholders, creation of a development fund and attraction of investment to the region.

The Niger Delta leaders have made their demands; but what the government says it plans to do is the policy at the moment. The two agendas sketched above might not actually be clashing. How then do we explain the seeming alienation of the leaders of the region from what the government is embarking upon this time round? Again, there is the need to be sufficiently historical in approaching the problems. So far, nothing suggests that either of the agendas has benefitted sufficiently from the wisdom of the earlier master plans, surveys and strategies put together to solve the problem of the region.

A more coherent strategy should be articulated to garner the support of the “stakeholders.” For instance, some of the items on the agenda of the Niger Delta leaders are omnibus in nature. Take a sample. The Niger Delta leaders demand fiscal federalism. If you tackle the issues of Nigerian federalism, some of the items listed above might no more be viable demands to be made on the federal government. If the states and communities in the Niger Delta control their resources and pay justifiable taxes to the federal purse, they would be expected to fix some of infrastructural problems without calling on Abuja to do so anymore.

Besides, if the government is contemplating a “closure” it should do a more honest review of previous attempts to implement policies to develop the Niger Delta. The government and the leaders in the region should take adequate historical view of the problem so as to be informed by earlier efforts. For there has been no shortage of efforts to define the Niger Delta condition. Yet every now and then, the question arises: is the problem being properly defined? For instance, 11 years ago, former President Olusegun Obasanjo at a federal executive council meeting launched the Niger Delta Human Development Report prepared by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The report was on the socio-economic development of the region. The verdict was damning. The arguments were supported by a rich supply of data

To draw attention to the scandalous contradiction of mass poverty persisting in the face of stupendous oil wealth in the region report predicted accurately that the region might fail to meet most of the targets in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by the target date of 2015. According to the authors of the report, the Niger Delta would need “a new paradigm of development to address concerns such as disillusionment, frustration among the people about their increasing deprivation and deep-rooted mistrust”

In fact, the following excerpts from the UNDP report might further illustrate the point at issue – the need to critically review the story of Niger Delta’s underdevelopment while planning for the future:

“Behind the Delta’s poor performance on human development is a complex brew of economic, social, political and environmental factors. Social instability, poor local governance, competition for economic resources and environmental degradation has taken a toll. The general neglect of infrastructure, often rationalized by the difficulty of the delta’s terrain, has worsened people’s access to fundamental services such as electricity, safe drinking water, roads and health facilities that are taken for granted in many other parts of Nigeria.

“Other elements include the negative impacts of the oil industry, a constricted land area, a delicately balanced environment and extreme economic deprivation.

“The delta today is a place of frustrated expectations and deep-rooted mistrust. Unprecedented restiveness at times erupts in violence. Long years of neglect and conflict have fostered a siege mentality, especially among youths who feel they are condemned to a future without hope, and see conflict as a strategy to escape deprivation. Persistent conflict, while in part a response to poor human development, has also entrenched it, serving as a consistent drag on the region’s economic performance and expectations for advancement.

“The sabotage of oil production hurts the economy through the loss of sorely needed foreign exchange to finance national development. Blown pipelines interrupt the supply of crude to refineries and produce shortages that cause sudden spikes in oil prices. Hostage taking is a stress on foreign captives, their families and the companies they work for, but also presents a challenge to international diplomacy and foreign direct investment.

“But the disruption also has adverse effects on the local people, as ensuing violence threatens individuals and communities. Lives are lost, and investments drop along with the availability of jobs. The response to violence has at times meant further violence is unleashed randomly on unsuspecting communities or oil workers. Whole villages have been destroyed and their populace displaced because of disputes that could have been amicably resolved.
“The human development implications extend to the harm done to the life chances of children unable to go to school and the further constraints on human and social capital.

“There is a general concern that some people, particularly unscrupulous politicians and political organizations, benefit from violence, and that they sponsor some of the youth gangs in the region. Arms merchants along with police and military personnel have supplied weapons to various gangs, and the increased incidence of oil theft has been linked to the need for foreign exchange to purchase arms.

“While turmoil in the delta has many sources and motivations, the preeminent underlying cause is the historical failure of governance at all levels. Declining economic performance leading to rising unemployment or underemployment; the lack of access to basic necessities of life like water, shelter, food and clothing;
discriminatory policies that deny access to positions of authority and prevent people from participating in shaping the rules that govern their lives—these all indicate that governance over time has fallen short.

“Corruption aggravates feelings of being cheated, especially when the rulers live like kings amid extreme want. In spite of the substantial flow of oil money to state and local governments, many communities see no sign of government presence in terms of development projects. This intensifies a sense of hopelessness and mistrust that for the most aggrieved people leads to a call to arms.”

The human development condition in the Niger Delta is worse today, 11 years after the grim report above was published.

So, in drawing the agenda for the future of the Niger Delta the government and all the other “stakeholders” should make human development the primary focus.

It is obvious that the conversations on Niger Delta should be structured and enriched. This is the wisdom in what the Mitees of the world are saying. This moment appears to be an auspicious season to accomplish this task given the approach of the federal government, which is increasingly viewed positively in many quarters. All that is required is the design of a strategy that would guide against the pitfalls inherited from the past. Among these pitfalls is that stakeholders have been working at cross-purposes. Forces that should work as partners have been antagonistic to one another.

In order to make a positive impact, one of the expected outcomes of the Osinbajo’s visits to the Niger Delta should be a synergy of purpose among the stakeholders.