By James Etokakpan
The Niger Delta region is arguably the most crisis-prone area in the country, second, perhaps, to the North East region that has in the past six years or so been devastated by insurgency perpetrated by Boko Haram terrorists. But while insurgency in the North East is a recent phenomenon, the crisis in the Niger Delta dates back decades, though assuming alarming proportions in the last 13 years, with the introduction of armed militancy.
The consequences of insurgency have been largely in form of destruction of lives and displacement of persons, with the term, internally displaced persons (IDPs), featuring more prominently in our national vocabulary now than before. There has been destruction of infrastructure and the environment, too. But these consequences have been confined mostly to one part of the country, with little or no impact on the rest of the country, economically and politically, except for the social problem of having IDPs migrate outside the region to areas as far as Abuja and Edo State.
The past crisis in the Niger Delta has had negative consequences on the economic life of a country that depends solely on the oil that is derived from the region. That is why, as the rather sarcastic joke goes, when the Niger Delta sneezes, the entire country catches cold.
The country has had several bouts of cold from the activities of militants in form of destruction of oil facilities and installations, which reflected in drastic cut in oil production and export and, consequently, low income from oil exports. The economic loss came to a record low last year when the price of oil in the international market plummeted to about $35 a barrel. And the country, with daily production capacity of 2.6 million barrels, found itself struggling to produce up to one million barrels, with estimated loss of up to 60 per cent revenue to the activities of militants, during the period.
It is against this background that we must all welcome the peace that has reigned thus far in the Niger Delta for the greater part of the first quarter of this year and till date. The immediate benefits of this peace to the nation could be seen in the uninterrupted production activities that have gone on in the region, with the country meeting its daily production target of over two million barrels per day. And, thanks to the relatively better oil price that has remained above $45 per barrel in the international market, the country is realizing more revenue from the commodity than it did for the greater part of 2016. This is evident in the increase in federal allocations to the three tiers of government in recent times.
The economic benefits that accrue from the current peace in the Niger Delta region is a pointer to what the country can achieve from a sustained and permanent atmosphere of peace, if efforts are geared towards that goal.
There is every reason to believe that the current peace in the region can be permanent.
TImi Alaibe, a former managing director of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), was widely reported recently as having given some tips in a television interview on how the current peace in the Niger Delta can be sustained. There is, perhaps, no Nigerian better placed than Alaibe to suggest the panacea to the problems that have beset the region for over five decades, which have defied all the interventionist programmes of successive governments. In his position as chief executive officer of NDDC, he designed the Niger Delta Development Master Plan that was meant to serve as the blueprint for the systematic and sustained development of the region.
The Master Plan, hopefully the document that provides answers to the challenge of achieving lasting peace in the region, was launched by the administration of Olusegun Obasanjo. It has since remained locked up in some cupboard in Aso Rock, where it is predictably gathering cobwebs. The Buhari administration does not require another ceremony of re-launching it. The administration can begin implementation of the document without much ado. The aim would be to capitalize on the current peace in the Niger Delta by winning the hearts of the people of the region with initiatives that would ensure the peace does not snap at some point in the future.
Among the suggestions Alaibe made in the Master Plan is the involvement of oil communities in the protection of oil assets and installations and, most importantly, inclusion of the communities in the sharing of oil proceeds. This would give them part ownership of oil facilities with a greater sense of responsibility for their security.
Alaibe believes apart from involving oil communities in the protection of assets and sharing of oil proceeds, the governmentâ€™s plan to convert illegal refineries that dot the region into modular refineries would not only open more revenue streams for the government, but would also create jobs for unemployed youths in the region who see militancy as the only means of survival. He achieved the feat of disarming, demobilizing and rehabilitating about 26, 000 militants under the Amnesty Programme of the late president Umar Musa Yarâ€™Adua, as his special adviser on the programme. He therefore knows what he is talking about.
An idle manâ€™s brain is the devilâ€™s workshop. Any programme that would put jobs in the hands of jobless youths of the Niger Delta â€“ whether modular refineries or an amnesty programme that would get them established in various vocations â€“ would solve the problem of militancy in the region by half.
The current recession brought about by the countryâ€™s dwindling fortunes from over-reliance on oil has necessitated a shift of focus to other areas such as agriculture and solid minerals. With stability in the Niger Delta, uninterrupted production and export of oil, and the corresponding increase in monthly allocations from sustained revenue, there would be enough resources available to the federal government to develop those two critical sectors, which are capable of generating equal amount of revenue as oil, if not more, especially with the interest shown in those areas by local and foreign investors.
Perhaps now is the time for the country to achieve what it failed to achieve when it jettisoned agriculture as its main foreign exchange earner at the discovery of oil. Now is the time to achieve diversification of the revenue base, which has remained a mirage for successive governments. The journey to achieving that must begin with sustained efforts at ensuring the current peace in the Niger Delta remains unbroken.
â€“Etokakpan writes from Uyo