Catalysing Long-term Growth in Niger Delta Region

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Chamberlain S. Peterside .

New Tenure, New Appointments
With the general elections behind us and the second tenure of President Muhammadu Buhari underway, we have witnessed a new season of appointments, beginning with the inauguration of the new cabinet last month. Key amongst recent appointments is the new board of NDDC announced via a press release by the office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF). The dust has barely settled before we saw the flurry of criticisms and harsh opinions on the appointments. Some of the reasons adduced for opposing the appointments are simply baseless and without merit.

It is almost a given fact that each appointment in Nigeria attracts a measure of hard-knocks and bashing, not usually or merely based on the competency or experience of the candidate but also resulting from self and clannish interests, of my own brother, sister or townsperson must be the appointee. This habit of sacrificing competence on the altar of self-interest is the bane of Nigeria’s public administration, hence you often find round pegs in square holes. Has any of the critics cared to question or scrutinize the integrity or experience of the new NDDC board?

Already, emerging recently from the deepest recession in 25 years, Nigeria is yet to attain the growth tempo that can help stem the rising problems of insecurity, joblessness and infrastructure deficit. Recent data by Nigerian Bureau of Statistics (NBS) indicate that growth rate in the 2nd quarter of 2019 was 1.94%, which on an annualized basis will amount to less than the IMF forecast growth rate of 2-2.5% in 2019. This is not good enough by any measure, especially considering that our population continues to grow at 2.8% annually. That’s sufficient reason for deep introspection by any discerning citizen of this country.
Focus on the Niger Delta Region

Niger Delta region as the epicentre of the oil & gas industry that powers the economy of Nigeria, accounts for over 80% of budget revenue. The region has known relative tranquillity in the recent years with little or no pipeline vandalization or disruption of oil production helping push daily production up to 2.3 million barrels. Much as it’s a welcome development, we must remain cautiously optimistic hoping that the trend persists. But if one may ask, how has this translated to drastic improvement in the lives of the populace in the region? It is an obvious fact that crude oil business is an industry in its twilight years as major industrialised consumer nations retool their economies and aggressively seek new energy sources that are cheaper, eco-friendly, renewable and sustainable.

I will argue that in the next 20-25 years, it might be game over for Niger Delta oil as the region that lays the golden egg. How does Niger delta intend to survive? What plans do the state governments and NDDC have to rejig the economy of the region to thrive into the 21st Century? This are pertinent questions that should keep the new administration of NDDC awake, if they truly mean well and are committed to making a difference.

The incoming administration in NDDC has a unique chance to rewrite history in its favour, then set a new course for the region. The recent pronouncement by the Minister of Niger Delta, Chief Godswill Akpabio that NDDC owes N2 trillion (Two trillion Naira) is quite shameful and disheartening. It makes you quake in your shoes and ask where and when N2 trillion was deployed in the region. NDDC has been known to be a playground for political patronage. It should not be game as usual moving forward. Since its formation, there has been lofty ideas and loud promises on projects. There was even a Niger Delta Master Plan – have you wondered what happened to that plan? What portion of the N2 trillion debt or other colossal budgetary resources went into implementing the master plan? The region is not short of problems or professionals to fix it rather the focus has just been wrong and priorities misplaced. The onus therefore is on the administration to recalibrate and chart a new path. They might even have the rare fortune of being the first board in as many years, to serve a full term- that is if they don’t get carried away and begin to squabble in their pursuit of pecuniary gains.

Nigeria at Cross-roads and Action Points
Nigeria remains at a cross-road in its history, when it must turn the corner fast or face dire future. By 2050 according to the World Bank forecast, it’s projected to host over 400 million people as the 4th most populous country on earth. How do we intend to cater for this people on our meagre oil revenue? This realization and sense of urgency is even much more imperative for the Niger Delta Region. When oil ceases to flow, the impact of environmental degradation, overpopulation and utter neglect would set in. Consequently, it is my view that some policy options that must be put in place by the in-coming administration of NDDC need to encompass, but not limited to the following;

a) Continuous advancement in human Capital Development.
b) Relentless investment in Infrastructure Assets.
c) Strengthening the institutional framework and improving governance standards in the
agency.
d) Galvanising private sector investment Flow and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).
e) Designing a suitable model and coordinating the implementation of an Economic Diversification Strategy (EDS) for the Niger Delta.

A) Advancement in Human Capital Development
It is no secret that Nigeria’s ranking in the Human Development Index (HDI) is dismal (namely: education, healthcare, affordable housing, gender equality, maternal and infant mortality etc.) Some of the indicators are not worth repeating except to say, there’s no option rather for the Niger Delta region to improve its standing in human development or risk a bleak future.

Economic development per se Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth figures are of little essence, when it can’t improve the overall wellbeing of society. This has to be the central focus of the new administration. As an intervention agency, it must strive to improve its own performance in fostering and tracking human capital development. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) is a clear template to follow in this regard. Whereas it must not be seen to be an operator of social infrastructure such as schools and health centres, its investment programs in education especially in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) as well as healthcare delivery for maternal and childcare could have a high long-term impact on the populace.

Education has been proven to be one of the most critical investments with significant multiplier effect on growing a skilled workforce and enlightened electorate that are less prone to violence not gullible but more demanding of their rights. Partnering with private sector institutions, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO) and the respective state governments can yield more value for money while enabling the agency achieve other quick wins.
Ad-hoc approach and running programs strictly based on political considerations over these years have not delivered desired outcomes. So, there ought to be a total overhaul of its programs and activities in this sphere by asking critical questions – is the outcome commensurate with the input? Is the outcome impactful and measurable? How does the programmes/activities serve the greater good of the citizens?

B) Relentless Investment in Development
The Niger Delta region remains highly disadvantaged by virtue of its geographical terrain. Cost of infrastructure is prohibitive compared to other regions of the country. With that in mind, it still remains inevitable that unless key infrastructure assets are developed and improved Feeder Roads/Bridges, Industrial Zones, Power Plants, ICT Parks etc, it is impossible to accelerate economic progress in the region. The dearth of modern infrastructure and insecurity inhibits private sector investments. You may ask, since its creation in 2011, what landmark infrastructure seeds have been planted by NDDC? The reason is not for lack of money but due to excessive political meddling and lack of foresight that makes the agency loose orientation.

In recent years, the agency has been largely involved in fixing local roads around the cities and towns in the region, installing street lights, renovating health centres, schools and carried out remediation work along the East-West road. Some of these jobs are better left for State/Federal governments while it can target major road arteries and regional infrastructure network that can support the economic integration of the region. It would be foolhardy to try conceptualising and executing every project on its own without private sector participation, local/foreign developers or strategic partners.

• First step will be to sensitize both local and foreign investors on the enormous potentials within the region. Convening an infrastructure focus event – Roundtable, Workshop or Summit that seeks to bring together key players and decision makers would be a very smart move right off the bat.
• Second step will be to aggregate and synthesize the outcome of such gathering to map out major priorities then invite proponents and vet investment proposals for partnerships and co-sponsorship of projects.

• Finally, is to embark on the implementation methodically and consistently .

C) Strengthening Institutional Framework
Most people who have worked closely or visited the agency, can attest to how chaotic its premises and operations often can be. This has not made for a smooth and efficient functioning of the organisation.
Over several years, no board has served out a full tenure. The frequent turnover and inconsistency have rendered it utter ineffective and a rubber stamp for entrenched forces. This has to change if the new administration wants to succeed. The effort towards recasting and strengthening the institutional base is first to make a critical assessment/evaluation of current operating framework and projects to identify lapses that have bedevilled the agency in the past, while asking tough questions on its mandate and seek to reposition the human resource base. It might demand redeploying some personnel, hiring new capable hands, training and retraining existing ones. The calibre of personnel at management and mid-level will underpin the success of any policy initiative by the administration. Without reinforcing the right ethos and vision of the agency as enshrined in the enabling act, it is unlikely that any remarkable shift can be achieved even with the full tenure in office, no matter how committed the administration.

D) Galvanising Private Sector Investment
It is inconceivable that NDDC could muster all the financial resources required to implement even the best laid out plan. Budgetary constraint will become a major hindrance to implementing large-scale projects moving forward. Nigeria’s current debt burden and fiscal challenges will negatively impact the cash flow of NDDC in the near future. Consequently, it is my opinion for NDDC to devise a means of mobilizing extra budgetary financial resources. This includes not simply grants from oil companies but also targeted investments in key projects. The best analogy will be the Regional Development Bank or Investment Fund that NDDC could help to spearhead as a co-sponsor/co-investor or consortium partners. The idea for a Niger Delta Development Bank (NDDB) has been in the works for a while, whereas a regionally focus private equity fund can also be a suitable vehicle to attract significant private investments. The Development Bank or Investment Fund must be commercially viable and private sector driven with clear and discernible investment policy guideline based on global best practice. The role of the agency should remain as an investor or general partner with no veto powers or excessive control over the institution. The funds mobilised could be deployed as debt or equity investments and seed capital in viable long-term projects, companies or social initiatives. With the right framework in place, it will be possible to attract incremental investment resources from local/foreign investors and multilateral institutions.

E) Designing and Coordinating Economic Diversification Blue-print
I will challenge you that no single state in Nigeria or the region has a blueprint for its long- term economic development beyond-oil. The agency under this administration should champion that action for the benefit of the Niger Delta region. The long-term Economic Diversification Plan (EDP) should be spearheaded and developed by the agency. As the moment of truth draws near, it is vitally important for an agency of this nature to demonstrate foresight by addressing the tough questions and help reposition the region.

Conclusion
As complex as some of the ideas might sound, naysayers may even be tempted to wave them off and preach business as usual. It is a question of whether the new administration in NDDC truly intends to show leadership and leave a mark. If their commitment is to impact the development of the region then it must start from the very least steps looking at the bigger picture to see the enormous challenges without being overwhelmed. My candid advice is to set the ball rolling fast, one step at a time and accomplish as much humanly possible so posterity will judge this administration more favourably than previous ones.

Peterside, Ph.D, is CEO of Xcellon Capital Advisors Limited, a Lagos-based investment advisory firm