How Government Underdeveloped the Niger Delta


There is nowhere else that the failure of government, whether the federal, state and local governments, is more apparent in underdevelopment than in the Niger Delta of Nigeria.  Or as Francis,  La Pin and Rossiascso (2011) put it in their study. “Few regions in the world have been as unfortunate as Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta. The delta’s abundant natural wealth stands in stark contrast to its palpable underdevelopment.”

The oil and gas sector accounts for at least 90 per cent of Nigeria’s exports and 80 per cent of the federal government’s revenue. The oil industry has been the source of environmental hazards – water, land, air pollution – posing great challenges to the region’s economic development. The delta is home to Africa’s largest mangrove forest and the third in the world. However, “some of the oil industry activities… have led to mangrove vegetation clearance.”

Additionally, Amarachi Paschaline and Onyena Kabari Sam, in a study titled A Review of the threat of oil exploitation to mangrove ecosystem: Insights from Niger Delta, Nigeria, posit that the greater part of today’s challenges is “caused by anthropogenic activities, including over-exploitation, oil spills, crude oil exploration and production.”

The piteous plight of the Niger Delta region, in terms of infrastructure, is also due to extraneous factors, which include militancy of the 1990s and beyond and the ongoing illegal oil bunkering and illegal refinery activities. These activities have acquired a life that breathes with ferocity till date, stymying attempts by indigenes, would-be-settlers and governments to plant footprints in the creeks.

Historically, the people of the region were among the minority groups which had demanded their own separate states because of the fear of their political future in the then Nigeria’s evolving federation. Before the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates into Nigeria, the Crown Colony had five constitutions. The first which came into effect in 1914, the year of the amalgamation. It was enacted in 1913. The others were in 1922, 1946, 1951 and 1954. The demand for statehood by the people of the Niger Delta were unremitting in the run up to the making of these constitutions.

In September 1957, Her Majesty’s Government, through the Secretary of State for the Colonies (The Rt Hon. Alan Lennox-Boyd), set up a four-member commission to “enquire into the fears of the minorities and the means to allay them.” The Commission, which sat between 23 November 1957 and 12 April 1958, was headed by Sir Henry Urmston Willink, a Conservative Member of Parliament, thus it was widely known as the Willink Minority Commission.

The result of the decision at the Constitutional Conference of 1953 for Nigeria to be a Federation of three Regions (and the small Federal territory of Lagos), with residual powers resting with the Regions was a Federation of an unusual composition, in that one of the three constituents was slightly larger than the other two put together, while in each of the three Regions, it was possible to distinguish between a majority group of about two-thirds of the population and minority groups amount to about one-third…in 1954, certain of these minority groups expressed fears about their future in Regions of this kind and asked for recognition as separate states.

Some of the fears expressed by delegates from the Mid-West Provinces – which had included Benin, Ishan, Afenmai, Urhobo, Asaba, Aboh, Western Ijaw and Warri Divisions; with Edo, Igbo, Isoko, Urhobo, Ika, Ivbiosakon, Ijaw and Itsekiri ethnic groups – against the Western Regional Government, were those of Yoruba domination; fears and grievances regarding the maintenance of public order; discrimination in the economic field; discrimination in the provision of public services; discrimination in the drawing of boundaries and representation in the legislature; discrimination against minority religions, especially Islam.   And, from those in the Eastern Region came fears of Igbo domination in public posts and services; autocratic government; changes in the legal system; intimidation by adherents of the ruling party; and fear of neglect in the hands of those who did not understand their needs – for instance, those of the folks who lived in the creeks.

The Commission stressed that the matter of the Special Area should be of concern to the Federal Government, and the Eastern and Western Regions, and not left to one region, stating, “not only because the area involves two regions, but because it is poor, backward and neglected ….” 

On 26 August 1959, the Governor-General of Nigeria, Sir James Wilson Robertson, made a proclamation on the area of Nigeria delineated as ‘Niger Delta – for the purpose of the Niger Delta Development Board: ‘(a) in respect of the Western Region, the Western Ijaw Division of Delta Province; and (b) in respect of the Eastern Region, Yenagoa Province, Degema Province and the Ogoni Division of Port Harcourt Province.’

On 1 October 1960, Nigeria became independent from the British Empire. On 6 June 1961, the Niger Delta Development Board Act, 1961 was assented to by Governor-General Nnamdi Azikiwe, in Her Majesty’s name.  The Act was made effective from 1 April 1961. The functions of the Board were, incongruously, not spelt out.

That same 1963, to accommodate the minority ethnic groups in the Western Region, The Mid-Western Region was created on 9 August 1963 following a constitutional referendum held on 13 July 1963 in Benin. Till date, this is the only major administrative unit of Nigeria created by due constitutional process. 

And, on 27 May 1967, the then Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, created 12 states in Nigeria, including Rivers and South Eastern States from the old Eastern Region. Gowon’s move was aimed at satisfying the yearnings of the oil-bearing areas and also isolate the core Easterners now carved into the East Central State. Today, after several state creations, the Niger Delta, grouped under the South-South geo-political zone in Nigeria, has six states – Rivers, Cross River, Akwa Ibom, Delta, Edo and Bayelsa. The contiguous oil-producing states of Imo and Abia, which are mainly Igbo- speaking, and Ondo, which is also an oil-producing state, consisting mainly of Yoruba-speaking people, are classified within Niger Delta.

Then, on 27 November 1969, the Nigerian State enacted its first comprehensive petroleum law, vesting in the Federal Government of Nigeria the “entire ownership and control” of “all petroleum (mineral oil and gas) in, under or upon any land (including one covered by water) in Nigeria; or under the territorial waters of Nigeria; or forms part of the continental shelfs; or forms part of the Exclusive Economic Zone of Nigeria.

On 29 March 1978, the Federal Military Government headed by Gen Olusegun Obasanjo promulgated the Land Use Decree No 6, which from that date vested all land comprised in the territory of each State in the Federation in the military governor of the State to be “held in trust and administered for the use and common benefit of all Nigerians….”

“The centralisation of resources,” posit Francis et al, “reduced tensions between the dominant ethnic groups of the federation, the Hausa, the Yoruba and the Igbo. At the same time, it exacerbated tensions between these large groups and the numerous minorities, especially those in the Niger Delta, who became increasingly marginalised from the political and economic systems. This, together with the progressive degradation of the environment due to oil exploitation and impoverishment, increased the minorities’ feelings of frustration against the federal government.”

Noteworthy too, in the historical development of the Niger Delta, was the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), which was fought also on account of the control over oil resources. The war also disrupted the Niger Delta Development Board (NDDB) which was earmarked to serve a ten-year tenure, from 1961 when it was established. In 1976, when the Federal Government created ten River Basin Development Authorities (RBDA), the NDDB was renamed the Niger Delta River Basin Development Authority (NDRBDA). Paki et al (2011) contend that this agency failed colossally to impact positively on the development of the Niger Delta.

Since the Willink Minority Commission, at least thirteen inquiries, panels, commitees, etc., have been set up by various national governments and even international organisations such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) including the Technical Committee on the Niger Delta (inaugurated in September 2008, by former President Goodluck Jonathan, a notable Niger Deltan, with former MOSOP President Ledum Mitee as chairman) and a survey commissioned by the UNDP in Nigeria on human development outcomes in the Niger Delta region which, in 2006, produced the Niger Delta Human Development Report. 

Also, since the establishment of the NDDB, there have been four other interventionist agencies and even a Ministry of Niger Delta.  The states too have created agencies purportedly for development of the oil-producing communities in the states. Even, federal revenue allocations to oil-producing states or, and, the various agencies have progressively been increased. Today, the states are entitled to 13 per cent derivation revenue, by virtue of Section 162 (2) of the 1999 Constitution.

Despite these, it had been more of moves than movements: the problems they were created to tackle are not only still there but have also grown in great proportions. Agitations which climaxed in the militancy of the 1990s and in ongoing pervasive illegal bunkering and refining, have heightened. These have left the creeks messier because of the environmental degradation arising from the consequences of the continuous high spate of oil spills, unprecedented elsewhere in the world. 

Professor Obafemi Ajibola, founder and chief executive of the New Nigeria Foundation has for long been a key development partner of the major oil companies, including Chevron, Shell Petroleum and Development Company (SPDC), Total and Mobil. Besides being a key partner of Chevron’s development programme in the Niger Delta, Ajibola has since 2007 also successfully sold the idea of GMoU (Global Memorandum of Understanding) development programme to Shell.

According to him, there is little or no development in the Niger Delta “because the government(s) are not doing enough in the place,” arguing that “only the government of a country or the people themselves can undertake widespread development and not the development organisations.” He adds: “I was asking someone, ‘Tell me which country (in the world) which the World Bank has lifted from nothing to something? Is it India? Is it Brazil? Or is it China?’ The organisations are doing their bit in terms of projects here and there, and the models (of development) they use for specific countries and regions.”

He explains further: “Go to where Shell has operated in the Niger Delta, you would see development projects they have done. Go to all the communities where Chevron has operated too, you would see their projects there. You would not be able to point to any local government or state government structures in these places.” So, the communities believe that (these oil companies) are the government.

Speaking of the GMoU, on which he partnered with Chevron, he recalls that people were initially skeptical about it, but when they saw that it was successful, everybody was struggling to be a leader in the community development scheme. Says he: “It led to a crisis in many of the RDC (Regional Development Committees). People were struggling to be this or that, because it was the only game in town (in terms of development of the oil communities).”

Ajibola further says that under the GMoU scheme, they were not the ones who identified the leaders of the communities to discuss with. “Communities did. Chevron had had more than 40 years’ relationship with them, so they already knew the leaders before the GMoU. It was just that they came up with a new model of dealing with them. Hitherto, they were dealing with them individually and it led to much crisis.”

He believes that the onus is on the governments at various levels to develop the Niger Delta. He explains that there are a lot of things government can do there, “like build schools, and through that, because the students will need food, you can develop agriculture around the area. Apart from that, there should also be some support services, so that these things will help build urban centres that will serve the small communities. We need to think it out, so that we will not be helping people to migrate out of the place.” 

He recognizes that state governments were more effective at dealing with issues of peace and conflict management than on matters of development.

Ajibola insists that the development of the Niger Delta would have succeeded only “when we make government take its responsibility seriously; we need to sharpen our advocacy so that we can compel government to do its work. Now, Chevron is doing some things, but it is not enough. Chevron is merely doing corporate social responsibility. A lot of the money from the oil sector is in the hands of the Federal Government, because as the lead partner in the joint venture, the government takes a chunk of the proceeds from oil. What is the job of government?

• Being excerpts from The Contentious Search for Peace in the Niger Delta, authored by Jide Ajide, John Ashima and Oluwole Agunbiade.

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