Letter No. 2
The Fireside Critic
I call myself the fireside critic, because as a social critic I do not engage in public discourse to launch verbal missiles; I do so to offer constructive criticism that would help to make the world a better place.
An Open Letter to President Umaru Yar’Adua
Dear President Yar’Adua:
Good morning. I hope all is well with you. I am writing this letter to you to thank you for the amnesty you offered to the militants in the Niger Delta and to offer suggestions that would enable the nation to provide gainful employment to them and the jobless in the Niger Delta. Before I continue though, Mr. President, I suggest that you extend the amnesty to Mr. Henry Okah, so that the nation can close the unfortunate chapter of bloodletting in the Niger Delta.
Mr. President, the upheaval in the Niger Delta has caused the nation very dearly in lives and oil revenue. We may never know the actual number of souls that it has cut down, old men, old women, young men, young women, and children of all ages. The Niger Delta has paid a stiff price in blood. Whether this sad tale will end on this bloody note, or we will somehow find it in ourselves as a nation to wring from the great dirge a song of sweeter note and greater cheer is entirely up to us. The nation lost a whopping $23.7 billion in oil revenue in just nine months (This Day Online, April 4, 2009). That is money that could have changed the Niger Delta for good and forever. Mr. President, it is important, then, to talk about the day after the violence.
The insurrection has revealed some interesting truths about the youth of the Niger Delta. Mr. President, I want to concentrate on the good ones, not the bad, because it is on the former, not the latter, that we can build a peaceful and prosperous Niger Delta and country. What truths has the insurrection shown? It has shown that the youth of the Niger Delta are capable of making incredible sacrifices when they are convinced that such sacrifice will lead to a better tomorrow. The attack on the Bonga oil field demonstrates that like their forefathers who ventured to the Atlantic Ocean and left tales of towering waves in the folklore of the region, they can be daring and adventurous too. The countless crude refineries that sprang up overnight show a spirit of entrepreneurship. The creation of camps on faraway islands demonstrates the uncorking of a frontier spirit. These are attributes on which to forge success in life, whether it is the business of wealth creation or it is the business of nation building.
Mr. President, what do we do with these revelations? If we lost $23.7 billion in nine months, the cessation of violence should allow us to dam the flood of revenue loss and channel it to worthy projects. Even if we put a fraction of that money into an account in form of a Niger Delta Bank, which many, including this writer, have suggested, we can create a lot of small-scale, -medium-scale, -and large-scale businesses through the provision of loans. If we use some of the money to fund the Niger Delta Development Commission and the Ministry for Niger Delta Affairs on a recurring basis, we can establish a three-way pincer march to gradually encircle and defeat the seemingly intractable problems of poverty, disease, and lack of social and physical infrastructure that plague the region.
Mr. President, we have a model to show us the way. It is not Dubai, as some commentators on the Niger Delta have suggested. It is Venice. It is Venice, not Dubai, because like Venice, the Niger Delta is in the main a collection of islands and marshy terrains. So, while Port Harcourt, Warri, Asaba, Calabar, Uyo, and Aba, may have their towering skyscrapers in the future, the hundreds of islands scattered all over the Niger Delta can draw their sustenance from financial and manufacturing hubs situated right across from them. Mr. President, please close your eyes for a moment and imagine commercial hubs centered around light –and small-boat manufacture, fish farming and high-sea fishing, marshland rice and cassava production, papaya and cocoanut production, holiday resorts, information technology and solar energy production, and oil and gas production and services, and Mr. President, you will suddenly get a new picture of these islands and of the region.
A key factor in the current crisis has to do with the fact that the currently inhabited islands are claustrophobic spaces. Unlike in the past, in most of these islands, one cannot even plant a small vegetable garden. There is no space for it. I have witnessed at least one case where two parties threatened each other with fire and brimstone because of a piece of land the size of a sleeping mat. There are rarely any businesses in these islands other than the trade in foodstuff that is mostly carried out by the women. Many islanders, particularly the elderly, survive on money they get from their children, or grandchildren, or relatives. If there is no space to create wealth, there will be widespread poverty. And that is the case with these islands. So, on the economic front, it is a one-way traffic to the city, a situation that I have already identified as the shantytown-pull, because many a youth who grows up on the island is very unlikely to find a job in the city, since he either dropped out of school or received a substandard education. As a result, he settles in the shantytown, where he relieves his existential misery with cheap sex, petty crimes, and even violence. In the case of the girl, she easily becomes a teenage mother, and looks to all kinds of odd jobs, and even prostitution, to sustain herself and her children. And the vicious cycle continues with a haunting exactitude. Mr. President, I have seen several of such cases, and am now fully convinced that the answers to the problems of the region do no lie in the cities, which are constantly under siege from the flood of both in-state and out-state migrants. In any case, there is only so much the cities can do in terms of job provision for the multitudes that yearly flood them to look for better opportunities.
Mr. President, if the nation can follow the Venice model, and set up business hubs on some of the currently uninhabited islands, an islander needs not go to the city to look for a job. As I have said, one of the revelations of the current insurrection is the settling of formerly scarcely uninhabited islands by the militants. These island camps are virtually in all the coastal areas of the Niger Delta. With the cessation of violence, they can be immediately put to use. They should be cleared for habitation, and demarcated into residential and business plots. Because they would be model towns that would develop to full capacity through the years, the various tiers of government, the NDDC, and the Ministry for Niger Delta Affairs should set up certain basic physical and social infrastructure, for example, electricity, health centers, and at least one central road on each of the islands. And there should be security presence, preferably the military, at this initial stage, to maintain law and order and to offer assurance to investors that they would be operating in a safe environment.
Certain businesses can be set up immediately; others will come later. Businesses that can employ even people with very little education include fish farming and high-sea fishing. Mr. President, as I said earlier, the attack on the Bonga oil field very clearly demonstrates that we have youth who can be very successful entrepreneurs in high-sea fishing. As you yourself know, the country is currently providing less than 30% of its needs in fish. It is apparent, then, that this is at least a multi-million dollar industry. If the country attacks its needs in fish from all the new model towns, we will very soon not only meet our needs as a nation, we will also be exporting fish to other nations. Swamp rice an
d cassava production, as well as their processing factories can also offer immediate employment, because they also can utilize people with very little education. Holiday resorts can also be easily set up. Clear an island, put electricity, a health center, security, a supermarket, cottages, palm trees, at least one asphalt road for starters, and a good dose of advertisement and your holiday resort is ready to go. Mr. President, real estate development will, of course, naturally follow as these islands gradually attract job seekers and investors.
On the higher end of job provision, we as a nation should by now recognize the fact that we cannot talk about rapid development of the region if the people of the region are not major players in the oil and gas sector. Infusing sectors such as oil lifting with the people of the region is good business for the nation and for the environment, because it will help to spread the wealth to the grassroots and develop these islands as alternative sites of investment and employment, as well as check the growth of the condensate industry, which is wreaking great havoc on the environment. It will also help to check the illegal lifting of oil that annually costs the nation billions of dollars. On this issue too, Mr. President, the recent news that the federal government is thinking of ceding some of its shares in its joint-venture partnership with the oil companies to host companies is a very laudable gesture. If host communities have such direct stake in the oil and gas sector, they would have at last gained a measure of resource control that will speed up their development and create an amicable relationship between them, on the one hand, and government and the oil companies, on the other.
Mr. President, still on higher-end job provision, you recently appointed Chief Dumo Lulu-Briggs as chairman of the National Maritime Academy, no doubt, to demonstrate to Ijaw youths that you are serious about utilizing their rich maritime heritage and capabilities. Mr. President, if through the academy, the government can set up a public-private sector partnership in which the private sector will have the manpower it needs to handle the entire small –and light boat demand of the region, as well as high-sea fishing, the region will be humming with job creation and opportunities.
Mr. President, as you can see, what we lack is neither the money nor the ideas, and it is certainly not the people to implement these ideas. A youth who, as a militant, earns twenty-thousand naira a month in the face of constant threat from the elements, mosquitoes, the JTF and other hazards knows that he has a better deal if he is given an opportunity to do a job in a model town where he can buy a modest but very decent house from his earnings and enjoy the sheer beauty of nature for the rest of his life. Mr. President, if we use the Venice model to develop the coastal areas of the Niger Delta, as I have outlined, we as a people and as a nation will in the future be able to beat our chests and say, “We may have started off on the wrong foot in the Niger Delta, but just see what we have achieved there. We have created our own Venice, a hub of commerce and an oasis of peace.” Mr. President, we can do it. All we need is the desire.
As always, with very warm regards,