An Open Letter to Prime Minister Gordon Brown

Mr. Prime Minister, due to the central government’s control of resources, there is the economically devastating loss of billions of dollars to oil thieves every year, because of the central government’s inability to effectively monitor the sector. Again, Mr. Prime Minister, this is a situation where a distant central government is at its wit’s end even though it renews its vow to tackle the problem year after year. Mr. Prime Minister, an impartial observer should be able to ask, What will it cost the central government if it hands over to the states something it is not as well equipped as the latter to run, and in doing so save the country billions of dollars in revenue every year? Mr. Prime Minister, the answer lies in ego and the power of patronage. It is ego, because a hegemonic few of those of majority ethnicity, who control the center, imagine themselves as being unable to live with a situation where those of minority ethnicity control the nation’s main economic resource. It is patronage because those who control the center see the sector as a site replete with possibilities of political patronage. To give up such a power for the greater good of the country is unimaginable to them. I am sorry to say, Mr. Prime Minister, but there seems to me a Nero Complex at play in such an attitude, namely, Let Rome burn, so long as I have my fiddle and my palace from where to play it and watch the carnage.

But, Mr. Prime Minister, whatever such ruling elite lose in terms of actual control can be salvaged in form of a constitutional set-aside of, say, thirty percent of non-indigene participation in aspects of the oil and gas sector such as oil lifting rights and ownership oil services companies, even as actual control of the resources stay in the hands of the states. In fact, the billions of dollars the nation loses each year to oil thieves can create a lot of opportunities even for those who fear loss of patronage rights should resource control go to the states.

Moreover, Mr. Prime Minister, the precedent on which the central government bases its right of control of resources is of dubious patrimony. It comes from a colonial government that saw the country primarily as a site of extraction of raw materials. Why it should now be a model to copy, even when it has been shown to be totally inadequate to meet the challenges of development of an independent Nigeria seems most unfortunate to me.

However, Mr. Prime Minister, Nigeria is a country where the pecuniary interests of the few often determine the fate of the many and ethnic and tribal considerations often trump desire for the common good. Mr. Prime Minister, that is why even though I am elated that the NSF is frank about why it would be reluctant to participate in a total overhaul of the revenue-and-derivation system until the day oil is discovered in the North, and it would be willing to support resource control by the states, I am at the same time saddened that the NSF predicates its support for what will undoubtedly be for the common good on the fate of oil prospecting in the North. That is not the way to run a country in the 21st century, particularly when the results of such a decision are very dire on its impact on the country.

But, Mr. Prime Minister, that is Nigeria, and if the NSF and the rest of the ruling elite of the North will oppose state resource control, and keep the present unworkable system, then I suggest that the thirty percent, which I had suggested should be set aside for non-indigene participation in aspects of the oil industry, such as oil lifting and ownership and operation of oil services companies, be set aside for oil-bearing communities. The country will, of course, continue to lose billions of dollars through oil theft as a result of the inability of the central government to effectively monitor the oil sector. If the hegemonic ruling elite of the country is telling us that that is the way they want to run the country, at least something should be salvaged from the system that will make it possible for the oil-bearing communities to lift themselves out of the morass of lack of opportunity and back-breaking poverty in which they find themselves.
Furthermore, Mr. Prime Minister, to break the vice-like grip of poverty on these communities, the state governments must be proactive in the development of the communities. No longer should it be possible for the government of an oil-producing state to divert derivation revenue from the development of these communities. Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan’s practice of setting aside fifty percent of derivation revenue for the funding of development in oil-bearing communities through a state-controlled agency has been rightly widely hailed, and should be adopted by other oil-producing states. The phenomenon whereby a state spends almost ninety percent of its funds on the development of one or two cities in the state should be a thing of the past. It should never be a crime to choose to live in a rural area.

Mr. Prime Minister, let me now come to the role of the oil companies. I do not begrudge the oil companies their monumental profits, and very few in the Niger Delta do. In 2007, Exxon Mobil posted a record breaking profit of $40.6 billion. In 2008, the company shattered that record by posting a profit of $45.2 billion. What many of us in the Niger Delta find highly distasteful is the declaration by the oil companies that in spite of such monumental profits, it is somehow okay for the companies to continue to flare gas and destroy the health and environment of the people of the Niger Delta, or that the oil companies can continue to engage in the practice of reckless oil spilling, much of which is either not reported or underreported because it will cost the companies a tiny fraction of their immense profits to fix these problems.

Mr. Prime Minister, I also do not begrudge CEO Rex Tillerson his take-home package of almost twenty-four million dollars last year. I presume that Mr. Tillerson works hard for his money, and should be allowed to enjoy the fruit of his labor. What I find distasteful is Mr. Tillerson’s inability to see himself in the village fisherman who lives under the shadow of a roaring gas flare, and returns home empty handed, like the old man in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, because the river that once gave him sustenance is so heavily polluted that the fish are gone, and he can no longer find sustenance from it. Such a fisherman will live in misery in his village until the end of his days, or the shantytown pull will take him to a shantytown in the city, where to survive he will put his back to the back-breaking labor of, say, carrying cement bags, if he even finds such opportunity, until the day he is no longer able to do so and succumbs and gives up the ghost.

Mr. Prime Minister, the world should not be that way. When Thomas Jefferson uttered those immortal words, namely, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” he was speaking from the standpoint of a new era in human affairs, the Enlightenment, whose bright light of liberty, equality, and fraternity, as the French expressed it, was supposed to throw into even greater relief the Christian teaching of doing unto others as you would want others to do unto you. I am certain, Mr. Prime Minister, that Mr. Tillerson would not want a gas-flaring monster in his backyard. Neither will Mr. Tillerson want to wake up one morning at his lakeside home and discover that the lake is completely covered by oil, and as a result he could no longer take his beloved grandson to fishing, because the fish are dead, or show his sweet, little granddaughter the swallow’s nest because the swallow ate and drank from the poisoned lake, and died, and will no longer return to its nest. Mr. Prime Minister, as I said, I am very happy for Mr. Tillerson that he has w

orked his way to such great success, but my happiness for Mr. Tillerson should not prevent me from painting for him the reality of the life of the fisherman in the far-flung islands of the Niger Delta, where the wholesale destruction of rivers has made life a Sisyphean struggle.

Mr. Prime Minister, what can we do? Mr. Prime Minister, it has become clearly obvious that the central government of Nigeria is incapable of holding the oil companies to the standards by which they operate in their home countries, whether it is in Britain, or the United States, or Holland, or Italy, or France. For the beleaguered people of the Niger Delta to have any sort of fortune to get the oil companies to operate in the Niger Delta the way they operate in their home countries, we need the help of men of integrity and leaders of the home countries of the oil companies, such as you, to enact laws to compel them to behave in the Niger Delta as they behave back home. Gas flaring should cease; a definite date should be set for its stoppage. Agents of international organizations such as the United Nations should be sent to the Niger Delta to do a thorough assessment of the facilities of oil companies, particularly their network of pipes, many of which are in sorry condition, and the agents should make a report to the United Nations. Based on the reports, the United Nations, or the home countries of the oil companies should ask the oil companies to come up with a definite time table as to when they will replace worn-out pipes. Based on the quality of the pipes, the expected duration of the pipes should be noted, and the dates for the replacement of the pipes should be set down. Also, under the firm watch of UN agencies, firm arrangements should be made with host communities and state governments as to how the oil companies will deal with oil spills. Meanwhile, oil companies should start the process of getting the rivers back to life through remediation efforts, so that subsistence and commercial fishing can resume.

Mr. Prime Minister, your guess is as good as mine that the oil companies will barely lift a finger if all the protection that the Niger Delta people have is the central government. The central government has proved completely incapable or entirely unwilling to get the oil companies to act right by the people of the Niger Delta. If truly, the world is now a global village and we are our brothers’ keepers and see our fates in their fates, and hear the bell tolling for us when it tolls for them, as John Donne aptly recommends, then, Mr. Prime Minister, you and your country and the home countries of the oil companies should not forsake the people of the Niger Delta by turning a deaf ear to the woeful tales and cries of a severely unfortunate people.

Mr. Prime Minister, I cannot end this letter without mentioning the role corruption plays in the state of anomie in the Niger Delta. Sure, corruption of monstrous proportions thrives among the country’s governing elite all over the nation, but the corruption of some of the Niger Delta governors from 1999 to 2007 has since become legendary. These corrupt governors reduced the coffers of their states to their personal checking accounts, and spent the common wealth on their personal projects as if in becoming governors they had somehow been magically transformed into Croesus.

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