The Fireside Critic: Letter No. 6
An Open Letter to President Umaru Yar’Adua: Transitioning from Amnesty to Paradise
Dear President Yar’Adua:
Good morning. I hope all is well with you. Before I get to the subject of this letter, let me start by saying a very big thank you to you for the revolutionary decision you have taken to transfer ten percent of the proceeds of the joint venture partnership between the central government and the oil companies to the oil-bearing communities. Mr. President, I cannot thank you enough. If previous rulers of the country had acted with such empathy and fairness, the Niger Delta would have told a far different story from the one it has been telling since the first oil well was sunk at Oloibiri over five decades ago. For this act, Mr. President, history will remember you kindly. Again, thank you very much.
Mr. President, the bill has the potential to develop the affected communities in a thoroughgoing manner. For the first time in the history of our nation, the affected communities, many of which have no access to electricity, potable water, medical care, and proper educational facilities, can legitimately hope to enjoy these amenities. It will be a win-win development for the communities, the nation, and the oil companies.
Mr. President, for hope to become reality when the bill is passed, the funds must be in the proper hands and must be managed with honesty, prudence, and creativity. I read that the Niger Delta governors have asked to manage the funds. They should not manage the funds. Mr. President, if we think carefully, we will come to the easy realization that the proper organ to manage the funds is the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs. Indeed, Mr. President, we have a precedent in the country and a good one that: the federal capital territory – Abuja.
The Abuja model will cut out a lot of bureaucratic bottleneck and waste, inject the money directly into the communities, and allow the president to keep a very close eye on the management of the funds. In fact, Mr. President, under this model, the president can move with such rapidity to improve the oil-bearing communities the way the nation has transformed Abuja from a coterie of villages to a befitting capital that within five years the oil-bearing communities will undergo a makeover, a radical and positive alteration. Mr. President, since I have given several years to ponder a course of development for the oil-bearing communities in case of a situation like the impending ten per cent equity transfer regime, let me spell out the plan in very precise detail.
Mr. President, the first thing to give the communities is electricity. Mr. President, as we all know, electricity has the ability to change the face of a community and trigger development in a way that no other instrument of development can. Electricity preserves perishable material and makes it possible for businesses to grow. It helps the poor to stretch their resources once they are able to buy refrigerators. It enables rural clinics to preserve temperature sensitive drugs and to perform life-saving operations. It enables students and teachers to extend their hours of intellectual labor and therefore become more productive. It enables members of a community to have more time for leisure and be better informed, whether it is through the television, print media, or the Internet. It enables adult education to take place in the evenings after the adults return home from their labors. With education and more time for leisure, village and town folk will work more to acquire the things they want, and induce a steady if not rapid growth of the local economy. By every measure of analysis with regard to development, electricity is a game changer.
Mr. President, after electricity enters the picture, the next thing to give the communities is healthcare. Even if a rural clinic has nothing but nurses who are trained to handle easily treatable diseases such as malaria, dysentery, offer maternal care and child delivery, and refer serious cases to a better staffed hospital at the head quarters of the local government, where even more serious cases could be referred to specialist hospitals in the state capital, the health profile of the communities will undergo a seismic change.
Mr. President, potable water should follow the establishment of clinics. With potable water, water-borne diseases will go down dramatically. Clean water will give a fuller measure of life to the communities.
Mr. President, after the provision of potable water, provisions for efficient disposal of human waste should follow. All the waterside toilets should disappear. Because this is more of a personal project than a communal project, the government should ask every home to install a flush toilet. Where a family is too poor to afford one, the community bank should give the family a loan to install one. The loan should be repaid over a stipulated time. The installation of flush toilets would not only improve the health profile of the communities, it will also pull them into modernity.
Mr. President, all the above could be done in a space of two years once the funds become available. Therefore, Mr. President, you have the opportunity to create a stellar and enduring legacy in the Niger Delta.
Mr. President, your legacy will be even more stellar and you will bequeath a masterpiece of a model of community development to the oil-bearing communities and the nation with the second round of developments that I will outline very shortly.
Mr. President, what I propose is for you to create communities that will be comparable to top-flight Caribbean resort towns and Western European towns. Mr. President, some would greet this statement with skeptical guffaws. I only plead that they very carefully read what comes below and I have no doubt that they will revise their opinion and agree with me.
Mr. President, every community should have an asphalt-paved central road that runs through the community from one end to the other. Both sides of the road should be lined with palm trees and street lamps. The paths that lead to the central road should be paved over with cobblestones. In other words, the entire village or town should be cobblestoned. Mr. President, before the cobblestones are set down, both sides of every path should be lined with swaths of green grass, palm trees, and street lamps all the way to the central street that runs through the town or village. Mr. President, after home owners are encouraged to put dashing colors on their homes, the entire village or town will be transformed into a breathtaking masterpiece. When night comes and the lights go on, any first-time visitor to these villages and towns would likely swear that he/she is in some kind of magical land.
Mr. President, the next phase of development will transform the communities from purely residential sites into sites of formidable entrepreneurship.
The first place to start is education. The schools should be upgraded. Each school should have a decent library with computers and Internet access. There should also be a communal recreation center with a library, gymnasium, swimming pool, and a big auditorium for communal meetings. Scholarship funds should be established for both young and adult students. When any villager can work into the communal center and study, read the newspaper or magazine, or discuss social, political, and business ideas, these communal centers will alongside the schools serve as engine rooms of communal development and enlightened participation in the public sphere.
Mr. President, as you know, many of the oil-bearing communities in the riverine areas of the Niger Delta are fully populated and need land for both residential and commercial development. Land should be reclaimed from the river for both purposes. Some of the land should
be given to people who may have to lose their homes in the various family compounds in the course of the reconstruction of the villagers and towns. The rest should be sold.
In the reclaimed area, every village or town, no matter how small, should have a business district. Mr. President, I am not talking of anything grandiose here. I am talking of the kind of barebones business district that will drive the development of the community. The business district should incrementally have a communal bank, a post office, shops, restaurants, bed and breakfast restaurants and hotels, and resorts with well appointed cabins that have docking stations for leisure boats, so that visitors who are vacationing in these villages and towns could go on leisure rides and fishing. A major street should run through the business district and like the other streets in the community, it should be lined with palm trees and street lamps. The entire village or town should be ringed round with palm-tree lined beaches except in places where resorts would situate their docking stations for boats.
Mr. President, the measures I have suggested look like they apply only to the riverine places; they do not. The upland areas could be developed along the lines I have suggested except that because they are not islands and therefore not surrounded by water, they will have no palm-tree lined beaches and waterside resorts. These are the only differences. In other words, Mr. President, they too could be developed with cobblestones, swaths of well kept green grass, palm trees, and street lamp-lined paths and streets. And just like the riverine villages and towns, the upland villages and towns should have their business districts.
Mr. President, in this plan, the headquarters of the local governments should be developed differently. In the riverine areas, because the headquarters of the local government areas are expected to do more job and they too are in very dire need of land for residential and commercial development, more land should be reclaimed for the local government areas. The islands that ring the village/town that serves as the headquarters of the local government should be reclaimed.
Mr. President, where two or three islands surround the village/town that serves as the headquarters, one should be reclaimed for purely residential buildings in anticipation of the influx of people into the area. The reclaimed island should be developed as a model town with green grass, palm trees, and street-lamp-lined streets. Like the main village/town, it should have a palm-tree lined beach and docking stations for leisure boats. The second island should be the business district of the main town. The offices of the local government headquarters should be moved there. The headquarters of the community bank at the local government level should be located here as well as other banks that come to do business in the area. This should also be the site of two-year community colleges, satellite campuses of universities in the state capital, as well as branches of major businesses. Bridges could be built to connect the main town to these islands, or we could follow the Venice model and let marine vessels ferry people from one location to the other.
Mr. President, how do we generate local business in the area? The first thing to look at is the eons-old business of food production. In the upland areas, farmers drive the local economy. Farmers should be encouraged to form cooperatives, or better put, companies, which should then be given loans to mechanize their production in every facet, from planting to storage of the produce to its distribution either through sale to marketers or through its own distribution outlets. In the riverine areas, entrepreneurs should be given loans to set up huge fish-farm companies, as well as high-sea fishing companies.
Mr. President, we have reached the stage in our history when primary food production should co-exist side by side with secondary food production. Therefore, loans should be given to entrepreneurs to work with farmers and fishing companies to produce manufactured goods from the raw material in factories. Alongside these factories should operate cottage industries to produce all kinds of products ranging from custom-made from local shoemakers and shoemaking shops to the production of clothing from tailors and small-garment companies to furniture production, to automobile repair and washing stores, to boatbuilding, to supermarkets, to gas stations, to plumber stores, to small real estate firms to small accounting firms, to small legal firms, to small tool production and repair businesses to bed-and-breakfast hotels to small privately owned clinics to small entertainment businesses such as small movie theaters, etc.
Mr. President, to facilitate the establishment of these businesses, we need to bring in the American style two-year community college into our educational system. There should be at least one two-year community college in every local government area. It could be established by the government or by individuals. These two-year colleges will give hands-on training to individuals for the various skills they need to set up or work for the various businesses I have enumerated. With the new money coming to the oil-bearing communities, they will be a good place to try the kind of holistic community development that I am describing here. The model can then be used to develop other communities in the country.
Mr. President, the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs has the ability to entirely transform the Niger Delta with the new money. What follows thereafter will be consolidation of the transformation. Mr. President, it is the reason why I have stated that the ten per cent equity transfer is revolutionary. It is the most import development in the history of the Niger Delta since the first oil well was sunk at Oloibiri. It is our Marshall Plan. It is our Abuja Plan. And Mr. President, having set the process in motion, you have the opportunity to put your stamp on it by ensuring that the money is not only managed from the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs where you can monitor it very closely, but also that the development plan is followed to the letter.
Mr. President, I am, of course, aware that there are those who are clamoring for the money to be managed by the communities. I strongly disagree. The fate of community development money that the oil companies have been giving to the oil-bearing communities should warn us that this is a situation where federalism should take a backseat until such a time when we have the sort of enlightened population in these communities that will make such abuses impossible or occur very minimally. We have case after case of community development funds for schools, clinics, roads, etc. disappearing into private pockets. If at this stage of our development, the money is given to the oil-bearing communities to manage, the money will be another Christmas tree for the elite of these communities and they will pluck it to death with nothing to show for it.
Mr. President, while I am not saying that the entire elite of these communities is corrupt, it is no secret the ruling elite who manage to get their hands on community development funds has been notoriously corrupt. Mr. President, you are bringing this plan into being. You own it. It is the Niger Delta Marshall Plan. It is the Niger Delta Abuja Plan. You, through the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, can use it to achieve all that I have outlined above in ten years. Where you leave off, your successor will take off. Mr. President, please, please do not allow anyone, whether it be hungry politicians already drooling with saliva at the thought of getting their hands on the money or well-meaning activists to pressure you into ceding control of the money to the communities in the name of federalism. Corrupt and self-serving elite will make a feast of it. The money will disappear. Things will remain as they are. The people will grumble because the promised windfall of development will not come
. Agitation will follow. And then violence.
Mr. President, when local politicians come to lobby you to enable them to take control of the funds, say to them, “I am the originator of this plan. It is my Marshall Plan. It is my Abuja Plan. I will take full responsibility for its success or failure. Now, please go, so I can go to work.” The time for massive looting of money that should go into needed development to raise the people out of disease and back-breaking poverty is over. It is time to write a new chapter.
Mr. President, how should oil-bearing communities be defined with regard to the new funds? While not every town or village in a local government area is an oil-bearing community, it seems to me that for the avoidance of inter-communal hostilities and for a more holistic development of the oil-bearing communities, the local government area with its already well-defined boundaries and administrative structure should serve as the oil-bearing community for the purpose of the ten per cent equity transfer. The government does not therefore need to do any new delineation of boundaries. The process of development can start immediately.
Finally, Mr. President, I may sound like a broken record on the issues of the stoppage of gas flaring, replacement of dilapidated oil pipelines, and reduction of oil spills to very minimal levels, but the new bill will not be complete without the inclusion of very dates for the oil companies to take action on the issues listed above. The Marshall Plan, the Abuja Plan, will not be complete without the emergence of a cleaner and healthier environment in the Niger Delta.
Finally, Mr. President, what do we do to create immediate employment for the ex-militants? Even though, I addressed this concern in my last letter to you, I want to take it up again, since there appears to be stasis in this area, and if newspaper reports are true, some of the ex-militants are beginning to turn to sea piracy, and others are said to be aiding oil thieves to steal hundreds of millions of dollars worth of crude.
Mr. President, we have to be very smart in our management of these problems: oil theft and sea piracy. If we turn our attention to the management of the problems at the local government level, we can use very creative measures to stamp them in a matter of months. Mr. President, if we establish something akin to the former Federal Road Safety Corps, and name it something like the Oil Pipeline Protection Corps (OPPC), we can recruit many of these youths to work with crack teams of joint military units of the army, navy, and air force. OPPC could be transformed into a Marine Police or the equivalent of the U.S. Coast Guard, with expanded duties beyond oil pipeline protection and prevention of sea piracy. In this regard, Mr. President, you will do well to consult with Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan to help you with tips, since he was able to set up a fairly successful coastal security team with the help of former militants.
Furthermore, Mr. President, after you have saddled each local government with the protection of the network of pipelines that runs through its territory in concert with the OPPC, all the affected local governments should be asked to immediately identify the location of every inch of pipeline that runs through its territory and work with the OPPC to come up with a plan to monitor every inch of pipeline.
Mr. President, then you should use the carrot-and-stick approach. The carrot here should be giving local companies constituted by persons from the community, including some ex-militant leaders who are already familiar with the business oil-lifting, lifting rights. This measure will turn some of those who are currently serving as middlemen for the oil thieves to be the main players lifting the oil and therefore take the incentive to these young men to serve as middlemen for the oil thieves away. Furthermore, it will bring the business into the open and enable the central government to take in the hundreds of millions of dollars that currently disappear into the pockets of the oil thieves.
Mr. President, of course, the young men, who should be chosen on a competitive basis, for example, through tests to see whether they can quickly learn the role of international oil trader, would have to be trained for the job. An alternative is to make them part of lifting companies that would be made up of people who have the right sort of education to be quickly trained for the job of international oil trader or already have the education and the skills to do so. In these companies, the chosen ex-militants could be directors in charge of security.
Mr. President, what is the stick? The stick should be to tie down the release of community development funds from the ten per cent equity transfer to the complete stoppage of oil theft. To fully achieve this goal, the central government could throw in an additional carrot. Any local government that achieves zero oil theft will in addition to getting its Marshall Plan/Abuja Plan development for the month receive additional funds through its Marshall Plan/Abuja Plan for development.
Mr. President, please revisit my last letter to you. You will see the other measures I listed for the creation of jobs for not just the ex-militants but also for the teeming population of jobless people in the area.
Additionally, Mr. President, if newspaper reports are true, the European Economic Commission has budgeted money to help with the retraining of the ex-militants. Mr. President, we should take the money and use it in that regard. In fact, Mr. President, we could use of the money to set up the two-year community colleges that I have talked about and work with the EEC as well as the United Nations, which I gather has also promised some help, to train the faculty for these institutions and to build the necessary infrastructure. We should, of course, also work with the United States Embassy to enable us identify and partner with leading community colleges in the United States to help us set up the community colleges. As I said, Mr. President, through these institutions, we will train people who will have the ability to build all kinds of things as well as work in various sectors of the economy with the kind of technical knowhow that we need to fast-track the development of our economy. Given the current situation, the Niger Delta is a good place to start this experiment and use the model to develop other parts of the country. We have arrived at a new dawn. We should enter it immediately.
Mr. President, as part of the funds, you should also ask the EEC to help train some of the youth of the region, including qualified ex-militants, for jobs in various sectors of the economy. Let me take fishing as an example. Youths who are accepted for training in high-sea fishing, or even large-scale fish farming, should be able to return after their training, get loans and setup their companies. The same should apply to large-scale mechanized farming, including identifying the markets for the export of some of the products. The same should apply to apprenticeships for shoreline protection, reclamation of land from the sea, installation and repair of community electricity generating plants, boat building and repair, fabrication of cabins, building of roads and bridges in marshy terrains, fabrication and building of flush toilets, automobile assembly, information technology, and other skills that will enable the youth to become entrepreneurs immediately they return from their training. In other words, Mr. President, we should seize the offer of help from the EEC and the United Nations with both hands and use the offer to the fullest.
Mr. President, you are about to set a revolution in motion that will radically alter the face of the Niger Delta and the country. If you put your foot on the accelerator of the revolution and do not take it off until your last day in office, you will cause a massive urban to rural flight and help Governor Rotimi Amaechi and his fellow governors in the regi
on to get rid of the slum settlements in their state capitals as well as transform the capitals into great cities. With its quite formidable assets and location, Port Harcourt has the potential to metamorphose into one of the greatest cities in the world. In short, Mr. President, you have the opportunity to entirely transform the area from little hamlet to capital city. You will leave a legacy unlike that of any of your predecessors. You will set a very high bar for your successors.
Thank you for giving me your time.
With very warm regards,
Join the discussion