Niger Delta: Recent Pronouncements by Presidential Candidates

by Sabella Ogbobode Abidde

Suddenly the Niger Delta is on the lips and agenda of all the 2007 presidential candidates. For whatever reason, they are all now jockeying to place themselves in the grace and good book of Niger Deltans: proffering solutions, declaring their love and affection, and signifying their consternation at the state of things in the region. Even Mallam Nuhu Ribadu has gotten in on the act, stating that “poverty-ridden militant youths of the oil rich Niger Delta region are justified in their agitation for a fair share of their resources.” But why the sudden sympathy and sudden conversion? What’s the motive behind the sudden change — assuming these are genuine change of heart? Why the change and why now?

Is Nigeria now ready to genuinely address the deep-seated injustice in the Niger Delta? Or is this all political game, political expediency, a thing of the moment on the part of Muhammadu Buhari, Pat Utomi, Umaru Yar’Adua, and Abubakar Atiku? Nigeria as a whole has questions to answer: questions about development, nationhood, integration, governance and institutions. But as great and grave as those questions are, Nigeria must also answer the Niger Delta question. There is an urgent need for equitable distribution of resources, and for fair and balanced development, if peace, security and stability are to reign in the Niger Delta. This is crucial because of the inhumanity involved, and also because events in that part of the world invariably affects, or will affect, the subregion and the global landscape.

Since pre-colonial era, the Niger Delta has played a crucial role in the socio-political and economic life of Nigeria. Its ports and waterways provided access for the British to enter and gain access to regions they otherwise would not have dared. The Niger Delta was the gateway for the trade in slaves and other commodities such as rubber, palm produce, timber, rubber, groundnut and cotton from the northern section of the country. And beginning in 1956, when oil was first discovered in Oloibri, Bayelsa State, the region has been at the forefront of Nigeria’s development.

And during the unfortunate events of 1967-1970 when Nigeria was at the verge of disintegration, the region stayed firm and stayed the course seeing to it that Nigeria remained one and indivisible. The Niger Delta, especially the Ijaw contributed their “sweat, blood and tears,” to the unity and progress of the nation. In return, how has the nation showed her appreciation? The Nigerian state did so through contempt, duplicity marginalization and neglect. Today, other than the oil and other commercial activities that serve the interest of the government, what is most visible in the Delta are the filth, the misery and the poverty and isolation of the area.

According to the 2006 United Nations Niger Delta Human Development Report, “the Niger Delta should be a gigantic economic reservoir of national and international importance. Its rich endowments of oil and gas resources feed methodically into the international economic system, in exchange for massive revenues that carry the promise of rapid socio-economic transformation within the delta itself. In reality, the Niger Delta is a region suffering from administrative neglect, crumbling social infrastructure and services, high unemployment, social deprivation, abject poverty, filth and squalor, and endemic conflict… For most people of the Delta, progress and hope, much less prosperity, remain out of reach.”

Decade after decade, in one form or another, indigenes of the Niger Delta, especially the Ijaw ethnic group, have been drumming the same beat to successive Nigerian governments — all to no avail. And then here comes the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta to shake things up. Quite frankly, it is the stupidity and the arrogance of the Nigerian government, and that of the major ethnic groups, that have brought us where we are today: low-intensity conflict. The truth is that the vast majority of the Niger Deltans are not interested in this or any other crisis. All they want is an equitable distribution of the nation’s resources. However, the continued denial of their rights may push “the people” to sympathize and side with MEND and other such groups.

Contrary to popular opinion, the Nigerian government does not have a monopoly of violence. Therefore, the idea that should MEND or any other groups “rear their ugly head” the government will summarily take care of them, is not correct. In the short run, perhaps; but over a long period of time, the cost of doing business will definitely become unbearable for the Nigerian government.

Besides equitable distribution of resources and federal presence, the citizens of the Niger Delta demands the followings, all of which falls under the United Nation’s basic human needs. These are (1) economic security, i.e., jobs and decent wages; (2) food security, i.e. abundant food that at least meets basic dietary standards; (3) health security, i.e. access to affordable modern health care including preventive measures; (4) environmental security, i.e. absence of or amelioration of ecological degradation; (5) personal security, i.e. absence of or minimal expose to physical threats and violence; (6) promoting inter and intra ethnic peace and security; and (7) good governance, i.e. accountability, transparency and viable institutions. Moreover, quality and meaningful education must also be promoted and be readily available to the vast majority of the people.

Long-term federal presence, provision of political goods and services, and 50-100% resource control will achieve several goals: (1) it would jumpstart that part of the country so it can catch up with the rest of the country in terms of growth and development; (2) it will calm the restless youths; (3) the Niger Delta would be contributing not only oil and gas, but also brainpower to the development of the nation; (4) complains about neglect and abandonment would be muted; and (5) it is just the right thing to do: the moral, ethical and legal thing to do — to see that every part of the country feels the love and presence of the federal government.

If the government, individuals and groups within the Nigerians state thinks otherwise, or if they’d rather continue with their current policy, oh well, failure and perdition awaits them. There are the security, financial, and political costs awaiting such course of action. For instance, “the cost of production deferment between 1999 and 2003 was put at $6.8 billion; and the cost for replacing vandalized pipes for the year 2003 alone was $5.8 billion. In addition, the loss of revenue by the government (as a result of the activities by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) — between January and March 2006 — is estimated at 24 million barrels of crude oil or $1.4 billion.”

Common sense should prevail here. The ruling oligarchy’s hubris should be put in check. It is in the interest of the Nigerian government not to help with the idea of ethno-nationalism or ethno-regionalism. All over the world, more so in Africa, a pervasive feeling of repression, exclusion, exploitation and marginalization usually lead ethnic groups to move towards complete autonomy. Therefore, it is my opinion that unless the Niger Delta crisis is solved, and solved now, the Nigerian government and the majority groups in the country would be handing autonomy-seeking groups a caravan of gold and diamonds.

If the 2007 Presidential Candidates (and the eventual winner) are all forthright and sincere about their pronouncements and intention, and if they want to find solution to the crisis, they will find willing and able partners in the Niger Delta — be it the Ogoni, the Itsekiri, the Urhobo, the Ijaw or the Isoko. And many others. We have not yet crossed the Rubicon. We have not reached a “land of no return.” However, the next government and the oil companies must be willing to address the problems head-on.

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