Niger Delta: Sitting On Oil, Hungry For Bread!

The government is now experimenting with this type of barter: they have awarded oil contracts to Chinese companies in exchange for the construction of infrastructure. Western oil companies have been reluctant to make similar deals, pointing out that they know little about building railroads and have trouble competing against state-owned enterprises in this arena, such as the Chinese oil companies. But they could easily team up with reputable companies that could carry out the work. And why stop at infrastructure? By forming partnerships with experienced service providers, oil companies could pay back host countries by, say, conducting antimalaria campaigns or building schools, irrigation projects, or microfinancing facilities. As more companies bid for such “oil-for-development” contracts, the terms of the contracts would become better for the governments. If inexperienced governments need help carrying out these auctions, the World Bank, or other international organizations, could provide technical assistance.

The root causes of the Niger Delta insurgency are well known. Violence, underdevelopment, environmental damage and failure to establish credible state and local government institutions have contributed to mounting public frustration at the slow pace of change under the country’s nascent democracy, which is dogged by endemic corruption and misadministration inherited from its military predecessors. Nigeria had estimated oil export revenues of $45 billion in 2005 but the slow pace of systemic reforms and the lack of jobs, electricity, water, schools and clinics in large parts of the Niger Delta have boosted support to insurgents in place of the restive youths. Militants appeal to the kind of public disaffection that prompted ethnic Ogoni leader Ken Saro-Wiwa to protest the military-led government and Royal Dutch/Shell before his execution in November 1995.

Having failed to respond to these provocations, the Ijaw youths certainly realized at some point this spring that the facts on the ground in “Ibrahim Gambari peace summit” dictated that its return to region was no longer a reasonable possibility. FG had increased its military presence and infrastructure to the point where a militant attack would certainly have failed and had increased its direct political engagement with the separate authorities there to the point that the region and the international community had little to no leverage to compel a diplomatic solution that would preserve Niger Delta integrity.

The problem with resource control is that it is not what it seems. In reality, we are dealing here with five different concepts that have conveniently and erroneously been conflated into one. The first concept is ownership, for it is possible for one person to own and another to control or, indeed, for two different people to exercise different levels of control as in the relationship between a landlord and a tenant, where there are concurrent, coexisting but different levels of control. The third concept is exploitation, which determines who profits from the resources to the exclusion of whom. The oil companies and the Federal government seem to be in cahoots here to the exclusion of both the resource-endowed communities and the states in which they are located. Local communities argue that before the white colonialists took over our country in the penultimate century, our people in these communities owned, controlled and exploited the land and all resources associated with them. The colonialists committed act of patrimonicide through an unfair and illegal taking of the lands and other resources under them. This injustice is only reinforced by an independence and post-independence settlement that has deepened instead of resolving the grievances of our communities and the suffering in them.

These three concepts — ownership, control and exploitation — may be related but each is very different from the other. More importantly for our present purposes, despite the vigorous trade in contrary propaganda between the different parties to the ongoing dispute over this new-fangled Nigerian version of Uhuru, they are actually quite irrelevant to the pending legal proceedings between the Federal Government and the States. These three concepts have been settled by existing laws in Nigeria, unfair as they are. So, you begin to wonder what the dispute is all about.

As far back as 1884, Nana Olomu, an Itsekiri chieftain was appointed “Governor” by the ruling imperial British colonial authorities to control the Eastern Niger Delta region after they have exiled the great Jaja of Opobo to the crown colony of Calabar. Nana Olomu terrorized the Urhobos kingdom with weapons supplied by the British. Nana Olomu assaulted and abducted Oraka of Okpara Waterside. But later, Nana Olomu fell out of favour with the British and they sent him on exile to the Gold Coast of Ghana in 1894.

The Itsekiris wanted their king to be referred to as the “Olu of Warri” in their great quest to usurp and wrest the royal title from the Urhobos whose kings have always been crowned as the Olu of Warri. Ethnic rivalries between the Urhobos and Itsekiris over leadership was fuelled by the British whose divide and rule policies caused blood-letting ethnic conflicts among the Urhobos, Itsekiris, Isons and the other tribes in the country and the British fished in the troubled waters in the Niger Delta.

Boundary disputes over farmlands and waterways have always been the most common cause of inter-tribal wars and even wars across international boundaries such as the protracted boundary dispute between Nigeria and Cameroon over the Bakassi Peninsula. But what has made the Niger Delta crisis to deteriorate is the greed for resource control of the crude oil since the Royal Dutch Shell struck oil in the village of Oloibiri in 1956.The illegal oil bunkerers joined in the oil rush, every senior military officer posted to the Eastern, and Western zones became stakeholders and shareholders.

They employed and armed thugs to protect their illegal bunkering and the thugs joined to vandalize oil pipelines, siphon crude oil and smuggled truckloads of the oil to their black market as their criminal employers sold the stolen barges of oil to foreign oil smugglers offshore, in the Bight of Bonny and beyond. The military regimes from 1979 to 1999 were all implicated in the illegal bunkering of crude oil and illegal sales of oil concessions. And if the truth must be told, the military administrators in Nigeria from 1979 to 1999 should arraigned and prosecuted for their engagements in illegal oil bunkering and illegal sales of oil blocks in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria.

The Federal Government, on the other hand, had recently staged a significant military exercise in the Niger Delta involving exactly the units that participated in the invasion of the region only a few weeks later. The exercise and the invasion both involved significant elements of the Nigeria’s combatant Army, which is stationed in the creeks. According to eye witness, the combatant Army is one of this country’s premiere combat formations and boasts more than twice the number of troops, five times the number of tanks, ten times the number of armored personnel carriers and twelve times the number of combat aircraft as the entire Ijaw militant Forces. Clearly Ijaw militants were overmatched by the sheer power of its opponent, and this mismatch was compounded by the fact that FG had long planned for this brutal invasion of the region and had staged a series of provocations designed to start it on terms most favourable to the federal government.

Many of those who blame the militants for starting the violence also argue that the government cannot allow the region to force a rift in western world relationship with Nigeria, whose assistance they claim we need on a variety of issues ranging from missile defense to Liberia to Sudan. First of all, this assertion overlooks the fact that Charles Taylor’s presence here has been far from helpful on a number of these issues to this point. At its best, Taylor’s behaviour has been neutral, while at its worst it has actively or passively attempted to sabotage federal government objectives about curbing the menace.

Increasingly, a resurgent Nigeria’s international behaviour has begun to mirror that of its Northern leadership ¬ insisting it has a right to apply its power and leverage at the time and place of its choosing within its self-described “notre-champ” while simultaneously insisting that other, stronger actors on the world stage (especially the British) gain approval from international bodies prior to threatening. Those arguing for accommodating the government by tapping and abandoning the region’s welfare.

If, as is highly likely, the federal government completes the process of assessment and leaves significant forces there, the militant incursion into either of those areas would become military unthinkable. This would leave the militant with only the mission of protecting what remains of the region from future external attack, a mission that they are certainly capable of fulfilling.

Government should seek in parallel with the dialogue on control of resources an agreement with militants that includes a phased withdrawal of troops from Delta towns, concurrent with a weapons-return amnesty program that pays militants and gang members market rates for guns and enrolls them in skills and job training and that pays attention as well to the needs of girls and women who may not carry guns but have roles within those bodies (such as forced wives or cooks). The authority should bring the increasing number of quasi-independent local government institutions formally into federal structures as part of an effort to rationalize local governments in Niger Delta states, particularly in areas where these are unworkably large or combine substantively distinct ethnicities or communities.

Again, assurance that the indigent personnel are paid on time and in full in order to help prevent dependency on oil company payments and illicit and corrupt practices; increase enforcement of penalties for corruption and consider raising salaries; clarify the chain of command; and change the uniform of the “supernumerary police” that provide security services for the energy companies.

There should be a refashion for the government/transnational oil company joint ventures that control production to offer residents a substantial ownership stake along the lines of what corporate majors including Royal/Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil and Conoco have done in Canada’s Arctic. They also fail to acknowledge that the people and the region are an area where Nigerian values and interests converge. Prior to the region invasion, the Niger Delta populace were an emerging democracy, an increasingly vibrant market economy, the third largest producer of oil to the world, a key transit route for trade between western world and Africa and the only transit route for the Gulf of Guinea not controlled by west Africa. The government invasion was designed to damage or destroy all of these and to give pause to other countries on Nigeria’s territory considering independent foreign and security policies. To this point it has succeeded.

The presidency is liable to debate a package of hydrocarbon sector and revenue sharing legislation that could define the terms for the future management and development of the country’s significant oil and natural gas resources between the oil-bearing communities. The centerpiece of the legislative package could look like a draft hydrocarbon framework law that would create a regulatory and policy development framework for future oil and gas exploration and production in Nigeria.

Well, it’s a curious thing. I wouldn’t have imagined myself sitting anywhere and imagining that a corporation should even be called to address the Niger Delta problem. But the reality is that the corporations have a kind of power here that the IMF doesn’t have. That the U.N. doesn’t have. That having been said, in concert with the IMF, the United Nations, the Nigerian government, the corporations can be a party to an actual binding set of agreements that could be a model. The Niger Delta could be a model place that turns to the right direction. It would not happen unless it came in part from the corporations. If the corporations are only seen as a force of sucking the oil out of the ground and not as a player that understands that they have to be a part of the solution, then I can’t imagine it would happen.

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