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Niger Delta: The albatross confronting Yar’adua’s administration

Majority of oil producing communities in the Niger Delta are inaccessible by land, they lack basic social amenities such as drinking water, health facilities, schools…

Majority of oil producing communities in the Niger Delta are inaccessible by land, they lack basic social amenities such as drinking water, health facilities, schools and electricity while pollution, and environmental degradation have forced inhabitants to abandon fishing; their traditional means of livelihood to embrace other means of survival to escape the squalor and poverty prevalent in their communities. At the moment, there is uneasy in the Niger Delta region because of the on-going offensive by the military against militant groups operating in the numerous creeks located in Delta State.

Following the return to democratic rule, agitations for the federal government to decentralise the control of oil revenue heightened the Niger Delta. Because of the perceived neglect of the region by previous administrations, including the unacceptable level of poverty, high unemployment rate especially among the youths, the deep and seething frustrations among oil communities coupled with the actions of certain political interest groups in the region, there arose in the Niger Delta, armed resistance to give muscle to the demands of the oil producing communities.

To the oil producing communities of the Niger Delta, the civilian experience since 1999; under the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo and the Yar’adua administration have failed not only to give them a fair share of the country’s wealth, open up new opportunities for economic advancement in the region or fundamentally liberalize the political environment, but also in addressing the fundamentals of the agitation for resource control.

President Umaru Yar’adua, on assumption of office met a militant resistance in the Niger Delta that had grown more sophisticated and creating serious security problems for his administration. Yar’adua’s first attempt to tackle the Niger Delta crisis ended a fiasco when the planned Niger Delta summit was aborted because of the misgivings raised by political and opinion leaders from the Niger Delta region about the leadership composition of the committee charged with organizing the summit.

In May 2008, the Yar’adua administration came out with the proposal to incorporate militants in providing security for oil pipelines and other oil installations in the region; a proposal that met with public skepticism and was rejected by the militants. Again, the Yar’adua administration constituted the Ledum Mitee committee to study all recommendations made in the past aimed at addressing the grievances of oil communities. A major outcome of the Mitee led committee was the creation of a ministry of the Niger Delta by the federal government.

Corruption, which is endemic in Nigeria, has played a prominent role in the underdevelopment of the Niger Delta region, since the advent of civilian rule in 1999. Traversing the six states in the south-south geo-political zone which have remained under the control of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), one will be appalled by the stark poverty level, and inhuman conditions under which the landowners eke out their daily subsistence; despite the billions of Naira that had accrued to the states and local governments in the Niger Delta. From 1999 to date, the resources that could have been utilized to develop the region and improve the quality of lives of the people have been systematically plundered by elected and political office holders to the detriment of the silent majority.

The foreign oil companies in the country because of their unwholesome business practices have equally contributed to fueling the crisis in the Niger Delta. Their oil exploration activities have resulted in massive pollution and environmental degradation in the region; the oil companies have pitched members of the same community against each other through monetary inducements and award of contracts; they have patronized organized groups by paying protection money and most importantly, have failed woefully in contributing to the development of the region. In most instances, the oil firms in the discharge of their social responsibility to the oil communities or in pursuing their community development, agenda; construct open market stalls, community or town halls and other projects that cannot impact positively on the living conditions of the people.

When compared to the huge profits that the oil companies make and how much they pay out as dividends to their foreign shareholders, it becomes clear that whatever amount they spend on community development projects amounts to nothing, and is an indication of how they perceive the host communities.

The current military action in the Niger Delta it is believed will further escalate tension and militarize the region as the militants undertake reprisal attacks; the end result being the dislocation of civilians from their communal homes, a rising death toll and creating a condition favourable to the militants to attract new converts. The sabotage of oil facilities and installations by the militants, and the environmental hazards that may result from their action makes it imperative for the Yar’adua administration to tread with caution in the handling of the crisis in the Niger Delta region.

The worst case scenario as the crisis escalates is a one to two-year shutdown of the oil industry in the Niger Delta, where most of Nigeria’s 2.3 million daily barrels of crude oil originates. Moreover, illegal oil theft has accelerated the conflict in the region and provided militant, and other criminal groups with funds to purchase arms. Another source of funding is the discreet payments oil companies make to militant leaders in return for surveillance and protection of pipelines, and other infrastructure. This practice, frequently cloaked as community development, has fueled conflict through competition for contracts and providing income to groups with violent agendas. Oil companies in the region also pay allowances and sometimes salaries to “supernumerary police”, as well as regular duty police, and soldiers deployed to protect oil installations. Security forces consider these plum postings and sometimes use excessive force to protect their jobs.

For one, the federal government must be seen to be committed to carrying out credible development projects in the Niger Delta, because for now most of the mega federal projects in the region are either abandoned or at a standstill. An example is the East-West Road, cutting across Edo, Delta, Bayelsa and Rivers States linking Lagos in the south-west to the Niger Delta, and relocating to more secure, and peaceful environments, and the south-east.

Similarly, the government must be seen to be supporting the arrest and prosecution of past corrupt elected, and public officials from the zone, and throughout the country who have embezzled, and squandered public funds derivable from oil revenue. The militants have also demanded for the creation of additional states for the Ijaws, the provision of amenities and jobs for rural communities, and the granting of amnesty to Henry Okah, the imprisoned leader of the Movement for Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). Another contentious issue is the Petroleum Act and the Land Use Act; two laws that have effectively deprived the Niger Delta people of the ownership of their ancestral land and the resources found therein.