culled from THISDAY, August 2, 2006
Although hostage-taking seems to
have become a routine for Niger Delta militants, the outside world appears
not to have reconciled itself with this unfortunate method of action. As
overwhelming as the problem may appear, it is at least cheery that there is
no giving up in what has evidently become a debacle of immense proportions.
Only at the weekend, the Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Martin Luther Agwai warned that militants should not misconstrue the disposition of the armed forces to dialogue in resolving the problem of the region for weakness. General Agwai spoke in Yenegoa at a reception for the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen Andrew Owoye Azazi, an illustrious son of the Niger Delta. According to the defence chief, the military has to talk to the militants not out of fear but ‘for the good of the entire people of the country”.
Two days after Agwai’s declaration, the advance party of a Commission of Nobel Laureates arrived Part-Harcourt on a mission to find solutions to the problem. It was reported that Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, drew the attention of the body to the situation in the Niger Delta, a region that has been adjudged as one of the areas of grave concerns in the world. Its deemed to warrant their intervention. The integrity of the commission has been bolstered by its professed non-affiliation to any of the parties involved in the debacle, be it government, oil companies or the host communities. A lot of hope is to be pinned on this intervention because of this manifest independence of the body. Without being unduly enthusiastic at this intervention, there is enough basis to predict that it would make a difference. It does seem, however, in that the matters concerning the Niger Delta it is better to err on the side of optimism.
To be sure, there is no shortage of efforts to define the Niger Delta condition. Those who are perceptive enough about the issues would readily remind us that such attempts at definition of the reality of the region began in the colonial days with Wilkins Commission. Two weeks ago, President Olusegun Obasanjo reviewed the progress report of the Presidential Council on Socio-Economic Development of the Coastal States. The inauguration of the council itself earlier in the year was spurred by the frequency and international reverberation of hostage-taking. At the quarterly review, reports were taken from governors, service chiefs, oil companies and others. The President awarded a pass mark as he expressed optimism: “We are on the right track and we will surely get there.” However, going by reports of hostage-taking following the review, it would appear that the government’s best of efforts are enough in the eyes of the militants. It is, therefore, instructive that the President has urged governors in the region to forward the reports to Abuja. He also wants the other governments and oil companies to be specific on projects being executed as they look forward to reconvening on October 13. All this point to a realisation that co-ordination is essential in tackling the problem.
Again, the question arises: is the problem being properly defined? The huge deficit in the various responses to issues of Niger Delta is simply that hardly is the correct perspective of the problem got. This where the Niger Delta Human Development Report prepared by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) comes in as important document is searching for a solution. For some illumination on the issues it is useful to listen to the voices condensed in this report.
Significantly the President launched the report of the last meeting of the council looking into the socio-economic development of the region in Abuja. The verdict is damning. Essentially, it is what other bodies have been saying. But this time round, it is put poignantly by development experts who did a diligent survey of the problem. The arguments are supported by a rich supply of data and this would make further debate on the issues better informed.
What the report has done so brilliantly is to draw attention to the scandalous contradiction of mass poverty persisting in the face of stupendous oil wealth in this terribly cheated region. For instance, the region may fail to meet the targets in the Millennium Development Goals except in the area of school enrolment by the target date of 2015. The authors of the report say it “recommends a new paradigm of development to address concerns “such as ‘disillusionment, frustration among the people about their increasing deprivation and deep-rooted mistrust”
The elements of this new paradigm are listed in the report as a seven-point development agenda namely promotion of peace as condition for development; making local governance responsive to people’s needs; economic development; promotion of social inclusion, ensuring a sustainable environment for socio-economic reproduction; adoption of an integrated approach to the scourge of HIV-AIDS and building an enduring partnership for the advancement of human development.
Why is the situation so appalling?
The report puts it like this:
“Behind the delta’s poor performance on human development is a complex brew of economic, social, political and environmental factors. Social instability, poor local governance, competition for economic resou-rces and environmental degradation have taken a toll. The general neglect of infrastructure, often rationalized by the difficulty of the delta’s terrain, has worsened people’s access to fundamental services such as electricity, safe drinking water, roads and health facilities that are taken for granted in many other parts of Nigeria. Other elements include the negative impacts of the oil industry, a constricted land area, a delicately balanced environment and extreme economic deprivation.
The delta today is a place of frustrated expectations and deep-rooted mistrust. Unprecedented restiveness at times erupts in violence. Long years of neglect and conflict have fostered a siege mentality, especially among youths who feel they are condemned to a future without hope, and see conflict as a strategy to escape deprivation. Persistent conflict, while in part a response 0to poor human development, has also entrenched it, serving as a consistent drag on the region’s economic performance and expectations for advancement.
The sabotage of oil production hurts the economy through the loss of sorely needed foreign exchange to finance national development. Blown pipelines interrupt the supply of crude to refineries and produce shortages that cause sudden spikes in oil prices. Hostage-taking is not only a stress on foreign captives, their families and the companies they work for, but also presents a challenge to international diplomacy and foreign direct investment.
But the disruption also has adverse effects on the local people, as ensuing violence threatens individuals and communities. Lives are lost, and investments drop along with the availability of jobs. The response to violence has at times meant further violence is unleashed randomly on unsuspecting communities or oil workers. Whole villages have been destroyed and their populace displaced because of disputes that could have been amicably resolved. The human development implications extend to the harm done to the life chances of children unable to go to school and the further constraints on human and social capital.
There is a general concern that some people, particularly unscrupulous politicians and political organizations, benefit from violence, and that they sponsor some of the youth gangs in the region. Arms merchants along with police and military personnel have supplied weapons to various gangs, and the increased incidence of oil theft has been linked to the need for foreign exchange to purchase arms.
While turmoil in the delta has many sources and motivations, the preeminent underlying cause is the historical failure of governance at all levels. Declining economic performance leading to rising unemployment or underemployment; the lack of access to basic necessities of life like water, shelter, food and clothing; discriminatory policies that deny access to positions of authority and prevent people from participating in shaping the rules that govern their lives—these all indicate that governance over time has fallen short. Corruption aggravates feelings of being cheated, especially when the rulers live like kings amid extreme want. In spite of the substantial flow of oil money to state and local governments, many communities see no sign of government presence in terms of development projects. This intensifies a sense of hopelessness and mistrust that for the most aggrieved people leads to a call to arms.”
The point at issue in the foregoing is that governments at all levels, oil companies and all those neo-liberal experts prefer to call ‘stakeholders’ should focus on the human development of this troubled region. That message rings very loud in the report. After all, as many well-informed observers keep reminding the nation, when oil wells dry up in the whole region as it has happened in Oloibiri, the only asset Niger Delta will be left with will be human resources.
The traces of the first oil well are to be found in Oloibiri. Today the place is a wasteland, sucked of its wealth and cynically abandoned. To avoid the same fate confronting the whole region, the timely message of human development should sink.
If the suggested seven-point agenda of UNDP is pursued with sincerity of purpose, the region may not miss out in the Millennium Development Goals. Infrastr-ucture should be developed. Environment should be rehabilitated and protected. And jobs should be created in millions through expansion of productive activities and not by merely recruiting a few scores of police constables.