What do Niger Deltans want?
In the wake of the Acting President’s recent media-advertised visits to the Niger Delta, a highly-placed Nigerian posed a question to me as a suffering indigene of the exploited and oppressed zone of the Nigerian State: What do Niger Deltans want? Put differently, the question could be: What should the Nigerian State do for the Niger Delta? The question popped up in exasperation, I suppose. To ask this question some 60 odd years after the Oloibiri discovery shows we haven’t come to terms with the tragic circumstances of the Niger Delta.
If we want to play on words, these questions could be posed in different ways. The first proposition is that what the people want is different from what they have been given. Another flip is that they have been given enough and should just shut up and get on with life. It could also mean that citizens from other parts of the country genuinely want to know what people of the region want. Whatever meaning we give to the question, the plight of the Niger Delta is a sore point in the history of our country.
The question got me thinking though. Is it true that the corridors of power do not know what is good for the region? Have Deltans articulated their wants in the Nigerian polity? What about the tonnes of literature that led to the creation of the NDDC, and the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs dating from the 1950s? If the Niger Delta had a son of theirs for five full years in charge of the Nigerian Presidency, do we still as Niger Deltans have the right to complain? In other words, if in five years a Nigerian President of Niger Delta extraction could not chart the course to national transformation, who else can? If past governors of the states in the region did not use funds allocated to them judiciously, how are we sure that resource control would yield anything different?
I will summarise my submission with an anecdote: Communities which live in abject poverty in spite of billions of dollars that have been sucked from their soil and which still hold billions of dollars in gas reserves are in dire straits. Simply put, the Niger Delta needs a transformation of the environment and infrastructure of the land that has given so much wealth to the Nigerian federation. Either by design or default, we have not been able to achieve this. This is sad, tragic and alarming.
To transform the region into a prosperous zone, we need a master plan. Such a plan should create the equivalent of a Dubai in the region. Bridges and roads connecting the entire region; a massive investment in education at all levels, including mainstream schools and technical colleges; investment in health; agro-allied industries; massive investment in the fish and fishing industry; relocating the headquarters of all oil-bearing/exploration companies to the region; manpower development through special intervention programmes; investment in tourism; engaging the youth in entrepreneurial and skills acquisition; establishing a power generation company dedicated to power supply for the region, and a massive refinery that would create thousands of jobs for the people of the region. The thinking is this: if the currently transformed Abuja could rise out of the ashes of emptiness that was the land, a new Niger Delta is possible with the strong will and presence of the Federal Government.
Of course the ultimate demand of the Niger Delta is resource control. In other words, in consonance with the best practices of a federating union, let the control of the natural resource that is oil be vested in the peoples of the region through their elected officials. That way they can deploy the profits or royalties to transforming their neglected and exploited environment. However, we know that as currently constituted, the Nigerian State will be reluctant to go that route. Oil remains the cash cow of the state. We don’t need any economist to tell us that the ATM of the nation cannot be ceded to a part of the federation willingly. This no doubt is what has led to the emergence of freedom fighters in the region. Patriots from the region who shun violence are certainly not happy with the level of destruction that takes place each time a pipeline is blown. For the freedom fighters, violence is the only answer to a complacent Federal Government.
It is my view that the rapprochement now being created by the Federal Government needs to be strengthened. It has to go beyond gestures, beyond tokenism, beyond front page pictures. Let a master plan be produced and published and activated. Let it be costed. Let it be passed through a federal budget. Let the bulldozers roll into the region. Let the Shells, Chevrons, NNPCs, Totals and the rest move their headquarters to the region. Who says we don’t need those massive structures in Warri, Otor-Udu, Port Harcourt, Sapele, Nembe, Calabar, Brass, Ikot Ekpene, Uyo, Yenogoa, Benin, Abonema, and Oloibiri? Oloibiri! There is nothing to show that that village/town brought the greatest smile to the Nigerian economy and State way back in 1958!
The shelter and comfort provided by the comfort of Abuja is deceptive. If the operators in the oil industry live in the region where operations take place, they would be more committed to the development or protecting the goose that lays the golden egg.
The visits of the Acting President are commendable. They send a signal to the frustrated peoples of the region: the Federal Government is listening, the Federal Government feels your pains, the Federal Government knows that your needs have to be addressed, the Federal Government knows that blown-up pipes affect the national economy and certainly doesn’t want this to continue. Very soon the bulldozers will roll into the land and transform the Delta to the dream land of the suffering people of the region. But the visits as visits are not enough; others visited before and bore no fruits. Let the bulldozers roll into action!
• Prof. Eghagha is a visiting member of The Guardian’s Editorial Board.