Blues for a Niger Deltan, tears for the Niger Delta

PHOTO: George Osodi/Panos for Oxfam America

In the midst of plenty and abundant natural resources given to the region by God Almighty the Niger Delta sits, sleeps, swims and eats in absolute poverty. The environment is degraded. The psyche is weak. The reward for patience is poor. To compound matters the Nigerian State has added a million buckets of insults and injustice to the grave injury that the region suffers. In terms of appointments, even in oil-related companies, intervention agencies which were set up to redress the many years of official neglect, the Federal Government treats the Niger Delta like a poor relation in the dysfunctional family that Nigeria has become. Why and how is this so?

At the root of this grave injustice is the type of federalism that we practice. It is essentially unitary, having been given birth to by the military after they took over the reins of power from January 1966. The command and obey structure was necessary to keep the Military Governors in check, particularly after the Constitution was suspended and abrogated. In order to prosecute the war, orders that should not be challenged were dished out. Besides, the Federal Government claimed to need all the resources at its disposal to prosecute the war. Some 50 years after the Nigeria-Biafra War, the antiquated, misogynous ‘federal; stranglehold is still in place.

The 1963 Republican Constitution continued the practice which made the States real constituent parts of the Federation. The foundation politicians never imagined that a time would come when a President would sit in the Federal Capital and try to sign permits for State or Regional Governors to travel outside the country to attend to the business of their people. They also did not envisage a situation in which the Federal Government would sit idle in Abuja and ask all the constituent parts to send all their wealth to the centre where it would be shared monthly. It was the military governments in their warped understanding of administration that introduced this shamelessly backward manner of governing a modern country to the nation’s lexicon. Since then it has been impossible to convince Abuja that things should and ought to run differently. The main cause of this is the cheap money that comes from oil.

Under the old arrangement, the Niger Delta would have prospected for and explored the oil, either in partnership or as a solo concern and would have paid royalty or tax to the Federal Government. The pre-military Constitution prescribed the percentage that the Regions or States should pay. The famed ground nut pyramids, cocoa business and palm oil strength grew on this basis. What this did for the Regions then was that they struggled to build their wealth based on their areas of strength. It is against this background that the discovery of oil has been termed a curse by those who know the history of the Nigerian State.

Very early some vibrant sons of the region who raised the alarm died in the hands of the State. While Isaac Boro was ‘executed during the war, Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged by the Federal Government on trumped-up charges. The message was clear: this crude oil is too sweet to be left in the hands of one region. Even the percentage on derivation was grudgingly raised to 13% by a benevolent dictator. Since then the democrats who took over power on a popular platform have treated the Region with great disdain.

A study of the management structure of the oil-bearing or oil-related State-owned or controlled outfits shows that even tokenism is thrown overboard particularly since the government of change came on board. I was at the NLNG event last Wednesday where I took a peep into the management. There was not even one Niger Deltan in the management team! The only Niger Deltan who occupied the Corporate Affairs chair has retired. At the NNPC the appointments made by the Federal Government showed that 15 appointees were from the North, three Yoruba, two from South-South and none from the South East. In spite of the cries of marginalisation by prominent leaders from other parts of the country, the Federal Government did not budge. The simple order given by the Acting President to the oil majors that they should relocate their operational headquarters to the region has been ignored. The complaints are legion.

For example, Ohaneze lamented that “there is no oil well anywhere in Northern Nigeria. Four of the five States in the South East have proven oil resources some of which provide our nation’s revenue, yet our people are not found fit to be adequately represented in a key corporate institution like the NNPC.” On its own part Afenifere observed that “the issue for us is not about whether it favours us or does not favour us; it is about justice to all and being that it is skewed and that is not the way to build an inclusive society.” When the much-talked about North East Development Commission is finally created we are waiting to see whether an Igbo man or a Niger Deltan will be appointed Managing Director. This is the culture of impunity that the youths of the Niger Delta cry about. It is what has led them into militancy that almost crippled the nation before the Amnesty Programme.

The argument really is that as a nation in formation, all appointments should be sensitive to the feelings of the people. As much as possible, there should be balancing in appointments. This is one of the major criticisms leveled against the current administration. It should be redressed for harmony to exist in the country. I am sure that we are not being told that it’s only certain persons from some parts or a part of the country that are good enough for appointments into some offices. Some have blamed the former President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, an indigene of the Region who did nothing to reduce the level of insults or provocations in appointments. Nobody by design or default should make some people feel less welcome in a federation that truly belongs to all. As part of preparing for the future I call on the President to redress the lopsidedness and remember the goose which lays the Golden egg for the nation. If the perception that he is clannish as asserted by former President Olusegun Obasanjo is false, this is the time to act. Good a thing he promised the Catholic Bishops last week that he was going to look into the appointments data. He should not allow the cabal around him to feed him with figures that would make him look so distant or detached from reality. Apart from balanced appointments there should be a massive development intervention in the region pending when a restructure which the Presidency has finally accepted will take place. The Niger Delta as it currently is brings tears to the eyes. It cannot be defended in any way!

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