Friday, January 16, 2009

Oil sector and the politics of geography

Former United States President Bill Clinton was only stating the obvious at the ThisDay Festival of Ideas on Wednesday in Abuja when he said that Nigeria’s economic woes could not be overcome until the simmering internal conflicts, particularly in the Niger Delta, are resolved.

It is needless to remind ourselves that national socio-economic development, and, indeed, prosperity, cannot be achieved no matter the good intentions of leaders and policy makers, especially in a heterogeneous society like Nigeria, where the peculiar interests of the various ethnic nationalities are not subsumed in favour of the collective aspirations of the nation state.

The militancy in the Niger Delta, which started in the civil war era, with Isaac Adaka Boro’s revolt against the perceived takeover of the region’s oil wealth by the ruling elite in collaboration with oil multinationals, has only been kept alive and indeed strengthened by the utter disregard for the feelings of those who have had to bear the brunt of destructive oil exploration activities for the past 50 years or so.

Natural justice demands that a people should have a say in how their resources are administered; but since the collapse of parliamentary democracy in 1966 and enthronement of a powerful central government, controlled for the most part by the northern political and military elite, the oil producing regions have taken the back seat in resource administration despite the fact that those controlling the centre rely on oil wealth for sustenance.

Recent agitations have produced a still unsatisfactory 13 per cent derivation, but part of what galls the Niger Deltans most is the continued appointment of non-indigenes to topmost positions in the oil sector. While this seeming arrogance at the seat of power could be explained in the need to sustain the desperate and expensive search for oil in the Chad Basin (so that the North will have its own oil), the real damage that is being done is that despite all posturing to the contrary, this administration may be stoking the embers of discontent rather than dousing it completely.

It is against this backdrop that the South-South leaders kicked against the appointment of Mohammed Barkindo, the preferred candidate and a former personal assistant of Petroleum Minister, Dr. Rilwanu Lukman, as the new Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. While I would not really fault Barkindo’s credentials for the job, based on his “experience” and accelerated movement to the top of NNPC’s management ladder, tipping him to replace Abubakar Yar’Adua appears provocative, to say the least.

Chief Edwin Clark, National Leader of the Ijaws, pointed out that three of the seven directors of the NNPC are from the North; two are from the South West and two from the South East. No South South indigene sits on the board of the oil monolith, which is the Federal Government’s cash cow.

The head of the Petroleum Trust Fund is a Northerner. A Northerner replaced Sena Anthony, NNPC’s former Company Secretary, and there are rumours that another Northerner is set to replace Reginald Stanley, as the Managing Director of the Pipelines and Products Marketing Company.

People of the South South are angry that the juicy oil sector contracts and oil blocks are shared out to powerful northern interests or their fronts, while they have to make do with the crumbs.

In aggregating the frustrations of the South South indigenes, Clark said, “There is no justification in the appointments made in the oil industry so far. The President made the appointments to the exclusion of the Niger Delta and South South zone, who are supposed to play major roles in the industry. We produce oil and yet we are not allowed to take part in decision-making in the industry.”

I can only agree. The chief executive of an oil major said in December that government’s aspirations for the oil industry, particularly increasing production and oil reserves, cutting gas flaring, and boosting power supply through gas-fired Independent Power Plants will not be met until the Niger Delta crisis is resolved.

Removing the pervasive feeling of exclusion from oil sector control is an integral part of the resolution of this crisis that has kept Nigeria on the map of the world’s troubled zones, characterised by oil theft, sabotage of oil installations, random shooting, kidnappings and other acts of lawlessness being carried out under the pretence of agitation for “resource control.”

It is tragic that Nigeria was the only oil producer that failed to take full advantage of record oil prices last year due to the shut in of about 500,000 barrels per day as militants ran around the creeks blowing up pipelines and seizing production facilities at will.

While it is true that some of the Niger Delta leaders are a bunch of scoundrels that have squandered the more recent opportunities to bring about some development in the region by their rapacious looting of state funds, for which, ironically, their people praise them, it is the duty of the President to enthrone a regime of fairness and justice, which will neutralise the centrifugal forces that still threaten the existence of Nigeria as a nation state even after 48 years of our so-called independence.

If things were done right, and everyone had his own fair share of the so-called national cake, it would not have mattered how many Barkindos or his relations sat on the NNPC board.

True. The Yar’Adua administration has set up the Niger Delta Ministry, ostensibly to address issues peculiar to that region.

But it is appointments to sensitive national posts that are out of sync with Federal Character that continue to generate claims of “marginalisation” by virtually all ethnic nationalities, including those from the North.

There appears to be general consensus that a constitutional review is necessary to correct some of the imbalances in the polity, but our leaders appear to be scared of this, which is why, the last attempt by the Olusegun Obasanjo administration was sabotaged and the current regime is still taking a long winding route that is likely to postpone the inevitable.

Clark has promised to send a formal protest on behalf of the South South indigenes to Mr. President in respect of his appointments at the NNPC. While this is unlikely to result in a reversal of Barkindo’s appointment, the Presidency must, in future, abide by the principles of equity, which it claims to uphold.