Monday, August 03, 2009

Federal government and the Niger Delta

OIL was first discovered in the Niger Delta in 1956. In 1957 the Willinks Commission was asked by the colonial government to study the overall circumstances of the Niger Delta people including their fears, habitat and prospects. It found the Niger Delta 'poor, backward and neglected'. Today, 52 years after, the Niger Delta is still poor, backward and neglected.

Surely half a century is long enough time during which the wrongs done in the Niger Delta should have been corrected with forward-looking policies and programmes. It just seems wrong that an area that is responsible for 95 per cent of the country's foreign exchange earnings should be subjected to dreadful isolation and poverty. As we have pointed out in previous editorials the Niger Delta is a very difficult and somewhat unfriendly terrain with swamps and environmental degradation. The problems of the area have been exacerbated by oil and gas exploration that have ruined and altered the people's way of life.

Successive Nigerian governments have been seeking ways and means of addressing the situation. They have created many commissions and committees culminating in the creation of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC). But the NDDC has been under-funded, corrupted and politicised, making it an ineffective change agent. On top of this, government has created a new Ministry of Niger Delta that is not situated in the Niger Delta. So far the impact of this ministry has been minimal and many say that it is just another layer of bureaucracy to squander yet more resources of the Niger Delta. With increasing militancy and oil theft in the Niger Delta the federal government has granted amnesty to the insurgents and even promised cash rewards in exchange for arms.

Collectively all these measures have proved too little too late. This is why the insurgency in the Niger Delta remains a sore point and the anticipated peace following a 60-day truce tenuous. The federal government ought to be looking for a master stroke that shows both a seriousness of purpose and a determination to look into the root causes of the insurgency.

Of recent several actions of the federal government have caused some disquiet in the Niger Delta and cast doubt on the success of the amnesty programme. First was the purported removal of the Petroleum Training Institute in Effurun, near Warri in Delta State, to create a University of Petroleum in Kaduna, Kaduna State. There are several versions of this story but in an environment of double-speak and obfuscation, it may well be that Effurun is being downgraded at the same time as Kaduna is upgraded.

This is not the first time that the Niger Delta people have been cheated of their rights. The siting of a refinery in Kaduna, thousands of kilometres away from any oil well is a prime example of the insensitivity of government to the needs and aspirations of the people of the Niger Delta. The real intention behind the new university must be to make Kaduna the hub of petroleum education and expertise in Nigeria. Rilwanu Lukman, the Minister of Petroleum, has revealed that the Kaduna project will 'train senior management personnel who are transiting to general management in NNPC'. Is the Niger Delta undeserving of this honour?

Secondly, the amnesty programme of President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua has provoked anger among the governors of the Niger Delta who accuse the federal government of having no post-amnesty plan. For this and for the removal of the petroleum university from Effurun to Kaduna they have threatened to pull out of the amnesty programme. This is a curious occurrence. Does this mean that the federal government has not been consulting the governors of the South-South in all those policies affecting the people of the Niger Delta? The confusion is endless as ministers and members of the federal executive council from the Niger Delta apparently do not support the position of their governors and the public outcry of their people over the demotion of Effurun.

Lastly there is the new Petroleum Bill that offers little or no protection to the indigenous population of the Niger Delta. The communities who suffer the greatest impact of oil exploration appear to be ignored in the bill. The federal government's response to critics of the bill is unsatisfactory as it has shown unwillingness to address the issues raised. Instead, it has referred all aggrieved parties to the National Assembly.

It is perhaps for these reasons that South-South senators, students, and other activists are calling for the removal of Rilwanu Lukman. Some have said that Muhammed Sanusi Barkindo, Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) should also go. His recent personnel changes so extravagantly advertised in the media has aroused suspicion on account of its lopsidedness.

Those who claim that the federal government has been insincere in relating to the people of the Niger Delta have a point. They should not be treated as if they are less Nigerian than the rest of us. Their involvement with the oil sector should be participatory, not peripheral. Actually the fears of the minorities in the Niger Delta would have been allayed if Nigeria practised true federalism in which its component units, responsible for their own resources, contributed to the common good in a federation. This was the situation at independence. Now the Niger Delta is grudgingly allocated 13 per cent of the oil revenue which they hardly ever receive in full. The NDDC also suffers from inadequate funding.

We call on the federal government to look at the Niger Delta question with a fresh mindset. Today criminality has assailed the area with one million barrels of oil stolen daily. No country can afford this amount of haemorrhage even in good times. Fiscal federalism all over the country should be the way to go.

The Ledum Mittee Technical Committee on the Niger Delta for instance recommended an increase from the present 13 per cent to 25 per cent revenue for the Niger Delta. Government has remained silent on this. The point is that the land from which oil or any other mineral and agricultural resource is extracted must belong to the people who own it and who must be awarded the same percentage of revenue allocation as is contemplated for the Niger Delta.