By Jerome-Mario Utomi
For the well foresighted Nigerians and the Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), that are conversant with the excruciating environmental pains and socioeconomic deprivations the coastal dwellers in the Niger Delta region, South-South, Nigeria, daily contend with, it will not be an exaggeration to characterize as historic and the greatest victory of this period, the reported emergence of a private bill, currently before the Delta state House of Assembly, with potentials to change this time-honored narrative.
The bill, which was sponsored by Comrade Sheriff Mulade, National Cordinator, Centre for Peace and Environmental Justice (CEPEJ), among other provisions, seeks for the creation of Coastal Area Development Agency (CADA) — an agency that will be responsible for the integrated development of the area.
Indeed, from the bill’s landmark provisions, approaches and detailed strategies that square with moral laws and supported by its capacity to strengthening state government’s focus on developing the area, it is clear that what made the bill strategic is not its focus on the the Niger Deltans but how well it’s positioned to serve the interest of the coastal dwellers. This is in addition to the revelation that the bill will not be mistaken for, or categorized as a charity, seeking proposition or in conflict with the already ascribed responsibilities of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and that of the Delta State Development Commission (DESOPADEC), as it is coastal dwellers-specific.
Essentially, without labour, the most telling evidence about the bill’s good intention is signposted in its calculated move to create a sustainable development formula that will for the first time put into account the development of lives of the coastal dwellers in the state that have been ignored for a very long time by successive administrations, protects the rights and opportunities of coming generations and contributes to compatible approaches.
This is precisely what the bill before the state house of assembly stands to address
Adding context to this discourse, for over five decades, since oil was discovered in commercial quantity in the Niger Delta region, ‘a fierce war has been raging between ethnic and social forces in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. As a direct consequence, a long dark shadow has been cast on the efforts of successive administrations to improve the well-being and economic development of the region’s individual, peoples and community.
And if we look hard enough at the moment, we will as a nation discover that the stage for this present challenge bedeviling the people of the region was set by a fundamental factor — the resource ownership structure in the country.
Characteristically, the Niger Delta region houses the crude oil deposits but lacks the constitutional power to sign, monitor or regulate the explorations as the land use act and other mineral laws in Nigeria exclusively vested such powers on the government at the center which, unfortunately, lacks the interest, plan and the will to develop the regions. The situation becomes more worrisome, when one remembers that in case after case, successive administrations have at different times and places expressed more interest in promoting petroleum production and the mining industry in general, but politicized the environmental protection process with the environment remaining vaguely prominent on the agenda or given a symbolic attention without any substantial action.
This explains why no appreciable effort is made at the centre to discover; what impedes the development of the region all these years; ask solution-oriented questions as to why the current legislative framework is not providing a strong source of remedy for individuals and communities negatively affected by oil exploration and production in the coastal communities; find out why it is not effective and enforceable; why the framework as a legal solution to the issues of oil-related violations not very comprehensive. And most importantly find out why Mr. President who continuously mouths his determination to solve the crisis in the region, declined assent to the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB), a document that has the template as well as solution to the nagging challenge in the region, passed by the out gone 8th Assembly.
Separate from supporting the 2030 sustainable agenda – a United Nation initiative and successor programme to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) — with a collection of 17 global goals formulated among other aims to promote and cater for people, peace, planet, and poverty; and has at its centre: partnership and collaboration, ecosystem thinking, co-creation and alignment of various intervention efforts by the public and private sectors and civil society, if the House should do the needful and pass the bill, and the governor on his part has same signed into law, it will importantly in the estimation of the right thinking and well-foresighted Nigerians, remain the most dynamic and cohesive action expected of leaders like Senator Ifeanyi Okowa, the Executive Governor of the state and the members of the state House of Assembly, to earn a higher height of respect.
There are reasons for this voiced opinion
Principally, if the state government fails to provide this needed protection and save the area from infrastructural backwardness and pollution emanating from the over 139 gas flare locations spread across the Niger Delta (according to the Department of Petroleum Resources, DPR) reports, which on its own indicates a serious challenge, how will the state government expect the people to be treated with equal respect by the vast majority of International Oil Companies (OICs), operating in the locality, who already consider Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), as ‘a dangerous fiction created as an excuse to impose an unfair burden upon the wealthy and powerful.
Next, Governor Okowa and of course the state House of Assembly must accelerate this process because the communal rights to a clean environment and access to clean water supplies are being violated. The oil industry, by their admission, has abandoned thousands of polluted sites in the region, which need to be identified and studied in details. Aquifers and other water supply sources which are being adversely affected by industrial or other activities needed to be recovered while communities are adequately compensated for their losses.
Regrettably, even the people of the region, who initially hoped that the current administration will sign into law, the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB), to take care of the obsolete but existing Petroleum Act of 1969, that will offer the needed environmental protection have since realized that such may not be insight and now seek alternative solutions.
The House needs to keep this fact in mind when considering this bill as the opportunity provided by the bill can proffer broader solution to the challenges created by the Niger Delta Development Commissions (NDDC), and that of the Presidential Amnesty handlers. To explain this point, while the coastal dwellers have in recent times perceived and referred to NDDC as ‘a city boy’ that has nothing to do with coastal regions, the pronounced threat created by the Presidential Amnesty office inability to create jobs for the large army of professionally trained ex-militants have characterized the entire programme as a horse shaking off flies with its tails oblivious of the fact that as soon as it stops to flail it’s tail, the flies will come back more determined to snipe.
Standing as a telling proof of neglect is an open letter dated May 20, 2019 by the Riverine communities in Delta state, forwarded to Okowa, where the group bemoaned the non-presence of government projects in the coastal areas, (lamenting the NDDC), choice of cities and towns for their projects, and advocated for the creation of Coastal Area development agency (CADA), as a way of ensuring a sustained development of the area.
From the above, it is evident that this agitation for a better life and conducive environment in the coastal region of the state did not in absolute terms start today. This particular fact, makes it more compelling for the members of the House and the governor, to positively act on.
Utomi writes from Lagos. (firstname.lastname@example.org . 08032725374)