Time to intensify Niger Delta development efforts

By Mpigi Barinada

Strong indications have emerged that the relative peace now enjoyed in the Niger Delta can be elusive. The reality is that beneath this camouflaged peace lie bottled-up emotions over pending environmental concerns and development matters.  It is a truism that youth restiveness, for instance, is simply hibernating and may be awakened for subsequent escalation into violence of mega proportion if the causes of persistent agitation in the region are not appropriately addressed once and for all.

I was moved to X-ray this subject matter by a series of recent events in the Niger Delta region. Major national dailies have recently reported the dispute involving the host communities of Kula, Belema, Offoin-Ama, Ibie-Ama, Boro and Opu-Kula in Akuku Toru Local Government Area; Shell and Belema Oil on OML 25.

As at May this year, the Federal Government was already reportedly losing over $700 billion since the shutdown of the station. This calls for serious efforts by the Federal Government in liaison with the state and local authorities and other community stakeholders to balance the disparity between oil exploration and the development of oil-producing communities.

The issue of Amnesty in the Niger Delta Region began in 2007. As Commissioner for Youth Affairs in Rivers State under the administration of Dr. Peter Odili. I had series of meetings with different youth groups and came up with a proposal called Guns for Money.

In June, 2009, the administration of the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua came up with the compassionate idea of presidential amnesty for the agitators, including rehabilitation programmes, education, training and cash payments to those who decided to surrender their arms. This gesture restored some stability.

However, failure of government to sustain the initiative and lack of political will to holistically address the Niger Delta question despite the amnesty, gave birth to resurgence of agitation and insurgency as new agitators emerged in 2016, especially the Niger Delta Avengers with various demands.

In November, 2017, Niger Delta Avengers blamed resumption of bombing of oil installations due to lack of commitment to the Niger Delta development by the Federal Government.

Mr. Udengs Eradiri, the former President of Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) Worldwide, ascribed the renewal of insurgency to poor handling by the Federal Government of the agitation of the militant groups.

Again, in May, last year, a coalition of agitators in Niger Delta, under the name Joint Revolutionary Council threatened to resume hostilities should the Federal Government refuse to accord the grievances and demands of the region necessary attention.

Cynthia Whyte, the coalition’s spokesperson said: “There is nothing good to show in the region, in spite of the increase in the price of oil, and the relative peace that we have guaranteed in the Niger Delta. Poverty has been on the rise in the Niger Delta. Environmental degradation has become the order of the day, even as young people have resorted to illegal ways of fractionating crude oil to cater for their families.”

To stop repeated bombing by the agitators, the Federal Government finally engaged the political and traditional leaders from the region in November last year, promising to renew commitment to infrastructural development of the region as well as the clean-up of the polluted Ogoni environment among other promises.

During the 40th anniversary celebration of the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) in December last year, President Muhammadu Buhari confirmed cessation of pipeline vandalism in the region and thus assured that government would continue to engage the communities with a view to promoting peace.

He, however, added that reforms in the petroleum sector “must not be rushed, if we must get it right. We are still suffering from the effects of many legacy policies that were rushed and passed without fully appreciating the consequences of the provisions embedded in them.”

The fact that the President said reforms in the petroleum sector “must not be rushed,’’ does not mean ecological remediation and development in the Niger Delta must not be given accelerated attention.

In spite of the truce reached with the region in November last year, the truth is that the atmosphere remains fragile, necessitating honest commitment regarding promises made by the Federal Government and intensification of efforts at the same time. Right now, youth restiveness is not yet over.

The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) recently described the Gulf of Guinea as the most dangerous area in the world for shipping as 73 per cent of all sea kidnappings and 92 per cent of hostage-takings occur there.

The Bureau revealed that armed pirates kidnapped 27 crew members in the first half of this year. Out of nine vessels fired upon worldwide, eight were off the coast of Nigeria and Nigeria reported 14 pirate cases of maritime attacks in the first quarter of this year.

Also on Monday, July 29, this year, Task Force of the Ijaw Youths Council (IYC), Central Zone shut down 10 telecommunications masts belonging to telecommunication companies in Bayelsa State following unresolved disputes on award of quick-win contracts.

The task force set up by the IYC zonal Chairman, Kennedy Olorogun, picketed facilities belonging to MTN, GLO, Airtel, 9 Mobile and other telecommunications companies across Yenagoa metropolis.

The shutdown and disconnection of the masts left subscribers stranded and the affected companies losing millions of Naira. The youth said they would no longer allow the companies to continue with the practice of awarding their jobs to only non-indigenes, especially contracts to supply diesel to their facilities.

The Olorogun-led IYC has been at loggerheads with telecommunications companies operating in the state following discovery by the council that the firms engage only non-indigenes in their jobs and contracts.

As a result of lack of responses to all the letters, Olorogun, in separate letters, issued 14-day ultimatum to the companies to act or risk disruption of their operations in the state.

While I am in no way trying to justify the criminal tendencies associated with the genuine agitation of the people of the Niger Delta, the major permanent solution to youth restiveness and the attendant agitation and insurgency in the Niger Delta is genuine commitment on the part of government and oil companies.

Good governance as exemplified by the conscious and quick provision of the basic needs of the people in terms of housing, health facilities, employment and education facilities, among others.will go a long way in pacifying the people.

On the United Nation Environmental Programme (UNEP) Report on Ogoni, it’s worthy to note that, according to the report of UNEP 2011 assessment of locations in Ogoni land, rehabilitation of Ogoni land for full restoration might take up to 30 years. UNEP added that the first five years of rehabilitation would require funding of about $1 billion.

In what could be regarded as good news, the Federal Government, in January, this year, renewed its resolve to clean up the Ogoni environment. This is indeed commendable as it confirmed government’s responsiveness to the plight of the Ogoni people.

However, on January 14 this year, Ogoni leaders were quick to condemn what they described as ”flawed implementation of the UNEP, for clean-up of oil pollution in Ogoni land” over perceived compromise of the process as gazetted by the Federal Government.

According to Senator Bennett Birabi, Chairman of the Elders’ Forum, rather than commence implementation with the proposed emergency measures, we have come to observe that after each tranche of funds released by the oil companies on the clean-up, the expenditure pattern has not only been opaque, but completely out of sync with the UNEP recommendations.”

Despite all these, how is HYPREP really funded? How are the funds released for the implementation of the project? This is one critical area that the Federal Government and multinationals need to look into to enable the smooth and full implementation of the UNEP report which serves as a guide to the agency (HYPREP).

This will, in turn, repose the confidence the people have in government again and the dialogue process will continue.

Finally, I will advise that beyond the plan to spend about $1 billion on ecological remediation projects in Ogoni land, the Federal Government and oil companies must make overall development of the Niger Delta region as a matter of priority and urgency.

A call for intensification of development efforts in the Niger Delta region to stem the avoidable Tsunami of youth restiveness with damning socio-economic implications is, indeed, an indirect patriotic call for redoubling macro-economic development efforts for our national stability.

  • Senator Mpigi Barinada, representing Rivers South Senatorial District, writes from Abuja.