By Femi Ayantola
â€œThe crisis in the Niger Delta commands our urgent attention.Â Ending it is a matter of strategic importance to our country.Â I will use every resource available to me, with your help, to address this crisis in a spirit of fairness, justice, and cooperationâ€, President Umaru Yarâ€™Adua at his inauguration in Abuja on May 29, 2007.
Two years after that solemn pledge before the large crowd of Nigerians and foreigners alike that thronged the Eagle Square, and millions more watching on television or monitoring the inauguration on radio, the people of Niger Delta are beginning to ask: where is the urgent attention? Where is the fairness?, and where is the justice?
It was natural that expectations would rise from a people who, for decades had longed for and demanded equitable distribution of the wealth accruing to the nation from their God-given resources, more so when promises to that effect are coming from the nationâ€™s No. 1 citizen.
And so they waited, full of hopes, yet agitated, ruminating over the â€œAbuja declaration of the President, who went on to say, in that inaugural speech that:
â€œWe have a good starting point because our predecessor (Obasanjo) already launched a master plan that can serve as a basis for a comprehensive examination of all the issues.
â€œWe will involve all stakeholders in working out the solution.Â As part of this effort, we will move quickly to ensure security of life and property, and to make investments safe.
â€œIn the meantime, I appeal to all aggrieved communities, groups and individuals to immediately suspend all violent activities, and respect the law. Let us allow the impending dialogue to take place in a conducive atmosphere. We are all in this together, and we will find a place to achieve peace and justiceâ€.
While the people of the region and the generality of Nigerians waited for action by the government which had listed the Niger Delta issue as part of its 7-point agenda, the President announced his intention to convoke a summit on the region.
The objection sparked by that announcement was so overwhelming that government had no choice than beat a retreat and in its place constituted a technical committee on the Niger Delta, well over one year after assumption of power by the administration.
The argument against the summit was that it would end up like a talk shop and achieve nothing.Â Critics said all government needed to do was to dust up the Willinks Report (of 1958) and the General Ogomudia Panel report (of the President Obasanjo era) and implement the recommendations contained therein.
Meanwhile, the committee of 45 was inaugurated on September 8, 2008, by Vice President Goodluck Jonathan who said government â€œidentified the crises in Niger Delta as a major issue that we must urgently resolve so as to bring about the much needed development and advancement to our fatherlandâ€.
He also told the panelists that: â€œA majority of the information you may need are to be found in existing commission reports, suggestions, recommendations, and position papers that may be forwarded to you by Nigerians.Â As you maybe aware, this initiative of a technical committee on the Resolution of the Niger Delta Crises is a suggestion from the people of the Niger Delta.
The committee is therefore expected to collate, review and distill the various reports, suggestions and recommendations on the Niger Delta from Sir Henry Willinks Commission Report on the Fears of the Minorities (1958) to General Alexander Ogomudiaâ€™s National Security Committee Report on Oil Producing Areas (2002) and on to the Report of the National Political Reform Conference (2005).
The committee has since wound up and on December 1, 2008, submitted its report to government which is yet to act on the recommendations contained therein. Two days after the inauguration of the technical committee, the Federal Executive Council at its weekly meeting in Abuja approved the creation of a new ministry for the Niger Delta.
The ministry and the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) which was set up by the Obasanjo administration in 2002 will cater exclusively for the development of that region.Â It has two ministersÂ – Obong Ufot Ekaette (minister) and Mr. Godsday Orubebe (minister of state).
President Yarâ€™Adua reviewing his handling of the situation in the region in an interview with The Guardian last April, said: â€œWe are doing everything possible to deal with the challenges there. We have reached a stage where we had to create the Ministry of Niger Delta so that we can channel more funds into the region.
â€œI told some people that this is the third time in the history of this country when a ministry has been specifically created to address a certain national issue.
The first was the Ministry of Lagos Affairs for the development of the then Federal Capital and the other one is the Ministry of Federal Capital Territory.
â€œIn terms of development and infrastructure, I believe the measures we have taken both in terms of government intervention and the creation of the ministry, I believe will address the major problems mitigating against development of the regionâ€.
As part of the effort to reduce conflicts in the region, the President decided to grant amnesty to militants who willingly lay down their arms.
Only last Thursday, President Yarâ€™Adua met principal officers of the National Assembly and key stakeholders including Niger Delta governors for three hours in Abuja, during which they adopted the report of the Presidential Committee for Amnesty and Disarmaments for Militants in the Niger Delta. The report is to be presented to the National Council of State later this week for ratification.
The Council of State meeting is to be preceded by the proclamation of amnesty in a brief ceremony which will be personally performed by President Yarâ€™Adua on that day, where a legal document spelling out governmentâ€™s grant of amnesty would be signed and sealed.
While critics believe that governmentâ€™s goodies for the Niger Delta have been slow and intangible in coming, President Yarâ€™Adua and his administration do not agree.
For instance, this yearâ€™s allocation for the Niger Delta Ministry is N50 billion compared to the over N171 billion for the Federal Capital Territory.Â N27 billion was earmarked for the NDDC. Not a few in Niger Delta including the Ijaw leader, Chief E.K. Clark have criticized the allocation, dismissing it as too little.
The Chief Economic Adviser to the President, Dr. Taminu Abubakar, addressing a meeting of the Nigerian Guild of Editors in Kano earlier in the year, enumerated some of the projects earmarked for the zone this year as follows:
* Warri – Kaima Road
* East-West Road (Section 1)Â Warri – Kaima
* East – West Road (Section II) Warri – Port Â Â Â Â Harcourt
*East – West Road (Section III) Port Â Â Â Â Harcourt – Eket
*Â East – West Road (Section IV) Eket – Oron
*Â Erosion Control Project
* Conservation and Development of Coastal Â Â Â Â Ecosystem (Guinea Current Large MaineÂ Â Â Â Â Â Ecosystem)
– G-Clime (Rivers and Bayelsa)
* Youth Training / Development Centres in the Niger Delta
* Digital Security Surveillance
*Acquisition of Marine Boasts and Equipment
Warri based constitutional lawyer, Dr. Akpor Mudiaga-Odje says as far as he is concerned, the Ministry of Niger Delta simply does not exist. Infact, he dismisses it as unconstitutional.
Governmentâ€™s perception in the area is not helped by the on-going military offensive ostensibly to neutralise the militants but which has now assumed a war situation, leaving thousands homeless, hungry and angry mainly in Delta State.
Militants are scoffing at the offer of amnesty by government and want it to release first, Henry Okah, who is facing secret trial for arms running in Jos.
Partly because of governmentâ€™s own slow approach to the issues at stake and partly because of the activities of some criminally minded youths in the Niger Delta, much is yet to be seen of the Administrationâ€™s big push which is expected to provide the needed â€œquick-winsâ€.
* Faithful implementation of the Niger Delta Master Plan;
* Mainstreaming small business development initiative;
* Enforcement of the local content policy in oil and gas sector; and
* A regional gas grid alongside an effective intermodal transport system to enable industrialisation and development of the region on PPO basis.
The current situation in the zone is not yet beyond redemption.Â But, government must quicken the pace at which it is handling the issues, marching its words with action.