June 19, 2009

Niger Delta war: Wake-up call for ministry

By Ifeatu Agbu

GIVEN the controversial circumstance of its birth, the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs was expected to prove the skeptics wrong by hitting the ground running. This was even more so when it was generally perceived as President Yar ‘Adua’s panacea for bringing lasting peace and development to the crisis-ridden oil-producing region.

Unfortunately, however, eight months after its establishment, Niger Deltans are yet to feel its impact.
Granted that start-up usually takes time and planning, but then the escalation of the crisis in the region should have served as a wake-up call for the ministry to embark on some concrete projects.

This is even more so because the root-cause of the crises in the Niger Delta is the injustice inherent in the neglect of the area which produces over 90 per cent of the nation’s foreign exchange earnings. In fact, the ministry was set up to seriously address this unfairness and inequity.

The roof is literally caving in on the oil industry, just as villagers in the oil-bearing communities are running for cover following the confrontation between the Joint Military Task Force [JTF] and the militants.

In such a tense atmosphere, no one should be pussy-footing in taking measures to douse the tension. It is, therefore, surprising to find the Chief Ufot Ekaette-led ministry still warming up at the starting block while the Niger Delta is on fire. Several women and children have been killed, thousands have been turned into refugees and the future of the people from Gbaramatu Kingdom, the theatre of war, looks bleak. Yet the ministry established to give succour to these people seems not to be doing enough to rekindle their hopes.

Its undue delay in putting things in motion is getting many people agitated and they are raising questions. Members of the House of Representatives are not left out. They want to know why the ministry is not up and running yet, even in a situation of clear and present danger to its primary constituency.

They expressed concern that the purpose for which it was set up may be defeated if nothing is done to quicken its pace. They are concerned over some of the contents and proposals of the ministry in its 2009 budget.  The lawmakers, therefore, urged the minister to restructure his proposal to reflect urgency and commitment in its assignment.

Chief Ekaette and his Minister of State, Godsday Orubebe defended the ministry’s projects in the 2009 budgetary allocation, some of which are billed for completion as far as 2017. That is eight clear years from now. For instance, the ministry’s first community-related project, which is the development of Skill Acquisition Centres in the nine states of the region, is planned to begin this year and end in 2015.

Chief Olaka Nwogu, Chairman of the House of R e p r e s e n t a t i v e s  Committee on Niger Delta Affairs, said the ministry was created to address the special needs of a long-neglected region and should therefore act with dispatch. “If these projects are extended as far as 2015, what then happens in between now and then?  What we need now is urgent intervention. To draw things out this long may give the impression of incompetence”.

Meanwhile, the ministry is sitting comfortably in Abuja, far away from the kitchen heat, so to speak. Most of its officials are merely reading what is happening in the Niger Delta, their primary area of responsibility, in the newspapers. They are too far away to hear the booming of the guns from the battle fields and to see the exodus of the refugees and their agonies.

Perhaps, this “outsider” status has informed the rather slow reaction of the ministry. This has reinforced the belief that the headquarters of the ministry should be relocated to the Niger Delta. That would place it in a better position to deliver on its mandate.

The most visible actions of the ministry, so far, are the tours of the oil-producing states by its two ministers, the advertisement for the establishment of skill acquisition centres and the signing of the contract for the East-West Road (Section II) from Port Harcourt-Eleme junction to Kaiama. These have certainly fallen short of the expectations of Niger Deltans.

By the way, must the ministry set up new skill acquisition centres? As it is common knowledge, there are already several skill acquisition centres in the region established by state and local governments, oil companies, the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC and NGOs.

The ministry should take inventory of all the existing skill acquisition centres in the region, up-grade them and build new ones where necessary. The ministry is not to reinvent the wheel. It should build on what is already on ground. It stands to achieve quicker results if it works in partnership with other agencies of development in the region.

Obviously, the ministry would serve the interest of the Niger Delta better by taking serious interest in playing a key role, along with the NDDC, in co-ordinating the implementation of the widely applauded Niger Delta Regional Development Master Plan.

As a demonstration of its faith in the master plan as a veritable instrument for the rapid socio-economic transformation of the region, the ministry should base its own projects on it. No beating about the bush because time is of the essence.

Mr. Agbu, a public affairs analyst, writes from Port Harcourt.