By Peter Osalor
In June 2008, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) entered into a strategic partnership with the Delta State Government of Nigeria for youth empowerment and conflict resolution in the countryâ€™s most restive region.
The collaboration is significant not just because oil extraction in the Niger Delta region sustains the national economy, but because it is critical to poverty reduction and sustainable economic and human development.
The resulting Niger Delta Job Creation and Conflict Prevention Initiative was aimed at improving peace and security in the country by empowering youths with skills relevant to local exigencies.
The first three-year phase of the programme entailed the training of 300 youths, at a cost of $2.4 million, for direct private sector jobs or self employment opportunities. Although restricted in terms of initial scope and outlay, the arrangement offered a desperately needed win-win situation for the Nigerian economy at large and for youths and the private sector in particular.
The volatile Niger Delta region – a network of shallow creeks leading to the Gulf of Guinea – is both the greatest boon and bane for the national economy, and the undisputed hotbed of militant activity in all of Western Africa. The discovery of vast hydrocarbon reserves in the area and the subsequent oil boom of the 1970s resulted in widespread destruction of agriculture, together with extensive displacement of rural communities from fertile lands without adequate compensation.
The genesis of conflict and militancy in the Niger Delta goes back to youth restiveness in the early years of the countryâ€™s independence, which precipitated a perception of injustices surrounding the distribution of oil wealth.
A secondary cause was severe environmental pollution from oil explorations that devastated the local ecology and rendered vast swathes of territory along the Gulf of Guinea uncultivable. Together, these causes transformed fledgling community conflicts in the Delta region (rife throughout military rule between 1983 and 1999) into hardcore criminal activities by the turn of the last century. Against all expectations, the return of democratic governance only served to further proliferate and deepen the crisis.
While Nigeriaâ€™s aptly termed â€œpetro-violenceâ€ is read by many as a just fight against repressive practices of the federal government and western oil companies, there is little debate over the magnitude of its impact on national fortunes. Bombings, kidnappings and oilfield raids continue to cause an estimated $1 billion in monthly oil revenue losses, according to the Nigerian Central Bank.
Mounting attacks on the oil infrastructure over the past few years have restricted production to 66% of the installed capacity of 3 million barrels per day. In fact, international observers point out a direct link between these developments and the record high of $150 a barrel that oil prices touched last year.
Understandably therefore, there are considerable global and regional implications surrounding Abujaâ€™s attempts to halt the violence through state intervention and peace initiatives. The most recent and remarkable of such efforts has been the unconditional amnesty for all Niger Delta militants offered by President UM Yarâ€™Adua last year. Unfortunately, just days after the announcement, rebels loyal to the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) brazenly seized and destroyed a major oil distribution centre in the first ever assault of its kind on Lagos, the countryâ€™s economic capital.
The clear message emanating out of this and similar incidents hence is that an amnesty offer, however well intended, is not enough to resolve a long-standing crisis of huge complexity. Even though some militia commanders have signalled their intent to surrender, the stakes for Abuja are much higher than a breakdown of the law-and-order situation alone. The countryâ€™s Central Bank is unequivocally direct in its opinion that growth in sub-Saharan Africaâ€™s largest economy is critically dependent on containing unrest in the Niger Delta.