THE struggle for the development of the Niger Delta Region has remained a staple subject for heated controversy. Sadly, the history of the development of the region has been riddled with bitter struggle pioneered by nationalists of the Niger Delta who fought for Nigeria’s independence alongside their counterparts in other parts of the nation. That was an era before the discovery of crude oil. Their principal objective was to get a fair deal in terms of development. This agitation was tense, devoid of arms struggle which resulted in the famous 1958 Willinks recommendation, declaring the region as a special Area of Development. The onus of implementing the contents of the recommendation fell on the incoming Federal Cabinet that took over power from the British colonial master in October 1960.
This gladdened the minds of the people especially the politicians who agitated for a developed Niger Delta Region. Naturally, the people would have sung a victory song then, but cautiously waited for the new Federal Executive Council, headed by Nigeria’s Prime Minister Sir Tafawa Balewa to commence the development of the area based on the Willinks recommendations: a developed Niger Delta region where intra community trade would boom, surpassing the level scored before the Willinks recommendation when transnational companies chiefly UAC and John Holt had trading posts used for export of palm produce, cocoa products, woods, etc. Specifically, the hapless people who had absolute faith in the recommendations looked up to the government that was saddled with the responsibility of deepening the numerous rivers, creeks, clearing wrecks, derelics, sunk canoes and trunk of trees hampering navigation of badges, crafts and few passengers boats existing then.
Further more, Niger Deltans expected a thriving boat building and repair yards located at various parts along the rivers and creeks, a booming fishing industry, supply fish for export and for domestic consumption. Undoubtedly, the region has the highest wet land in Africa with huge fish resources being devastated by oil exploration. All these are economic potentials that would have attracted investors to invest, create wealth, generate employment, thus arresting the exodus of young men to the cities. More over, the people expected well equipped hospitals in their communities to save lives. Flood and coastal erosion remain the greatest environmental problems threatening the people, haplessly watching their buildings crumbling.The above and others not mentioned here are their dreams. But after waiting in vain for the implementation of the Willinks commission by Balewa’s government, Isaac Boro and his Ijaw revolutionary group revolted, jolting Balewa’s government and halting oil exploration for 12 days. That government was the first Nigerian government to resist the development of the Niger Delta development and activity supported by the powerful clique and opposition party leaders who were in the Federal parliament and wanted the region to remain in bondage. This initial disappointment led to the suspension of victory song by the Niger Delta people.
General Yakubu Gowon’s military regime could not give a thought on it, he was busy executing the civil war, grappling with the task of keeping Nigeria one, a beautiful war slogan. Similarly, after the Civil War, he was grappling with the problem of fulfilling his three ‘Rs’ – Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Reconciliation. Luckily for him, the leaders of the Niger Delta Region, largely southern minorities of this nation believed in one Nigeria and helped Gowon’s government to accomplish the “Rs”
However, the regime cannot absolve itself from resisting the development of the region. The nation after the civil war enjoyed some degree of stability, witnessed oil boom that created business tycoons in Nigeria, massive construction of highways, bridges across the country, thus neglecting the development of Niger Delta. The General Olusegun Obasanjo’s military regime also offered resistance to the development of the region. He did nothing, perhaps he was busy with his belt tightening economic policy. The return of Democracy in 1979 was an opportunity for the Alhaji Shehu Shagari’s led National Party of Nigeria, NPN, to request for the recommendations of the Willinks Commission, but the inter-party wranglings blurred the regime’s vision to think of this issue that has been a great riddle to be resolved since the last years of colonial rule.
It is a pity that Niger Delta people have to agitate for the uplifhnent of the conditions of their communities. The military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida equally resisted the elevation of the region through infrastructure development like his predecessors. His Directorate of Food Road and Rural Infrastructure, DFRRI, programme was silent on the Niger Delta Development. Another sad era for the oppressed people. General Sani Abacha’s regime responded when he unwittingly invited Niger Delta youths to Abuja to join in his infamous two million man march to prolong his military tenure. This triggered the fireworks from Niger Delta revolutionaries whom others choose to call militants. He could not use Oil Mineral Producing Area Commission, OMPADEC, created by Babangida’s military regime to soothe the ruffled feeling s of Niger Delta people.
The return to democracy has not helped the region, the people are still sliding deeper into misery. With democratic rule fully restored in 1999, members of the National Assembly visited the neglected region to have first hand information of the troubled Niger Delta. They were there, they saw poverty, misery, disease, the glaring difference between the region and the rest of the nation. They returned to their cozy base in Abuja and the stagnation of the misery stricken people remained.
Painfully, President Obasanjo Regime Town Hall meeting did not add the desired soothing balm. His war of attrition against Odi people did not even deter militancy in the region. Again, the real issues were swept under the rug, the official resistance continued.
The short lived regime of late President Shehu Yar’Adua, diplomatically brought peace to the region which made the revolutionaries to surrender their arms and peace returned to the region. Oil companies returned to base to make jumbo gains, smiling home, leaving the region in unending agony.
Our brother’s tenure, Goodluck Jonathan also witnessed stagnation and the usual Government’s resistance to develop the region. Why? This is a pertinent question for all of us. Can Niger Delta leaders, Traditional Rulers, Political bigwigs, including those at the National Assembly and President’s Jonathan Federal cabinet explain why they did not rally round him (Jonathan) to ensure an accelerated development of the region? This is where they failed dismally, thus vitiating the efforts of our politicians who vigorous agitated for the development of the region.
The Ogionis spent 20 years to agitate for the cleanup of their damaged environment. Must Niger Delta people continue to agitate through arms struggle for amenities that will make them comfortable? Shall we continue to retain refugee status in our own country? We don’t have land to develop physical structure in our communities. The people of the region are still in the cauldron of dissatisfaction. Furthermore, the pitiable state of the Niger Delta has not witnessed a significant change and Nigeria State not ready to dispassionately handle the problem.
The emergence of the Niger Delta Avengers should be a source of concern for the Federal Government, Niger Delta leaders and honest crisis management experts. It is worthy of note that the unresolved problem of the region is causing more frustration, making the area a fertile ground for more agitation by different groups. Nigeria leaders should not gloss over this. The alienation of the people from full participation in making policies that affect them at the Federal bureaucracy remains a sore point. The employment of young graduates of the region in the Federal Ministries and parastatals which was one of the major reasons for pioneer politicians of the region who struggled for parity at this level has not been fully addressed. Unfortunately, Niger Delta leaders have not been serious about this. Also, Niger Delta revolutionaries have not articulated this point.
The activities of Niger Delta Avengers has not been a palatable dish for Nigerians, it has further damaged our ailing economy. What perturbs the mind at this critical time, is the failure of the Central Government to use appropriate strategy to handle this conundrum. It does not require retaliatory action by gun boat but diplomacy.
Governance is all about managing crisis which President Buhari has to deploy to the hilt. Similarly, the condemnation of NDA by a section of Niger Delta leaders who are buying newspaper pages, declaring support for Buhari’s regime as if others are not with him, is a serious flaw. This situation has created new sources of cleavages among Niger Delta communities, which is neither helpful.
The nation is now reeling under stressful conditions which need new strategies / new approaches to resolve. The Federal government has taken a bold step to opt for dialogue, a response to calls by both foreign governments and various interest groups within Nigeria. President Buhari went further to call for a cease fire. This is a positive step, a measure to halt the age long official resistance to the development of the perturb region.
Indeed, this administration has been placed on trial by the plethora of crisis bedeviling Nigeria. Also, the Niger Delta Avengers’ action has placed Niger Delta Politicians, Traditional Rulers, High Chiefs members of the Federal Cabinet, Niger Delta legislators at the National Assembly on trial. Luckily, our President included them in the dialogue team to pool us out of the quandary.
For Niger Delta team, this assignment offers a moral and political challenge to them. It is not a period for sycophancy where they will clap hands, saying Buhari is too good and deliberately ignoring their assignment. If they do this, it will be the most unpatriotic act on their part.
What is needed now, is a sustained dialogue between the Federal government and the Niger Delta Team to boldly, sincerely and patriotically address the frustration of the region. With this, all parties in the dialogue can conveniently chart a course for genuine development of Niger Delta.
It is worth mentioning that the Niger Delta Development Commission and the Ministry of Niger Delta have failed woefully principally by unmindful manipulation of these two key agencies by greed and avarice of the wicked few, making NDDC to lose focus. They have to be refocused and retooled. What will usher in a lasting peace in the region is holistic execution of projects required to uplift the lives of the people. Adequate funding of the NDDC and the Niger Delta Ministry and close monitoring of 13 percent managers and State Governors who largely contributed to the under development of the region.
The APC led Federal Government should not resist the development of the region like its predecessors. The region remains relevant to the nation. It participated fully in independence.
Paul Orie, a public affairs analysis, wrote from Lagos.