CONCERNS  and agitations for a  planned development of the Niger Delta Region are not recent issues, as many not conversant with the historical antecedents of this region are wont to think. These issues predate the discovery and production of oil in the region and also earlier than the much publicised resource control posturing.

Whichever way you may want to look at these recurring concerns and agitations, it is indeed a sad commentary on a country that development would be predicated on levels of agitations and confrontation. It even gets messier and more worrisome when one considers the fact that the region in question is, to all intents and purposes, the cash cow of a nation solely dependent on oil for revenue generation and foreign exchange earnings. As the chicken has now finally come home to roost with the sharp drop in oil prices and the concomitant erosion of the national reserves, there must be a rethink of our prioritisation of development in this region in particular and other areas of the country in general.

Prior to Nigeria gaining independence in 1960, the colonial office in London in September 1957, commissioned Sir Henry Willinks, QC; to carry out a detailed study on the concerns and fears expressed by the minorities. The recommendations emanating from this study culminated in what is known as the Willinks Commission Report [1958]. In the main, it highlighted the peculiar problems of the Niger Delta Region associated with the difficulties of their terrain, prompting a strong decision that the Region should be regarded as a special area. To facilitate implementation, this was followed by the setting up of a federal board to fast-track the development of this area. This was the genesis of the Niger Delta Development Board, NDDB, which was eventually inserted into the 1963 Constitution.

It is pertinent to note that these recommendations were made for the region before the escalation of oil discovery and production and the associated negative environmental and socio-economic impacts in this region. It should also interest you to observe that since the efforts of the colonial masters towards a planned development of the Niger Delta Region, there have been numerous other reports and recommendations by successive governments, both military and civilian. Permit me to just highlight some of them:

The Belgore Report, 1992

The Etiebet report, 1994

The Vision 2010 Report, 1996

The Report of The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Situation In Nigeria,

1997

The Popoola Report,1998

The Ogbemudia Report, 2001

White Paper Report of The Presidential Panel on National Security, 2003

Report on First International Conference on Sustainable Development of The Niger Delta, NDDC/UNDP; 2003

The Niger Delta Regional Development Master Plan, 2004

The National Political Reform Conference Report [NPRC]; 2005.

UNDP: Niger Delta Human Development Report [UNHDR]; 2006

Report of The Presidential Council of The Social and Economic Development of The Coastal States of The Niger Delta, 2006.

Is it not instructive and highly lamentable that with all these reports and recommendations all these years, spanning over half a century, the Niger Delta Region is still bedeviled with glaring under development. Where did we then go wrong there? We must begin to tell ourselves the home truth and do a re-think in order to accord this region its deserved development and pride of place.

But again there are even more serious questions to ask, when you dispassionately follow this next development effort. In September 2008, a committee, TECHNICAL COMMITTEE ON THE NIGER DELTA, was inaugurated by the then Vice President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, which committee was tasked to collate and review all past reports on the Niger Delta Region, the Willinks’ Report of 1957 inclusive. This powerful committee of 44 members was to appraise the various recommendations of these earlier reports enumerated above and make proposals that were supposed to help the Federal government achieve sustainable development, peace, human and environmental security in the Niger Delta Region. The million dollar question is:

HOW COME, 7 YEARS AFTER [2008-2015] AND WITH A SON OF THE SOIL ON THE SADDLE AS NUMERO UNO IN THE GOVERNMENT OF THIS COUNTRY, these concerns and agitations of under-development did not merit the desired and promised attention, thus leading to this ugly situation today?

You then again ask: WHAT POSITIVE IMPACT OVER THE YEARS DID THE FOLLOWING ESTABLISHMENTS ACCOMPLISH towards Niger Delta Region development: OMPADEC; NDDC; THE MINISTRY OF NIGER DELTA? What of the various state governments of the region with their special allocation of derivation funds? Only recently the Minister of State Petroleum, revealed that the sum of USD 40 billion [$40billion] had been pumped into the Niger Delta Region in the past 10 years by both the government and the International Oil Companies [IOCs]. A sum of this magnitude, by any stretch of imagination, can never be equated to the level of under development of this region. Herein lies the dilemma staring you and I in the face. But we all prefer to play the ostrich and pretend that nothing very serious has been amiss all these donkey years.

Without doubt we must begin to rethink a more transparent and sustainable development programme for the Niger Delta Region in order to have that peace, human and environmental security in this region as earlier enunciated in the terms of reference for the 2008 Technical Committee on the Niger Delta Region.A

IT is also important to highlight the   fact that in the past, prior to the glaring neglect of the region and the monumental environmental degradation of the late 80s and early 90s, the HOST COMMUNITIES of the Niger Delta Region were very receptive of the oil industry operators. I must mention my personal experience as an undergraduate “vacation job staff” of Shell BP in Port Harcourt in June/July 1967,prior to the commencement of the civil war.

My colleagues and I were frequentlygiven bunches of plantain, banana and other fruits freely, by the host communities, whenever we went on well-site field visits to Bori, Eleme, Oloibiri and other stations.

The welcome was infectious. But all that changed with time and oil industryoperators suddenly became irritants in the eyes of the communities. What then happened, and any lessons to learn?

The government had failed to read the body language of the host communities who were directly affected by the economic challenges and environmental degradation occasioned by oil industry operations. The Oil operators on their part failed to see themselves as an integral part of the host communities and therefore could not appreciate their concerns and needs, even though they were carrying out some aspects of corporate social responsibility. Since government is not a tangible entity, the industry operators who were physically ubiquitous were therefore regarded as government proxy, which led to their bearing the brunt of the wrath of the communities in the form of restiveness, work stoppages, vandalism of facilities and kidnappings. It therefore became imperative that the government must address this unwholesome trend in order to save the oil industry, sustain revenue generation and ameliorate the pains of the host communities.

In August 1999, under the initiative of a new democratic government, a novel approach in COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT was introduced by the management of the NNPC. This scheme evolved after petroleum industry chieftains and other notable stake-holders had brainstormed in Abuja to arrest the alarming occurrence of hostilities perpetrated against oil industry workers by restive youths of the Niger Delta Region.

In the main it was agreed that ALL STAKEHOLDERS SHOULD BE PART OF SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT EFFORTS IN THE REGION. This means that the communities should be able to identify and prioritise their needs and together with the government and the industry operators, actualise their development needs. The beauty of this strategy is that it also brings all the oil industry operators in contiguous locations together to synchronise development efforts in a more integrated and coordinated manner for cost effectiveness and transparency. Regrettably this laudable scheme did not see the light of the day as the governors of the region at the time preferred to identify, manage and execute development projects of the region directly. Little wonder we are where we are today in this Niger Delta Region development crisis!

As the government of the day begins a new round of discussions on the urgent need to transparently develop the Niger Delta Region, it is my strong recommendation that the NNPC/STAKE-HOLDERS 1999 COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT INITIATIVE should be resuscitated in order to comprehensively develop this region. Let the Niger Delta region communities identify and prioritise their community development needs, let them be fully involved as stakeholders, thus ensuring project ownership.

This will also encourage host communities to join in the protection of oil industry facilities as their own contribution towards sustainable development efforts.

Mr. Jonas Odocha, an Earth-scientist, wrote from Abuja.

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