By Rotimi Fasan
NIGERIA’s Niger Delta has had a long history of struggle, being one region populated by some of the so-called minority ethnic groups in the country. It has always been a struggle for self-recognition from the larger ethnic groups either individually or as a collective.
That is, when peoples of the Niger-Delta are not fighting to be free from the ethnic overlordship of the Hausa/Fulani, the Yoruba or the Igbo, they are worried by the real or perceived control of any one of the ethnic giants. Under colonial rule, the fight was mostly about political control and representation in the larger scheme of national politics, culminating in the Willinks Commission of 1957. Things remained the same in the years after Nigeria gained political control from British rule and the discovery of crude oil.
The trio of Nigeria’s ethnic giants still had their gaze firmly fixed on cash and food crops as their major means of economic survival, be it groundnut or cotton, cocoa and kolanut, palm oil and kernel, etc. But following the spike in the price of crude oil in the world market in 1973 and the realisation that exportation of crude could be an easier or faster means of revenue generation than groundnut, cocoa or palm oil, the Niger-Delta has been exploited for its crude oil resources. Gradually the struggle of the peoples of the region would shift from political representation to control of its natural resources (mainly crude oil) and space from which the resource(s) are derived.
The latter aspect of this struggle was focused on the fight against environmental degradation, following the relentless exploitation of the crude oil resources of the Niger-Delta and the consequent destruction of sea and plant life, farmland, water resources and massive pollution of the atmosphere.
The symbols of this misuse of state power against a region were and still are the oil exploration companies. The struggle for environmental and civil rights was mostly championed and brought to world attention by the writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa and his Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People, MOSOP. Saro-Wiwa paid heavily for leading this struggle.
His life and that of eight others of his associates was the price for that struggle that came to a head-on November 10, 1995, when in an ignoble demonstration of the misuse of state power, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other men were judicially murdered by the brutal regime of General Sani Abacha.
Even though Saro-Wiwa did not live to see the actualisation of the Ogoni or Niger-Delta struggle or its recognition by the Nigerian state, things never stayed the same after the sacrifice he and his associates made. Their struggle and that of others would lead to the establishment of series of intervention programmes such as the Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission, OMPADEC and, later, the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, with the main goal of safeguarding both the environmental and civil liberties of the Niger-Delta region.
The recognition that came with Saro-Wiwa’s mostly peaceful struggle was an elixir for copycat groups that would, however, be defined by the violent nature of their struggles which had been diluted and somewhat driven by politicians from the Niger-Delta. Having seen the reward that came from violent struggle, the Niger-Delta became a warehouse of many militias that were variously led by people, most of whom would in a short while rank among the richest in the country and whose credentials kept changing even when their commitment to the struggle had become venal, subject to what was in it for them. They emerged bearing arms and thereafter retreated to the sidelines having amassed wealth that would not let them put their lives on the line for the people in whose name they gained both wealth and recognition.
The NDDC that was set up to cater to the needs of the Niger-Delta has become a cash cow from which individuals from the Niger-Delta not inclined or unable to pursue a life of violent struggle, like the so-called militants, draw their share of Niger-Delta wealth. Otherwise, a single politician would not be the beneficiary of hundreds of unexecuted contracts as is now being alleged.
Nor would the region be the headquarters of tens of thousands of abandoned or unexecuted projects. The latest struggle among the Niger-Delta elite is to grab a slot on the NDDC Board where millionaires could be made far from the degraded creeks. Under the guise of leading the drive for the infrastructural development of the Niger-Delta, people are now at one another’s throats for a cut of the NDDC pie.
Perhaps, this would not matter much if the Commission was still focused on its core mission. But there is increasingly little evidence on the ground to show that the resources allocated to the NDDC are utilised for the good of the Niger-Delta. While people would stop at nothing to get a place on the NDDC and its surrogates in the states, ordinary people of the region are still as exploited and immiserated as they have always been.
What was meant to meet the needs of the people have been transformed into an avenue for massive corruption and self-gratification, leading to the so-called forensic probe of the NDDC recently ordered by President Muhammadu Buhari.
With the possibility of exposure, there are now claims and counter-claims of corruption, mostly along party lines and affiliations, by persons and groups connected to the NNDC and the Niger-Delta as a whole. Even while nominees’ names have been sent for Senate confirmation, an interim board of the NDDC was still put in place. Is this to give room for some to “chop and clean mouth” before a new board is constituted?
What is motivating the accusation that the interim board under the chairmanship of a man, Cairo Ojougboh, is not qualified to lead it? Is the issue really one of qualification or pork sharing? Were the past leaders of the NDDC unqualified? If yes, is their lack of qualification the reason the NDDC has had so little to show after receiving so much? What is all the noise about low representation or marginalisation of some ethnic groups in the NDDC for?
Another opportunity to clear space for a new set of hungry bellies? The struggle for the soul of the NDDC should tell everyone that things are a virtually back full circle to where they were before some control, through various intervention programmes, was ceded to the people of the Niger-Delta. With many in the Niger-Delta now at loggerheads, are the enemies still outside? Can the Nigerian state be held accountable for what is now playing out in the Niger-Delta? Or does the Niger-Delta have to be fragmented and made more restive in the name of development?