THE future of a post-oil Niger Delta at the moment is bleak, very bleak. And, the political leaders of the environmentally despoiled oil and gas region, do not appear to be rising to the challenge. The supposedly interventionist agency, the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) is not doing much either.
They are all locked in a polarising All Progressives Congress (APC)/Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) political fight while the oil-bearing communities rot away.
It is a tragedy of democracy that the peoples of the Niger Delta, Nigeria’s main oil and gas basin, are still experiencing many problems despite the more than $500 billion government has so far realised from the black gold of the region. These problems include deprivation, non-availability of essential social amenities like electricity, hospitals, health centres, pipe borne water, quality education, non control of resource from their environment, environmental degradation, and of course, acute poverty among others.
The state is also being accused of failing to regulate the relations between the transnational oil and gas corporations and the peoples of the region in such a way as to accommodate the aspirations of the area towards control of their economic opportunities. From all indications, the current ruling circles do not appear to be genuinely interested at addressing the Niger Delta socio-economic and environmental crises.
Dr. Sofiri Joab-Peterside, a research fellow at the Centre for Advanced Social Science (CASS) in Port Harcourt, the Rivers State, once told this reporter that the demand of the peoples of the oil and gas region which is not only to control their own affairs but also to participate at the national level on equal footing, is being perceived by the power elite as a threat to the unity of the Nigerian state.
According to Joab-Peterside, the repressive response of the ruling elite to the demands of the region, aggravates the agitation for self-determination in the Niger Delta. Adding, he said, the ideals of democracy, respect for fundamental human rights, and accountability for the management of the national resources are being compromised and subordinated for strategic parochial interests. But this does not seem to inhibit the Niger Delta people from agitating for self-determination or a radical restructuring of the economy to allow equitable participation in the government and economic development.
However, it is indeed, not possible to comprehend the escalating Niger Delta conflict without paying greater attention to the transnational oil corporations. They are particularly salient to the current crises of mass poverty, backwardness, structural distortions and the socio-political stasis plaguing the area.
‘The oil industry is the most important sector in the Niger Delta economy. The activities of the transnational oil corporation include exploration, which involves creating subsurface picture by generating sound waves and recording their reflections from underground layers. This process involves setting of explosive charges along a gird of paths, known as lines, over the area being surveyed. These usually have negative environmental impacts.” The CASS research fellow said.
Drilling, however, entails acquiring land for access and location, while construction of roads (on land) and canals (in swamps) require land clearing, dredging and sand filling. “The impacts of these activities include increase in turbidity of surface water, some loss of sensitive vegetation due to acidic slurry, accidental oil spills and noise and in some cases totally changing the biodiversity and the life support system”, Joab-Peterside said.
There are also flaring of gas, soil degradation, water contamination and pollution. All these imply that the people of the oil region who depend on fishing and farming as their main economic occupation, and for their food production, are now pushed to the wall to face the grim realities of poverty.
And, the intrusion of the oil companies into lives of the people has undermined their moral, spiritual and ethical values and invades their culture. From the perspective of the CASS research fellow, so much money in the hands of the field oil workers has created inflation and made life unbearably expensive. “These field oil workers entice the young girls out of school, even the women are not spared, thus destabilizing families and creating social problems such as prostitution, and irresponsible fathering by oil workers”, he said.
Besides neglecting their responsibility towards the environment, the oil companies have also failed to provide standard infrastructural facilities and employment for the army of the unemployed youths in their operating communities. Although they have been quite vociferous about their social responsibility, Joab-Peterside is insisting that the oil companies have not developed any community in a true sense, adding, “this is so because the communities have become dependent, beggarly and sometimes helpless, as the collapse of their local economies continue unabated.”
Perhaps, this is not surprising to CASS and the other social formations in the Niger Delta because the basic philosophy and thrust of the oil companies’ community development project, is reputation management rather than genuine effort to develop the oil-bearing communities.
The frequent armed conflict in the region therefore tends to show that the people are now hypertensively aware of the urgent need to redress and resolve a sad paradox of having all the oil that fuels the wheels of the country’s economy, yet looking helpless in the face of all ramifying impoverishment. As a result, the oil industry has been severely hit by violent uprising of the armed youths.
For those who are opposed to the neo-liberal posturing of the Nigerian governing elite, the Niger Delta is facing the contradictions of capitalist modernity because the historical process of the making and governance of the Nigerian state is the political equivalent of primitive accumulation in a capitalist economy. For those who know better, creating a state in a capitalist economy requires conquest and subjugation through the appropriation and monopoly of the means of violence, continued foreign penetration and domination of the post-colonial economy.
Part of the problem in the Niger Delta is that the state has been pursuing development with confusion of purposes and interests and with policies characterised by ambiguities and contradictions. For instance, the Basin Development Authorities, going by research findings at CASS, suffered under apolitically machinated management especially between 1979-1983. “The management was made up of politicians who knew nothing about the objectives of the scheme but more interested in contract awards. This led to decisions detrimental to the operations of the authorities”, CASS said.
The Niger Delta Basin Development Authority is said to have failed to solve the problems of oil region due to the authority’s fragmented approach to development policies. Before this, there was the Henry Willink Commission report of 1958, which recommended that the Niger Delta be made a special area to be developed directly by the federal government.
Despite efforts at developing the oil region by the Oil Mineral Producing ‘Areas Development Commission (OMPADEC) of the Ibrahim Babangida military regime in 1991, the 1994 Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) of Sani Abacha regime, and of course, the existing Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), there are still deep-rooted fears that all is not well.
Joab-Peterside explains the situation thus: “The non-abrogation of all unjust oil and gas laws like the Land Use and the Petroleum Decress/Acts, non recognition or the rights of oil-bearing communities to at least, 200 nautical miles offshore instead of the present 200 meter depth isobaths; are instruments by which the Niger Delta has been denied right to its patrimony under and over land. These unjust laws have intensified primordial identities and solidarities as defence against the coercive incursion of central power.”
Responses to the conflict of underdevelopment in the oil and gas region have been largely conduced in an adhoc manner. The Olusegun Obasanjo administration (1999-2007) tended to react only when large-scale violence broke out. The responses of that quasi-democratic administration often assumed the form of palliative solutions, rather than comprehensive policies designed to address the root cause of violence. With the persisting attitude of Abuja to the demands of the region, it is most likely that disorder and violence in the area will continue to grow except government makes an immediate u-turn and grant the peoples of the region their desires. It is already being said, and loudly too that in a truly democratic society where there is the rule of law, equal opportunities, accountability of power, and a leadership sensitive to social needs, primary group identities will be less appealing.
For now, Nigeria’s oil and gas region is still suffering gross neglect and deprivation despite its enormous contribution, currently being put at more than $500 billion, to the economic prosperity of the Nigerian state. The socio-economic and environmental situation in the Niger Delta, is breeding a frustrated population, anti-government and establishment agitations as well as hostility all of which impact negatively on societal stability and development.
Akanimo Sampson is a celebrated editor, activist, and prolific writer.