By Akanimo Sampson
Niger Delta Affairs Minister, Godswill Akpabio, a one-term senator and former governor of Akwa Ibom State, has been challenged by an online newspaper to vigorously address the embarrassing level of poverty in the oil and gas region.
In an editorial this Tuesday, The Southern Examiner said Akpabio’s ministerial portfolio has presented him with a golden opportunity to make poverty history in the oil and gas region in line with President Muhammadu Buhari’s dream. ‘’Arguably, the Niger Delta, the honey comb of Nigeria is the national capital of poverty’’, the newspaper said.
According to the online newspaper, ‘’it is to Akpabio’s credit that he gave Akwa Ibom a more beautiful look than he met it in 2007. But he appeared not to have taken any significant steps in addressing the menacing mass poverty in the state.
‘’Efforts by the Nigerian government to address conflicts in the region even before independence, beginning in 1957, with the establishment of the Willink Commission that looked into the problems of the minorities, have never put the scourge of poverty on the front burner. Though the Commission acknowledged the utter neglect of the oil region and, among other proposals, recommended the creation of the Niger Delta Development Board (NDDB), a board just like the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) could not achieve its aims of uncommon transformation of the oil-bearing communities.’’
The rest of the newspaper’s editorial goes thus: ‘’At a two-day retreat for the incoming ministers in Abuja, the federal capital city this month, President Buhari unequivocally told his new cabinet members: We are working to lift Nigerians out of poverty and set them on the path to prosperity. We intend to lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty over the next 10 years.
The president further admonished them to work as a team: Working as a team demands that we know what the next person is doing. You must open communication with your colleagues. (The) lack of communication leads to a lack of cooperation and sub-optimal performance.
‘’In line with the President’s resolve to lift 100 million Nigerians out of extreme poverty, a figure that is half of the estimated 200 million citizens of the country, this would likely be one of the herculean tasks for Akpabio, the man who mans the Niger Delta Affairs Ministry. Incidentally, Akpabio happens to be the immediate past two-time governor of Akwa Ibom. During his eight years in office, he prided himself as an uncommon governor who certainly knows the developmental, economic, environmental, and political challenges of a section of the vastly polluted region. In his new assignment, Akpabio would have to depend on technocratic and indigenous advisory in order to be attuned with the other sections of the Niger Delta region.
‘’Historically, with the creation of the 12 states in 1967 by the Yakubu Gowon military regime and the establishment of the Niger Delta River Basin Authority (NDRBA), the NNDB became obsolete. In the Shehu Shagari Second Republic, a 1.5% Federation Account for the development of the environmentally despoiled oil region was set up, but because of the constraint of operating from its secretariat in Lagos it was not able to achieve its purpose.
‘’Besides, the glaring material poverty of the peoples of the region, and their enormous energy reserves, a concerned civic group, Stakeholder Democracy Network (SDN) says government and private enterprise meet less than 10 per cent of the energy needs of the region. Obviously, the high cost of running generators and lack of sustainable alternatives is a significant obstacle to economic diversification of the Niger Delta. This energy poverty reinforces unemployment, limits social mobility and fuels militancy. For the peoples of the area, this is particularly grating as vast amounts of oil and gas are taken daily from beneath their feet and gas flares burn billions of dollars’ worth of useful gas over their heads that could easily provide electricity.
‘’While gas flared every day in the Niger Delta is equivalent to the daily gas consumption of Brazil, this multi-billion dollar waste not only leaves communities without effective energy solutions, but is the single, biggest contributor to CO2 emissions in Africa. We are strongly of the view that the utilisation of waste associated gas has the potential to address Nigeria’s acute domestic energy crisis and stimulate economic diversification and growth in the Niger Delta. Furthermore, the utilisation of flared gas to address energy poverty is an important part of creating an enabling environment in the Niger Delta. Provision of localised and reliable electricity will also reduce one of the primary drivers of illegal oil refining.
‘’As a lawyer, a former governor and federal legislator, Akpabio is most aware that poor operating practices, weak law enforcement and an active illegal oil economy contribute to hundreds of oil spills a year in the Niger Delta. This environmental disaster destroys traditional livelihoods, breeds mistrust and resentment and undermines the operational security of oil companies and the government. Oil theft and illegal oil refining are therefore, seen by many as simply fulfilling domestic demand for fuel products that would otherwise be shipped abroad.
‘’Sadly, even in Akwa Ibom where Akpabio dominated its affairs as governor for eight years (2007-2015), essential services such as power, sanitation, healthcare and primary education have not been delivered to communities. This is largely due to corruption, patronage and weak governance which have combined to underdeveloped the oil region and fuel its frequent unrest. That government with all the oil revenue at its disposal, failed to meet the most basic needs of communities. A dominant patronage system ensures that government representatives do not have to rely on citizen- led accountability or their own performance to remain in office.
‘’Both the member-states of the NDDC and the interventionist agency itself have been squandering hundreds of billions of dollars of oil receipts with limited public scrutiny and accountability. Governance failure has resulted in the substantial resources being squandered for personal gain, rather than used to improve health, education and developmental infrastructure.
‘’The patronage system, lack of transparency and accountability also affect private contracting and frontline service providers which results in corrupt practices around contract implementation and poor quality of services delivery. Performance of frontline professionals is plagued by high absenteeism, low motivation and insufficient quality.
‘’How Akpabio will uncommonly tackle these fundamental issues will determine the direction of conflict in the region. Whenever the Niger Delta erupts in an orgy of violence, it adversely affects the Nigerian economy. Insecurity in the region tends to compound the already tense and insecure political climate in the country and further heightens the use of force by federal troops. But, the use of force has never been found to be a solution for problems such as those of the Niger Delta and as such, we strongly recommend that Akpabio should assiduously pursue a multilateral non-violent approach to resolving the various conflict points in the region.
‘’The Southern Examiner strongly holds the view that a cooperative approach to resource conflict management is not only necessary for avoiding conflict and addressing social and environmental crises in the Niger Delta under Akpabio’s watch, but it will also salvage significant financial resources, foster goodwill among parties to the dispute, and go a long way in making poverty history in the rustic oil-bearing communities.’’