The NDDC and peace strategy in the Niger Delta

By Ebere Onwudiwe

RECENT news that Nigerian militants have claimed responsibility for exploding a car bomb at an army barracks in Port Harcourt is a frightening development. The Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) was in part established to bring peace in the Delta. Its mission of facilitating the transformation of the Niger Delta into a region of prosperity, stability and peace is laudable. But in this, it appears to have woefully failed given the escalation of militancy and violence by angry and unemployed Niger Delta youth. By all account, it is clear that the acute poverty in the Niger Delta remains, a situation which recently prompted an admission of national failure by the president and a bold plan with a vote of 20 trillion naira as remedy.
The NDDC needs to make some costless adjustments that will help the cause of peace in the Niger Delta by reducing the tension between the youth of the region and the national government. To be able to achieve an end to hostilities, the NDDC should create a system that allows citizens of the Delta to make claims against the government and the oil industry. This channel is more economic than the unmitigated blowing up of production facilities and the kidnapping of oil workers. These unfortunate events are already costing the country millions of dollars of lost revenue.
The NDDC surely has very hard-working and competent staff, people that can efficiently collate these claims by making an inventory of what the different communities say they have suffered through some kind of report or an inventory of damage (including a record of disasters such as fires and oil spills) and then, to translate these claims into various creative development projects. That's working to put off fires in my book. But more than that, this kind of process will make the communities direct partners in the work of NDDC whose agenda of work will consequently become more inclusive. While this process hardly requires more money, it will surely give the people a sense that the government really means business and does care for their input.
In its line of work, it is important for the NDDC to see itself not simply as a fat bureaucracy for funding infrastructure development in the Niger Delta, but as a critical player for addressing the many conflicts across the region. Therefore, the participation of the communities should not stop at policy formulation. They should also be given a role in project implementation by setting up volunteer community oversight boards to monitor project execution for instance.
Apart from the attacks on foreign oil facilities and their workers, the Delta region has also been harmed by inter-community violence, a situation which complicates the work of NDDC. But here too, the commission can be more aggressively creative in facilitating discussions among disputing communities by encouraging them to find joint solutions, which it can then fund.
Before putting a road through a warring community, for example, it can require the warring groups to meet in order to decide on the appropriateness of the project and the methods of its oversight. In the process, it can demand a local peace agreement as a condition for putting its resources in support of any agreed upon project. Similarly, the NDDC can threaten to withhold funds from communities that refuse to make peace. The commission should not go to the communities with carrot alone. It should also be armed with the stick of withholding funds from communities that are not interested in peace making. That's mixing stick and carrot.
One critical link in this facilitation role for the NDDC will be with the oil companies. They would welcome comprehensive initiatives that help the local communities, and give them something constructive to do with their community development assistance beyond simply paying off local chiefs. Of course, the cooperation of local chiefs and other important community leaders is vital for the facilitation role of NDDC, but these too must be cajoled to serve the cause of peace. There is more. The commission needs the confidence of oil communities to be an effective agent of peace and development. To earn that confidence it must be transparent in its operations by opening the books to the public, so that communities and advocacy groups can follow the money. Giving all the contracts to PDP chieftains does nothing to help the oil communities at all.
That's why the commission should occasionally hold public hearings with its contractors, making them justify their activities. This kind of anti-corruption mode may have a spillover effect in the general society. The more that the NDDC engages communities in its work, the more it will highlight the corrupt nature of the local politicians, and force them to account more for their deeds. As the NDDC leads by example, it will force others to do the same. It can do more.
As a rich agency, it should take more bold and calculated steps in the service of enduring peace in the Delta. For example it should work with reputable NGOs such as the Academic Associates Peace Works (AAPW) based in Abuja to establish periodic peace education institutes to train people from the local Niger Delta communities in the art of conflict management and peace-making. It can even have its own poverty alleviation programme for the Delta, or at a minimum, work cooperatively with the appropriate federal government department to alleviate problems that are due to economic hardships. It is known that much of the conflicts in the Delta are rooted in abject poverty.
Still, some of the work may sometimes utilise the instrument of moral suasion. NDDC officials should be able to visit communities to speak in the name of public interest even as it offers resources for solving community problems. But suasion will only work if the commission works hard to make the community members partners in the overall project of peace and development. NDDC must be seen as a legitimate entity for the expression of the interest of the oil communities.
But of course, the NDDC cannot make magic. I am sure it is doing the best it can and that some of the suggestions in this column may have been put in place already. Moreover, the solution to the Niger Delta problem remains the responsibility of Aso Rock and national politicians who have not seen it fit to allow 25 per cent derivation to the natural owners of our common sense numbing sweet crude. Still, a little help from well-endowed bureaucracy cannot hurt.
Wednesday, April 26, 2006    
New development plan for the Niger Delta
imageimage Editorial Wednesday, April 26, 2006
IN partial response to the menace of hostage-taking and other problems in the Niger Delta, the Federal Government has laid out a new development plan for the beleaguered region. A prelude to a formal presentation of the plan was a recent stakeholders' meeting summoned by President Olusegun Obasanjo for April 5. In attendance were governors from the region, youth organisations, traditional rulers, and other important stakeholders. The Izon officially stayed away from the meeting in protest against what they called 'the jamboree' nature of the talk-shop. However, the meeting went ahead and one of its decisions was to 'unveil radical programmes for the development and transformation' of the region.
There is nothing new in this. There had been several talks in the past, which produced nothing significant. There is a lack of political will to fundamentally address the problem of the Niger Delta, the region which produces the mainstay of the nation's economy. The government ought to have been more proactive to the Niger Delta crisis before now. Reports indicate that the nation lost about N180 billion while the last siege to oil installations lasted in the region. That apart, the oil market was destabilised by the action of the militants, leading to a significant rise in the price of the commodity. The image of the country as a place where oil workers are kidnapped for political reasons did not help matters. It was time the government did something.
The militants have made many demands, some of which are political. Apart from calling for a radical development of the region, they have also asked the Federal Government to cease all hostilities against the Niger Delta, implementation of the General Alexander Ogomudia Report, which recommended 50 per cent derivation, and the release of Asari Dokubo, leader of the militants. The current Niger Delta conundrum could have been avoided. In the days before the Obasanjo administration formally took office, indications were clear that the region needed urgent and desperate attention. The establishment of the NDDC through an Act of the National Assembly was one of the responses of the government.
However, the will to make the NDDC work was lacking. There was inadequate funding. The result is that the body has not been able to implement the development master plan that was designed for the region. Unemployment, environmental pollution, poverty, and poor infrastructural development are some of the problems of the area. Indeed, there is a sharp and offending dissonance between the immense wealth of the Niger Delta and the quality of the lives of the people of the zone. This has made more vociferous the demand for resource control.
Also, the demand for a gradual increase in derivation allocation to the oil-bearing states from the current paltry 13 per cent to 25 per cent and then to 50 per cent over a period of five years was dismissed in a cavalier manner by the federal authorities during the last national political reforms conference. Unfortunately, some other states in the country did not see the wisdom in investing a little more in the region which virtually sustains the entire nation. It is sad that the Federal Government has had to be compelled into taking a second look at the situation by acts of violence in the area. This sends a bad signal. Government should be prepared at all times to hold negotiations with the nation's stakeholders.
Development should not be considered as an episodic venture. It ought to be holistic and consistent with laid down principles and patterns. The entire nation witnessed the political will and level of funding that was invested in the development of Abuja. A panel was set up to draw a plan and a time frame was worked out. There was a massive injection of funds into the territory. Abuja is currently a development piece for the world to see. Why is this will lacking in the Niger Delta? This has not inspired confidence on the part of the Niger Delta people. Also, by setting up a framework outside the NDDC, the Federal Government seems to say that the organisation has failed. We do not believe so. With proper funding and a defined focus, the NDDC should be able to do more.
We call on the government to do justice and equity by the people and environment of the Niger Delta. There should be massive and adequate funding for development projects. An unemployment reduction plan should be developed and implemented. Tokenism should be avoided. The time to act is now.