Obasanjo's N20 Trillion Plan

By Ebere Onwudiwe

Since the escalation of the conflict in the Niger Delta, there has followed a surge of proposals in Nigerian papers for what may be called the Niger Delta sedative. I do not like to think that the current Obasabjo Plan is one of those. For one thing, it is not too little, too late. Twenty trillion naira or $160 billion is more than a start in the right direction. It is curative.
As a country we have demonstrated time and again that when we set our minds on a project, we achieve it. For example, the level of priority and determination with which we transformed virtually overnight the barren acres of Abuja into one of Africa's most modern cities is a thing of pride. The single mindedness with which we lavished $15 billion of our oil wealth to keep peace in Liberia and Sierra Leone is another great example of achievement. Certainly we can build a mega city somewhere in Bayelsa or Rivers State around allied oil industries as tribute to the oil wealth from the region? I believe that such visible, tangible evidence of oil wealth in the Delta region will reduce the ability of insurgents to recruit militant supporters. If done well, it could be a good money maker too. The area boasts beautiful beaches that could rival those of the Caribbean.
In the small town of Bonny in Rivers State and everywhere else in the Delta, simple things that can uplift the lives of ordinary citizens such as clean water and electricity are still very limited in supply. Still everyday, the Deltans of Bonny see that the good life is possible. They see how the other half lives in complete luxury in the privileged parts of the town called Area 1 and Area 2. These posh areas are segregated for oil company workers (as were the European quarters in colonial times.) In Area 1 and Area 2, there is always clean water, there is always electricity, there are no smells and germs from open sewers, and life is not brutish and short. Thanks to the Delta's oil money that built them. The point is that it can be done for all of Bonny's people, for the entire Delta region. And, the sooner the better.
Right now, there appears to be a severe case of alienation in the oil communities. You can see it in the vacant eyes of the militants in Nigerian newspapers. There is a limit to the degree of exploitation that a people will endure especially, in the daily presence of vulgar, conspicuous consumption of more politically favoured Nigerians constantly living fat on the natural endowment of the Delta region.
Don't get me wrong. All Nigerians have a right to benefit from all our natural resources no matter where they are located. But, given their relative deprivation since self-rule and given the devastation of their farmlands and water ways for fishing, and the billions that we make every year on oil, the Niger Delta deserves 25 percent derivation in addition to any other necessary interventions.
But whatever the level of derivation we finally settle on, why not say that it should not all be given to the state or local governments directly. That would leave a portion that would be given directly to the individual families of the Niger Delta. The people of the Delta, poor and rich alike, should hold, smell and feel the oil money directly. Every month.
I agree with the school of thought that believes that instead of oil monies being paid into the political coffers of government agencies such as NDDC, or any unit of government for that matter, they should be equally shared to all citizens, and the government allowed to levy taxes on them. I would not presume the government to be wiser than the people of Niger Delta on how to spend the oil revenue. The idea is that letting the revenues from oil pass through the hands of the Deltans for example would have both an endowment and an information effect.
The former effect would make individuals more willing to demand good governance; because they are paying for it and would directly feel the cost of waste and corruption (it is their tax money!). The later effect would make them more attentive to how much revenue the government actually has and how it spends it.
This kind of Taxable Resource Revenue Distribution proposal was unveiled as model for the whole of Nigeria by Dr. Martin E. Sandbu, a Norwegian economist with Columbia University, New York in 2004.
I was part of the Platinum Bank initiative that assembled a small group of distinguished thinkers to consider an alternative framework for economic development in Nigeria. The group was organised by the noted patriot Prof. Pat Utomi, the indefatigable chairman of Platinum Bank, and the bank's young, creative, and all-business CEO, Mr. Francis Atuche to consider an alternative framework for economic development in Nigeria.
In my view, the right level of government to collect the taxes from the oil revenue distribution should be the local government. If it works in the Delta, it may become nationalised as one way of funding local governments.
Give the money first to the people in a monthly check of say N30,000 net; let a column in the check indicate that the gross amount of oil revenue share belonging to the family is actually N50,000 and another showing that the missing N20,000 had gone to the local government council as the recipient's tax or contribution to community development. Imagine now a situation where year in year out, the local government chair and his government simply 'chop' the people's money? Nobody will go blaming Aso Rock, and not even OBJ can save the chairman and his council from lynching by the community people whose monthly contributions has been stolen.
In response to his presentation aimed at Nigeria as a whole, I had told Dr. Sandbu that there are a million logistical reasons that his proposal cannot work for the whole country at the moment. But I knew right there and then that it may be what the doctor ordered for the Niger Delta. Although Dr. Sandbu and I later appeared on a TV programme on this topic, nothing seems to have come of it. But somewhere in my mind, I still believe that it is an idea whose time has come for the Niger Delta, one that should be part of the president's 20 trillion naira plan.

Monday, May 01, 2006, Newswatch