Niger Delta: Friends or foes?
The Niger Delta region is as enigmatic as its people – a conglomeration of diverse ethnicities, loosely bound by poorly defined common interests. As a region, it almost exclusively bears all of Nigeria’s hydrocarbon deposits – the mainstay of the nation’s economy. Yet, it is home to some of the poorest adults and most malnourished children. It is endowed with other abundant natural resources – internal water bodies, massive coastline and tropical forests. Yet, these resources remain largely untapped with consequential high unemployment rate and youth restiveness. Once renowned for their rich hospitality, the people are now perceived more as militants and criminal elements to be hounded and denigrated.
There is a wide gap between the aspirations and self-perception of the Niger Deltans and the way many other Nigerians perceive them. The diversity of perceptions played out at the late General Sani Abacha’s 1994/5 National Constitutional Conference which gave birth to the 1999 Constitution; ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo’s 2005 National Political Reforms Confab; and the 2014 Confab organised by the Goodluck Jonathan administration. The three conferences witnessed agitations for resource control and intense lobbies to convince the other regions that Niger Delta needed a fairer share of the nationally appropriated oil revenues generated from the region.
At the Abacha (1994/5), Obasanjo (2005) and Jonathan (2014) confabs, the Niger Deltans made friends across the regions, pressed for a more equitable revenue allocation formula and like other delegates made concessions. A notable concession was the extension of the derivation principle to other (solid) mineral producing areas and hydro power plant host communities. Niger Delta representatives found allies in the South East, South West and North Central delegates who favoured fiscal federalism and restructuring. The recommendations of the 2014 Confab were particularly thought to be all inclusive and addressed some age-long fears of domination and marginalisation. The Niger Deltans had learnt that the region needed the collaboration of the other regions to secure better deals for the foundation of a new, just and equitable Nigeria which the 2014 Confab promised.
But this new spirit of just and equitable co-existence among the regions has been rendered impotent – at least for now – by the emergence of Muhammadu Buhari as President. Buhari, one of the architects, perpetrators and beneficiaries of Nigeria’s lopsided federalism, would not as much as glance at the 2014 Confab report. He consigned it, or so it seems, to the dust bin. Not even the All Progressives Congress (APC) on whose back he rode to power after previous three failed attempts has been able to persuade him to reconsider his position on the 2014 Confab report.
By his actions and inactions, Buhari sent signals to the Niger Delta people that he was not keen on their friendship – afterall they voted for their own, Jonathan, rather than him. He was poised to wield the big stick more than the carrot but the military cost and likelihood of a long drawn war did not look good. Quite reluctantly, he opted for dialogue with his vice, Prof. Yemi Osibanjo and Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, as representatives of the Federal Government. Given his rigid military antecedent, even this gesture of opting for dialogue should be commended. Their combined efforts appear to have assuaged the initial feelings of anger with a promise of a lasting rapproachement. But lasting peace in the region would need much more than promises and palliatives in the face of decades of mistrust, marginalisation and underdevelopment of the region. Osibanjo and Kachikwu also need full executive backing to secure any meaningful deal.
But Buhari was not alone in his seeming hostility to the Niger Delta. The denigration and demonisation of the region and its people became the pass time and the popular politics of the day. Echoing the President’s body language has become a quasi official policy and correct politics in Nigeria’s present political reality. Corruption – the much talked about common enemy – was given a new ethno-regional garb. Most of those incarcerated for alleged corruption were Niger Deltans – arraigned, tried and convicted even before they got to court. The official media organs and pro-government media establishments prompted by the security and supposed corruption–fighting agencies made a show of “exposing” and bashing Niger Deltans – from Jonathan who had just quit the presidency to the least of his kinsmen and to those who dared to step close to the corridors of power while he was in charge. Private consultants and business people from the region who had anything to do with the Jonathan government were not spared. Soon enough, the dragnet was cast wider to enclose all of Jonathan’s political associates and friends of the Niger Delta from across the country. A close look at the list of those detained, charged, tried or currently facing trial, would be quite revealing in terms of their links to the immediate past presidency or the Niger Delta region.
And quite sadly, the Niger Deltans have not been their own best friends or brothers’ keepers. Many of the hounded and stigmatised leaders were given away or framed up by their own kit and kin long before whistle-blowing became an official policy. Petty jealousies, unhealthy rivalries and ambition-driven political intrigues are not uncommon in the region. Thus, while a South-South presidency had been on the drawing boards since the South South People’s Assembly (SSPA) mooted the idea soon after the 1998 elections, there was little consensus on a single regional candidate. Jonathan’s emergence as president was more a work of providence than any conscientious strategy of the SSPA. Little was also done to reassert the legitimacy of a Niger Deltan presidency or defend it when it came under threat – first in 2011 and fatally in 2015. The rumours that the 2015 anti-Jonathan campaign was funded with misappropriated Niger Delta funds have refused to go away.
The challenge before the region’s stakeholders is two-fold: identify and acknowledge its friends on the one hand; and win over the foes on the other. There has not been a shortage of the region’s friends over the decades despite the groundswell of post-2015 denigration. When revenue allocation was on the front burner, the 13 per cent derivation concession was secured with the help of friends. The region’s friends did not go to sleep when the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs were conceived. Friends cheered when the 2010 Senate invoked the “Doctrine of Necessity” to secure Jonathan’s acting presidency which paved the way for his successful 2011 contest. A meaningful damage-control effort must therefore rekindle the past friendships for as the elders say, old friends are the best. Winning over the foes is a lot easier when old friendships are re-established. Even the foes acknowledge Niger Delta’s primacy in the economic well-being of the nation and a peaceful, orderly and friendly disposition are sine quonon for the beneficial exploitation of the crude oil resources providentially deposited in the region’s soil and waters.
Isiekwene is co-author of a forthcoming book: Heroes and Friends of the Niger Delta.
Redressing the strong negative perceptions of the Niger Delta region in Nigeria’s post-2015 politics is a task its leaders cannot afford to ignore or fail to accomplish. To fail is to consign the region to a future of political and economic uncertainty where its leaders are deemed unfit for national or international responsibilities in an increasingly competitive world where perception is a major consideration. It would be no surprise to anyone that this current negative perception is already taking its toll in key private and public positions where the moral credentials of candidates of Niger Delta extraction are needlessly called into question, regardless of their party affiliations. It may sound politically incorrect but even the Niger Deltans in the ruling party are similarly viewed with suspicion and distrust. They have become the proverbial devil’s alternative – needed to fund elections and maintain a modicum of national spread.
To regain old friendships and convert the foes, the region’s leaders ought also to look inward. Why would old time friends turn their backs on the Niger Delta? What can be done to win them back and foster a positive perception among the other regions? The region needs more friends than foes and cannot afford itself to be foes to anyone.Isiekwene is co-author of a forthcoming book: Heroes and Friends of the Niger Delta.