By Henry Nwawuba
I was privileged to moderate a high-level virtual conference on the Niger Delta recently. It was a humbling and expository experience that has changed my perspectives on the resource-rich region significantly. For me, engagements about the current fate and future of the region can never be the same. I am convinced and resolved that we can and must elevate the discourse beyond the selfish convenience of the moment and secure the tomorrow that may come to taunt and haunt us if we fail to change course immediately.
The Post Covid-19 Petroleum Agenda for Nigeria (PoCoPAN) initiative designed by my friend, Oke Epia, and his team at OrderPaper Nigeria, provided a veritable platform for the House of Representatives Committee on Niger Delta to co-host the conference on the theme, ‘Resolving the Host Communities Question.’ The conference is a precursor to a much bigger global legislative dialogue on the Niger delta being put together by the Committee. With some support from the Nigeria Natural Resource Charter (NNRC), the September 10 virtual conference, which attracted a wide range of participants and received brilliant and innovative submissions, came off with some far-reaching resolutions that continue to stimulate a fresh vigour to reset the undesirable and unacceptable narrative of the Niger delta Region. This gives me hope and inspires this article, which for all intent and purposes, is to advance and plead for acceptance of a sincere, transparent, truly multi-stakeholder and solutions-driven sets of engagement on the Niger delta going forward. This template that can birth a new vision and determination for the region is one contribution I must continue to push at every platform that God Almighty avails me, including and especially of course for now, the hallowed chambers of the National Assembly.
But before proceeding, I must make this disclaimer to set the tone right for the rest of this read. As a member of the House of Representatives Committee on the Niger Delta which has direct oversight responsibility over affairs of the region, I cannot in good conscience absolve myself of blame in the current state of the region. In fact, being a member of the federal parliament at this time unfortunately predisposes one to being set on a guilt-trip. The trolling which the National Assembly has received in recent times over happenings around the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) is a case in point. However, I dare say that we are all guilty one way or the other and must take collective responsibility for the sorry state of affairs in the region. Whatever spectrum of the stakeholder matrix we belong – state operatives, political establishment, community leadership, canvassers and mobilizers, civil society, extractive and servicing companies, and many others – does not excuse the complicity, duplicity, indifference and inadequacy of advocacy, among other shortcomings or excesses which have largely defined engagements hitherto. There is just no justification for the abject poverty and wanton wasteland that consist the about 13,400 mostly rural settlements of the Niger Delta. There is no reason on earth why the over 800 oil field communities which host about 900 active oil wells and thousands of other exploration infrastructures scattered across the about 70,000 Km(sq) of the region should be scenes of sordid despoliation. This fact is made even more soul-searing by the ironic and inexcusable offshoots of near Eldorado settlements housing the mostly expats senior workers of extractive and servicing companies. It is a shame that we are still assailed by such paradoxes that are not only repugnant to any sense of justice but continue to be perpetrated by multi-nationals whose home countries will not tolerate such man’s inhumanity to man. But this is only one symptom of the decades-long criminal neglect, organized deprivation and systemic depravation of the Niger delta. We could have done more together to change this nauseating narrative. Not less. But as I have said earlier, this article is not about to regurgitate what we already know so I will steer the discourse away from the lavish book of lamentations.
My intervention here is standing on two legs. The first, like I have already suggested, is the need to hold ourselves collectively accountable for where we are in the region. I believe that it is from a curve of conscious catharsis that we can find a new path of prognosis towards progress to right the wrongs of the past. I invite stakeholders in the Niger delta, and indeed the rest of Nigeria, to join me on this path of penitence and sobriety. We must seize the beauty from the ashes of our collective shame and this cannot be done by staying stuck in the limitations of endless buck-passing. Like my friend and brother, consummate parliamentarian and erudite speaker of the House of Representatives, Rt. Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, said in a brief opening address to the conference, this is not time for recrimination and blame-sharing as there is enough blames to go round. “We need to move past recrimination towards designing a new vision for the development of Niger Delta,” he said and made a rallying call which all patriots who seek genuine solutions to the Niger delta quagmire must heed. Let me paraphrase him: “The Niger Delta of Nigeria has contributed a great deal to our country and continue to do so over time. Yet the conditions of the Niger Delta do not reflect the significant contributions in human and material resources. All of us as leaders and citizens alike are obliged to resolve this political and moral failing by any means available to us. But we cannot achieve the changes we desire in the Niger Delta until we are ready to have honest conversations about the reason why things are the way they are. So long as the discussion about development and lack thereof are exercises in finger-pointing and blame-shifting, nothing of substance will be done to improve the circumstances of our brethren in that region.” I am delighted to note that this sober charge from the Speaker is followed up immediately in same address by what the House of Representatives would do on its part to reset the narrative. I plead with Nigerians to exercise some benefit of the doubt as we apply some legislative solutions to address the nagging questions of host communities of the region. Dear readers: my dear brother and sisters; stakeholders and lovers of justice, peace and progress across Nigeria, this is time to move from the past and embrace a future of hope and genuine progress for the Niger delta region.
And here lies the second leg of my intervention. It is only a demonstrated commitment to all-encompassing progress that can guarantee hope for the future and a life of meaning for generations yet unborn. We cannot continue to treat the rich resources of the ground as it if it matters only for yesterday and today. Nigeria’s prodigious petroleum wealth dug from the bowels of the delta is but a borrowing from the future. If the struggle is focused solely on fixing the moment, then we are making a future that is already doomed. It is noteworthy that a key point of agreement from the PoCoPAN conference is the embarrassing development deficit which continues to dog the region in spite of various beneficiation schemes and structures by government and companies operating in the region. We have had the NDDC and its precursor in OMPADEC, the 13% derivation, establishment of the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs (MNDA), the Presidential Amnesty Programme (PAP), the Nigeria Content Development and Management Board (NCDMB) and other sub-national interventionist measures. We have also had scores of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) interventions by companies and corporations operating in the region. There have even been interventions by public-spirited individuals and community self-efforts to improve the lot of region. In spite of all these, the region has remained the picturesque depiction of the resource curse theory. And there is no question about the fact that these interventions must have gulped trillions in naira over the years. The big question for me is: all of these do not even address cares about the unborn whose resources we have continued to borrow and squander flagrantly like tomorrow does not matter.
We must begin to think deeply and engage continually about this.
Nwawuba is Deputy Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Niger Delta