By Owei Lakemfa THE Niger Delta may witness a new dawn going by last Tuesday’s meeting between leaders of the Region and President Muhammadu Buhari. It was all polite; the leaders paid the normal complements and presented a 16-point Agenda that can revive and develop the Region. The President responded giving some assurances. But it was a much more serious affair.
The Region’s leaders are hard pressed to deliver some tangible results in the short term if they are to continue enjoying the confidence of a skeptical people. On the one hand, a people subjected to over half a century of harrowing experiences and regret that the oil taken from the bowels of their ancestral home which has sustained the country’s economy for half a century, is more a curse to them.
On the other hand, is President Buhari who is presiding over a country in recession and who knows that unless the oil continues an uninterrupted flow from the creeks, the country faces immediate economic disaster. So in a sense the meeting was an attempt to keep the country economically afloat while the Niger Delta people want guaranteed development from the proceeds of oil before it dries up. For both sides, it is a race against time.
Various Niger Delta communities where oil has been exploited for fifty eight years now, are like sucked oranges thrown away while the next orange is being cut or sucked. That is the story from Oloibiri where oil was first struck in commercial quantities to areas being abandoned today for the more lucrative finds in the ocean.
The oil companies come in like parasites, suck the oil nectar and move on abandoning the communities. Many times, they simply fly in workers, some foreign, take out the oil and repatriate the profits. In some cases, the only evidence of the wealth extracted from the hapless communities are the women abandoned with sexually transmitted diseases and babies.
The cries of the people and their leaders from Harold Dappa-Biriye to Issac Adaka-Boroh; Ken Saro-Wiwa to the forgotten Tony Engurube, were ignored. Late President Umar Yar’Adua’s offer of amnesty to the Region’s youths who took up arms in protest, was a political master stroke.
However, its implementation addressed primarily, the immediate needs of the amnesty beneficiaries, not the causes of their struggle. That neglect of the more important issue of addressing the basic needs of the people and their development, has led to the resurgence of armed militancy. This is what the Niger Delta leaders are trying to negotiate with government.
On their Agenda is the Presidential Amnesty Programme itself . In a sense, some of the concerns are being addressed in the Presidential Programme on Rehabilitation and Reintegration (Establishment and Implementation ) Bill 2016 sponsored by Hon. Wale Oke which is being debated in the National Assembly.
Another issue is the demand that the Region be demilitarised to create an atmosphere conducive for negotiations. One basic demand is that the headquarters of the oil companies should be moved to their areas of operation. It does no good for the people if the oil companies simply come, exploit their communities while operating from Lagos. Consequently, Lagos gets the taxes while virtually no economic activities are generated in the Region. If they were to relocate, basic structures and infrastructure will be built, minimum development will occur, more locals employed and better relationship will be developed.
The oil companies, for all their claim of corporate social responsibility dating back decades, have little tangible results to show. Spending money in the name of the communities and paying off some local elite, cannot suffice. Of course, the leaders representing the people are elite, so it is not out of place for ownership of oil blocs to feature more so, when elite from other parts of the country are mainly, the current owners.
But it would be better if the Niger Delta communities, rather than individuals get the oil blocs being sought. In the Agenda proposed, and the public plans of Government, the initiative of the local people do not feature. Also absent, are ways of tying the people to the land in such a way that they feel wanted and duty bound to protect the environment.
For instance, the Niger Delta has centuries of experience producing palm oil, hence it was called the Oil Rivers Protectorate. The local technology of extracting oil from palm kernel is also used for producing the gin, ogogoro except that the vapour is channeled into water stored in the production system.
The people use this same technology to refine petroleum products on thousands of sites. These locally refined products are used to fuel engine boats, generators, grinding mills and cars. It is pure local initiative and technology.
But the response of the government is to tag the people as criminals, destroy their ‘factories’ and arrest them in time wasting, time consuming, needless and endless military raids. Yet, Nigeria as a country is unable to refine its petroleum product needs.
Rather, these are imported thereby depleting badly needed foreign exchange and exporting jobs in a country suffocating with mass unemployment. There are four arguments for the criminalisation of these local refineries. The first is that the crude oil is probably stolen. What should be done is organise those refining into cooperatives and sell them crude oil at highly discounted prices. A second argument is that the technology is crude. Accepted.
But which technology was divinely produced? All technology has its origins and stages of development. A third argument is the quality of the products produced; this can be improved. A fourth claim is that the refining is not environmentally friendly.
This may be so; it can be improved upon, but it is nothing compared to the decades of gas flaring in the Region. Talking about the people feeling wanted, or making them stakeholders in the peace process, imagine building massive housing for the them like China is doing to bring its mass out of poverty.
This would be far more effective and relevant than paying foreign companies billions of dollars in the name of road construction that never really gets finished, or goes bad within months. Providing housing on a massive scale across the oil producing and impacted communities, would help in physical development and reduce migration to the urban areas.
Housing which is labour-intensive, comes after food in terms of human needs, and can be used as a veritable tool for peace building. Such housing will improve the quality of life and health, be a tangible gain, give the people a sense of belonging and make them willing to defend their environment against oil facilities vandalism. Whatever the case, it is not in anybody’s interest to abandon the Niger Delta.