Niger Delta region, still a body without soul By JEROME-MARIO UTOMI

Despite President Muhammadu Buhari’s recent signing into law, of the Petroleum Industry Act (PIA) on Monday August 16, 2021, after years of back and forth movement,- an Act which provides legal, governance, regulatory and fiscal framework for the Nigerian Petroleum Industry and development of host communities, my recent ‘sojourn’ in the creeks of Niger Delta region, South South Geo-Political Zone, Nigeria, in the past one month or thereabout has strengthened my belief that nothing has changed.

Aside from raising consciousness that the poor level of infrastructural and socio-economic development in the region is an indication of a sustained poor management of revenue accruing to the region, my documented experience firmly explains that this poor management is traceable to a combination of factors ranging from poor governance to outright embezzlement by the region’s leadership. I have also come to a sudden but painful conclusion that the region will remain a body without a soul until the government and other Nigerians begin to see the problem of the Niger Delta as a national one and not restricted to the region.

A telling example of the above assertion is the deplorable state of some communities visited in Warri South west Local Government Areas of Delta state. These communities include but not limited to;.Azuzu, Bennett, BATAN, Aweregbene, Egwa, Ekpogbene, Okerenkoko, Pepeama, Kurutie, Ubafan., Kunukunu mkma, Inikorogha and Azama. Others are; Opuama, Polobubo, Ogbudugbudu, and Ogbinbiri communities of Egbema kingdom, Warri North Local Government Area.

From the above communities, evidence indicates that when one juxtaposes the level of development with the amount of funds that has been disbursed through the Federal allocation/13% derivation received by crude oil bearing states, it shows lack of concerted development efforts on the part of Federal, state, local governments and other interventionist agencies/Commissions.

The situation in the region is made worse by the destruction of agricultural prospects in rural communities through irresponsible oil operations which of course is an indirect violation of the right to life and the right to a safe environment, and also a negation of the policy of economic diversification. According to report, ‘‘the relationship between agriculture and oil production is like a clash of two sectors. The use of land for oil exploration and production has implied the destruction of agriculture and the rural economy. This is a war of opposites. As much as the government derives more revenue from oil than agriculture, its reluctance to protect land resources for agricultural purposes increases’’.

Without doubt, the region in my view is faced with interminable socio-economic and environmental challenges, which prove to have no single answer, but one thing is sure. Niger Delta is troubled but not despondent-a situation that makes it easy for them to be managed and contained.

To develop the region, there is an urgent need to find solutions to the challenges created by the ability of the Niger Delta Development Commissions (NDDC), and that of the Presidential Amnesty handlers to live up to their statutory responsibilities.

To explain this point, the coastal dwellers have in recent times perceived and referred to NDDC as ‘a city boy’ that has nothing to do with coastal regions, a challenge that goes beyond the non-appointment/constitution of the NDDC board. The Amnesty Programme on its part appears to have completely deviated from its primary objective.

Even the new Interim Administrator, Presidential Amnesty Programme, Maj.-Gen. Barry Ndiomu (rtd), recently acknowledged this fact during a courtesy visit to the Pere of Gbaramatu Kingdom, His Royal Majesty, Oboro Gbaraun II, Aketekpe, Agadagba, at his palace in Oporoza town, Delta state, where he lamented that the scheme has been “hijacked” by “a few criminals”, who have “short-changed” lots of youths in the Niger-Delta.

He said: “As I speak to you, there are many people who are not even Niger Deltans that have been awarded scholarships. There are instances where people who are not Niger Deltans bribed their way with N750, 000, N1m to get PAP’s scholarships. If the scheme is working as was intended by the government, a lot of the complaints by the youths will not be so as the resources which the government has directed to the scheme will get to them’.

While wrestling with this major concern, the Ogoni land cleanup is another thorny challenge that the Federal Government must tackle with sincerity. The truth as it presently stands is that to the watching world, the clean up really holds the success key of this administration. The reason is simple. Apart from failed promises in this direction by the current administration, any effort by the Federal Government to re-engineer prosperity in the region without first cleaning the Ogoni Oil spill will amount to an attempt in futility because of the international attention that particular degradation has elicited.

For example, the African Commission’s decision on a communication submitted by the Social and Economic Rights Action Center (SERAC) in close collaboration with the New York-based Centre for Economic and Social Rights (CESR), found Nigeria Government culpable of glaring environmental injustice mated to the people of Ogoni land and other Niger Delta communities.

Titled Social and Economic Rights Action Center (SERAC) Vs Nigeria) with suit Number 155/96 before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights against the then Federal Military Government of Nigeria, the Communication asserted that the wild spread contamination of soil, water and air, the destruction of homes and the climate of terror visited upon the Ogoni communities constituted a violation of their rights to health, a healthy environment, housing, and food.

As a response to the communication, the Commission in October 2001, gave a well-considered rule finding the Federal Republic of Nigeria in violations of 2, 4, 14, 16, 18(1), 21 and 24 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), and therefore recommended a total clean up of the polluted Ogoni and other adjourning communities in addition to taking preventive remedial and compensatory measures to improve economic and social outcomes for the Ogoni community. But close to two decades after that judgment, the Ogoni and other communities are still waiting for the FG to implement the directive from the same commission that they are a signatory to; a development that is considered bad for morals.

The Ogonis must be saved from these excruciating pains. This should be done not merely for political consideration but from the views of national development and sustenance of our democracy. Using the minimum components of the right to a healthy environment-Ogoni community as a baseline, the environmental condition of the coastal communities in the Niger Delta region can best be described as not only deplorable but graced with non-development, poverty and extreme lack of government presence. This particular revelation calls for action.

Another key point that may guarantee a fast-tracked development of the region is the immediate relocation of the headquarters of (both private and government-owned) organizations to the region. It will not only add to a new relationship but soaks up the existing tension. Specifically, Nigerians have in different times and places argued that government agencies such as the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), Nigeria National Petroleum Company Limited (NNPCL), and its subsidiaries have no business being in Abuja since the chunk of its responsibility is in the Niger Delta region.

The federal and state governments should take practical steps to empower communities to protect their environment through policies and legislations that obligate oil companies to apply best practices and grant communities the right to determine how and when oil operations are compatible with human conditions in the communities.

Most importantly, the Federal Government must desist from the current non-participatory approach to development in the region, but rather embrace a broad-based consultative approach that will give the people of the Niger Delta some sense of ownership over their own issues.

Utomi Jerome-Mario is the Programme Coordinator (Media and Public Policy), Social and Economic Justice Advocacy (SEJA), A Lagos-Based Non Governmental Organization (NGO).And could be reached via Jeromeutomi@yahoo.com /08032725374.

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