Of the Niger Delta, an Acting President and an action governorWritten by Ibim Semenitari
“Governor Amaechi had a dream. He positioned Rivers State to be the preferred destination in which to live and do business in Nigeria, and changed its economic direction. While building on the state’s natural strengths of oil and gas, he returned the state to agriculture long before anyone looked in that direction and made deliberate efforts to build a technology hub around the state and the fruits are already blooming. By actively pursuing education, providing the requisite infrastructure and improving access to credit at all levels, Amaechi fast tracked development.”
Acting President Professor Yemi Osinbajo has been touring the Niger Delta. His visit provides us in the region an opportunity to tell our stories and share our pains first hand. The Niger Delta is my neck of the woods and by both birth and marriage I have no place else to call home. The challenges of the region are age long and deep. As the Acting President engaged with the people I kept thinking back to my years as a reporter who extensively covered the region. The same problems reared their heads at each engagement of the acting president. The needs of the people of the Niger Delta are no different from that of every human being. How do we feed, keep warm, protect ourselves from the harsh elements, move from place to place, and basically live life. It is on this premise that wars are fought and nations struggle to outdo one another. It is also this that determines whether a government has done well or if it has done poorly.
Societies that ensure equal opportunities by guaranteeing everyone’s rights and access to basic needs tend to develop faster than those, which don't. The Nigerian economy at present is hugely oil dependent. Our current figures show that oil revenues currently provide for 80 per cent of government revenues, 95 per cent of export receipts, and 90 percent of foreign exchange earnings.
The Niger Delta region is at the heart of oil production in Nigeria. The discovery of oil in Nigeria and the attendant annual oil revenues of tens of billions of dollars has ushered in a miserable, undisciplined, decrepit, and corrupt form of ‘petro-capitalism’. That the Niger Delta became restive as a result of all this is no longer news, what might be news is that once upon a time, someone made an attempt to change that narrative.
Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi was governor of Rivers State from October 2007 to May 2015. As Governor he tackled head-on the matters of development and wealth redistribution in Rivers State. He took on the challenge in such a manner that everyone admitted that Rivers State had been turned into a construction site and the results before long began to show. From improved infrastructure to increased hotel occupancy to improved West African School Certificate results and reduction in infant and maternal mortality rate, all the indices were on an upward swing.
The Niger Delta region, stands at the crossroads of contemporary Nigerian politics and economy. Even with the growth of oil-revenues to the Niger Delta states – now standing at 13 per cent - the region remains desperately poor. It has a steadily growing population and accounts for more than 23 percent of Nigeria's total population. The population density in the Niger Delta region also among the highest in the world with 265 people per kilometre-squared (NDDC Niger Delta Master plan). The population is expanding at a rapid 3 per cent per year and the oil capital, Port Harcourt, along with other large towns are growing quickly.
The resultant scenario is one in which there is urbanization but not enough corresponding economic growth. Security in the Niger Delta is thus very critical to security in Nigeria. As the Delta’s most populous state, Rivers State bore the brunt of the militancy struggle. The state was characterized by massive poverty, high unemployment, infrastructural decay and a breakdown of law and order.
The rise of ethnic militias and communal vigilante politics flourished during the Sani Abacha years (1993-1998). It began with the O’odua Peoples Congress (OPC), established by the Yoruba-speaking southwest in 1994 largely to protest the annulment of the 1993 elections in which Moshood Abiola, a Yoruba Muslim, had seemingly won the presidency. The OPC, which was led by a young semi-literate artisan, claimed that a ‘northern cabal’ in the Army had denied Abiola victory and aggressively pressed for Yoruba political autonomy.
Around 2006, two groups, the Bakassi Boys and Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), emerged in the Igbo-speaking southeast. While MASSOB claimed that the Nigerian state and its functionaries had systematically oppressed the Igbo since the end of the civil war, the Bakassi Boys oscillated between a local law enforcement agency and downright thuggery.
Up North, things were building up and in 1999, the Arewa Peoples Congress (APC) emerged in the North as a reaction to the killing of northern elements in Lagos and other Yoruba cities and towns by OPC cadres. But there was also a political undertone. The APC also was to act as a foil to the new Obasanjo government, which many northerners viewed as a ‘Yoruba regime.’ APC claimed that the harassment of northerners in the southwest was part of a Yoruba plan to secede and establish an O’oduwa Republic,’ and that President Obasanjo was sympathetic to OPC’s goals.
In the Niger Delta the story was slightly different. One of the conditions for independence as proposed by the politicians from the Oil Rivers protectorate was assurance of protection from the dominant partners in the federation. Agitations by Harold Dappa Biriye and his other colleagues from the minority ethnic groups in the South led to the Henry Willinks commission in 1958 and the eventual setting up of the Niger Delta Development Basin Authority. Their 1958 submission to the Willinks Commission identified such issues as flaws in the electoral process, resentment of Nigeria’s national army and inequities in the allocation of oil receipts. Since then, participatory continuity is what their descendants in present-day petroleum-rich Niger Delta seem to be clamouring for. From Isaac Adaka Boro to Ken Saro Wiwa, the environmental rights activist who was killed as a result of his agitations for resource control by the Ogoni, the struggle for better conditions for people of the region was persistent.
But in later years, criminality seemed to take over the struggle. In reality, everyone seemed to have contributed a little share to the criminality/militancy in the region. First the oil companies, with their divide-and-rule politics of arming separate groups in communities under the guise of providing vigilante services. Also the businessmen (foreign and local) and political (including) military leaders who used locals to perpetuate illegal bunkering activities, as well as the later day politicians who discovered already ‘trained’ and ‘armed’ locals who became ready tools for electioneering and keeping the opposition in check.
The translation of all of this unfortunately was proliferation of arms and monsters gone wild.
Some groups have alleged that what marks the current political moment in the Niger Delta is the enhanced political ambitions and capacities of some of the ethnic groups marked by violence and criminal leanings.
Under Governor Amaechi, before anybody in Nigeria thought about rehabilitating the militants, Rivers State gave repentant militants a second chance to reintegrate into the society through reformatory programmes, retraining and empowerment.
From the creeks, youths who showed up for screening were first taken to the Leadership Institute in Jos, Plateau State where they were honed on the art of living once more in normal society. Thereafter, they were brought back to Okehi where they were trained in various trades. After three months, they took trade test examinations and did very well before some of them diversified into several areas of endeavours.
To stem the tide of poverty Governor Amaechi took the state back to the basics – the provision of basic, compulsory and qualitative education, and good healthcare delivery. The state in addition embarked on a statewide urban renewal programme and development of infrastructure, chief of which was the Greater Port Harcourt project. Governor Amaechi made it a policy to publish our income and expenditure account every quarter. He created a state reserve fund to safeguard future generations, besides various legislations to ensure accountability.
Governor Amaechi had a dream. He positioned Rivers State to be the preferred destination in which to live and do business in Nigeria, and changed its economic direction. While building on the state’s natural strengths of oil and gas, he returned the state to agriculture long before anyone looked in that direction and made deliberate efforts to build a technology hub around the state and the fruits are already blooming. By actively pursuing education, providing the requisite infrastructure and improving access to credit at all levels, Amaechi fast tracked development. So as the Acting President engages with us in the Niger Delta, I like the sound bites and his insistence on service delivery. It reminded me of similar sound bites not too long ago, when a certain Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi served his people as governor in Rivers state, changing the narrative, one sector at a time.