Niger Delta lives matter

By Ken Ugbechie

A friend recently asked me: Why are you so obsessed with issues of the Niger Delta? My retort was a simple one, “because Niger Delta Lives Matter.” And why not? But first, a bit of geography: Niger Delta region is a swathe covering over 70,000 square kilometres and barbed on the southern axis by the Atlantic Ocean. And a piece of history: It’s a place peopled by over 20 ethnic groups whom archeologists say have been living there for about 7,000 years.

That in a bit describes the Niger Delta region, the oil-rich but highly impoverished and neglected part of Nigeria which has since 1956 become the guinea pig of experimental failures of successive Nigerian governments.

Rapaciously raped and persistently abused, the region has continued to define every moment of our national history. And when the people complain or whimper about their state of deterioration and destitution, they get mortal pellets pumped into their ravaged rib cages by federal troops. Deploying troops to silence and sometimes kill the Niger Delta people is about the only thing the Nigerian government treats with dispatch as far as the region is concerned.

Let’s consider these. The urgency with which government dispatched armed security men to Ogoniland in the wake of the Shell-Ogoni crisis which started in 1993; the promptness with which a Kangaroo tribunal tried Ken Saro-Wiwa and his Ogoni brethren and consequently sentenced them to death; the razing of Odi by federal troops and the “army arrangement” called Joint Military Task Force which still scours the region, fully armed. The Task Force, true to type, has been tasking and forcing the Niger Delta people into abandoning their cause – resource control and self-determination.

But at a time under the Olusegun Obasanjo administration, things hit a morbid cusp. The youths of the region, reeling under the weight of neglect and under-development of their communities, got even smarter in their tactics to grab the attention of the Federal Government. They started with blowing up oil pipelines and later, hostage-taking.

Dateline, January 11, 2006. A tug boat laden with arms-bearing youths zips through the creeks of Bayelsa. And in a moment, four expatriates were gone with the militant youths – kidnapped. They were not released until January 30 -19 clear days – and that was after the intervention of Goodluck Jonathan, then governor of Bayelsa State.

In a moment of unguarded hysteria after their release, President Obasanjo poured invectives on the militants, describing their action as the “height of inhumanity.” He did more: “If anything, they have made people to see them for what they are – criminals.” Then an assurance: “We would do everything humanly possible to try to prevent recurrence of what has happened.” And was anything done? Absolutely nothing. The President was just grandstanding.

Ken Ugbechie

Then the militants upped the ante. By February 9, 2006, they issued an ultimatum to all expatriates in the region to leave on or before February 12. Again, government ignored the threat. And to add to the hysteria, Haz Iwendi, the spokesman for the police at that time, dismissed the threat as “empty” while urging foreigners to ignore the militants. And you wonder where he got his confidence. Well, wherever, but he was wrong.

On February 18, six days after the expiration of the so-called “empty” threat, a good nine expatriates were abducted, thus putting a big lie to claims by the president and the police. Since 1999, every Nigerian government has made attempts to hush the restive youths of the region. This is a misapplication of a therapy. The people don’t need to be crushed. They need a little more care.

This, again, got me wondering. How important is this Niger Delta region? And an answer reflexively jumped to my mind. It is as important as air to the body. In other words, without wealth from the Niger Delta, there would be no money to share. Why then do Nigerian governments treat this people with levity? Does it not bother anybody that when the federal government and other state governments queue up to share oil cash, both appropriated and excess crude cash, somebody should do well to remember that the oil was drilled from the veins of the Niger Delta people.

When an oil company issues a terse press statement announcing an oil spill in one of its flow stations, let’s remember that somebody’s fish pond, farm or source of livelihood has just been swept away by the corrosive effluents from the spill.

But I see a bigger problem here. Yes, successive Nigerian governments may have neglected the region that lays the golden egg but the bigger problem is with the people of the region. You can blame Obasanjo for many things, but it was his government that birthed the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, as a special purpose vehicle to speed up growth and development in the region. A good 20 years after, that mandate remains a mirage. Huge money came from both government and oil companies. Opportunities for wealth creation were presented to the people. But all the resources, in billions of naira, had been frittered away, this time not by agents of the oil majors but by the elite of the Niger Delta and their briefcase-carrying cronies.

This is why the story of the region hurts. Since its creation, only sons and daughters of the region had headed the commission. No outsider, no foreigner, just men and women from the region. But they all, without exception, plundered the treasury. And this is the sense in which the forensic audit ordered by President Muhammadu Buhari is not only timeous but apposite. But it’s obvious that some persons within the region do not want this audit. They are working hard to stall it.

Upon assuming office, Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio raised a red flag when he said: “Some people just collect money from the commission; they have no skill, no capacity for the job but they are awarded contracts and they pocket the money and disappear. We want those money to be accounted for. There must be an end to such situation.” To use his exact words: “I think people were treating the place as an ATM, where you just walk in there to go and pluck money and go away, I don’t think they were looking at it as an interventionist agency.”

Preliminary investigation showed that there were 12,000 abandoned projects littering the region. Incredible! And then more revelations: More details from the report are as messy as they are startling, to wit, that a past NDDC management awarded 1,921 ‘emergency contracts’ at N1.070 trillion in just seven months, against an annual budget of about N400 billion. Contracts that do not qualify as “emergency contracts’ were converted to ‘emergency’; some contracts only existed on paper but cheques were raised for payments.

Indeed, the NDDC had been reduced to a nest of scam. How do you justify that a serving senator would have the ‘privilege’ of handling 300 contracts for the NDDC? These are clear incongruities that make it imperative for a thorough forensic audit. We can’t continue like this because Niger Delta lives matter. Let’s have the full audit now.

Ken is a public affairs analyst

Support Quality Journalism in the Niger Delta Region

Join us in our mission to bring development journalism, cultural preservation, and environmental awareness to the forefront. Your contribution makes a difference in the lives of the people of the Niger Delta. Donate today and be a part of the change!