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Nigeria: Things look up as guns fall silent in the oil-rich Niger Delta but...

Thursday October 22 2009

Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua

Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua.  

Nigeria’s President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua has numerous things going his way. Fighters who threatened to cripple Nigeria’s oil production are marching out of the Niger Delta creeks in their thousands. Symbolic white handkerchiefs in their hands, the former militants are surrendering their rifles, bazookas and ammunition.

First, the numbers: some 9,000 ex-militants have surrendered their guns and embraced the amnesty; 6,000 more are said to be awaiting documentation (which would show their names, their former leaders’ names, the gangs they belonged to, their areas of operation and other details) after which they will be added to the official list of those who have embraced the amnesty.

Those already registered have surrendered 2,700 assorted guns, 287,445 rounds of live ammunition, 3,155 magazines, 18 gunboats, 376 dynamite sticks, 1,090 dynamite caps and other military accessories such as bullet proof vests and knives.

Thus, the same Yar’Adua, who has been widely derided as a “go-slow” President, appears to have got something right at last - the amnesty he granted the militants who had taken up arms first against the oil industry majors to frustrate exploration, and second against their country.

As the government sent in troops to safeguard the oil industry, the militants attacked crude oil lifting facilities, resulting in a huge drop in Nigeria’s crude output and a massive loss of revenue.

Over 90 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange earnings come from the sweet sulphur-free Bonny Light crude, which abounds in the swamps of the Niger Delta.

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Euphoria

Yet, the air is full of a mixture of euphoria, hope and fear. Euphoria over the genuine peace that appears to be returning not just to the Niger Delta region but also to Nigeria after over a decade. There is hope that the peace will not only hold but also that the Federal Government will keep its promise to develop the Niger Delta through a Nigerian Marshal Plan.

Then there is the palpable fear that the peace will not hold should the government fail to honour its promises, forcing the militants back to the creeks where, it is suspected, some guns are still hidden.

You see the euphoria on television and read it in the newspapers that reported that during the two-month amnesty, which ended on October 4, 2009, Nigeria resumed its position as a leading oil exporter, easily meeting its Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) 1.7 billion barrels of oil per day (BPD) quota. That adds 18 billion Nigerian Naira (at the exchange rate of about one US dollar to N147) to the national economy.

At the height of the crisis, Nigerian oil export had fallen to almost a million or fewer barrels per day (bpd), often forcing its share of crude oil exports to lag behind Angola’s. The normally unforeseen short fall in revenue owing to the sporadic breaching of oil gas installations caused the nation to miss its revenue and expenditure budgetary targets.

Against this background, the National Revenue Sharing Committee was in high spirits when it met a week ago. The national revenue was up by 18 per cent and everyone knew where the increase had stemmed from and why.

Hope is all over but it comes with the challenge that President Yar’Adua should go where Nigerian leaders before him have refused to go and develop the riverine areas of the six states that make up the core of the Niger Delta. It is the citizens of these states who had taken up arms to force the Federal Government to address their plight.

Yet addressing this plight fully will go beyond Yar’Adua’s intentions. This is because Nigeria’s Constitution is part of the problem.
It allocates 13 per cent of oil revenues to the oil-producing states. AMending it is not going to be easy, as two thirds of the National Assembly as well as two thirds of the 36 State Houses of Assemblies have to agree to make that change. This means that it would take a near-unanimous vote among Nigeria’s major ethnic groups to change this or any other item in the Constitution.

Now the Niger Delta people are asking for 50 per cent of the revenues — in line with what Nigerians have tagged as the derivation principle — to go to each state and the rest to the Federal Government.

But there is this mighty drawback — the Constitution. “The entire property in, and control of all mineral oils and natural gas in, under or upon any land in Nigeria or in, under or upon the territorial waters and the Exclusive Economic Zone of Nigeria shall vest in the Government of the Federation and shall be managed in such a manner as may be prescribed by the National Assembly,” it reads.

Half of revenues raised within a state belonged to that state until Gen Yakubu Gowon’s administration changed it in the heat of the civil war and appropriated all oil revenues to the central government with Petroleum Decree 51 of 1969, which, as was the case with all such decrees, was adopted as a law of the Federation.

It still exists in the statutes and recognises the central government as the sole recipient of oil revenues. The Constitution remedies the situation somewhat by dedicating 13 per cent of such revenues to the originating states.

A government appointed Technical Committee last November recomMended that the 13 per cent derivation be upped to 25 per cent immediately but the government is yet to react to that.

Yet, Emmanuel Egboga, President Yar’Adua’s Adviser on Petroleum Matters, recently told the Financial Times of London the President was in the process of sending a supplementary budget to the National Assembly to make money available for the development of the Delta. Beyond that, he said, the President was desirous of giving the Niger Delta States a 10 per cent stake in the Nigeria’s Joint Venture holdings in the oil majors, to all oil producing states.

So far, the government has earmarked $950 million (Sh71 billion) as the first stimulus package and is planning to put more money in the infrastructural development of the area. The European Union has also pledged millions of Euros in aid to the Niger Delta.

The Niger Delta stands out from the other 20 major deltas in the world in that it is the most densely populated, meaning the impact on its ecosystem affects millions of people.

Underdevelopment

And, as the Niger Delta hosts the world’s largest number of rivers and waterways, numbering over 100, infrastructural development there is costlier than perhaps in any other part of the world owing to the swampy terrain.

To build a road there, you have to remove several metres of the top soil to get to the compact stratum and then truck in hard soil from hundreds of kilometres away; and you would need to do this for every inch of the way across this vast area that is Africa’s largest wetland system and mangrove forest.

The result is that the region has the least number of roads in Nigeria’s six geo-political zones.

At the creation of Bayelsa State in 1996, totally inhabited by the Ijaw ethnic group (Nigeria’s fifth largest) who are also found near the Atlantic shores of four other littoral states, not a single petrol station existed in the 12,000 square kilometres new state.

By then, no part of the new state was even connected to the national electricity grid. Even the electricity generated from gas plants in the region is transmitted to other places outside the region and is not stepped down for the benefit of the communities hosting the electricity plants.

It is the same with the liquefied natural gas from Shell-operated Utorogu Gas Plant in Delta state. Although it is only the Delta Steel Company, Ovwaine Aladja, which utilises that gas from the entire Niger Delta region, pipelines take out the gas to ships for export to Europe. The pipelines have also been extended to some West African countries.

At President Yar’Adua’s administration’s inauguration in May 2007, the Niger Delta had become a vast lawless region controlled by an unknown number of warlords. Kidnapping as well as wanton destruction of oil exploration facilities was rife. Preceding regimes had tried the stick approach without success. The Obasanjo administration had attempted the carrot approach too. It failed as there were no follow up plans to address the real problem, which was underdevelopment.

That is why the amnesty has raised hopes as well as apprehension. For starters, the major and perhaps the most organised and consequential militant group, Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend) has yet to “officially” embrace the peace process. It had set up an “Aaron Team”, made of widely respected Nigerians, and appointed the Nobel Prize Laureate, Prof Wole Soyinka to act as an observer in its proposed disarmament with the government.

The government, though not rejecting the offer outright, said it would talk with the militants only. What looked like a deadlock appeared until President Yar’Adua sent a presidential jet to fly in Mend’s leader, Henry Oka, from South Africa for talks in Abuja.

With that, the fear that Mend would resume hostilities has greatly receded although the group is yet to make a statement. Sources close to Mend say the group also wants peace but is postponing joining the amnesty for now to force out detailed concessions from the Yar’Adua administration instead of just immunity from trial promised to the surrendering militants as if they were common criminals and not freedom fighters.

Above all, Mend wants the people of the region to have a say in plans for the development of the area. Yet, Mend is no longer what it used to be. At least three of its “generals” in charge of activities in various sectors of the region have already embraced peace and surrendered and publicly reassured the nation that Mend as it exists now is just a paper tiger armed with a laptop computers and e-mail facilities for sending out empty threats.

Not all rehabilitation centres have enough room for the huge numbers coming out of the bush. In Benin City, capital of Edo state, some militants had to be discharged from the designated camp, a girls’ secondary school, to make way for the students returning from the long vacation.

Such problems would not have been totally unexpected but how fast they are solved and the former militants rehabilitated will determine whether the peace will last.
Africa Insight is an initiative of the Nation Media Group’s Africa Media Network Project.