THERE was some angry talk last weekend in the Wellington Hotel in Warri, the commercial capital of Delta State in Nigeria. To pass the time while waiting for a meeting with the state governor, who presides over the largest chunk of Nigeria’s oil economy, I wandered into a public meeting of Niger Deltans in the hotel’s convention centre, where a heated discussion was taking place.
As the entire gathering turned to look at me in surprise, I decided not to linger — my decision informed by the alarming headlines on the newspapers being sold on the hotel steps: “Army pounds Delta camps”, “Foreigners rescued by military”, “Over 60 feared dead in Niger Delta fighting”.
Later, my colleague, who hails from the Delta, Nigeria’s troubled oil-producing region, explained that it was an annual gathering to mark the life and times of Isaac Adaka Boro, a pioneer of the Niger Delta struggle for self-determination, who died 40 years ago.
Adaka Boro’s cause is still being fought. The Delta states, accounting for 90% of Nigeria’s revenue, remain poor and undeveloped. Government efforts at dialogue with Delta militants to solve the problem have borne little fruit. Last week’s military onslaught signals a different approach.
One sticking point in resolving the Delta issues has been a crisis of leadership at central and state levels. Another is massive and official theft of development resources.
The Delta people’s fight started out as a simple one: to get a decent share of the resources from their area. But as the problems have dragged on, the simple scenario of government versus militants has become increasingly complex and, importantly, monetised. Oil bunkering — theft of refined oil through pipeline sabotage — has become big business. Payment for protection of assets, companies and people has become even bigger business. In the process, fiefdoms have been created; militant leaders have become the new moguls.
Complicating the search for a solution is the mistrust of politicians. Previous state governors in the Delta took corruption to new heights and many Nigerians believe these displaced former leaders are frustrating efforts to solve the political problems.
The tide of public opinion seems to be in favour of the current blitz on militant camps by a combined security forces operation.
Nigeria cannot afford to leave this rising criminal tide unchecked. The people of the Delta are no better off for the riches being accumulated by the militant leaders in their midst. The illegal windfalls are not going to the development the rebel leaders say they are fighting for.
But it is also not enough for the government to stamp out the groups that threaten their main revenue base. The military operation may buy the government some time but these gains will be lost if it does not move swiftly to implement the many development plans currently gathering dust.
There are already some signs that oil money is starting to make a difference under a new crop of governors wanting to break with the past. Last week, I visited Asaba, political capital of Delta State. Roads were being built, street lights had been erected, and wide tree-lined streets conveyed an air of orderliness. Large swathes of the delta states are far from the trouble spots and are relatively easy to develop. Lack of development, rather than security, is the biggest problem in the Niger Delta
I am told that countries are lining up to explore business potential despite the risk factor. SA does not appear to be among them yet, despite the many models for financing, skills development, training, infrastructure and other areas of specialisation the country offers.
A recent gathering of governors from the oil states for an economic summit, the first of its kind in the region, indicates a shift in the development agenda in the Delta.
But the politicians need to reassure investors that they are committed to long-term and sustainable development, which will mark a break from the more usual short-term thinking that has little regard for the greater good of Nigerians.