There is no disputing the fact that the challenges of developing the Niger Delta are enormous and perhaps intimidating. This gargantuan task, no doubt, requires the concerted efforts of all stake holders. The indications are that the Federal Government understands this, which explains why it adopted a multi-faceted strategy in tackling the challenges, realising that it is not an undertaking for only one or two development agencies. The justification, of course, is that undoing the damage wrought by decades of neglect and injustice would need team work.
Thus, the creation of the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs tallies with the reasoning that all hands must be on deck to fast-track the development of the region that produces the oil-wealth of the nation. The ministry was supposed to lead and co-ordinate the infrastructural and environmental development as well as the youth empowerment programmes of the Federal Government in the region.
Despite this good intension, the ministry took off amidst controversies and apprehensions. Those who had reservations about the ministry feared that it would add another avoidable layer of bureaucracy to the effort at speeding up the development of the Niger Delta. However, those who supported its creation were hopeful that it would attract additional funds and expertise for the rapid development of the region.
A lot of premium was placed on the advantage of having two ministers who, as members of the Federal Executive Council would have a platform to articulate the development needs of the Niger Delta. Those who were still not convinced were told that the ministers would have easy access to Mr. President to ensure that he never loses sight of the Niger Delta question.
Today, however, the story appears to be different. The ministry which many had thought was coming to add value to the fortunes of the region is now confirming the worst fears of critics who predicted that it would slow down rather than enhance the activities of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) that it was supposed to complement.
This is contrary to the general expectations that the ministry and the NDDC would team up to implement the Niger Delta Regional Development Master Plan. This unpleasant turn of events is, to say the least, shocking. You can be sure that political and community leaders who had justified the creation of the ministry are not amused.
Most people in the region had thought that a massive inflow of funds would follow the creation of the ministry to translate the lofty goals of the Master Plan into projects and programmes that would make significant impact on the lives of the people of the oil-bearing communities spread across the Niger Delta region. In fact, some people had suggested a Marshall Plan approach in addressing the developmental challenges in the region.
It is rather sad that this has not happened. To make matters worse, the ministry appears to be in a contest for superiority in its relationship with the NDDC. While other stake holders are looking up to them to play a leading role in coordinating the implementation of the widely applauded Master Plan, the ministry seems intent on bringing NDDC under its control. The power tussle is uncalled for and the ministry should know that it was not put in place to reinvent the wheel. Basically, it was created to add more impetus to the activities of other agencies of government that are already on ground and partnering with them for the benefit of the region.
Senator Ndoma-Egba, a strong voice in the Upper Legislative House of the National Assembly, puts it this way: “My understanding of the decision by the executive to create a ministry for the Niger-Delta was to empower it to help in the infrastructural development of the area in addition to, not as a replacement for ,what the NDDC is doing.”
Another lawmaker, representing Warri Federal constituency in the House of Representatives, Hon. Daniel Reyenieju, noted that the commission was established by an Act of Parliament. “On no account should the commission be merged with the ministry because the Niger Delta Ministry was created by an executive fiat while the commission came to life via an Act of Parliament which is far stronger than that of the ministry,” he said.
Again, the ministry should be conscious of the fact that up to this day, many people still believe that it is a superfluous political contraption. Only recently, for instance, the former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Mallam Nasir el-Rufia said “the creation of the Niger Delta Ministry is a political gesture and unnecessary bureaucracy that will fail to solve the problems facing the troubled region.”
Unfortunately, the ministry seems to be preoccupied with annexing more powers and extending its spheres of influence, especially over other statutory agencies. The Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Elder Godsday Orubebe, has never hidden his disdain for an autonomous NDDC. He has argued at every opportunity that the commission should be supervised by his ministry.
Here is what he said in a recent interview published in a national newspaper: “There is no correlation between the NDDC and the Niger Delta Ministry. If you go and attend a meeting anywhere in the world, people are talking to you about the NDDC, people are talking to you about development and as a minister, you have little or no information about what the NDDC is doing; does that present any meaningful reasoning? A minister of the Niger Delta should be able to tell development partners and whoever that is concerned what is being done by the NDDC. But today, there is no correlation.”
The minister is right in insisting on collaboration between his ministry and the NDDC. But who or what are the hindrances to this very necessary partnership? Before the ministry came on board, the NDDC had already set up a clearing house called the Partners for Sustainable Development (PSD) Forum. This important organ brings together representatives of federal and state governments of oil-bearing states, youth and women leaders, traditional rulers as well as the organized private sector, civil society, the mass media and international development agencies such as the UNDP and the World Bank. Its main function is to ensure that the developmental activities in the Niger Delta by all stakeholders are synchronized. This important organ is all that the ministry needs to key into the development programmes of the region.
Indeed, it is surprising that the ministry has not adopted the Master Plan facilitated by the NDDC as its own road map, since the Federal Government gave its blessings for the production of the comprehensive plan. The 15-year period of the plan must not be allowed to run out without any significant impact on the Niger Delta.
There is no need for this distractive schism in what should be a collective effort to rescue Niger Deltans from the pits of squalor and want. The Act setting up the NDDC clearly puts the supervision of the commission directly under the President. Note, not under the Presidency. This means that there are no obstructive go-between for the commission and the President to ensure expeditious implementation of decisions. The framers of the law were conscious of the fact that the interventionist agency must be freed of all the encumbrances of ministries which are usually weighed down by bureaucratic red tape.
Part II, Section 7 of the Niger Delta Development Commission (Establishment) Act 2000 states that: “The Commission shall be subject to the direction, control or supervision in the performance of its functions under this Act by the President, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
Royal fathers in the region, under the aegis of Association of Traditional Rulers of Oil Mineral Producing Communities of Nigeria, have given their wise counsel to President Goodluck Jonathan on this matter. Their warning: “Don’t contemplate merging the commission with the ministry. Such action will be detrimental to the entire people of the area.”
The urgent task now is to secure more finds for the full implementation of the Master Plan for the region. There is enough room for both the ministry and the NDDC to operate and collaborate for the benefit of Niger Deltans.
Agbu, a seasoned journalist, writes from Port Harcourt.