As has been the case, Nigerian leaders would today per
form the usual ritual of critical self analysis: where we were, where we are now, and where we are expected as a nation of 250 unequal legs, 54 years hence.
Still, many a commentator would recall, how past leadership had mindlessly squandered the riches of the oil wealth of a nation that has so much promise of greatness, not just to its citizenry or black race, but to the entire humanity.
Yet, it is generally believed that Nigeria is a failed state that has little or nothing really impressive to show, except, perhaps, the symbolism of self rule and the psychic income it has offered.
Now, pause and consider this shocking revelation made some years back. Between 1960 when Nigeria attained independence and 1999 when democracy was restored, a staggering sum of $400 billion was stolen and stashed away by a generation of leaders almost all of whom have proved far too incompetent, and far too steeped in corruption, to meaningfully tackle the nation’s problems and give its people an abiding sense of direction.
The Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC), Antonia Maria Costa, who divulged this at a seminar organised by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), in Abuja, 2007, further painted a terrible picture of the magnitude of the theft of our commonwealth, lamenting: “if you were to put $400 billion bills in a row, you could make a path from here to the moon and back not once but 75 times. The opportunity cost of the stolen commonwealth is enormous. Think of how different Nigeria would (have) looked today.”
Ofcourse, Costa stated the obvious. Fifty six years ago, Nigeria commenced commercial export of crude oil-exploited from the Niger Delta soil of which Rivers State is a major part to the international market. One-time Oil Minister and Professor of Virology, Tam David-West reveals in a press interview: “Shell BP began by exporting 5,1000 barrels per day (bpd) in 1958. In 1959, it jumped to about 10,000 bpd. And considering the fact that production and export have since surpassed that, David-West lamented: “That is a lot of money, but where is the money? There is nothing to show for it.”
It is, indeed, a painful paradox that despite the deluge of revenue from crude oil sale, complete neglect of basic infrastructure and stark rural and urban poverty, squalor and misery have remained in Niger Delta states, particularly Rivers State. In fact, the people of the state have ceaselessly complained bitterly about mass poverty, hunger and disease, environmental degradation and loss of their traditional means of livelihood. And “the fact that these issues are still starring us in the face,” wrote Steve Azaiki in his Inequities in Nigeria Politics, “indicate general neglect of the Niger Delta, which now challenges our sense of justice and precipitate the quest for fairness.”
Consequently, these issues, having dovetailed into a wider developmental crisis of the Nigerian federation today, have given Rivers people the impetus to begin to define their setting within the context of the Nigerian state. So, as Nigeria marks its 54 years of political independence from the British interlopers, the question on the lips of many Rivers people and lovers of equity and justice is: How well have Rivers State faired in the Nigerian Federation since 1960? Has the Nigerian state done enough to ameliorate the anguish of the beleaguered Rivers people for their contribution to the union? Why has there been stagnation in the living standards among the people of Rivers State for decades?
These questions which have remained unanswered ever since may have agitated the mind of the late elder statesman and hero of Nigeria’s independence when, as leader of the defunct Movement for National Reformation (MNR), he put it thus: “The issue is, what kind of union are we members of? What are the principles which will govern the governance of Nigeria? How is to be shared among the people “who have agreed to live together as one Nigeria?
However, it is apposite to briefly review the creation of Rivers State and the intervening variables in its developmental strides so far prefatory to situating the crisis of poverty, neglect and under development in the state within the wider Nigerian political economy.
Though a culmination of the peoples struggle for self determination, Rivers State, known as the Treasure Base of the Nation, was first created among twelve others by Decree No. 19 of May 27, 1967 by General Yakubu Gowon to douse the then secessionist moves of Biafra during the Nigerian civil war of 1967-1970.
The first Governor of Rivers State, King Alfred Diette-Spiff, when it was created once spoke of the satisfaction which the Rivers people have derived from having a state of their own. “The Rivers people,” he observed, “are fully identified now as Nigerians, as contributors to the effort in building the nation. And there is no doubt that without the state vehicle, we would never have had identity. We would just have been considered as whipping boys, the ones to be laid down for flogging.” Well, all that now is history.
Also known as Garden City because of its green vegetation, serene beauty, and a slightly undulating topography, the present structure of Rivers State, which capital is Port Harcourt, came into being on October 1, 1996 when Bayelsa State was excised from it.
It is bounded on the south by the Atlantic Ocean, Anambra, Imo and Abia states, on the North by Akwa Ibom State, on the East and the West by Bayelsa and Delta states.
Rivers State occupies an area of 12,240 square kilometers with a population density of 260.5 per cent. It is bigger in size and population than must members states of the Commonwealth and United Nations.
Rivers State has international airport at Omagwa, a Petro-Chemical plant at Eleme, two seas ports at Onne and Port Harcourt, a fertilizer plant at Onne, the Liquified Natural Gas plant at Bonny and a Refinery at Alesa-Eleme. It has also successfully embarked on Independent Power Projects at Eleme, Omoku and Trans Amadi in Port Harcourt. All these make the state the nerve centre of economic activities for investors.
The Rivers State economy may be divided into the traditional and modern. About 70 per cent of the population of the state is involved in the traditional sector which encompasses traditional agriculture, traditional fishing, traditional crafts making, and hunting and gathering. The major food crops produced in the state include plantains, cassava, cocoyams, and rice. Foods produced in the state include oranges, bananas, pawpaws, guava and pineapples.
And since virtually every part of Rivers State lies within the Niger Delta Basin, most communities in the state combine both agricultural and fishing activities. Thus, in terms of traditional economic activities of the people, agriculture and fishing define the mainstay of the economy. However, there has been steady productivity decline in agriculture and fishing due to population pressure, the swampy nature of the terrain and the deleterious impact of oil exploration activities.
Modern economic activities which are concentrated in Port Harcourt include manufacturing, commerce, utilities, and infrastructural development, and are largely dominated by non-indigenes of the state.
Nevertheless, the oil industry remains the most fundamental element in modern economic activities of the state. Rivers State is Nigeria’s premier oil producing state accounting for well over 50 per cent of crude oil output in the country. Beyond its negative impacts on agriculture and fishing, oil exploration activities have had disastrous environmental and ecological implications for the various communities that make up Rivers State. Ofcourse only a fraction of the oil proceeds from Rivers State would have been enough to check both the natural and man-made environmental and ecological disasters that define the state. Rather, the oil proceeds have been used to massively develop infrastructure in parts of the country, especially the north, at the expense of Rivers State where, owning to the difficult deltaic terrain, the cost of providing basic infrastructural facilities like roads, electricity and portable water is astronomical.
Piqued by the sordid inequity of robbing Peter to pay Paul, renown professor of Economics, Willie Okowa had, in a seminal presentation on Rivers State since 1967 said: “The use of oil resources derived largely from Rivers state in the creation of the infrastructural bases for development in other parts of country while denying the same treatment for the territory in which the oil is found speaks of a callousness that is numbing to the mind and an outrageousness that is a challenge to the ethics of civilised behaviour.”
Yet, besides the difficult deltaic terrain, the oil companies, observers say, have not been committed to protecting the environment from which they draw so much wealth. These companies have by their very prospects, polluted the environment, and left communities with destroyed farmland, polluted air and deteriorating marine life.
One of the most disturbing ironies in Rivers State and indeed Niger Delta is that crude oil for export is transported to Bonny and forcados through a network of pipelines stretching across 6,000 km over communities and living quarters, approximately the distance from Cape Town in South Africa to Cairo in Egypt. Yet, not enough care is taken to ensure the maintenance of the pipes which often corrode and burst, leading to oil spill, killing people and destroying farmlands.
Perhaps, more than the oil companies themselves, one factor that has been held responsible for the continued environmental degradation and retarded development, is the lack of political will of the Federal Government over the years to check the atrocities of the oil companies which have reached scandalous proportions. Every known law on environmental safety has been violated in Nigeria. The average rate of gas flaring in the world is about four per cent. In Nigeria, over 70 per cent of associated gas is flared, thus acquiring the notoriety of 25 per cent of all gas was flared in the world. And though Nigeria is a signatory to several international conventions including the United Nations Agencies 21 and the Kyoto Protocol, aimed at protecting the environment, not enough has been done to enforce them “because the main victims of this ecological genocide or ecocide” notes former Bayelsa State Governor, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha in a paper presented in 2004 to the Abuja Chapel of the Nigeria Union of Journalists “are the people of the Niger Delta.”
There is no gainsaying the fact that the plight of Rivers people as with the rest of the Niger Delta region poses serious socio-economic challenge. The relative increase in the aggregate economic growth of the Nigerian economy weighs heavily on the natural resources of the Niger Delta environment which is continually being degraded by the multi-national oil conglomerates. The net effect is the continued depletion of the natural environment and, by implication, the very livelihood of the rural dwellers who constitute over 70 per cent of the population in the Niger Delta. Due to inadequate or outright lack of such socio-economic services as education, health, portable water and sanitation, mass transportation, electricity and communication, high rates of urban population have compounded the general decline of services in the state and the rest of the region. This has further put pressure on the existing infrastructure, social services and the traditional sources of food supply. These pressures and their consequences are at the root causes of the crisis in the region.
Again, the neglect by the federal government and the oil companies in providing infrastructure have not only promoted poverty and despair, but unemployment and insecurity. This explains the high incidence of pipeline vandalism, hostage taking, sea piracy, community conflicts and youth restiveness.
Now, the beleaguered people of Rivers State are asking myriad questions that are begging for answers and attention. Why have Rivers a people, living amidst such immense wealth, continued to wallow in so much wants and depravity? Why have a people who contribute over 60 per cent to the national economy be so neglected in the scheme of things? Why has a state that has greatly helped in stamping Nigeria’s identity as the World’s sixth largest oil producer become so impoverished and reduced to mere debates and buck-passing? Why has Federal Government continued to vacillate on issues bordering on the sustainable development of the state?
Stakeholders have repeatedly insisted that it is all politics. The 1958 Willinks Commission Report, for instance, recommended that because of its dedicate ecology and difficult terrain, the region of which Rivers State is a part, should be made a special area to be developed directly by the Federal Government. And although the Niger Delta Development Board (NDDB) was duly established in 1961, and later, other interventionist schemes, the region, particularly, Rivers State has remained the least developed area of the country, in physical, social and economic terms. Even, the setting up of the poorly funded Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) in 1999, though a bold step, has not yet provided the much-needed elixir to the ailment of underdevelopment in Rivers State or the rest of Niger Delta.
Even at that, the amount of resources returned to the oil producing areas, in the form of Federal Account Allocations has not provided enough room for meaningful development.
Veteran journalist and former Chairman of NDDC, Chief Onyema Ugechukwu, had in a paper on Understanding The Niger Delta Question at a Nigerian Guild of Editors workshop in Port Harcourt, 2005, amplified how allocations to oil producing states plummeted.
He says: “The Independence Constitution had recognised a derivation principle in the sharing of revenues in the Federal Account. But by the 1970s when oil revenue became a dominant factor in that account, the derivation principle was under consistent erosion, principally because the states of the Niger Delta lacked political clout, especially in the military regimes that dominated the period, until 1999.”
Thus, he further stated, “Derivation was progressively reduced, from 50 per cent, through 30 per cent, until it reached a paltry 1.5 per cent, before it was raised to 3 per cent in 1992, where it remained until the return to civil rule in 1999 when it was increased to 13 per cent by the Obasanjo Administration.”
Despite this gesture and the creation of the Niger Delta Ministry to soothe frail nerves and assuage the unending feelings of marginalisation and neglect in Rivers State and other Niger Delta states, the people are still demanding a significant increase in remove allocation as evident in the just concluded National Conference where Rivers Delegates insisted on 50 per cent derivation.
Even as some opinion leaders in the northern part of the country have always complained that Rivers and the other Niger Delta states are getting too much, Rivers people and other highly perceptible Nigerians insist that they miss the point. Ugochukwu argues: “Their demand for a bigger share of the resources generated from their area is justifiable, first on the basis of their “special” need, which was acknowledged, even before oil became a major source of income, and secondly, on the basis of the additional problems which have resulted from oil production itself?”
Against this backdrop, Okowa queries: “Is it really asking too much of the Nigerian state to argue for use of some of the revenue derivable from this resource (oil) to create the infrastructural base for the enhancement of the prospects of development in Rivers State.”
No, stakeholders insist, arguing that there is now abundant – if not overwhelming-evidence that the socio-economic condition of River people, coupled with their renowned determination to fight for their rights, have given a new dimension to the challenge of developing the state, such that urgent and sustained efforts at redemption must be put in place to give it a sense of belonging and avert probable disaster. The question is: Will the Federal Government budge? Time will tell.