Appraising what is obviously the psychic income which the creation of Rivers State has offered, Alfred Diete-Spiff, the first Military Governor of the State, in a parley with newsmen thirty years ago, spoke of the satisfaction which the Rivers people have derived from having a state of their own. “The Rivers people”, he observes with majestic aplomb, “are fully identified now as Nigerians, as contributors to the efforts in building the nation. And there is no doubt that without the state vehicle, we would never have had an identity. We would just have been considered as whipping boys, the ones to be laid down for flogging”.
True, Rivers people may have, indeed, been identified as contributors to efforts at nation-building, it remains to be seen if they are still not being considered the whipping boys to be laid down for flogging, considering the developmental challenges of the state as a sub unit within the manifestly supine Nigerian federation.
Created 50 years ago, Rivers State is populated by some five million people, making it the sixth most populated state occupying a geographical area of about 37,000 Square Kilometres. With 23 local government areas, the state’s vegetation is characterized by a mangrove forest in the South and a thick rain forest and arable land in the North.
The second largest economy in Nigeria after Lagos, Rivers State has vast crude oil reserves and other natural resources such as silica sand, glass sand and clay and remains a leading supplier of the nation’s wealth with over 40 per cent of Nigeria’s production and associated export revenue.
Despite its relatively low industrial base, the state has two functional petroleum refineries, two major seaports, an international airport, an oil and gas free zone, an industrial estate (Trans-Amadi), liquefied natural gas plant at Bonny, and a petrochemical and fertilizer plant in Onne industrial zone.
Though fishing, farming and trading were and still remains the primary occupation of the people, the challenge of development stares them in the face every day. Their quest for an improved quality of life woven around a sustainable increase in living standards that encompass material consumption, education, health, decent housing, transport, water provision, energy, food security, environmental protection and other critical social infrastructure is still a far cry.
While it can be said that Rivers State has made some remarkable progress since May 27, 1967, a lot more needs to be done to develop the state, improve the living standards of the people and give them a sense of belonging in the Nigerian federation.
It is, indeed a painful paradox that despite the deluge of revenue form crude oil sale over the years, there has been complete neglect of basic infrastructure as stark rural and urban poverty, squalor and misery have been the lot of the people of the state. In fact, they have complained bitterly about mass poverty, hunger and disease, environmental degradation and loss of their traditional means of livelihood occasioned by the deleterious impact of oil exploration and exploitation to no avail. And “the fact that these issues are still starring us in the face”, wrote Professor 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 dove-tailed 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 Rivers state marks 50 years of its existence and 18 years of Nigeria’s unbroken democracy, the questions on the lips of many Rivers people and lovers of equity and justice are: How well has Rivers State faired in the Nigerian federation since 1960? Why have a people who contribute the bulk of the nation’s wealth be so neglected in the scheme of things? Why has the federal government continued to vacillate on issues bordering on sustainable development of the state?
Piqued by the inequities of the Federal Government in robbing Peter to pay Paul, eminent 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 civilized behaviour”.
Worse still, the oil companies, observers say, have not been committed to protecting the environment from which they derive 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 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 the root causes of pockets of restiveness in Rivers State and the crisis in the Niger Delta region.
It is indubitable that the failure of the Federal Government and the oil companies in providing infrastructure has not only promoted poverty and despair, but unemployment and insecurity. This explains the high incidence of pipeline vandalism, hostage taking, sea piracy, and community conflicts and youth restiveness.
forum in Abuja last years, Wike said: “the state has suffered sustained neglect, marginalization and injustice from successive federal governments and its agencies”.
Continued Wike: “Even as no new development project has been initiated in the state for decades, what is most distressing is failure of Federal Government to adequately maintain some of the critical federal infrastructure in the state.
“I am referring to the Port Harcourt International Airport terminal building, the Port Harcourt Sea Port, as well as the East West road, particularly the section the leads from Eleme junction to the Onne industrial hub that have remained broken for years without attention from the Federal Government.
“Within this year we have been forced to fix two federal Roads: the Industry Road that leads to the NPA sea port and the Igwuruta Chokocho Road with funds that we could have used to advance our development”.
The question is: Will the Federal Government budge? Time will tell.