The Niger Delta is located in the Southern part of Nigeria, a geopolitical framework mainly populated by the Ijaw ethnic nationality. Spreading over a total landmass of about 70,000 sq km, the region is inhabited by an estimated population of 20 mm Nigerians in 2000 communities. The area is also home to the Ogonis, the Ikwerres, Ekpeyes, Ogbas, Egbemas, Engennes, and the Abuas of Ahoada division as well as the Obolos and the Opobo people. In addition to the Ijaws of Western Delta are the Urhobos, Isokos, the Itsekiris and part of Kwale. In its present composition, the Niger Delta covers the six states of the South-South namely Akwa- Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross-River, Delta, Edo and Rivers.
However, the legislation on the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, in 2000 has further extended the frontiers of the Niger Delta to include Abia, Imo and Ondo States, thus making the political map of the Niger Delta to comprise nine states. The Niger Delta communities have settled in the area for several millennia, the oldest group having been in the areas for some 7 to 10,000 years. The primary occupations of the people include fishing, farming, forest product gathering, craft, etc usually at subsistence level. The immediate source of livelihood for the people of the region has been supplied by the rich flora and fauna of the area for many generations. For so long, the people there lived in harmony, and there was evident balance in the ecosystem.
The Niger Delta is characterized by wetlands and water bodies with creeks and rivers crossing the entire region. The higher-lying plains experience 5, 7 months of flooding in the year, resulting from the overflowing waters of the lower Niger River in which whole communities and farmlands are invariably submerged. Flooding and river-bank or coastal erosion are the bane of the people. The Niger Delta is, no doubt, a difficult if not an out-rightly inclement terrain.
However, the region is endowed with enormous natural resources. It has the world’s third largest mangrove forest with the most extensive freshwater swamp forest and tropical rain-forest characterized by great biological diversity. Alongside the immense potential for agricultural revolution, the Niger Delta region also has vast reserves of non-renewable natural resources, particularly hydrocarbon deposits in oil and gas. Other non-renewable natural resources include clay pits for burnt brick making in the construction industry, and silica sand for the glass manufacturing industry which have however, remained largely untapped. Niger Delta remains pervasively poor and underdeveloped, lacking virtually all forms of social amenities and infrastructure, including electricity, potable water, medical facilities, roads, shelter, etc. The area suffers a regrettable legacy of hunger, high and rising rates of unemployment, communal conflict, youth restiveness and all forms of social insecurity.
It is evident that nature has done its part by freely depositing valuable treasures as life support systems in the Niger Delta. What remains missing is that the Nigerian nation-state is yet to play her role to overcome, tame and nurture the harsh environment to ensure the overall well-being of the people of the Niger Delta region in particular, and the nation at large. Like the withering plants in autumn, the swamps and mangrove forests in the Niger Delta have lost their essence. They are dying before their time. The people of the area have continued to complain bitterly about mass poverty, hunger and disease, environmental degradation and loss of their traditional means of livelihood. No one seems to be listening enough.
The environmental challenges of the Niger Delta region are complex and enormous, constituting ecological and natural impediments. Specifically, they include the following:
Sedimentation and siltation
This process is caused by an increase in tidal wave action and results in narrow creeks and reduction in creek depth. Whilst the semi-diurnal tidal regime ensures two high tidal floods and two low ebb tides within the course of each day, wave action along the coastline results in both depletion and loss of sediments in the beaches. A good example of this is Koluama and the off-shore facility operated by Chevron-Texaco, which was once on land, and is now an off-shore well.
This challenge is related to inadequate waste management, oil spillage, bush burning, urban industrial pollution, erosion and inappropriate agricultural practices. The impact of industrial wastes and oil pollution on fishing and farming activities over the years, have left deep scars on the economic resources of the peoples of the region.
This problem relates to air pollution, deforestation, population pressure, urbanization and over-exploration. The challenge of air pollution is related to gas flaring and acid rain, as well as gaseous emissions from variety of sources. The water in this region is known to have very high iron content.
Oil spillage and gas flaring
The proportion of crude oil loss to the environment is quite disturbing. A Department of Petroleum Resources report in Nigeria states that over 95 % of the volume of oil spilled in the region is not recovered. This spells serious health hazards for the communities in the area affected. It is prima facie evidence that no elaborate and concrete efforts are made to protect the ecosystem from environmental pollution.
In the oil-producing states of Nigeria, an average of one oil spill occurs every week. In the delicate ecosystem of the Niger Delta, these oil-related accidents cause grave damages to the environment and all that it harbours. Protected by the might of the federal government, the oil companies accuse the impoverished victims of being the cause of their tragedy.
Over 1,000 youths, women and children perished in the Jesse inferno at the turn of the century. The figures of the dead in the Odi invasion have been estimated to be about 2000. In all the cases of major calamities associated with oil, the Nigerian government has not taken the pains to calculate the casualty figures nor has it bothered to rebuild the devastated communities.
One of the most disturbing ironies in the Niger Delta today is that crude oil for export is transported to Bonny and Forcados through a network of pipelines covering about 6,000 km. The pipelines are laid across farms, waterways and fishing grounds. Some pipes cross communities and living quarters. Not enough care is given to the technical integrity of the pipes, and so they corrode, burst and cause a deluge of oil spills and fires that consume plant and human life.
The challenge of underdevelopment
The challenge to development in the Niger Delta region can be better understood when we ask specific questions and attempt to answer them. For example, why has there been stagnation of the living standards among the people of the Niger Delta region for decades? Why has the Niger Delta remained underdeveloped for decades, despite the region’s contribution of about 90 % to the nation’s national wealth? From the onset, all the agencies set up by the Federal Government to address the developmental problems of the Niger Delta were beset by a number of constraints including those of legitimacy and transparency.
Allegations of high level corruption were prevalent and there was very little to justify the resource allocations received in terms of actual delivery. As such, they were unable to pursue effective programmes.
Besides, the people of the oil producing states were unable to exercise any significant political influence over the military government at the federal level in their attempt to redress the situation. Those who paid the piper dictated the tune.
Except for the NDDC, these agencies clearly lacked vision and planning; employed improper developmental strategies; and had a poor implementation focus. Above all, they all suffered from inadequate funding. What is more, some of the programmes embarked upon to stimulate development have no commensurate financial backing. Late release and poor management of funds impede a good number of well-meaning projects and programmes. The result is that these projects and programmes are abandoned midway without creating any decisive impact on the lives of the Niger-Delta people.
Nigeria’s treasure trove
Like the gold rush of California in 19th century America, there is a rush for the hydrocarbon treasure of the Niger Delta. As at the last count, over 20 foreign companies and more than 100 indigenous ones are involved in the business of extracting oil in the Niger Delta Basin. The rush for the “black gold” as some have tagged crude oil has opened new chapters in the relationship between the region, its people and those who seek to benefit from the region’s abundant natural resources.
More people and allied industries are coming in to take up space in the region as they position to participate in the oil trade whether as oil service contractors, job seekers, oil administrators, law enforcement officers or private security contractors, environmentalists, researchers, journalists and development specialists.
The population of the Niger Delta is growing at the rate of about 2,000 immigrants per day because of oil. This is in addition to the local population growth in the region. The implication for social service and infrastructure is telling: there is a growing demand for housing, electricity, schools and hospitals.
Above all, governments of the region need to rise to the challenge of training adequate manpower to manage the various institutions to meet the yearnings of our people for a better life. The region’s inability to meet the real needs of the people, the frustrations arising from their inability to convince the central government and to some extent the international community and donor institutions, as to their real predicament may be following a familiar pattern that urgently needs to be reversed.
The way forward
The environmental challenge of developing the Niger Delta is indeed a great one. By no means will anybody envisage easy solutions to one single enclave like the Niger Delta that defines wealth and poverty simultaneously.
However, while it is exceedingly late in many respects for certain measures to work in the region, a lot can still be achieved if deliberate and determined steps are taken to halt the time bomb from ticking. It is therefore my considered opinion that the following suggestions be considered.
1. The much-needed political will should be cultivated to develop the Niger Delta, using the Willink Commission recommendations as a basis in many respects.
2. The draconian laws concerning oil and gas and land use should either be abrogated outright or amended to foster accelerated development in the area. At present, all types of decrees, which had been transformed into Acts, exists to justify the “federation” called Nigeria. The 1999 Constitution; the Land Use Act; the Oil Mineral Acts among others exist to prevent dialogue among the various people of Nigeria.
3. For Nigeria to survive, the centre should give up some of its powers to the federating units. At the moment, the centre represents injustice to millions of minorities in Nigeria especially the Niger Delta. A centre that does not produce but consumes is an unsustainable centre. Such a centre can only protect its unfair privileges through the force of arms.
4. Oil and gas matters should be removed from the exclusive legislative list and placed on the concurrent legislative list. This will enhance improved relationship between oil and gas companies and their oil bearing host communities, which are largely manipulated and short-changed.
5. The oil and gas companies should either alone or in partnership with the oil-producing companies embark upon small and medium scale industries. Such industries should be based on raw materials sources from the local area.
6. There should be massive skills acquisition programmes by the multinational companies as well as local, state and federal governments.
7. The large-scale oil and gas based industries such as refineries, gas plants and the oil and gas companies themselves should have indigenes of the area in which they operate to serve on their boards and should enjoy 25 % of the equity structure. Furthermore, 80 % of unskilled labour needed by these industries and companies should be drawn from the catchment area. At the management cadre, 40 % of each position should be reserved for the indigenes.
8. The oil and gas companies should ensure the integrity of their pipelines and, in times of spillage, the best industry technology should be employed to effect remediation.
In addition, the oil and gas companies should undertake urgent removal of toxic waste, which is widespread throughout the Niger-Delta.
9. The oil and gas companies should faithfully implement the 45 % local content proposed for the industry.
10. The community engagement policies of the various oil and gas companies can be made more favourable than they are now.
11. The federal, state and local governments should pay appropriate attention to the development of communities responsible for wealth generation i.e. oil and gas producing communities.
12. The indigenes of host communities should avoid greed and fictionalisation in their ranks so that they may not be easy prey to those who seek to rule them.
13. The Federal Government should establish a Niger Delta Development Bank. Oil and gas producing states and communities should participate in the equity structure of such a bank.
14. The federal and state governments and private investors (foreign and local) should set up industries around the commodities and raw materials obtainable in the area such as rice, fish export, sharp sand industries, etc. Of particular interest are the rice fields of Peremabiri and Isampou in Bayelsa State, which are capable of supplying the entire West African sub region.
15. The federal and state governments must develop the infrastructure that will bring riverine filling stations to the rural people to reduce the high cost of petroleum products.
16. In addressing the environmental challenges facing the Niger Delta region adequately, it would be advisable to start from the rural communities, which constitute over 70 % of the region’s total population, and harbours most of the oil wells. All the problems associated with oil and gas exploration ranging from environmental degradation, loss of farmland and marine life are solely borne by the rural dwellers. It is therefore necessary that basic amenities be provided for them with some degree of urgency.
17. One of the biggest challenges facing the Niger Delta people and its leaders lies in designing an appropriate political and economic framework that will ensure the protection of local communities. The Niger Delta states must come together and pull resources for regional development. Investments in mutually beneficial infrastructure such as railways, communications, agro-allied industry with special emphasis on fishing, farming and manufacturing will be ideal. I am convinced that the foregoing suggestions will certainly raise the standard of living of our people.