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The political economy of the Niger Delta struggle

The root of the problem is that the Nigerian state depends not on a constitution but on a commodity: oil.’ Richard Dowden, Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles

Chinua Achebe and the Nigerian crisis
IT is a most apt opportunity for me to pay tribute to Professor Chinua Achebe who is easily one of the greatest Africans of the last and present centuries. It is easy to relate to the career of this great African from the more obvious angle of his engaging literary works.

His socio political treatise, The Trouble with Nigeria, remains one of the most pungent articulations of ‘the trouble with Nigeria’, mostly a crisis of leadership that has refused to go away. My favourite among Achebe’s literary works is A Man of the People, that classic satirical irony on the foibles of the modern African political class. For those who may not be familiar with the lead character, Chief Nanga is the classic Nigerian or African politician, the iconic ‘big man’. He wins an election by hook or crook, is obsessed with personal wealth and obsessive material acquisition through corrupt maneuvers. He alienates himself from the very people on the basis of whose mandate he holds his position.

I am a politician, the Governor of Rivers State in the heart of the Niger Delta, the oil reservoir and treasure base of Nigeria. On a daily basis, I am confronted with situations that challenge me either to embrace or reject the Chief Nanga syndrome in Nigeria’s political culture of corruption, self-aggrandizement and nauseating personality cult.

In eight years as Speaker of the Rivers State House of Assembly and over three years as Governor of Rivers State, I can confidently say that I have largely rejected the Chief Nanga syndrome. But I carry his lessons of how not to be a politician with me in my daily quest for how to improve the life and circumstances of the people of my state on whose behalf I shoulder the onerous responsibilities of state.

The Niger Delta: A Profile
In recent times, the Niger Delta has occupied the attention of the world. In a world united by common television images beamed globally by powerful satellite networks and delivered to homes in crystal colour sometimes with minimal editorial intervention, the images of gun totting youth in frightening gear and blindfolded oil workers held hostage can be quite arresting. If you add to those images of vast acres of oil polluted wasteland with flora and fauna rendered useless, the picture becomes a little more frightening. Add to that the images of combat government troops drafted to impose order and confront the militant youth and you have compelling viewing. But this is not entertainment. It is the face of a grim struggle that has lasted for decades, dating back to the years before Nigeria’s independence.

Oil was discovered in Nigeria in commercial quantities in the early 1950s. The first oil well was successfully drilled at a place called Oloibiri in today’s Bayelsa State in 1958. That marked the beginning of commercial exploration, exploitation and export of oil in Nigeria. For so long since those modest beginnings, oil has remained the mainstay of the Nigerian economy, growing steadily in its contribution to national revenue. By 1965/66, less than 10% of government revenue came from oil. By 1990, the figure had gone up to 97%. Today, the figure hovers around the lower 90%.

As is well known, Nigeria is the 15th largest producer of oil in the world and the 6th largest source of oil export to the United States. The Niger Delta is the main theatre of this production which now includes one of the largest gas reserves in the world with an estimated 32.8 billion cubic meters of gas at current levels of production making Nigeria the 26th largest producer in the world with a proven reserve level to move the country to the top 5 in less than 10 years.

The region harbours one of the world’s most bio diverse environments with rain forests that are the homes of some of the rarest species of plant and marine life. The Niger Delta is home to one of the world’s top three most bio diverse wetlands.

With swamps and creeks, rivers and rivulets criss-crossing the length and breadth of the territory, it opens into the Atlantic open seas from where it had its first contacts with the rest of the world both in the era of slave trading and colonial exploitation.

This rich land has for centuries supported the people’s livelihood in the core occupations of fishing and farming until the destructive effects of oil exploration and the attendant pollution came to disrupt and displace most of the people from their traditional occupations and livelihoods.

Before the advent of crude oil, the area was, in the 19th century, the famous Oil River Basin, producing and facilitating the export of palm oil and palm produce for centuries under British colonial rule. Because of the strategic nature of these produce and therefore the region to the sustenance of the colonial enterprise, it became imperative for the British colonial administration to declare it the Oil River Protectorate with a monopoly trading concessions granted to the British National Africa Company in 1884. This wiped out the African traders and middlemen in the industry. The indigenes were left high and dry in a trade that depended on their produce and labour and that was plied through their territory. Thus displaced, they were left with little option than to resort to piracy and kidnapping of European oil traders.

Close observers of today’s scene in the Niger Delta will recognize the outlines of this ancient parallel. What has changed is the nature of the commodity. In place of palm oil, we now have crude oil and gas. In place of the British monopoly, we now have oil multi nationals. In place of the British colonial power, you now have the Nigerian state. The people of the Niger Delta find themselves in precisely the same position of marginalization from the resources of their land. They are in the same role of spectators in the major economic activity that continues to devastate their land and destroy their livelihood.

They have been compelled to resort to violence and kidnapping either as a means of livelihood or as a lucrative criminal undertaking.

Those who seek to understand the roots of militant insurgency in the Niger Delta must reach back to these ancient parallels. But that in itself cannot be a justification for violent criminality and armed insurgency. We therefore need to posit the Niger Delta problem in the context of the political economy of the Nigerian state as presently constituted.

The Niger Delta and the Nigerian Crisis.
Oil has destroyed the economy and by extension the life of the people of not only the Niger Delta but also the larger Nigerian nation. With a population of 155 million, Nigeria has a GDP of $248 billion. Per capita income is $1,600 which, when adjusted for Purchasing Power Parity, would be about $2,400. These figures place Nigeria among the poorest countries of the world. But the nation produces an average of 2.2 million barrels of oil a day and a total of 32.8 cubic metres of gas.

This is in addition to vast acres of arable land, a fairly favourable climate for agriculture and fields of solid minerals. A most invaluable asset is a vibrant mostly young population of highly entrepreneurial people which is both a potential market and an unstoppable engine of production and economic development.

Both Nigeria’s poverty and survival remain a puzzle to outside observers. Our poverty is easier to explain. It can be put down to one single word: corruption as a national theology. The Nigeria political class and the business elite do not and have never related to Nigeria as collective patrimony and enduring legacy. They have related to the nation and its resources instead as an extractive colony. Like the colonialists before them, successive administrations take what they can and leave the nation bare only for the next generation to continue the tradition of mindless but seemingly authorized expropriation.

The result translates into very embarrassing statistics. Of our 155 million people, an estimated 70 per cent live in abject poverty, surviving on the now assumed $1 dollar a day. In 2005-2006, over 70 % of Nigerians, an estimated 90 million people were among the poorest in the world, coming after China and India. Life expectancy is a frightening 47 years which places Nigeria in the 216th position in the world. Our death rate is one of the highest in the world at 16.56 per 1000. Both infant mortality and maternal mortality rates in Nigeria remain among the highest in the world.

What may be more puzzling to outsiders is the survival of the Nigerian state in spite of these crippling statistics and obvious contradictions. Nigeria is held together by a network of age old linkages along social, cultural and economic lines. More importantly, oil money funds the profligacy of the state and has created a virtual political industry peopled by national political elite that owes its privileges and wealth to their relative easy access to oil money. The bond forged by oil money is so strong that none would think of upsetting the apple cart.

Even in the present pseudo democratic context, the mandate of most of our politicians does not necessarily derive from the people. Nor does the electorate make any serious demands on the political elite because, strictly speaking, it is not their tax money that sustains them in power.

Governor Amaechi delivered this abridged lecture at the 2010 Chinua Achebe Colloquium, Department of Africana Studies, Brown University, Rhode Island, United States of America, held at the Marriot hotel, Downtown Providence recently.

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