Written by the Editorial Board of The Guardian Newspaper
A recent meeting between President Muhammadu Buhari and some leaders of the Niger Delta region is yet another lost opportunity to deepen a constructive engagement in the volatile oil-producing area.
According to reports, President Buhari met with some leaders and stakeholders from the flashpoint with a view to finding a lasting solution to the ancient grudge and insurgency that have been disrupting oil production and export in the region. No doubt, the parley at the State House, Abuja, is a positive step towards addressing the contentious issues plaguing the region that has been crisis-prone for more than four decades.
Being the first since the president assumed office, the meeting could have served as a springboard towards dealing with the multifaceted problems that have kept the area underdeveloped. But sadly, the opportunity was flunked by the leaders who could not seize the moment to present strategic plans for the area. It was, therefore, not surprising that a few hours after the meeting, militants in the region struck oil installations again.
And so despite the meeting the Niger Delta region remains an unfinished business and there is no ray of hope that most of the issues including infrastructure deficit in the area will be addressed soon. This is disheartening.
Among the other demands were the need to enforce zero gas flaring deadline; approval of takeoff of the maritime university; award of pipeline surveillance contracts to the communities and relocation of the administrative headquarters of the International Oil Companies (IOCs) to the Niger Delta.
The leaders also demanded the resolution of pending law and justice issues of some aggrieved groups; restructuring and funding of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and the Ministry of the Niger Delta Affairs and a comprehensive resettlement plan to reduce the risk of making the region a stateless people.
On economic development and empowerment, they want the Brass Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) and the fertilizer project included in the Train 7, with a view to updating the national gas master plan; creation of a Niger Delta industrial corridor; expediting work on the export processing zones; harvesting the huge rain-fed agriculture and reducing military occupation of the communities in the region, which they claim was responsible for youth militancy.
Again, what makes demand for a maritime university more important when the region is not the only coastal community with marine environment?
This newspaper believes that leaders of the Niger Delta region missed a great opportunity when they failed to discuss strategic plans with the president in the context of federalism that reflects the mood of the country at the moment. Instead, the 16-point demand including allocation of oil blocks is outrageous. They should have tabled a blueprint for fiscal federalism elements that could result in even part ownership of their oil resources.
Regrettably, they cheapened themselves with a demand for crumbs from the tables, forgetting that oil and gas resources in the region belong to them. How could they be demanding paltry oil blocks as if they were beggars and contractors? The people of Niger Delta, indeed, other ethnic nationalities, should own and control resources in their areas in a restructured federation that the nation has been asking for. Besides, the leaders should have asked for another Abuja in the Niger Delta. Again, they were consumed by a culture of low expectation that pervades the country.
It is thus incredible that the leaders were not altruistic and they failed to work in the interest of the ordinary people in the elitist 16-point of demand to the president. Though they claimed that the demands were aimed at halting militancy in the area, the request for oil blocks appeared to be the overriding issue to the leaders. But how many ordinary people could benefit from a few operate oil blocks allocation?
What is more depressing than the president’s response to the uninspiring demands. Buhari did not say anything more than assuring them that his government would study the demands to enable the administration take the right steps. Certainly, there is no constructive engagement, in this connection.
The demands show intellectual weakness. The leaders should go back and do their homework more diligently. The ordinary people must be at the core of the demand.
Meanwhile, demand for more constructive plans in the area does not take any steam from the authority of the president to enforce peace in the area. Government has a primary responsibility to ensure that lives and property are secured in all parts of the country. We believe that violent destruction of oil assets in the area can only disrupt national revenue plans. Money will be needed in the end to replace the assets when peace is restored.
It is, in the main, important to note that even extant institutions already established to enhance development in the area including the NDDC and the Ministry of the Niger Delta should be strictly audited for operational efficiency. It appears that the development agencies have not been transparently run over the years. But then, the Niger Delta development plan should be a strategic objective that will develop the people in the area, improve their environment to be as beautiful as Abuja that resources from the area built for the nation. Infrastructure deficit and environmental degradation have been a constant refrain in all discussion points on the Niger Delta. Demand for oil blocks for greedy elite will not address that urgent need to develop the area and the people. Only a feasible Niger Delta Development Plan can achieve that strategic objective.