The new Niger Delta Ministry
By Reuben Abati
The creation of a Niger Delta Ministry, which can focus exclusively on the needs and challenges of this troubled, and much neglected, but oil-rich part of Nigeria had been recommended before now both by restive militants and groups in civil society, as one way of indicating official seriousness about the Niger Delta Question, and the political will to make a difference. As recently as Friday, August 1, 2008, The Guardian made the same case in an editorial titled: "A Ministry for the Niger Delta". Wrote the newspaper: '...we believe the creation of a Ministry of the Niger Delta is imperative".
By taking the bold step to set up the Ministry, the Federal Government seems to be sending a strong message to Niger Delta stakeholders that it really intends to address their fears and expectations. This is coming however, as part of a series of attempts by the Yar'Adua administration since May 2007 to come to grips with the issues and many of these attempts have been poorly conceived.
They include the inclusion of the Niger Delta in the President's seven-point agenda, meetings with Niger Delta stakeholders which came across as an insincere attempt to keep the people talking, the proposed Niger Delta Summit which died a-borning on the altar of controversy. There was also the setting up of a 40-man committee to deliberate on the Niger Delta, within a rather curious time-frame of 10 days! It was certain that the Federal Government really needed to do something urgently about the Niger Delta situation.
It is a notorious fact that the area had become ungovernable. Escalating violence in the region had turned it into one of the major hotspots in the world; and the country's economy is the worst hit. Oil exploration companies have had to scale down their scope of operations in the Niger Delta, and the country's oil production, the main source of national wealth had been reduced by 30 per cent. With output down and still threatened, Nigeria faced a serious crisis, even if the looming tragedy was mediated by the rising cost of crude oil in the spot market. Were oil prices to crash dramatically and output still low, the Niger Delta crisis would have fully exposed the nakedness of the Nigerian empire.
It should not be surprising then, that the creation of the Niger Delta Ministry would result in considerable excitement in the Niger Delta. It is a re-affirmation of the strategic importance of the region and a confidence-booster for the activists who have since resolved that Nigeria should either negotiate with the Niger Delta, or face the consequences of organized and sustained protest and sabotage. Twice now, in the last 16 months, the people of the Niger Delta have shown great resolve; first, by rejecting the proposed Niger Delta Summit and the appointment of Professor Ibrahim Gambari as head of the steering committee of that Summit, and second, by getting the Yar'Adua government to establish a Ministry of the Niger Delta.
But creating a special Ministry for the Niger Delta is not enough. It is important that the Ministry hits the ground running and that it does not become yet another piece of bureaucracy. The ultimate test of the Ministry would lie in how quickly it begins to make a difference in the lives of the people. Here is a Ministry that is 51 years behind time. It carries an enormous burden - social and historical - and faces an uphill task in mobilizing all possible energies for practical and measurable intervention. In announcing the Ministry, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation had indicated that it will be headed by two Ministers, each focusing on a strategic assignment. The substantive Minister will deal with the provision of needed infrastructure in the Niger Delta: roads, transportation, electricity etc, while the Minister of State will address the issue of youth development and empowerment. Both tasks are critical.
Considering the historical and strategic value of the Ministry, it has to be well-funded. And the heads of the Ministry when eventually appointed, need not be reminded that they would be taking on a major responsibility. In its editorial of August 1, The Guardian had advised as follows: "To be effective, it must not be just another Ministry guided and bogged down by red tape and other bureaucratic ills.
Such a Ministry should ordinarily be located in the Niger Delta region itself, with liaison offices in the Federal Capital Territory and in the states that make up the Niger Delta. The Ministry should have a special budget which in our view should be a fixed percentage derived from the total allocation to the Federal Government. The Vice President who has a keen interest in the Niger Delta, not least because be comes from the region, could be made to head the proposed Ministry".
The Guardian's recommendations are worth considering, especially as the Federal Government is setting up a Committee to determine the structure and nature of the Federal Ministries. In retrospect though, the suggestion that the Vice President should head the Niger Delta Ministry may be controverted. The new Ministry would require persons who can focus on the assignment without distractions. In appointing the Ministers of the Niger Delta, the President must ensure that the persons so appointed understand the issues involved and the urgency of the assignment. They must not be party loyalists seeking a job or the opportunity to be relevant. They must not be mentally tired dodderers either, but development experts with the energy to absorb pressures and deliver results. Needless to add that the President himself must personally treat the Niger Delta as a priority, and not simply hand it over to the bureaucracy of a Ministry. There are Constitutional issues that will need to be addressed, particularly s. 162. There is need also to keep a proper perspective. Hopefully, there will be no mischievous demands, from any quarter, for the creation of Ministries of Yoruba, Igbo and Arewa affairs!.
The creation of the Niger Delta Ministry is significantly part of a general restructuring of the Federal bureaucracy, resulting in the creation of 28 ministries, with 42 Ministers. This exercise had been on the cards for about two months. But it must now be seen in the light of President Yar'Adua asserting his authority and putting a personal stamp on the government that he heads. The structure he has now set aside was hurriedly announced and imposed on Nigerians in January 2007 by the Obasanjo administration. Former President Obasanjo's restructuring of the Federal Ministries at the time was generally criticized as mischievous. Why restructure the Ministries at the eleventh hour? Why hand over to a new government that was due in 128 days a structure that it may choose not to work with?
At the time, the Federal Government had come up with 19 ministries and three federal agencies. It was an untidy structure. The government's explanation that its intention was to reduce big government made no sense whatsoever. Why reduce the size of government eight years after the fact? In addition, there were Constitutional issues involved. The Constitution suggests literally, in upholding the idea of Federal Character, that each state of the Federation shall have a Minister in the Federal Cabinet (cf. s. 147(3) and 14(3). President Obasanjo tried to address this by appointing 22 substantive Ministers and 14 Ministers of State, but this only served the purpose of generating complaints about the unequal treatment of states. With its restructuring of the Federal Ministries this week, the Yar'Adua government has taken care of the mischief in the January 2007 exercise. What is surprising is why President Yar'Adua had to wait this long, before setting up a government machinery that appears to reflect his own priorities. The new emphasis we are told is on "greater flexibility, direction and focus while addressing the issues of equity and affirmative action". For a government that has been playing possum since May 2007, its sudden reveille is good news.
Other notable highlights in the new structure include the re-establishment of a Ministry of Petroleum Resources and the proper identification of task-oriented Ministries - Aviation, Transport, Housing and Urban Development, Water Resources, Agriculture and Rural Development, Power, Tourism, Police affairs, Culture and National Orientation etc. In the arrangement that Obasanjo imposed on the Yar'Adua administration, functions were not so clear-cut, certain Ministries had up to three Ministers, creating such confusion that ensured inefficiency. There is now a new clarity. The establishment of a Ministry of Petroleum Resources is particularly instructive.
For close to eight years, President Obasanjo chose to be his own Minister of Petroleum Resources and when in January 2007, he appointed Dr. Edmund Daukoru as Minister of Petroleum and Energy, he chose to retain the portfolio of Chairman of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). The issues in the petroleum sector are just as central as those in the Niger Delta: a substantive Minister running a properly focused Ministry would be in a better position to deal with the issues at stake including transparency in the extractive industry, gas flaring, refining capacity, domestic prices of petroleum products and the inefficiency of the NNPC.
The restructuring that has been announced is to be followed naturally by an inevitable change in the composition and complexion of the Federal cabinet. So far, there has been general dissatisfaction with the quality and the output of President Yar'Adua's team. When he announced his cabinet in 2007, after an exasperating two-month delay, the hesitation and incoherence that were advertised were traced to the fact that the President had set up a cabinet principally to settle his political IOUs; and he had many.
The former President, Governors, and party chieftains reportedly chose his team for him, and in 16 months, he has confirmed this with his inability to run a government that inspires. For example, his appointment of Alhaji Baba Gana Kingibe as Secretary to the Government of the Federation was most shocking when it was made; his dismissal of the man this week has been greeted with relief in equal size. The present expectation is that President Yar'Adua will now choose his own team, in line with his seven-point agenda. Public expectations are high.
The timing of President Yar'Adua's current moves would seem to be related to affirmations, speculations and arguments in the past three weeks that he is an ailing President, in urgent need of a kidney transplant. He was even declared dead, and then resurrected. He finally returned to the country during the weekend.
Since then, the President has been acting with such great bursts of energy and uncommon dynamism. He decorated the military service chiefs; he set up the Niger Delta committee, he has restructured the Federal Ministries. On Wednesday, he chaired a Federal Executive Council meeting which lasted for eight hours (!), he has also been receiving a steady stream of visitors from the states, Cameroun and elsewhere. This President has never been this busy publicly within the space of one week. It is a new-found dynamism that Nigerians would like to see sustained.