I started writing about the Niger Delta in the early 2000s, when it was still not fashionable to talk about the region. I recognized directly with the struggle of the goose that laid Nigeria’s golden egg, having grown up in Warri myself.
When I arrived at Warri in the early 90s, it was a regional backwater and sleepy town whose external reputation as “Warfi” by its loquacious indigenes bellies the emptiness and backwater status of the “Oil City”. The region was grossly marginalized, the people were despondent and turned on one another as crumbs were thrown their way. Environmental pollution, devastation of fishing grounds, targeted killing of community activists among others were the order of the day.
Niger Delta prior to the formation of various vigilante and militant groups that targeted foreigners for kidnappings, installations for vandalism and military stations for bombing was often regarded as simply a region where the people could never get their acts together.
Ethnic Jokes about the crisis that bedeviled Warri especially for the longest time, wrapped in cynic jokes around this in fighting (neglect the fact that Ife-Modakeke or the Tiv crisis had festered for decades) was the norm. But that changed in and around 2003. Something reawakened the conscience of the people; they started demanding their rights and backed their words with actions.
It is funny how folks don’t get anything in the Nigerian project unless they go crazy on our elites. Since these times, when trouble broke out disrupting the flow of oil money to steal in Abuja, an unprecedented 13% derivation revenue is now distributed (that constitutional provision was initially ignored in 1999 by Obasanjo, like many others).
Even more surprisingly, the North somehow agreed to a political solution to abolish offshore-onshore dichotomy in revenue sharing that allowed Akwa Ibom and Cross-River get their 13% (preventing Eastern Nigeria oil production shut downs in Exxon’s fields via Eket) even after a favorable Supreme Court judgment for the non-oil states: mostly northern.
When Federal presence became the biggest complaint, the Niger Delta Development Commission was formed to inject additional federal funds in the region. As if these were not sufficient, as a last gasp effort- a Presidential Amnesty Program was declared under President Y’aradua, and now we have 1.5% going directly into the pockets of ex-militants on an annual basis; the biggest payoff in Nigeria’s history! And now then what?
Well, if you were thinking that all is now quiet in the Delta- you’re very wrong! The pockets of dissatisfaction in my opinion are not going anywhere at least given the new crass stealing taking place in the region: by its own! It was as if one replaced the external colonialists with the internal ones: sounds familiar?
Within the six states of Edo, Delta, Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa Ibom and Cross-Rivers, the first two terms of the fourth republic saw the domination by PDP governors which in Nigeria parlance meant blatant stealing by Igbinnedion, Ibori, Alams/Jonathan, Odili, Attah and Duke respectively. You may never find a more corrupt group of governors ever in the History of Nigeria. These governors robbed their people blind, and many are now either cutting plea deals, served jail terms or bidding their time before true justice come around.
In Rivers, Governor Odili was notorious for commissioning the same roads thrice, while the father of Lucky Igbinnedion could not hold back his surprise at the rate of robbery of his son when he visited Lucky’s, now seized, Abuja mansion. In Akwa-Ibom, it was as if the state was stuck in a bind, while Ibori- well, the rest is history! Instead of a stealing governor, Cross-River was instead blessed with a spend-thrift who might have meant well, and is now stuck with a Resort she can no longer afford since it ultimately lost its derivation money to Akwa Ibom when Nigeria traded Bakassi Peninsula for peace with Cameroon!
One will think the region learned one or two things, from the first eight locust years but clearly they didn’t. Upon being bribed with the Vice Presidential slot, only Edo State did not fall for the gimmick (at least until the Comrade reclaimed his mandate), as PDP governors were returned across the Niger Delta in 2007 and 2011. Did anything change? Well, don’t bet on it!
Today, Uduaghan is doing much worse than his cousin; robbing Delta state blind with phantom projects including the white elephant airport at Asaba. He is supposedly under EFCC investigation- but we know how that goes. Sylvia did his for years robbing Bayelsa blind like his previous bosses, but the fear of Patience Jonathan is the beginning of wisdom – he is out of job today, and a bigger thief is holding sway in Bayelsa. A state as rich as Bayelsa cannot afford good network of roads, and of course we now know Oronto Douglas’ village don’t even have a decent primary school!
In Rivers State, I am still uncertain if Amaechi is asleep at the wheels or he is still trying to extricate himself from the mess Odili created. Visiting Port Harcourt this last April, even my foreigner friends left with the conclusion- in their own words, “a challenged city”. Amaechi is clueless, and so is his government!
But there might be hope in the horizon; Akwa Ibom seems to be getting it right finally. I am yet to confirm the wonders of Akpabio, but most folks I know say he is truly doing the job (even Professor Wole Soyinka) he was hired to do by the citizens of his state. The more interesting and lasting achievement of Governor Akpabio may not be the roads, fly-overs, IPP projects, Ibom Industrial city or even his visionary Ibaka Port that seeks to diversify the state’s revenue base: it will be his desire to educate the young of Akwa Ibom and put a permanent stop to it being the preferred destination for house-help seekers in Nigeria.
Perhaps if we have more Akpabios, and less Dicksons and Uduaghans- Niger Delta will stop being the laughing stock of Nigeria! There is still hope, that someday – the true sons and daughters of Niger Delta will turn its own oil wealth to a blessing rather than a curse.