13 August 2008

Nigeria: Niger Delta - for President Yar'Adua's Attention


Lagos — At long last, Obong Victor Attah, a distinguished elder statesman and erstwhile governor of Akwa Ibom State has broken his silence and spoken directly on the Niger Delta question twice in one month - to the best of my knowledge - since he left office as governor of Akwa Ibom State.

Based on his reputation as a pacifist and advocate of the Niger Delta cause and the statesmanlike manner he had handled the resource control debate, I had expected nothing less from him. In view of the controversy that has trailed the proposed summit on the Delta problem, Attah's contribution came on the nick of time and, as to be expected, they came loaded with a novelty whose profundity cannot but be appreciated. Today, do we still need any "summit" on the Niger Delta? This was the question Attah set forth to answer in his first contribution and emerged saying "yes" for a "summit" of summits, which should come in three stages, so that nothing again, is left to chance. Paraphrased, stage one of the "Summit" will involve distillation and collation of all the divergent views contained in those series of reports on the Niger Delta question which should be reinforced with current additional memoranda from the various interests and ethnic groups in the region.

Summit Stage Two: This, according to him, should be an exclusive gathering of leaders of the Niger Delta region as representatives of all the stakeholders. It should be the task of this forum to come out with a harmonised view on how to finally and effectively tackle the Niger Delta problem, based on the product of a steering committee of experts.

Summit Stage Three: Finally, this should include participants other than those from the Niger Delta, "since we are part of a larger country and cannot pretend that whatever we want is what we will get." From this stage of the summit, which should also include representatives of the international community, there ought to emerge "a program of action and implementation to change for good and ensure the well-being of the goose that is laying the golden egg for this country."

In his second contribution published in a number of newspapers on Sunday, August 3, 2008, Attah, an architect and renowned town planner, accurately traced the origins of the militancy in the Niger Delta to the Abacha era when youths from the creeks who attended Daniel Kanu's two-million man march in Abuja saw how oil money had been used to transform, overnight, a virgin forest into a modern city and became infuriated that the goose that lays the golden egg had been cheated. Ever since, the Niger Delta has not been the same again. So, what is the way out?

Attah must have reasoned alongside Aristotle, who said in his Metaphysics: Cessante Causa, Cessat effectus. meaning: when the cause ceases to be, the effect disappears. Syllogistically, that is to say that the Niger Delta youths were infuriated that their oil wealth was used to develop a new city like Abuja, to the exclusion of towns in the oil producing area. Therefore, if something like Abuja is replicated in the Niger Delta, the youths will be placated. Thus, citing Britain as an example of countries that have consistently ensured sustainable development via the development of new towns as a matter of state policy, Attah deftly reduced the solution to the Niger Delta problem to three things: "Massive infrastructure and human development; employment creation and restoration of human dignity."

A close look at the three things, he said would show that, "the second derives from the first and they both will give birth to the third." Pointing out that new towns would not only come with "certain euphoria" but essentially also provide employment during and after construction, he stressed that he was not talking about new towns for the Delta people alone, but new towns for every and any Nigerian that may wish to live there. He, therefore, proposed four new towns for the region - towns, which could be designated as "company towns" i.e, towns with economic base that would automatically "provide employment for all employable Nigerians." Such towns should be located thus: one in Ijawland - Bayelsa State; one in Ogoniland, for Rivers State; one in Akwa Ibom (sea port for Ibaka town), and one in Delta State, preferably in Warri which should be modernised. These new towns, Attah argued, would come naturally with the desired elements: roads, power, water, good communications, schools, hospitals, housing, recreational and other amenities and in particular, security.

I cannot agree more. Attah knows where the shoe pinches his people and by extension, the Nigerian economy and spoke the minds of most Nigerians. The Niger Delta issue must be resolved objectively and systematically. And one sure way is the third stage approach because, a high hill as Isaac Pitman said, "grows lesser as we take each step." Moreover, there is no way we can do real justice to the whole matter today without refreshing our memories of all those past recommendations and reports. If Attah's first dossier is a novelty par excellence, his second is even more so given its comprehensive nature. It is, perhaps, scary to talk of "comprehensive development" of the Niger Delta, but Attah's new town approach offers an effective, if less cumbersome, solution to the problem because of the domino effect inherent in a new town: new roads, housing, new utilities, new jobs arising from new factories, schools, colleges, hospitals, sea or river ports, construction sites, etc.

Funding the development of a new town should not be a burden for the federal government alone to shoulder if the right and proper fiscal federalism is allowed to thrive here. Today, the federal government finds it almost impossible to discharge its duties to the people merely because the center has bitten more than it can chew. As they say, "to whom much is given, much is expected." Like Attah suggested, it is improper for the FG to retain 60% equity in every major oil company. By reducing its holding to 30% and redistributing the remainder to a resource bearing state (20%) and the immediate community (10%), the development of a new town can easily be funded through equitable contributions by the three tiers. In fact, when the state takes 20% revenue and the community takes 10%, it can be rightly argued that a derivation principle of 30% as opposed to the existing 13% is in effect and, therefore, to raise say, N250billion to develop a new town, say at Ibaka in Akwa Ibom State, the community could conveniently contribute 10%, the state government 20%, the federal government 30%, making up a pool of 60% which would possibly be augmented by the private sector, oil companies and the international community. A seaport town would shine at Ibaka to the benefit of not only the immediate state, but also all Nigerians.

For the right fiscal federalism, we may yet revisit the Igbeti marble formula so that when we begin to give agriculture the focus it deserves, the affected communities and states in North would be adequately compensated. Therefore, in order to reduce the envy that frustrates the idea of payment of adequate royalty to the oil producing areas, let us develop our agriculture and also begin to exploit the huge mineral wealth trapped under the Northern soil, so that the derivation money can go round because, it is only when the two sides of the chin take turns in chewing your food that you can swallow with confidence. By shifting to other minerals like tar sands in Ondo State and the mineral deposit in the North, we could diversify the economy. Total and indefinite dependence on oil - a depleting resource cannot but spell doom for the economy. The issue of reviewing the Mineral Oil Act, Land Use Decree and Petroleum Tax Law raised by Attah is a whole topic on its own which deserves a separate and exhaustive treatment.

Meanwhile, let us ignore Prime Minister Gordon Brown's bravora and the French braggadocio. Let us invite the British Town Planning Association to help carry out Attah's statesman-like recommendations on new towns. My fear about the violence in the Niger Delta region is that it may force America to intervene under the guise of the Monroe and Roosevelt Doctrines, especially if in one way or the other an American vessel comes fatally under crossfire. Remember Panama (1903); remember Cuba (1889); Pearl Habour and the Second World War.

Godwin Nzeakah, former Sunday Punch editor, writes from Lagos

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