The Niger Delta region in Nigeria has been a theatre of restiveness and episodic outbursts of violence as communities squabble over resource control. Additionally, social exclusion, entrenched feelings of marginalisation or persecution and worsening poverty makes violent conflict worryingly routine. But a perennial conflict driver is ecological and environmental ruination caused by dangerous oil and gas exploration.
The actors in these recurrent conflicts are often non State armed combatants doing battle with government forces drafted in to secure oil installations and protect expatriate staff. And the consequences can be tragic, especially for children, the elderly, women and vulnerable individuals.
One need not go into detail about the problems plaguing the Niger Delta as they are well documented and continue to dominate national media discourse. It has also been extensively written about in the international media and the worldwide web. But its enormity in the context of how most inhabitants of the region are affected is better understood when experienced, as I did, having lived in some of the affected areas. And it warrants illustration, if it helps to draw attention to their plight.
Ravaged by acute poverty, human rights abuses, underdevelopment, joblessness, lack of infrastructural amenities, including basic sanitation, clean drinking water, healthcare centres, and electricity, a number of the people are impoverished, disillusioned and in a poor state of health.
They live in filthy surroundings with pools of stagnant water that putrefies the air. It should be noted also that with the absence of clean drinking water and sanitation, some communities drink from rivers, rivulets and streams in which they have their baths, do their washings and defecate; leading to rampant cases of water-borne diseases.
Added to the putrefaction described earlier, is the smell of gas hanging in the air, which unsettles the nostril and lungs. The locals attribute this to the flaring away of the by-product of gas which produces noxious and eye-watering fumes.
Also, a number of children of school age are malnourished and mostly illiterate. The latter condition could be attributed to a number of factors ranging from disruption of their education by conflicts, inability to access primary/secondary education due to lack of funds, becoming orphaned and unable to cope with learning as a result of trauma.
Added to the above is the increasing number of young people whose lives are blighted by joblessness and wrenched by hardship. Made up mostly of school levers, college and university graduates, they constitute an alarming demographic of the hopeless.
To eke out a living, most resort to petty thievery and violent crimes. A good number of these fall prey to unscrupulous individuals (mostly politicians) who hire them as thugs to perpetrate acts of violence against opponents. They may also fall prey to criminal elements who entice them with financial rewards. There are also those whose worldview, having been shaped by the conditions mentioned above and seeing no other way out of their quotidian misery resort to violence by enlisting willingly in the armed struggle.
But by far the most disturbing of the problems plaguing the Niger Delta is the division within the communities along ethnic lines, resulting in distrust and suspicion; and in some cases, hate and bitterness; communities that once coexisted harmoniously, exemplified by a history inter-marriages and other unifying traditions, no longer see eye to eye.
This writer does not pretend to have the perfect solution to the problems facing the Niger Delta. However, it proffers, from a conflict prevention and sustainable development perspective, a number of suggestions that may help alleviate suffering and interrupt these cycles of violence.
Very often, the response of state officials and other stake-holders to these problems oscillates between rhetoric and sloganeering. There is a marked lack of commitment to address the core issues of neglect and poverty either because they are immune from it or lack strategic insights. A paradigm shift in approach is therefore needed.
First, there is a compelling need to alleviate the existential misery of inhabitants; especially those in communities blighted by pollution and joblessness. A synergy between the authorities and oil producing companies, non-governmental organisations, community leaders and other stake-holders to address these problems is of utmost importance. Working as a partnership, they should identify and implement innovative and lasting solutions that could accelerate economic growth and social progress. This may ultimately diffuse tension and prevent violent conflict. Such a team should embark on large scale reconstruction and revitalisation projects. There are a number of neglected and decaying infrastructures such as roads, bridges, hospitals, schools, to name but a few, across the region, requiring intervention. And this should form an integral part of a much needed jobs creation strategy.
Again, state governments in collaboration with the private sector, relevant local organisations, NGOs and aid agencies should prioritise skills acquisition by developing vocational training schemes, including apprenticeship and work-experience programmes for the largely unemployed and disaffected youth. An independent body to be known, for example, as Skills Development Directorate should be created in each state for this purpose.
Such a body would not only be responsible for disbursing funds, but would effectively control and monitor how it is spent, to ensure accountability. It should also measure and evaluate the effectiveness of programmes from time to time; ensuring that the energy, intellect and talents of young people; especially those who are graduates from universities and other higher institutions are harnessed and strengthened for the greater good of their communities.
Additionally, local governments and other capacity building agencies should work towards developing community scholarships for those whose education is disrupted by incessant conflicts, deprivation and destitution.
Most importantly, entrepreneurship and self-employment should be vigorously promoted. Considering the spectre of unemployment and lack of job creating opportunities haunting the region, the virtue of self-employment and entrepreneurship should be inculcated in the mindset of the younger generations. Thus, a collaboration of states and relevant agencies, including the SDD should develop training courses, workshops and seminars with themes developed around self-employment and personal development. Those who successfully complete these programmes should be awarded grants or soft loans to set up small scale businesses, with mentors provided to guide them in their tentative steps towards self-employment.
Second, no efforts should be spared in providing clean drinking water, healthcare and sanitation for an increasing number people in the region who lack these basic needs. Equally pressing and needing urgent intervention is reducing pollution and life-threatening mess caused by oil exploration. As has been noted, this is a major causative factor for conflict in the region. A recent UN report (UNEP) in this regard is apt as it admonishes Shell Petroleum and others for the disastrous scale of pollution wrought on Ogoniland and environs, calling for a total clean up of the mess.
Third, there is a compelling need for dialogue and other peace-building mechanisms, including reconciliation amongst indigenes of the region, who, not too long ago, were up in arms for resource control and political patronage. This should be underpinned by some form of reparation and justice. Restorative justice may well serve this purpose as victims of violent attacks and perpetrators undergo a process of reconciliation and healing; leading ultimately to closure. It has been known to be effective considering its cathartic nature and efficacy in rebuilding trust.
It would be unfair to conclude this report and not acknowledge some major changes and progress that has occurred and continue to manifest in the region. Starting with stability, there is an Amnesty in place – declared by the late President Umaru Yar-Adua, and continues to be implemented by successor governments that have engendered relative calm in the region.
What is more, a DDR programme subsumed within the Amnesty which saw insurgents turning in their arms in exchange for monetary rewards and other inducements such as training courses and skills acquisition programmes has reduced violence and kidnappings to a commendable degree.
Moreover, a number of state governors in the region have embarked on bold infrastructural development that has transformed their states, including road construction, building of bridges and hospitals, renovation of schools and other social amenities. While these achievements are laudable, it remains to be seen how they exert a significant influence on peace building and translate into sustainable development and peace in the region. As has been well noted, good relations between communities at grassroots level helps significantly in preventing conflict and a lot needs to be done in this area.
Dollin Holt is Director of Caprecon Development Foundation, UK.