opinion By Tarila Marclint Ebiede
The recent presidential elections in Nigeria have bolstered hope for democracy, both in the country and across the African continent. The challenge now, as always, will be to realise the hopes and aspirations expressed by both voters and the victorious party.
To do this, President-elect Muhammadu Buhari, will have to address some of Nigeria's most difficult yet unresolved issues. Unique among this list of challenges is the Niger Delta which is central to the financial revenues that Buhari desperately needs to fund the development and infrastructure so urgently needed in Nigeria.
The Niger Delta question is here to stay in Nigerian politics. The significant place the Delta region occupies within the country's economic and political spheres cannot be overemphasized, as its communities produce the crude oil that forms the revenue base of the Nigerian state.
However, these communities lack basic development amenities such as schools, hospitals, roads, and electricity. Like in other oil-producing areas, the oil industry has negatively impacted the environment, reducing its capacity to support the agricultural activities of the indigenous people, leading to occupational displacement and food scarcity throughout the region.
At the end of the Biafran War, the Nigerian government established state laws to nationalize oil rents, thereby excluding the very communities producing oil from the revenues accruing from it.
The oil-induced environmental degradation that characterizes the Niger Delta region adds insult to injury, further exaggerating the effects of economic devastation through misdirected oil profits. The Nigerian government has systematically ignored the environmental apocalypse perpetuated in the area by IOCs, and recognizing the lack of state environmental sanctions, this is likely to continue.
It is within this context of marginalization that Goodluck Jonathan, an ethnic Ijaw from oil-producing Bayelsa State, emerged as President of Nigeria in 2010. Given his origins, the popular assumption was that Jonathan would resolve the conditions that led to violent conflicts in the Delta.
Traditionally, Nigerian politicians use state resources to develop their region, so it was assumed that the Niger Delta had not been developed because no member of any of its ethnic groups had ever been president. And indeed, upon taking office, President Jonathan continued the amnesty programme for ex-militants that had been initiated by his predecessor, Umaru Yar'adua.
He maintained the Ministry of Niger Delta (also established by his predecessor) and continued funding development agencies such as the Niger Delta Development Commission. But President Jonathan failed to radically redefine the governance of these institutions that were supposed to bring development, peace, and security to the Niger Delta. He also failed to act against oil-industry pollution in the Delta.
While Jonathan could be blamed for not appointing credible people to these Delta-focused institutions, the environmental problems and the exclusion of revenues from oil-producing communities were a function of federal laws, or the lack thereof. President Jonathan could not have single-handedly changed those laws.
He needed the cooperation of the National Assembly and other stakeholders within the political economy of Nigeria's oil industry.
Ever since Yar'Adua's presidency, these actors have strongly resisted attempts to reform the laws governing the oil industry. In fact, while researching this issue, a director at the Ministry of Finance informed me that President Yar'Adua had been bent on reforming the oil industry, and that this burden was one of the challenges that eventually led to his death.
Recognizing the difficulty in transforming the oil industry, Niger Delta elites, who emerged as stakeholders when Jonathan became president, switched strategies.
Instead of fighting for reform from within, they actively sought to participate in the rentier space. Ex-militant leaders, politicians, traditional rulers, activists, and social critics did not raise the issues of marginalization, exclusion, environmental pollution, resource control, or underdevelopment in the Niger Delta, even though they were key words in the speeches of most Niger Delta leaders prior to Jonathan's presidency. One prominent Ijaw elite forcefully exclaimed in a public meeting that "Presidency is the highest level of resource control!"
The conditions that gave rise to armed violence in the Delta region continue to exist. If anything has changed, these conditions have now become more complex.
Corruption at the local level has increased. Powerful intraregional actors have participated in government at the highest level and now understand the real value of the oil industry. The disarmament of ex-militants was executed hastily, and weapons continue to proliferate throughout the area. Reintegration of ex-militants to their communities has been a mess. Many others feel excluded from government patronage.
The oil industry infrastructure has become more vulnerable than it was during the insurgency itself. During six months travelling the tributaries of the Niger Delta in 2014, an ex-militant took me down into the forest on his community's land. He pointed to an oil transport pipeline and said, "If I break this pipeline, BBC go carry am for news, nobody go know, and even Army no go know say na me do am." His sentiment captures the vulnerability of the oil industry infrastructure.
The only factor that united all the conflicting forces in the Niger Delta was the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan. There have been many situations that could have led to a recurrence of violence targeting the oil industry, but situations were always calmed by the common opinion that no one should be seen destabilizing Nigeria whilst Jonathan was in power.
Those who refused to buy into this line of thought were condemned, and some were even killed by the Nigerian army without any sympathy from their fellow Ijaws. These forces are still united even after Jonathan's election defeat, but this time they are united by the perception that President Jonathan was pushed out of office by entrenched interests from within and outside the country.
My conversations with local people reveal that everyone is biding their time, watching and waiting to see the next government's first move in the Niger Delta. The Delta will be Buhari's major challenge. He has to address the Niger Delta question to maintain an uninterrupted production of oil.
There is a tendency for Nigerian leaders outside the Delta to depend on local politicians to head negotiations. But many of the local elites around Buhari have been part of the corrupt circle that have undermined the region's development. Some are former or current governors or held other political offices, and many have participated in looting the funds meant for development.
If he depends on such people, Buhari will simply be continuing the patronage system that placates potential regional threats to maintain peace and stability. But there are many credible people from the Niger Delta region too. These people can help the incoming President kick start a process of positive change in the Delta. He should seek their cooperation irrespective of party affiliations.
It cannot continue to be 'business as usual' in the Niger Delta. Muhammadu Buhari has to provide answers to development and environmental problems. If he adopts a securitized approach, it will only serve to escalate conflict in the region. Neither can he rely on patronage; it is unsustainable and only postpones the inevitable.
The sustainable way to provide answers to the Niger Delta question is to revisit the laws that exclude local people from their own resources. The incoming government should use the opportunity to create a petroleum industry bill that would include the oil-producing communities in governing the oil industry.
It should also review the general environmental legislation in the Niger Delta. Communities must be empowered to seek compensation when IOCs pollute their environment, and oil companies must be compelled under Nigerian law to clean up the environment when they pollute.
Finally, the incoming government must reduce corruption and increase transparency in development agencies in the Niger Delta Funds for development have been largely misappropriated in the past, and any attempt to put the money to work will dramatically change the Niger Delta's dire development situation.
Politically, Buhari has everything in his favour. He is an ethnic Fulani from the North of Nigeria. His party, the All Progressive Congress, has a clear majority in the two national legislative houses. He has a lot of goodwill among his party members, and he has the political capital to make things work for the Niger Delta. Let him use this to develop the region. This is the best way for him to secure the oil industry that will fund development and governance in other parts of Nigeria as well.
Tarila Marclint Ebiede is a PhD Researcher at the Centre for Research on Peace and Development, University of Leuven, Belgium.