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Restructuring Nigeria: What will work? (Part 3)

December 01, 2017
topic:Good Governance
tags:#Niger-Delta, #demographic, #environment, #Open Society Justice Initiative, #exploitation, #Boko Haram
by:Kolawole Talabi
It’s been half a century since the Nigerian Civil War, a 3-year conflict that claimed the lives of millions of Biafrans and almost split Africa’s most populous country along ethno-religious lines. Still the issues that led to war are yet to be resolved and may be brewing a different panoply of crises in Africa’s demographic powerhouse.

In the ensuing decades after General Yakubu Gowon, the then Nigerian head of state made his famous ‘No Victor, No Vanguished’ speech, there’s been resounding calls for unity among the various ethnicities that constitute the Nigerian federation but nowadays, threats of secession are looming once more, as claims of marginalisation by certain voices are getting louder. Pundits say a reform of the country’s federal structure might avert a breakdown of the country’s polity but are Nigeria’s elites ready to do the needful?

In the second part of a three-series of interviews commemorating 57 years of independence from British colonial rule, FairPlanet speaks to two leading advocates of the restructuring movement in Nigeria, either from a region clamouring for greater autonomy. The first is Chidi Odinkalu, the senior legal officer for the Africa Program of the Open Society Justice Initiative. He also served as the chairman of the Nigeria Human Rights Commission. The other is Nnimmo Bassey, an environmental activist and recipient of the Right Livelihood Award.

FairPlanet: Constitutional conferences are almost a national pastime in Nigeria and the citizenry keep asking for more. Why haven’t previous national gatherings met the yearnings of Nigerians for good governance?

Odinkalu: In my view, there’s one problem common to all previous constitutional conferences concerning Nigeria ― they were not free. They took place under either the colonists or under the military. Certain issues were off the table and those issues go to the root of Nigeria’s coexistence. Taking some issues off the table implies that Nigerians are inherently infantile or unreasonable. It also means that the bullets of the military will always be relied on to guarantee Nigeria’s coexistence.

Do you think the Niger Delta has been marginalized in Nigeria’s political establishment since independence? If so, how has this translated into the current realities in the region?

Bassey: The situation of the Niger Delta is one of extraction and exploitation without any modicum of responsibility. The mono-resource economy base of Nigeria has meant that exploitation must go on no matter the harms caused and that the inflow of petrodollars must never be impeded. A combination of that mind-set and the control of the early days of the so-called oil boom by diverse centrist military dictatorships led to the militarization of the region, suppression of human rights and disrespect of everything that enabled the local people to live in dignity.

The departure of the military from the seats of power in Nigeria has done nothing to change the government’s attitude that the security of the instruments of exploitation must be elevated above the security of the local peoples and their environment. Thus, we now live with ecological dead zones and deadened sensitivities on different levels. It is a toxic situation. I am, however, not certain that this can be characterized as the outcome of marginalization. It may be better to see it as the outcome of reckless, deadly and destructive exploitation rooted in neo-colonial leadership that has operated as shoeshine boys to profit-driven multinational corporations.

If the Niger Delta is allowed full control of its energy resources (instead of having to share with the rest of the country), would that bring about greater prosperity for its impoverished inhabitants? How would the rest of the country fair, economically?

Odinkalu: First, allowing the Niger Delta control of its resources may not necessarily result in benefits to the people. We have already seen enough to know that is very possible. Restructuring in that sense should be more than territories and powers. It should also be about improving governance and governance outcomes for the people. Again, the impression that Nigeria can only be sustained on the implication that some States have to depend on the resources of others is flawed. That is not supportable. Every state in Nigeria is richly endowed. There is no poor state in Nigeria. There are only poor and unimaginative leaders. For example, Kebbi doesn’t need petroleum revenues from the Niger Delta to break even and they are already showing it with their rice initiative.

Why is it that the issue of resource control is usually the most hotly debated topic on the Niger Delta despite the massive ecological damage from oil exploitation? Where are the voices of the environmentalists?

Bassey: The voices of environmentalists against the degradation of the Niger Delta have been consistent right from the days of Ken Saro-Wiwa who was martyred for speaking up against impunity in the region. The contestations against resource control remains on the level you mentioned because of the jaundiced federal system that we run and because resource control is debated only with regard to revenue from the petroleum sector. The fact of the narrow focus of the debate shows how untenable the position of those opposed to resource control is. As the world transits away from fossil energy, Nigeria’s crude oil will lose value, bring in less revenue and eventually become what has been termed ‘stranded assets.’ At that time, the same people opposed to resource control will be in the forefront of campaigns for its enthronement. In fact, if you study Nigeria’s solid minerals laws, you will find that the key elements of resource control are embedded therein.

Owners of territories or lands with mineral resources must be consulted, rents paid on such lands and other benefits negotiated before exploration and exploitation can take place. Remediation plans and closure are also expected to be agreed on. Is that not resource control? To my understanding, resource control ensures a reasonable level of respect for communities and individuals living in territories rich in the gifts of nature. It requires that there must be free prior informed consent before extraction takes place and also requires participatory social and environmental impact assessments. Most importantly, it requires that the sense of ownership is recognized and that what proportion of revenue from the extractive activities is withheld from the communities is seen as a tax in contrast to the situation of seeing allocations to the states or regions as concessionary largesse from a central government.

It has been in the pursuit of how to change our mind-set with regard to this problematic situation that we brought up the concept of re-source democracy. Notice that we say re-source and not just resource. The concept is predicated on the critical need to reconnect with the source. Reconnect to nature. Understand that what we call resources are actually the gifts of nature. The concept requires ecological sensitivities. It requires living in harmony with other beings in a less exploitative manner. It requires the pursuit of well-being, of Ubuntu (our humanity is interconnected) and of Eti Uwem (good life in Ibibio). If we pursue re-source democracy, our environment will be the better for it and there will be less conflict over the gifts of nature.

The need for state policing is yet another issue that should be addressed if Nigeria’s polity is to be restructured. What options besides state policing are expedient since the current crisis in the Northeast (Boko Haram) and the Southeast (IPOB) might pose a serious challenge?

Odinkalu: Yes, policing needs in the country are quite serious. Ordinarily, in a federation, responsibility for policing should be shared between all levels of government. The centralization of policing in Nigeria may be anomalous but reflects the anomalies of the Nigerian condition. We used to have Native Authority Policing but the abuses led to police becoming federal and centralized. The politics are too toxic and the likelihood is that many state governors could turn beyond despotic if you handed them their own police under our system.

We need to first make governance more accountable. Of course, the federal police is abused as it is. Creating state police now would amount to adding 36 more units of abuse to the one that already exists. What we can do is de-centralise police management and operations in the interim. And make the management of police and security sector under the current dispensation more inclusive than President Muhammadu Buhari has been willing to make it.

Can state policing help to minimise incidences of petroleum theft and the vandalisation of oil installation in the Niger Delta? Are Niger Deltans capable of securing their own backyards themselves?

Bassey: The security of petroleum infrastructure mirrors the levels of security of the people in the region. It is not a matter of whether there is state or federal policing. The massive deployment of military personnel and equipment has not stopped oil theft or pipeline vandalisation. Neither has it stopped the reckless pollution by the oil companies. There is a toxic mix of factors that has entrenched the horrible state of things. We believe that if there is a healthy respect for environmental and human rights by the government as well as the petroleum sector operators, and the provision of requisite social infrastructure, there will higher levels of security in the region.

Do you think the Nigerian populace are informed enough to determine how they want to be governed?

Odinkalu: I do think Nigerians are sufficiently informed, of course. We are the people at the wrong end of suffering. The experience of bad and venal government informs you enough. Nigeria, at the moment, isn’t working for any part or people in the country besides those that control the levers of power and who have access to our resources. That’s why there is so much unhappiness everywhere. The problem, however, is that rather than vent our anger on those in power, we seem to be turning on one another.

You run an NGO. What are your thoughts on the recent move by the National Assembly to regulate the activities of non-profits in Nigeria?

Bassey: There are already enough regulations tied to the registration and operation of non-profits in Nigeria. We need enforcement, not a draconian law. What we are seeing is a global trend towards stifling the voices of dissent. It will be a sad day for Nigeria to fall into the trap of weakening the institutions through which citizens contribute to national building. Closing that space will be harmful to the nation.

Describe briefly why your work as a human rights advocate matters for the development of civil society in Nigeria.

Odinkalu: I don’t want to assume that my own work as a human rights advocate matters. That is for other people to decide in some ways. But I am confident that the work of advocating for a better society founded on more lasting values of fairness, equity, justice, dignity, inclusion and non-discrimination is essential. It needs the attentions of anyone who can participate in it and not just those of us who may be a little more vocal than others.

Bassey: The philosophy of the organization, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), which I lead, captures the essence of what I see as our contribution to society. I believe in the generation and sharing of knowledge. Our advocacy is rooted in solidarity and in the building and protection of human and collective dignity. Our campaigns are undergirded by our understanding of the harms caused by currently dominant neoliberal agendas driven by globalization of exploitation of the weak, despoliation of ecosystems and lack of respect for Mother Earth. We see that this level of exploitation thrives because of the ascendancy of enforced creed of might is right that permits the powerful to pollute, grab resources and degrade and destroy the rest simply because they can do so.

We engage in continuous political education that examines the roots of exploitation of resources, labour, peoples, territories, nations and regions. My hope is that through these we are contributing to the building of peace and harmony in our country as well as being a part of the struggles aimed at building movements for recovery of memory, dignity and harmonious living with full respect of nature.

Article written by:
Kolawole Talabi
Kolawole Talabi
Embed from Getty Images
The situation of the Niger Delta is one of extraction and exploitation without any modicum of responsibility.
Embed from Getty Images
The mono-resource economy base of Nigeria has meant that exploitation must go on no matter the harms caused and that the inflow of petrodollars must never be impeded.
Embed from Getty Images
Allowing the Niger Delta control of its resources may not necessarily result in benefits to the people.
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