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Shadows of squandered oil boom haunt Nigeria’s future

Nigeria’s Niger Delta region may be home to some of the country’s most prolific oil fields, but host communities of these fields have also had to endure social and environmental degradation in consequence.

Despite the oil boom of 1977-1983 and 2008 Nigeria enjoyed, the economic fate of the Niger Delta region in particular, home to 30 million people, and the Nigerian nation in general, hangs on a thread as most of the inhabitants live in material poverty, some resorting to oil theft, which frequently results in pipeline ruptures, leaks, and force majeure on crude production and exports.

There is an increasing justifiable fear that more families in the oil-rich region (in particular)and Nigeria (that depends on oil revenue for development) will continue to slip into poverty, and perhaps for many generations as a result of wasted periods of oil boom occasioned by widespread graft and a growing global shift towards a net-carbon free economy.

Read also: NDDC report: N6trn approved in 18 years yet projects uncompleted

The economic fate of the Niger Delta, the heart of Nigeria’s oil industry, producing all of the onshore crude oil that Africa’s top producer and exporter pumps, is facing more danger with the increasing global exit of fossil fuel project financing. This means fewer investments and fewer developmental projects in the region after years of petrol dollar squandermania by the Nigerian government.

A recent forensic audit of a government agency tasked with providing lasting solutions to the region’s socio-economic challenges shows the region has over 13,000 poorly executed and unverified projects despite N6 trillion approved for projects by the Federal Government from 2001 to 2019. Much of it has disappeared into non-concrete impact for the people.

However, corruption is not the only nightmare. The people of the Niger Delta have since identified more beasts: pollution, poor infrastructure, legislators who are underworked and overpaid, insecurity, unemployment, collapsed health system and failed leadership elite, all of which combined to threaten the future of the average youth in the region.

The region has turned into a case study of what development experts call the ‘resource curse.’ It plays host to major international oil companies that have paid billions of dollars in taxes to the government of Nigeria and the region. Yet, the area is tainted with environmental pollution, poverty, and a sense of neglect that has continued to plague it.

With some of the biggest global financial institutions and most oil majors turning blind eye to fossil fuel investments, most experts say the situation looks even bleaker for the oil region.

“Nigeria’s oil wealth was insufficient to spark a Middle Eastern-style economic miracle in the Niger Delta back then. Now, with a population three times larger and decreasing investment, it is woefully inadequate,” Jerome Utomi, a political economist and the programme coordinator, Social and Economic Justice Advocacy (SEJA), notes.

“The gusher of oil money also fuels the corruption and unrest that has long plagued the Niger Delta region,” he says.

According to Tijah Bolton-Akpan, co-founder and director of policy Alert, an NGO in Akwa Ibom State, quick and fast petrol dollar funds are waning, and Nigeria’s Niger Delta region will feel the pain.

“The Niger Delta communities who have paid the highest price for the oil extracted from their lands must be properly compensated before it’s too late,” Bolton-Akpan said.

A research report by a group of civil society organisations based in the United Kingdom called ‘Publish What You Pay’ shows that between 2014 and 2019 more than $3.2 billion was paid by subsidiaries of major energy companies, including Chevron, CNOOC (China), Eni, Equinor, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell plc, and Total SA, towards the development of Niger Delta region.

“On the ground though, we also saw the negligible impact that this money is having on people’s lives and on environmental protection,” the UK-based Publish What You Pay, said.

For instance, in Ibeno, a large coastal fishing settlement in Akwa Ibom State, the report narrats how fish stocks have declined because of oil pollution, while drinking water sources are contaminated by oil and by open defecation.

“People told us of the health problems they face, from respiratory illnesses to fertility issues, birth deformities to cancers. Their testimony is backed up by numerous studies detailing the impact of pollution on people’s health in the Delta,” Miles Litvinoff, director of Publish What You Pay, said in the report.

In Esit-Eket, an area once noted for its rich yields of cassava, plantains, and oil palm, the report notes that smallholder women farmers complained of being stopped from accessing their land by military personnel guarding oil infrastructure.

“We heard of healthcare facilities so threadbare that they often can’t even treat minor ailments, while women spoke of the heavy economic burdens they face,” the report states.

Other experts say the Ministry of Niger Delta and the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), special vehicles established to help quicken the pace of development in the area, have also become part of the problem.

People familiar with the matter say the NDDC has become a sinkhole synonymous with large-scale corruption. After the billions poured into the parastatal, there is little to crow about.

Nigeria’s attorney general, Abubakar Malami, said despite the fact that N6 trillion ($14bn)was allocated to NDDC over two decades, as many as 13,777 projects to improve the living conditions for people in the Niger Delta were “substantially compromised.”

“The Federal Government is particularly concerned with the colossal loss occasioned by uncompleted and unverified development projects in the Niger Delta region, in spite of the huge resources made available to uplift the living standard of the citizens,” the attorney general said.

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