the deplorable condition of living of the Niger Delta communities was recently the main focus of discussions in Abuja at a conference to mark 50 years of oil exploration in Nigeria. The concerns expressed at the golden jubilee conference of oil exploration although belated is not unexpected because poverty, unemployment, deprivation and environmental degradation are widespread in the Niger Delta communities despite the huge economic contribution these communities make to national development. This state of affairs in the Niger Delta is avoidable because the region hosts over 90 per cent of the crude oil reserves which account for more than 80 per cent of the country's revenue. Earnings from oil exploration from the region sustain the rest of the nation. This is why it is indefensible that the region has remained the least developed part of Nigeria.
This explains the restiveness of youths in the region. In other countries of the world, resources from a particular area are never used to develop other parts at the expense of communities that produce the commodity that yields the revenue. Vice President Goodluck Jonathan's submission at the conference that the resolution of the region's crisis must be done in a systematic and comprehensive manner in the overall interest of the communities and the country is saying the obvious. Militant groups like Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend), Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force (NDPVF) and others engaged in kidnapping expatriate and Nigerian oil workers would not have emerged and gained prominence if the government had given the oil producing communities their fair share of the revenue from the sale of crude oil.
Unlike the militants engaged in kidnapping and demanding resource control, Jonathan's position is that of dialogue. As he put it, "government has given serious thought as to how best to bring about a win-win situation on the matter of the Niger Delta." This must be commended. But government must pursue this win-win situation vigorously because the Niger Delta communities have suffered untold hardship in the last 50 years of oil exploration in the area. Commercial deposits of oil were first discovered at Oloibiri in Ogiba Local Government Area of Bayelsa State in 1956 by Shell D'Arcy later renamed Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) Unlimited, which secured its oil exploration licence in 1938. However, the first shipment to the international market was in 1958. Since then, many more oil fields have been discovered in other communities and exploited by other multinational oil companies.
Currently, there are 11 major oil companies operating 159 oil fields and 1,481 oil wells in the Niger Delta. The country has also generated huge revenue from exploiting these oil fields. Although largely misused, some of the revenue have been used for development purposes in different parts of the country. Paradoxically however, Oloibiri and other oil producing communities of the Niger Delta continue to suffer from the proverbial oil curse of neglect.
Fifty years on, the federal government has yet to provide basic infrastructure for most of the Niger Delta communities even as other social amenities which could have made life easier for the indigenes are virtually non-existent. For instance, while villages in the creeks of Niger Delta still rely on the use of canoes and boats to access each other, the government is busy spending revenue generated from the sale of crude oil on artistic infrastructure in other parts of the country and some government officials are busy siphoning the revenue illegally out of the country. It is saddening that despite the volume of energy resources in the Niger Delta, the communities still do not have electricity. Except for perhaps Yenagoa, capital of Beyalsa State, which was connected to the national grid in October 2006, all other parts of Bayelsa State, one of the largest oil producing states in the Niger Delta, have yet to enjoy electricity.
It is time for government to back its promises of developing the Niger Delta with action. These promises go way back to the 1958 Sir Henry Willink's Commission report which recommended, among other things, that the Niger Delta deserved special development attention. Based on this commission's report, the government established the Niger Delta Development Board (NDDB) in 1960 to cater for the development needs of the Niger Delta. Between 1979 and 2006, there have been various government agencies saddled with the development of the Niger Delta. Theses included a presidential task force which devoted 1.5 per cent of the Federation Account to the development of the Niger Delta, the Justice Alfa Belgore commission, the Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission (Ompadec), the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) which prepared the Niger Delta Development Plan in 2006. If all these efforts had been faithfully implemented there is no doubt that the root causes of the Niger Delta restiveness would have been identified and resolved.
The NDDC was supposedly meant to identify the root causes of underdevelopment in the Niger Delta and suggest ways of improving them. The commission is to build on existing structures rather than the usual 'tear-down-and-start-again' syndrome, which had bred mistrust and disillusionment. Among projects contained in the master plan are rail lines, construction of roads and industrial parks as well as building of business clusters. If these are to be achieved, then the federal government must disburse funds as and when due to the NDDC because the development of the Niger Delta can no longer be put on hold.