Niger Delta's window for change

The largest militant group in Nigeria's volatile oil-rich region called for a truce this week after the country's new president promised improvements for the people.

Deep in the heart of Nigeria's volatile petroleum-producing region, Charity Jonah-Jim and her family survive on oil production – not crude oil, but crudely produced palm oil that she and her children make by hand.

Ms. Jonah-Jim and her children earn $10 a week making cooking oil from palm kernels only yards away from pipes carrying millions of dollars of oil away from their troubled Niger Delta region each year. She strains to think how Nigeria's vast oil reserves – which provide the US with more than 10 percent of its oil – have bettered her life. "The road!" she exclaims at last. The tarmac of an access road built by Royal Dutch Shell is an ideal place to chop the palm kernels.

Jonah-Jim's village of Umuechem is in Rivers State, which receives over $1 billion a year from the federal government for health, education, infrastructure, and other basic services. Various multinational oil companies have poured millions of dollars into development projects. Shell, the largest operator, says it spent over $50 million on community development projects in 2006 alone.

Despite the money that has flowed through the delta, most residents here are still without clinics, schools, water, and electricity. But some aid workers say they are seeing improvements by working more closely with communities. Their success could be a valuable lesson for oil companies and for Nigeria's new president, Umaru Yar'Adua, who has promised to bring stability to the delta, where militias and criminal gangs have forced a 25 percent cut in oil production.

"Umuechem is typical of what happens when community development goes wrong or gets corrupted," says Chris Newsom, adviser to the London-based Stakeholder Democracy Network, which works in the delta. "It is not the case that all projects are like that, but enough of them are to create a huge relationship problem between communities and companies."

Anger directed at oil companies

Anger in the delta is as palpable as the humid heat that hangs over its labyrinth of mangrove creeks. "We need development. When we have development, when we have employment, then we are OK," says Anthony Borgbara, who subsists on farming and fishing. "But when there's no money, we're angry."

Much of the fury is directed at oil companies. Aid workers say this is because the oil companies are a physical presence in communities – their pipelines and gas flares standing high above the trees – while neither the Nigerian federal or state government has had little or no direct impact on people's lives.

Since 1997, Shell has contributed to development efforts in Nigeria that vary from providing for basic needs to building costly infrastructure projects. But 10 years later, communities like Umuechem say they have little to show for it.

Shell promised the people of Umuechem schools, a new clinic, and clean drinking water, says Kelvin Agbam, chairman of Umuechem's Community Development Committee. Strolling through the village, he points out a line of water taps that have not flowed for years, an incomplete secondary school where a lesson has never been taught, and the site for the village clinic where he says no one has ever been treated.

"This is all we have from Shell since 1958," says Mr. Agbam, standing in the half-built secondary school. There should be science classrooms, toilets, and accommodation for the school principal, says Agbam.

Shell blames the lack of progress on theft and "internal community crisis."

"The armored [water pipe] cable was dug up and stolen twice between 2003 and 2006, and [Shell] replaced it on each occasion," wrote Diezani Alison-Madueke, external affairs director of Shell Petroleum Development Corporation, in an e-mail.

"When we went into the delta, we found a huge number of failed or abandoned projects," says Bill Knight of Pro-Natura International, a Paris-based development group that has operated in the delta since 1997. Often communities are not consulted about their needs, or development is driven by contractors who build things that nobody wants, says Mr. Knight.

Corruption is often to blame, too, he says, pointing out that an interstate highway proposed decades ago – and paid for by the federal government a number of times – has yet to be built.

"Nigeria is very hierarchical, and people enjoy hierarchy and like business as usual," says Knight. "People inside oil companies, politicians, and government – they were all benefiting from the system."

Knight says the key to successful development lies in asking what they want and getting them involved in its delivery. Although it's not a new idea, it's increasingly catching on with stakeholders in the delta, he says.

A new strategy?

"Certainly in the last few months there are signs of a terrific change in the way that oil companies are thinking," says Knight, who adds that his group is increasingly being sought out as the implementing partner for oil companies with funds for development. And it's not just oil firms. Pro-Natura's work has also caught the attention of politicians such as the new vice president Goodluck Jonathan, who was a delta state governor.

Promises of change are being made at the very top of Nigeria's political pyramid, too. At his inauguration last week, Mr. Yar'Adua promised to find a solution for the delta crisis within his first three months.

Yar'Adua's first initiative – a Niger Delta Summit – has already been postponed. Still, the new president's calls for dialogue contrast with his predecessor who repeatedly said "criminals" and "miscreants" were the root cause of the trouble in the delta.

On Saturday, the delta's largest militant group, Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) said it would halt attacks on oil installations for a month to give dialogue a chance.

Bring substantive economic development and the militancy will melt away, the MEND spokesman told The Monitor by e-mail: "When a city is prosperous, few care who is king."

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