INCREASING NIGER DELTA CITIZENS' PARTICIPATION IN GOVERNANCE
Since 1999 when the baton of governance passed from military to civilian, not a day would pass without news of some kind of theft of public funds. In a front-page newspaper report of 8 July 2015, credited to the Daily Independent newspaper, the Nigerian Deposit Insurance Corporation, NDIC, said that in 2014 bank frauds and forgeries rose astronomically by 182%. In most cases, if it is not a minister spending so much public monies to buy bullet proof limousines, it would be that a governor has taken all the monies meant for the payment of the salaries of civil servants and dashed the lot to his girlfriends. The next we are likely to see and hear him do is a wringing of hands and a gnashing of teeth concerning an empty treasury. There are many such incidences in the Niger Delta, and with it come rampant youth unemployment, poverty and insecurity. Even though agencies such as NDDC, Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, DESOPADEC and EDSOGPADEC among others have been set up to accelerate the development of the region, poverty of development is at an all time high.
But then, why should Niger Deltans, the direct beneficiaries of 13% derivation fund and of the several agencies set up to alleviate their poverty still experience 'internal marginalization'? Why is the Niger Delta still poor in spite of the huge funds Deltans are allocated? Why is the Niger Delta still as underdeveloped as it is today? Why is it that many Niger Deltans do not know much about these Niger Delta Institutions, their budgets and the projects that they have purportedly carried out with the huge funds at their disposals? Why is it difficult to hold these government institutions accountable for the funds they receive for the development of the Niger Delta? Why is it seemingly impossible for the governors of the region to break even in spite of DESOPADEC, EDSOGPADEC, Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, NDDC and all of the key institutions put in place to assist with alleviating poverty? Why is there lack of transparency, accountability and good governance in the Niger Delta?
At a Niger Delta Civic Engagement Forum held recently in Port Harcourt, participants severally tried to respond to these questions. And of course, while they were at it with looking beyond the Niger Delta instead of inwards for solutions to its own problems, my attention was firmly riveted on a survey conducted by Martin Oluba, a professor of Economics and Founder, Value Fronteira Ltd. & Africa Analytics Roundtable. According to Oluba's survey, most Nigerians who are looking for information from government rely on radio, television, newspapers and on social media. The government as well as its agencies seeking to disseminate information about its policies and programmes look to disseminate information on their programmes and policies via these same sources as well. But our interactions with a great many Nigerian on the one hand, and with officials of the NDDC, the DESOPAGDEC, the EDSOGPAGDEC, reveal that the gap between the government and the governed is not a failure of these sources of information but in a failure in the public utilities that should convey these information to the Nigerian people. How many Nigerians have steady power supply so that when the NDDC or the EDSOGPADEC or the DESOPADEC is telling them what it has done, they would be able to see the completed projects being aired? How many Nigerians actually buy and read newspapers, particularly the publications stating what each state governor collects as allocation every month? How many local people use the internet or social media, especially when they cannot even get regular power supply?
To ascertain that indeed the information gap between government agencies and with the local communities indeed exists, some of our people at the Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice, ANEEJ, together with help from certain friends pounded the streets of Benin and Port Harcourt. Our strategy was to talk with three sets of people: men and women, the old and the not-so-old. What came off from that interrogation was a confirmation of the fact that even though the Niger Delta Development Agencies are indeed among the people, its projects are either completed, abandoned, ongoing or not there at all. While some want the Commissions scrapped, others told our team that indeed the NDDC has added value to their communities. But as a matter of fact, nobody is very sure of these claims and prevarication is the hallmark of the claims being made by both sides – government agencies and the local communities.
To defray these uncertainties, we have a selfie/movie competition on ongoing, abandoned or completed projects in the Niger Delta in the offing. We are persuaded that if it is able to take off as planned, we would be able to bridge that communication gap, and raise the level of awareness of our people so that they can begin to interrogate institutions in the Niger Delta. These Niger Delta government institutions have a list of projects that they claim that they have carried out. If we could get our people, young and old to take pictures, record abandoned, ongoing and completed projects in their phones and feed them into a database for public scrutiny, perhaps issues related to the ability or otherwise of these Niger Delta Institutions would be laid to rest once and for all. We have anticipated issues related to the mode of evaluation and the veracity of the documents and files to be uploaded, together with fears for the safety of people going to sites to take photos and selfies against the backdrop of abandoned or completed projects. These are resolvable issues and can be sorted out.
But the real issue is with the reality on ground, and that is that public awareness of government plans, projects and programmes is at an all-time low. The best way I think the government can give citizens a sense of belonging is for government to work hard at three things: one, increase the capacity of the average Nigerian to create wealth. For the average Nigerian to be so empowered to create wealth, he has to have power, power and power supply. Government will function better if the means with which the people scrutinise and criticize government comes from government.
At that concluded conference in Port Harcourt on increasing participatory citizen-led inclusive economic development in the Niger delta, held on 9th July, 2015 at the Presidential Hotel, several civil society groups including the Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice, ANEEJ, observed that the Niger Delta region has abundant human and financial resources that can facilitate sustainable development and diversification of its economy.
Therefore they decided to take a common position. In a statement signed by Innocent Edemhanria, Project officer for ANEEJ, together with 7 other leading CSOs in the Niger Delta, stakeholders were urged to try to overcome the challenges of the Niger Delta through participatory, transparent and accountable governance. The CSOs also noted wanted stakeholders to mitigate the crisis of youth unemployment in the region by giving attention to critical sectors like agriculture.
To this end, the statement made the following recommendations:
- Niger Delta States and development agencies such as NDDC, Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, EDSOGPADEC and DESOPADEC should ensure greater citizens participation and improved access to governance information for its citizens.
- There should be proper utilization of public resources and development partnership among the States in the zone.
- Agricultural policies need to work in the Niger Delta so that there will increased production of food and inclusive economic development which will contribute to job creation for youths and women.
- The appropriation laws (budget) of Niger Delta States should be open, participatory and easily accessible.
- We encourage National Assembly and respective State Assemblies to step up oversight on Niger Delta Institutions, such as NDDC, Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, and Oil and Gas Commissions, to improve their effectiveness.
- All States should be committed to the promotion of social inclusion in governance process to address development gaps facing the region
- Niger Delta States and Institutions should urgently address the huge crisis of youth unemployment in the region through well-tailored polices for young people's development and participation
- The governments of the Niger Delta States need to make addressing youth employment a key priority and formulate effective policies that will provide the financial resources to address unemployment and youth poverty in the region.
***Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku, is Communications manager with the Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice, ANEEJ.