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• Ugwuoha
Poor as the state of infrastructure in the Niger Delta is, Mr. Chibuzor Ugwuoha, managing director of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), says the key to lasting peace and long-term development of the region lies in development of human capital. This is why the commission under his leadership has laid emphasis capacity development without compromising on its mandate to improve infrastructure in the Niger Delta. He granted this interview in Abuja.

You've been on the saddle at the NDDC for over a year now, what would you consider as the basic issues in the Niger Delta today?

The environment is so unfriendly and people have no access to basic infrastructure and there is the issue of the oil and gas pollutions as a result of the oil and gas activities going on across the Niger Delta. Some people will say we were farming; now we are no longer farming and so on. There are people here who are hungry and we need to address the issue of hunger. There are so many problems we are contending with. We have different ways of getting to where we are going. But the issue is, which of these solutions will lead us to where we should be if we have a target of transforming this area in about 15 years? Which is the best way to reach there? There are different ways to get there.

For us when we got there, we felt we had to understand what is happening and what the basic needs are. We want to see food on everybody's table. But if you want to eat you must work; you will see some people who are restive because they are not using their energy well. We have people who have no access to medical services, people who cannot move because there are no roads and the canals are not open. We have people who are living on top of water but have no water to drink! There are people who cannot communicate because there are no communication facilities around them, no GSM.

So something must be done. How do we solve these problems? One way to solve the problem is to provide infrastructure but where is the money? Everywhere in the economy is begging for attention. And it costs much more to build roads and bridges in the Niger Delta because of the terrain. So it needs serious thoughts and efforts to move the place forward. So we started there.

The Niger Delta is not just about oil and gas; it is blessed with agriculture too. Some people were hunters, farmers and fishermen, these provided them means of livelihood. Then suddenly, they discovered they cannot engage in these activities any longer because of oil pollution. And we discovered that the oil industry is taking a whole lot of their land but do they have their people working there?

So, if we have done it this way for many years and we are not making reasonable progress, what more do we do? We must change our attitude a little; we must change our strategy a little, if we must move forward. So for us, we felt that this administration will look at issues, not undermining infrastructure, we are going to see how we can scale up in the area of human capital development because we see that as the way forward.

For instance, we want to build a road; we need engineers, surveyors, drivers, machine operators and many others. In all these, jobs are created. You need the right people to do these jobs. Oil and gas business is capital intensive and requires specialised skills. It's not an all comers' business. So we need to change the people; we need to make them have the skills to be able to contribute. We cannot build the Niger Delta with people from other places alone and expect our people to be employed or to have food on their table. They need to get involved. So we need to prepare them to participate actively in their own development.

We need to provide health services to the people but we don't have to recruit the doctors from somewhere else. We need to train our own people to be able to provide health services to our people. We don't need to go to Cotonou (Benin Republic) to recruit workers to tile the houses we are building here. Those youths who would have done it here will be without jobs, and you know the consequence of that. There will be a disconnect between the economic activities going on here and the people's economy. The oil and gas sector accounts for about 90 percent of the economy and the people of the area don't have the skills to work in the oil economy. You need to employ somebody who will create wealth for you, not just somebody who will just fill the number!

Again, we have another situation where the economy of the people is not synchronised with the economic activities going on in the region. When we saw all these we felt the way to move forward is to link these two together, connect them. If I'm living in a house, I'll not destroy the house but if the proceeds from this house are not adding to my economy, then, I can do anything with this house because it does not matter to me what happens to it. So when we emphasise human capital development, we are doing that because we believe we are fighting poverty, restiveness and militancy. We are bringing about peace and it would boost the economy of Nigeria because if the oil economy is not interrupted, we will have money to develop the country. Nobody throws stones in a market where your relations could be hit. But if they are not there anything can happen and you wouldn't care. You can even throw bomb. So there is the need to connect the people to the oil and gas economy; there was peace when it was an agriculture economy because the people were in control. But with oil, they became strangers in their own land and decided to take it by force. The best way is to prepare them to have, and have it rightly.

This philosophy informs our drive in human capital development.

Besides human capital development, which other areas does the commission consider priorities?

We still accord high priorities to infrastructure development. The Federal Executive Council approved 45 mega projects for us worth over N180 billion. So we are not slacking in infrastructure development but what we are insisting on is that those contracts should create jobs for the people; that there should be a connection. If the people of the Niger Delta are participating, you will find that one contract alone will create so many jobs for a whole lot of people and when a man is occupied making money, I'm not sure anybody wants to die when you have a means of livelihood.

Was there no human capital development programmes before you came in as the managing director?

I'm not saying so. But when we came in, we refocused it so that we can be looking at skills, programmes that will create the desired skills, according to the demand in the market. What we are doing now is to identify the areas of need and redirect our youths to those areas such that they can get jobs after school.

We saw that the Nollywood industry is thriving; people are making money out of it. To leverage on this lucrative industry, we sent 250 youths to be trained at the New York Film Academy. Some of them are already gainfully employed today. We established a training programme in wielding. Prior to this, what we had were roadside welders whose skills are not up to the standard required in the oil industry. They need well trained professionals. We discovered that in the oil industry; most of the wielding jobs are being done by Asians, Lebanese, people from Bangladesh, Philippines, Indonesia and others. If you know the amount of money they are paid, many people will send their children to become welders!  We went into collaboration with Nigerian Institute of Welding. We equipped a workshop in Petroleum Training Institute (Warri) and brought in experts from overseas to train Nigerians.

The selection of those who will be trained went through competitive bidding. We advertised, people applied and wrote examination. The best 25 were taken, irrespective of which state they came from, once you are from the Niger Delta. They were trained in Nigeria and later taken to South Africa. Twenty-five of them passed and today, we have added to the number that previously existed, 25 internationally certified welders, bringing the total number to 38 in Nigeria. These 25 signed a bond with us to train other people for us, and today, they are training 700 people. These 700, after their training we send them out for certification and we believe that within the shortest possible time, there will be no room for Lebanese and others to take over our oil and gas industry.  We have the people; we should give them the skills to create money for the country, and create wealth for themselves and build their communities.

Similarly, we know that Nigerian universities train engineers but what the oil industry needs are specialised engineers. So we decided to also go into the training of drilling engineers. We advertised, a whole lot of people applied and they were screened. About 5,000 applied, we needed only 365.  We brought in Americans and Nigerians, some of whom have had about 40 years drilling experience. They are here in Nigeria, training specialised engineers. They take them to the oil rigs for practicals. We believe that all of them will be employed; in fact, some companies are already approaching us to employ them at the end of their training. These are well targeted training depending on needs.

And you don't need to know the managing director, or any person in the commission, provided you have what it takes, to get selected. It's entirely on merit. A whole lot of people who are running our programmes today don't even know where the headquarters of NDDC is located!

We have concluded arrangements to send 1000 youths to Namibia and Norway to undergo training in underwater welding, cabling and rig maintenance. These services are being provided by non-Nigerians and that is why our unemployment rate is rising daily. We have taken the bull by the horn to train in the best schools where other people train; when they come back, we will have round pegs in round holes.

In addition, we have also sent 250 youths to Oron Maritime Academy.  From our analysis, we discovered that there are over 10, 000 vacancies in the maritime sector, and there are unemployed Nigerians. So we feel it is necessary to prepare them to take over these jobs. These are not low cadre people; they are going to enter the industry at high level .

Still in that vision, we have instituted other post graduate programmes for graduates: medical doctors, engineers, geologists, geo-physicists, environmentalists, computer graduates and others.

Some have gone; some are processing their papers to travel.

Two hundred of them are currently on the programme. Some are running masters programme; while some are running PhD programmes. We feel that this group can feel the upper echelon jobs within and outside the oil industry when they complete their programmes. This will be an annual exercise. The NNPC and oil companies will have no excuse whatsoever to say our people have no skills to fill those positions in the oil industry!

When we came in, we discovered that universities have been churning out graduates every year and no jobs. I have a cousin who graduated in 1999 and till now he has no job. I don't know if he would be happy to send his children to school. Some of the jobless have lost hope; they don't believe in Nigeria again.

What is the Niger Delta Technical Aids Corps all about?

The idea behind this is to create jobs through the economic activities in the region. There are many businesses which are going under because they cannot afford the wages of critical personnel to run critical areas. For instance, supermarkets need accountants but they feel they cannot pay; engineering companies need engineers but some cannot pay competitive salary.  The consequence is bad for the country, like buildings collapsing because they could not pay for the right people to supervise the construction. This programme is intended to fill that gap. You don't have enough money but you need their expertise. When they work for you they create money for you, and value for the society and themselves. So what we did was to get them employed and post them to those areas where they are needed. The beneficiaries pay them N15, 000 monthly, and NDDC pays N30, 000. At the end of the month this man who was unemployed will go home with a total of N45, 000.

Definitely, it will be better than nothing. He is garnering experience and building his curriculum vitae; that way, when there is vacancy he will have the relevant cognate experience to apply. The programme also provides needed skilled workers to the education and health sectors.

What's the response like?
When we advertised, over 57,000 graduates applied! Out of these, we could only employ 2,000. So, with this, you can see the problem of this at a glance, and why there is high crime rate. We are not only developing the Niger Delta; we are building Nigeria through this programme. People have conquered the world; they are conquering the moon but we have not conquered our kitchen!

When we came on board, we met programmes on computer training on the ground but it was more of computer appreciation. Our analysis showed that it was not adding much value, so we reviewed it to make it more result oriented. For instance, you studied accounting, but at the university nobody thought you the accounting computer packages that you need. We have gone beyond ordinary accounting. Today, people are in the digital age but we are producing analogue graduates. So in our programme now, you can choose which of the accounting packages you want to learn, after which you can apply for work anywhere in the world with confidence. The same thing with engineering; if you need to design a house there are packages that you need. We are bringing our youths to that age so that they will be able to match any other graduate in the world. That is the kind of computer programme we are now running for all courses. We are training them in Oracle, Cisco and many others.

When you look at all these things, you will note that they have something in common. It is no longer business as usual. Nigeria has remained where we are because of this. We also have challenges because people resist change but we are determined to see it through because it is the right way to go.