The news that President Goodluck Jonathan, while campaigning in the Delta State capital Asaba, pledged that if elected he would “refocus the (Niger Delta Development Commission), NDDC to generate people oriented projects rather than crises “has raised public scrutiny on the entire idea of Niger Delta Development leaning on the NDDC strategy. Instead of fostering development no matter how it is defined outside the rising poverty index, the organization has come under scrutiny and according to some is generally regarded as vehicle of corruption and prebendalism.

The genesis of NDDC was largely a response to rising demands of the population of the Niger Delta Region a populous largely riverine area of Southern Nigeria inhabited by a diversity of minority ethnic groups. During the 1990s these ethnic groups, most notably the Ijaw and the Ogoni established organizations like to confront the Nigerian government and multinational oil companies like Shell Petroleum Development Company, SPDC,. The minorities of the Niger Delta have continued to agitate and articulate demands for greater autonomy and control of their natural resources. Their grievances were justified by the extensive environmental degradation and pollution from oil activities that have operated in the region since 1956. However, the minority communities of oil producing areas received little or no currency from the multi-billion dollar, industry which appeared to line only the pockets of foreign multinationals and corrupt government officials; while environmental remediation measures remained limited and negligible. The region was and is still highly underdeveloped, with high poverty index even going by Nigeria's low quality of life.

The circumstances eventually precipitated active and sometimes violent confrontation with the Nigerian State and oil companies, as well as with other communities. As a result, oil production was adversely affected as disaffected youth or organizations deliberately disrupted oil operations in attempts to effect change. These disruptions were an extremely costly venture to the Nigerian oil industry, the multinationals and the federal government with vested interest in uninterrupted extraction operations. Oil companies had tried to bring sustainable development to the region on individual basis but failed. Consensus had it that development be pursued within an institutional framework as a joint venture of all stakeholders through a Master Plan. NDDC was the result of these attempts at satisfying the demands for peace and sustainable development of the Niger Delta's restive population.

So the PDP government of President Obasanjo fulfilled his 1999 electioneering promise by establishing the Commission in the year 2000 with a mandate of “improving social and environmental conditions in the South-South region, which it acknowledges as horrific in its own reports. To achieve its mandate, the NDDC board identified the following areas of focus: Development of social and physical infrastructure Technology Economic revival and prosperity Ecological/environmental remediation and stability Human development.

The first problem that confronts researchers is determining exactly what constitutes the NDDC strategy considering that 11 years into its existence it is not unable to agree on a Master plan for developing the Niger Delta region, nor has it agreed to date as to the size of the region. The most annoying part is that the NDDC has not decided on a common management goal. Like the President pointed out, is it to “cause crises” or to evolve peace?. In other words is management to evolve a representation for political goal or is it to become efficient enough to engender satisfactory project implementation. Even the term satisfactory project execution must be independently determined. Is the NDDC to provide political grooming ground for awaiting political aspirants, in which case we need not expect them to perform magic? You cannot have both goals fulfilled. Perhaps we can say that the political grooming has elevated the Niger delta position in the political sphere as today we have the President emerging from the region. This in itself is arguable but today we have the litany of woes, abandoned projects and neglect to tell the story across the Region. Poverty has taken an even greater driving seat despite the opulence of very few who received blank cheques from the existence of the Commission.

It is more understandable now why the President is proposing a refocus. As the April election approach, those who accumulated wealth from the fluid situations in the commission are using their power to create crises. The conditions have changed drastically in favor of the South- South Region politically so trouble making earlier viewed as a way for the region to grab its own share of the elusive Federal wealth is now out of fashion. Any ambition that negates that of the President is likely to be viewed as counterproductive and self serving or rather serving an outside master. So the thinking is changing and the real possibility of returning the NDDC to a professionally oriented commission is determined. Fortunately the commission started well and can only return to the hopeful ideals of its early days before tribalism overwhelmed and clouded its focus. I have said it many a time that development is not a function of who brings it about. The bane of Nigerian development is this mix-up. We look downwards too easily and focus on the person instead of the production. Will the new NDDC focus on the goal rather than the person? Going by the pedigree of the President so far, starting from my close knowledge of his attitude to such things, I believe bearing the constraints of this system he can refocus by professionalizing the NDDC management. What I cannot guarantee is whether this attitude will necessarily produce the optimal result without adequate restructuring of the polity itself. My fear as always is that It is always difficult for a sitting President to restructure a polity without pushing himself out of power, so the restructuring option will probably remain a mirage. But progress will be made with an informed President in power for a change. This to me, is the real deal in returning the President to Power.

I do not have to bring graphic details to show that the NDDC option has not really “made a difference”, whatever that means. Some would argue that it has done just that, especially where strict yardsticks for performance is waved. The other day I watched with my mouth open as a politician from Bayelsa State who headed the Commission for a considerable portion of its existence, was flaunting NDDC projects as evidence of his capability to lead Baylsa State if voted into office. It was on AIT television and I confess that this was really an eye sore of abandoned projects, most of them overgrown with weeds, and a great number of them not functional. These were billion naira projects down the drain. Why would he show us these ones as well I wondered? It is even suggested that the most critical of these projects such as the pipe borne water projects stopped working as soon as they were commissioned or were abandoned halfway. This allegation may be really unfair or may not be this extreme but a grain of truth was visible in this video for why would the riverine communities still be yearning for pipe born water a decade later? Why would the Niger Delta poverty index rise steadily instead of fall with increasing revenue allocation to the Region? Why are the communities not yet accessible by road?

I had pointed out elsewhere that it is tempting to adorn the political prism and overlook the obvious fact that the NDDC is to blame and go on to lay the blame on the hapless States in the Region. Maybe the States will have their blame in another dimension of this analysis but if you read the opening paragraphs introducing the Commission, you would understand that the NDDC came to help remove the excessive burden of localized planning and execution of projects and programmes from bodies such as the oil companies, the States, Local Councils etc. So if the burden now returns to these States, then the NDDC has failed. Of course the reasons for failure may also be attributable to the States, in which case they have a case to answer but not the least in the same proportion with the Commission. With so much given to it the NDDC should have shown leadership amongst the nine States of the Niger Delta Region instead of following behind. It could neither unite nor influence the States not just because of obvious structural difficulties arising from its mandate but because it lacked quality leadership. It lacked focus and vision, and was as clouded as its management. Indeed it is unable to extricate itself from yearning for the crumbs falling from the masters table when it could go for the real food awaiting its command to become manifest.

The NDDC was turned into a political competitor of the constituent States so from the outset it could not get the states to cooperate by paying their dues. Furthermore, the Commission could not get the States to key into its policies and programmes thereby creating unsustainable projects within the State’s jurisdiction. I recall vividly when we were contracted by the NDDC in 2005 to collate feedback of stakeholders in the States for inclusion into the final draft of the Master plan. Earlier these drafts had gone out to these stakeholders and we worked day and night to gather interesting ideas even from State governors but alas this vital document was not taken into consideration because some top officials had already gone to press before the report was submitted and they produced a final draft aimed at satisfying expedient political needs at that time.

I was dumbfounded that the Commission could expend such huge sums of money, men and materials to produce a Master Plan without anyone raising an eyebrow. As we all know the published Master plan was hanging on the air unable to reach the ground and therefore not implementable. I was one of the foremost critics of the document in my piece “A departure from the Niger Delta Master plan” published in 2006. Now that the President has seen the need to refocus the Commission, it is important that we understand better the circumstances that compelled the NDDC to snatch defeat from the very jaws of victory.

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