Nigeria: Niger Delta stability key to economic success

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The key to Nigeria’s economic progress is stability in the Niger River Delta, where the bulk of the country’s oil and natural gas is produced and where a smoldering militancy and sabotage of production facilities threaten progress for the region’s 30 million residents, energy experts say.

David Goldwyn, the U.S. State Department’s coordinator for international energy affairs, told an April 13 panel discussion sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies that the Obama administration is “strongly committed to helping Nigeria with its problems” and “will bring the resources of the U.S. government” to bear in areas such as expanding electricity use to create jobs and bring economic benefits to the delta.

Nigeria is important to U.S. policymakers, Goldwyn said: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited in August 2009; President Obama met with Nigeria’s acting president, Goodluck Jonathan, on April 11; Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson has visited a number of times; and the U.S.-Nigeria Binational Commission was launched April 6.

All these efforts, the U.S. official told the panel, are meant “to bring all the parts of our government together to work with Nigeria as partners on solving some of the core problems facing the nation.” But “the lead … on strategies and plans … will come from the acting president and his Cabinet.”

The panel discussion was also attended by Oronto Douglas, a human rights lawyer and Niger Delta activist who co-founded Africa’s foremost environmental movement, Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria, and who has advised the Nigerian government on strategic issues of community and the environment. Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen was also in attendance.

Thijs Jurgens, Royal Dutch Shell’s senior adviser in government relations for Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, told the panel Nigeria is a country blessed with abundant energy resources. He said it is the world’s 11th largest oil producer and seventh largest holder of natural gas, accounting for 75 percent of the Nigerian government’s revenues.

But, since 2005, production has been significantly cut, Jurgens said, with more than $50 billion lost, much of it revenue to the Nigerian government, through theft, called bunkering, and sabotage by militant groups claiming the region has been environmentally devastated by oil companies without receiving a fair share of revenues.

After negotiating principally with the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the Nigerian government announced an amnesty late in 2009 that has had some success in getting militants to hand over their arms, but violence continues in the region.

Jonathan, who was in Washington attending the Nuclear Security Summit, told a gathering sponsored by the Atlantic Council that the delta amnesty program consisted of two important phases, disarmament and rehabilitation. “We are progressing” in both areas, he said, with a goal of “retraining and creating opportunities” for ex-militants.

Shell’s Jurgens said the oil industry “wholeheartedly supports” the amnesty program. He said his company has helped set up a retraining program for 12 ex-militant leaders. However, he added that the amnesty initiative is at “a low [point] and militants are losing their patience. We need to speed up the program.”

Panelist Dimieari Von Kemedi, a grass-roots activist and conflict resolution specialist who heads the Due Process and e-Governance Bureau for Nigeria’s Bayelsa State, agreed. He told the panel the delta peace process was being hammered out but that the slow pace of “demobilizing militants and alternate job creation” was a “worrying trend.”

Von Kemedi commends the Nigerian government for its efforts to defuse the crisis through negotiations and the amnesty program, but, he said, “the war against corruption needs to be escalated. It’s not necessary for American [charities] to go to the delta to build schools. All that needs to be done is to hold the Nigerian government accountable” for its plan to provide a 10 percent equity stake to communities in the delta in the delta’s joint-venture oil partnerships.

The U.S. goal of expanding electricity use in the delta was a good idea, Von Kemedi said, but “without the privatization of the power sector, it is not possible to ensure economic expansion and sustainable jobs.”

Jurgens concluded that of the 30 million people living in the delta, “most remain poor … after years of oil wealth.” He suggested the U.S. government could help the region by emphasizing good governance and anti-corruption; increasing regional security through surveillance of the Gulf of Guinea; and pushing for more transparent and credible elections.

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