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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 April, 2003, 13:01 GMT 14:01 UK
Nigeria's elections in the south

By Joseph Winter
BBC, Delta region

Nigeria earns some $10bn every year from oil but the residents of the oil-rich Niger Delta remain mired in poverty.

1: South East 2: North 3: North West 4: South 5: South West 6: Plateau State
How to distribute Nigeria's oil wealth is a key question of the 2003 election campaign.

"[President] Obasanjo has done nothing for the Ogoni people up to now," says Chief Jim Wiwa, father of the ethnic Ogoni activist and playwright, Ken Saro-Wiwa. But the Ogonis do not believe that any other party will do more for them, if there is a change of government following the elections.

Mr Saro-Wiwa was among the first to demand some of the benefits of Nigeria's oil wealth for residents of the Niger Delta.

In 1995 he, and eight other Ogoni activists, were hanged for their trouble by a military government.

Other communities in Nigeria's nine oil-producing states have also started to take on the powerful alliance of multinational oil companies and the federal government.

Local youths sometimes kidnap western oil workers until the oil companies pay a ransom or at least promise to build a school or health centre in their community.

Chief Jim Wiwa
Chief Jim Wiwa remains unhappy with the government
Last year, a group of women invaded an oil flow station in Escravos for several days, demanding jobs for their sons and husbands.

"Our oil money was used to build up Abuja and Lagos but we are still in darkness," student Levi Lenee told BBC News Online in Ken Saro-Wiwa's home village of Bane.

Bane looks little different to villages across Africa, served by a dirt road, many houses made from mud and people eking out a living from the land.


They feel they should be far better off because of their oil wealth. But on the contrary, they say that pollution from the nearby oil wells means their yams do not grow properly any more.

Near one of the wells in the neighbouring village of Yorla, the choking oil fumes mixed with the smoke of farmers burning stubble from their fields, in a suffocating combination.

Oil well
There is still lots of oil under Ogoniland but it is not being exploited
Some of the palm trees in this fertile region have turned brown and are losing their fronds.

Since the violence associated with Mr Saro-Wiwa's protests, the Yorla flow station has stopped working and local residents are still determined that their oil will not be exploited again, unless they are fully involved in both the plans and, above all, the benefits.

And the area remains tense.

When I visited, even accompanied by members of Mr Saro-Wiwa's Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop), we were stopped by a local youth and told we could not proceed unless we sought the permission of the local chief, Mene Nwilene.


The protests of Niger Delta residents have led to some action on the part of the government and the oil companies.

There is just one tap for the whole of Bane village, supplied by a local church but the water is for sale.
In December 2001, President Olusegun Obasanjo set up the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) to diffuse the feeling that the region's oil wealth was being used for other parts of Nigeria.

In two years, it has spent some 4bn naira ($28m) building schools, health centres and roads and bringing electricity and piped water to communities across the region.

Half of the funding comes from multinational oil companies and half from the federal government.

The NDDC is also training young people in everything from carpentry to computer literacy to collecting rubbish and setting up transport firms "to distract their attention away from violent tendencies" as NDDC head of corporate affairs Anietie Usen put it.

The NDDC is also thinking long-term and mapping out the region's infrastructure, so that new projects are built where they are most needed, not just in response to the latest protest by a particular community.

NDDC managing director Godwin Omene told BBC News Online that in this respect, the Niger Delta was "trail-blazing" for the rest of Nigeria.


But the Ogoni people are not impressed.

"We have not yet felt the impact of the NDDC," says Levi Lenee.

These minibus taxis will be given to youths and women to set them up in business
"We have had a lot of promises but seen anything yet."

Mr Omene insists that Ogoniland has not been forgotten by the NDDC. But he did point out that "it remains a no-go area for many people" which may delay the region's development.

One reason for the perception that the NDDC has done nothing for Ogoniland could be that, although many projects were ready a year ago, they only started being commissioned in March.

There are electricity pylons in Bane but no electricity. "Mere decoration" says seamstress Gloria Yegenee.

NDDC officials put the delay in getting the projects working down to a desire to commission lots of projects in one go - a "big-bang".

Cynics point out that it coincides neatly with the election period.

All nine Niger Delta state governors are from the ruling People's Democratic Party and they are all seeking re-election. NDDC chairman Chief Onyema Ugochukwu is closely involved with President Obasanjo's re-election campaign.

Mr Omene, who spent a long career with Shell in Nigeria, says he is a technocrat.

"It's a challenge being non-political in a political environment. I'm pleading with people to follow due process and be transparent."

On paper, the NDDC seems set to play a major role in improving the lives of Niger Delta residents and reducing instability in the region.

But if the funds and projects are cynically used for political purposes, little will change. Poverty and violence will remain the order of the day.











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