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Tuesday, 11 December, 2001, 18:53 GMT
Boost for Nigeria Delta
Delta family
The Delta produces most of Nigeria's wealth
Dan Isaacs

Although the Niger Delta region is the source of Nigeria's great oil wealth, it remains one of the least developed regions of the country.

Such neglect in the midst of plenty has been the source of major instability in the region over many years.

When the oil comes, the fishes float down the rivers with their bellies upwards. When you open them up, the oil pours out.

Godwin Jonah
The kidnapping of oil workers is a regular occurrence, as is the invasion of oil installations by local youths demanding jobs and money.

Nigerian Government and community leaders from the troubled Delta region have gathered in the southern city of Port Harcourt for a conference aimed at creating a better environment for development.

There is also the prospect of significantly improved funding for the region channelled through a new government body, the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), which is hosting these talks.


In organising the conference, the NDDC says it is bringing together a broad coalition of groups to shape a broad coalition for the region.

But some pressure groups have chosen to stay away from the meeting, arguing that the NDDC is just another mechanism for enriching local politicians and businessmen at the expense of the local communities.

That at least is the position of Oronto Douglas, of Environmental Rights Action (ERA), a group representing the interests of the ethnic Ijaw communities of the Delta.

Fisherman and woman
Fish stocks have been hit by pollution

Mr Douglas told BBC News Online that he would not be attending the conference because there had been no real consultations between the organisers and the peoples of the Delta.

The NDDC, he said, was "just another government behemoth, a barrier placed between our people and the resources which rightfully belong to them".

These concerns are echoed across the Delta, a complex network of swamp and rivers at the mouth of the great Niger river.


For over four decades, oil has been pumped from the region by multi-national oil companies such as Shell, Texaco and Agip.

In a thousand small towns like Akassa, lying on a coastal strip where one of the river Niger's tributaries meets the sea, there are virtually no signs of the benefits the local population expected when the oil companies first came.

Akassa has no roads, no mains electricity, no telephones and certainly no mains water supply.

It's just the same old jamboree, flying in governors and other dignitaries from all over the country

Oronto Douglas

Worse still, traditional occupations such as fishing have been severely affected by the pollution from the regular oil spills, and the flaring of gas has been a serious environmental hazard for a generation - causing health problems, and crop failure in nearby communities.

Godwin Jonah, a fisherman in Akassa all his life, says that regular oil spillages over many years have done very serious damage to the environment.

"When the oil comes," he says, "the fishes float down the rivers with their bellies upwards. When you open them up, the oil pours out. It has changed all our lives."


The oil companies say they are addressing these problems much more seriously than in the past.

Shell, in particular, is committed to ending gas flaring by 2008 and now funds a $60m per year community programme working with the local population to improve conditions and meet their development needs for earning a better livelihood in the Delta.

The NDDC conference in Port Harcourt is a sign that the government and the oil companies have taken many of the criticisms of previous failed developments policies to heart.

Delta village
Delta residents want more infrastructure

But there remains a great deal of suspicion and mistrust from within the local communities.

Oronto Douglas of the ERA says of these latest talks: "It's just the same old jamboree, flying in governors and other dignitaries from all over the country. But the ordinary people of the Delta will remain very disillusioned until they see real improvements actually on the ground".

If the NDDC is to achieve where other initiatives have so clearly failed, it is going to have to confront these criticisms head on.

Its chairman, Onyeama Ugochukwu, says he wants to kick things off quickly so that people see early benefits.

This he intends to do by completing some of the more than 1,000 projects - roads, jetties and bridges - started under previous initiatives but never completed.

But in the longer term, Mr Ugochukwu's approach will be "not to tell people what we intend to do, but to ask them what they want from us."

See also:

27 Aug 01 | Africa
Rig hostages freed in Nigeria
28 Apr 00 | Africa
Nigeria's Delta seeks development
06 Nov 98 | Africa
Fighting the oil firms
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