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Thursday, 22 April, 1999, 16:28 GMT 17:28 UK
The Akassa approach
People in the Niger Delta live between water and land - not yet by oil
By John Egan

On a group of three sandbar islands facing the Atlantic Ocean, a quiet revolution is taking place. Away from the prying eyes of Nigeria's military rulers, a clan of 30,000 people have turned their community into a corporation, a separate legal entity with its own constitution. Traditional powers are being devolved from local chiefs to an elected board of trustees.

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The area of the Niger Delta is shaded yellow
What is happening in a little-known place called Akassa, right at the southernmost tip of Nigeria, on the site of one of the oldest trading posts in the nation, could provide a blueprint for improving the lives of millions of other Nigerians. By applying local solutions, and insisting on local decision-making, projects being run here are escaping the rampant corrution and waste which have destroyed other ventures in Nigeria and elsewhere.

The Niger Delta is one of the most extraordinary landscapes in the world. After snaking its way for more than a thousand miles through Guinea, Mali and Niger, the Delta is where the River Niger finally greets the Atlantic Ocean. A vast expanse of rivers, creeks and canals, the Delta covers an area almost as large as Scotland. There are thousands of miles of freshwater swamp-forest as well as the worlds largest remaining mangrove forest.

The landscape of the Delta is quiet, but life is far from peaceful
About nine million people live in this harsh but beautiful region. Most are extremely poor; the majority live in palm-thatched huts without electricity, sanitation or running water. People eke a living from fishing, trading in the area's network of town markets, or as small farmers. Educational and healthcare facilities are almost non-existent.

For decades, incredible wealth has poured out of this Delta in the form of oil. Yet far from enriching their lives, oil has had a negative impact on most people here. Frequent spillages have devastated fish stocks, and the practice of "flaring off" excess gas, has damaged many peoples' health. Now forty years after oil was first discovered in Nigeria, the people of the Delta are growning increasingly restive.

Ever since the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists in 1995, this region has been seething with anger. Saro-Wiwa had been fighting against environmental degradation of his native Ogoniland by the Shell oil company. But now the dispute has spread far beyond the small area of the Ogoni people to a vast swathe of the Delta, occupied by scores of different ethnic groups, and the focus of people's anger is not just the environment, but the unequal sharing-out of oil wealth.

In recent months, a series of attacks on oil pumping stations and underwater pipelines, kidnappings of oil company staff and hijackings of their boats has brought this long-running crisis to a head. Oil production has been severely curtailed and the economic effects have been felt throughout Nigeria. Oil is the largest source of foreign revenue in this, Africa's most populous nation. Defusing this crisis is probably the single greatest challenge facing the new civilian government of President-elect Olusegun Obasanjo which will take power on May 29th.

Akassa is still without electricity or running water
While the Niger Delta bubbles with anger, one small community is trying to take control of its own destiny. The Akassa Clan represent a glimmer of hope for this troubled region. Although no oil is directly produced in their community, the Akassa people have suffered their share of oil spillages and pollution. However with the help of Pro Natura, an international development organisation, the Akassa clan has turned itself into a Corporation with a democratically elected board of trustees which works like a "peoples' parliament".

It may sound like a small step, but in a county like Nigeria - plagued by rampant corruption and mutual mistrust - the formation of a truly community-based Corporation which is trustworthy, transparent and directly accountable to its electorate is quite remarkable.

John Egan interviews King I.N. Anthony
The quiet revolution that is taking place in Akassa is being nurtured by a modest and visionary king. His Royal Majesty King I.N.Anthony is the head chief of the Akassa clan. A working monarch, King Anthony owns a number of oil barges and tugboats and operates as a sub-contractor to the oil industry. From the start, he had to agree to devolve some of his traditional powers of decision making to the Akassa "peoples' parliament". Furthermore, he convinced many other chiefs in Akassa to follow his lead and to support this ground-breaking experiment in local democracy.

The basic building block of this new project is a network of self-help groups called ogbos An ogbo is a small group of people who share a similar trade, interest or hobby. There are separate obgos for fishermen, fish-smokers, petty traders and even traditional dancers. The main point of the associations members of ogbos do is save small sums of money on a regular basis.

The ogbo system is helping families like this to launch new ventures
Most ogbo members save about 100 Naira a week. (equivalent to 65p Stg). Once a sufficient fund has accumulated, the ogbos lend money to their own members. If its books are in order then an ogbo may apply for a loan from the Akassa Corporation. This type of micro-credit has transformed the economy of Akassa. For the very first time, many people have access to funds they could only have dreamed of previously.

Samson Elei, teacher turned fisherman, and his wife
The initial success of the "peoples' parliament" is due to the calibre of the candidates who have just been elected. Samson Elei is a teacher turned fisherman. When his salary was left unpaid by the Federal Government, Samson returned to the river to feed his family. A quiet-spoken and thoughtful man, he's excited by the prospect of helping his community develop. Even though spending hours debating issues in the parliament makes it harder for him to provide for his family, he believes the effort is worthwhile.

Ayebaiduate Agiri is known as Akassa's barefoot banker. A retired bank manger by profession he recently returned to Akassa and trains people who have set up Ogbos to keep proper accounts of all monies saved and loans disbursed. Mr. Agiri also audits the accounts of ogbos which apply for loans from the Corporation to make sure that there is no leakage of funds.

John Egan talks to Bill Knight of Pro Natura
What is happening in Akassa is truly extraordinary. Bill Knight, of the development agency Pro Natura, has spent the last two years in Akassa fostering this unusual experiment in local democracy. Born in Kenya, Bill has lived in Africa all his life. For the past 27 years he's been in Nigeria and has seen at first hand how one of the wealthiest countries in Africa has squandered both its economic and human resources. He is convinced that the setting up of the Akassa Corporation not only marks a watershed for the community, but may even prove a model for the regeneration of the whole Niger Delta.

'banker' to Akassa, on trust, co-operation and corruption in the Delta
Bill Knight of NGO ProNatura
outlines the new deal for Akassa
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