Africa

Letter from Nigeria: The Niger River Delta looks at life after oil

By Richard Poplak 23 April 2013

This is Bayelsa State, heart of the Niger Delta, and “glory of all lands”, according to the official state tagline. Under the care of His Excellency the Honourable Seriake Dickson, what was once a restive kidnapping zone has mellowed considerably. But Nigeria’s oil-rich region still has some way to go before it reaches the New African Ideal: a knowledge economy overrun by tourists from the East carrying Louis Vuitton luggage sets and golfing under an equatorial sun. By RICHARD POPLAK.

Beware of Port Harcourt, for it is a sneaky place. It hides behind thick Lagosian accents as “Pathankot”, which happens to be a municipal dispensation in northern India I visited for a recent assignment. When the Nigerian Pathankot reveals itself as Port Harcourt, a glance at the map elicits a groan, especially when one’s final destination happens to be the city of Yenagoa, one state and a three-hour drive away, through what was once the heart of Nigeria’s oil-region troubles.

Thanks to a farrago of agreements, security ramp-ups and local regime changes, the Niger Delta no longer deserves its undiminished reputation as a kidnapping hotspot. The problem at hand is arguably more dangerous – the 70km of road that lies between the Port Harcourt airport and the Yenagoa State Cultural House, where I’m travelling with colleague and co-author Kevin Bloom to the African Movie Academy Awards. It is perhaps the oddest place in the continent for a glittering awards show, but Bayelsa has a historical link with Nollywood – natives form the bulk of the industry’s directors and technicians, and Governor Seriake Dickson has stars in his eyes. The awards ceremony is partly designed as a launch pad for several new programmes and development projects meant to wean Bayelsa from its crude addiction.

The Port Harcourt airport, like most airports in Africa, is under construction. We enter a parking lot through a series of air-conditioned tents, and find ourselves a driver who will take us through to Yenagoa for the equivalent of about $55 each. (This, on top of $230 one-way plane tickets from Lagos, makes for an expensive trip). The ride is spectacular, unmatchable, video-game worthy. It takes the passenger from River State to Bayelsa at roughly the speed of sound, along roads that range from perfectly paved to bombed-out moonscape – all of it framed by jungle so fecund that you can practically feel the fungus growing between your toes as the ride progresses. The Yenagoa road – and please keep in mind that this is the capital of one of the more oil-rich districts in the entire continent – is an emblem for how poorly the area has been managed, and how the drain of petroleum wealth has compromised Nigeria’s development. Crushed vehicles lie rotting in the roadside jungle, and the trucks and busses zooming at us head-on, with intent, suggest that were our driver to shift his attention to one of his two smartphones, the only thing that would save us is a band of rampaging kidnappers. For the most part, they are no more.

Bayelsa itself is the result of a controversial administrational revamp of the delta region that occurred in the mid-90s. The state dates back to 1996, and Goodluck Jonathan rose from governor to the presidency during a two-year tenure that kicked off in 2005. Jonathan considers the region home and it should be unsurprising that oil-soaked local elites hold such political sway in Abuja. Equally unsurprising is the fact that Bayelsa and its environs have always been considered the ground zero of Nigeria’s endemic rot. Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, an army hack who governed between 1999 and 2005, was found with £1 million in cash in his London home, a city in which he owned a further £10 million worth of property. Timipre Silva, the most recent incumbent, was removed due to a court order, following a suspected fallout with Jonathan. Now: the reign of Seriake Dickson, a Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) stalwart and a man firmly in the Jonathan orbit.

In the delta, it is difficult to do worse than one’s predecessors. The region’s principal threat, besides an enraged local population, the odd religious riot and occasionally violent political infighting, has been the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or Mend. In association with the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force and other militant groups, Mend sought to harass foreign oil companies and their Nigerian backers in government, in order to end the exploitation and environmental degradation it claims has battered the region into penury. It routinely hit pipelines, barges and vehicles operated by international oil companies, battled the Nigerian army and kidnapped foreign workers. While the hostilities continue, and while Mend recently sent an email to Jonathan warning him that it would respond in kind to Muslim atrocities in the north, it has not done much to disrupt the new tenure of Seriake Dickson. (In a local aside, Henry Okah, the movement’s putative head, was arrested and tried in South Africa, and sentenced to 24 years in prison earlier this year).

Yenagoa is smeared over a flat plain of swampland, where individual properties occasionally abut a patch of pea soup-green goop that bubbles forth from the ground. There are a series of paved roads, and a broad boulevard that cuts through the town centre, but the rest of the city remains linked by sand road. The town’s defining feature is a twirling concrete structure that is the skeleton, or carcass, of an unfinished luxury hotel. No one seems to know when, or if, the hotel will be completed. In this context, Mend and its like appear entirely inevitable.

For his part, Dickson speaks the development game with the best of them. During his opening address at the African Movie Academy Awards he said, “We must prepare for the end of oil.” In this, “we will not be deterred by the high cost involved in building new infrastructure.” He plans roads, an airport in Yenagoa, several new luxury hotels, and a PGA-level golf course. “We plan to make this a destination where tourists will be happy to visit.” The sentiments are fine ones. But while the golf course is underway, it is difficult to grasp how this will benefit a local population that desperately needs schools, clinics and basic infrastructure in order to nudge communities into the future. The misalignment of priorities comes at a time when international oil companies are gently making way for local outfits, which are more community centric in their approach. Things are changing for the better, but at a rate that is far too slow to keep groups like Mend from proliferating. To see kids scrabbling in the dirt here is simply inexcusable.

In Bayelsa, like everywhere else in Nigeria, the traveller feels the incontrovertible local truth: the country is at a tipping point, if it hasn’t tipped already. Educated Nigerians no longer see dysfunction as an embarrassment to be drowned by good Cognac in a London wine bar, but an opportunity to be exploited. The country is open for business, and while the challenges remain – see: road from Port Harcourt to Yenagoa – the smart consultant has to be insane to ignore the joint. The awful reputation the country has engendered, especially in South Africa, needs to be put aside. Nigeria is a numbers game, and the numbers are firmly on its side.

The drive back to Port Harcourt is no less invigorating than the first installment. Here and there, the signs of a new carriageway can be seen. After a battle at the airport with Arik Airways, and a last-minute ticket purchase, back we go to Lagos. The plane is full. The roads are full. The future is full. But it remains the future. Nigerians still have their share of work to do in the present. DM

Photo: Children stand in front of a stilt house used as a local fuel station near river Nun in Nigeria’s oil state of Bayelsa November 27, 2012. Despite billions of dollars worth of oil flowing out of Nigeria South East, life for the majority of Niger Delta’s inhabitants remains unchanged. Most people live in modest iron-roofed shacks, and rely on farming or fishing, their only interaction with the oil industry being when they step over pipelines in the swamps – or when a spill blights their landscape. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

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