Ogoni: Autonomy as a First Step to Real Reform
The role of state centralism in prolonging conflict in the Niger Delta argues commentator Dominic Wall, who believes autonomy offers a solution to at least some of the region’s ills.
Below is an articlepublished by Think Africa Press:
In a month’s time Nigerians go to the polls in the country’s fourth general election since democracy was re-established in 1999. As the most populous nation in Africa, a significant military power in the region and one of the world’s major oil exporters, Nigeria's election is among the year's most important. Allegations of vote-rigging, intimidation and corruption have been rife in previous elections, while the threat of violence and conflict remain salient.
Nowhere is this situation more serious than in the Niger Delta - home region of President Goodluck Jonathan - where the role of oil amplifies a tense situation in a region brimming with unrest. A recent report by International Crisis Group noted that, "Oil revenues drive a staggering corruption and politics based exclusively on patron-client relations". The same paper claimed that the 2009 amnesty has failed to tackle the "root causes" which blight the region, and is possibly at risk from unravelling. The state's recent gubernatorial race in January was widely seen as a test for the upcoming national elections this April. With several bombs blasts, the burning of an election office and accusations of political violence against individuals, it appears President Jonathan’s claim - central to his re-election bid - of being able to solve conflict is unlikely to be met. The election provides an opportunity to re-examine the political structure of the Delta, where the Nigerian state's excessive centralism and a lack of political autonomy for the Delta region can be seen as among the primary causes of ongoing trouble.
The Niger Delta, situated in the southern tip of Nigeria, is a sprawling, dense wetland covering almost 8% of the country’s territorial area. The region, encompasing nine states, looms large in Nigeria’s troubled past and present. It is home to 40 different ethnic groups, a quarter of the country’s population and more than 90% of its oil reserves. Unsurprisingly, it has an impact disproportionate to its size. For many, the Niger Delta has become synonymous with Nigerian - even African - dysfunctionalism: corruption, ethnic clashes, environmental degradation and corporate meddling.
The Ogoni have lived in the Delta for around 500 years, according to archaeological and linguistic evidence. They are predominantly an agricultural society, basing much of their economic activity on growing crops and hunting fish. After British encroachment into West Africa, Ogoniland, as it is known to its people, was administrated under a protectorate. During the 1940s moves were made by the new post-war British administration to allow self-governance, with a separate Ogoni administrative division named the Ogoni Nature Authority established during 1946. It was, however, short-lived: 11 years later it was disbanded. After independence in 1960 the many ethnic groups of the Niger Delta were annexed into the military-run Nigerian state. The region was to witness decades of upheaval.
A military junta took over during the 1970s, a period which saw the local environment deteriorate and crop yields and fish catches plummet as oil became increasingly essential to government revenue. In theory, this should have benefitted local inhabitants, but evidence shows this not to be the case. In 1984 just 1.5% of oil revenue was allocated to the regions, increasing to a mere 3% by 1992. Given this, it is unsurprising that material progress was not forthcoming. The spillover effect was social and political unrest. Throughout the early 1990s tribal conflict between the Ogoni and several other tribes – Andoni, Okrika and Ndoki – shook the region. The death of high profile activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was the apex of a long running episode which brought international attention to an internal conflict. From the mid-90s onwards clashes have continued to rumble with the sprouting of militant groups and the devastation of communities.
The finger of blame is usually pointed to actions undertaken by the Nigerian government. A state regularly hijacked by minority groups persuing personal interests has led to weak and poor governance and the implementation of inadequate policies. The results are catastrophic - Nigeria is one world’s most corrupt countries, whilst much of its plentiful oil reserves have been, in comparison to other states endowed with abundant commodities, poorly invested. The country is the world’s 12th largest oil producer and 4th biggest exporter, yet its sovereign wealth fund based on oil reserves, the Excess Crude Account, holds a pitiful amount of liquid assets: just $500 million, less than a tenth of the amount of Oman’s, despite that country producing around a third less oil a day.
A common criticism is that Nigeria has made mistakes on legislation and policy. It requires reform, a reduction in red-tape, anti-corruption measures and competition injected into public services, among others. By using such measures many of the socio-political and economic ills can be addressed. There is a problem with this position however, as it misses sight of a major fact: the fundamental issue is the state itself, which has been excessively centralised.
Perhaps nothing better illustrates this devastating legacy than the involvement of oil giant Shell within domestic politics. In late 2010, cables from Wikileaks detailed in brutal fashion the extent to which Shell is absorbed into the highest reaches of the Nigerian State, with staff reportedly placed within every single government department. How long Shell has had such involvement is unclear. What can be said is that Nigeria’s institutional and structural make-up made this process far easier. Without genuine local political power, fiscal autonomy and accountability, the political elite can implement policies in relative isolation, buffered by its dominance of oil proceeds. Shell’s desire to extract as much profit as possible lends itself towards revenue centralism and a disregard towards real local authority. With oil at 95% of export earnings and close to 70% of government revenues, it is apparent that this two-way relationship is dangerously unhealthy.
Large, centralised states are often considered to be the most appropriate model for developing nations. The rapid growth of East Asian nations based on unified states pursing semi-corporatist methods (especially Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China) is often cited as proof. Yet this misses a number of crucial factors and conditions which are not present in the Niger Delta. Most importantly, these counties are relatively homogenous. In a nation which is multi-ethnic and developing, and where, crucially, historic rivalries have existed, it cannot be assumed that leaders will act for all of the people all of the time. With low socio-economic development and high population growth, competition on an individual and societal level is expected, magnifying the situation. In addition, Western colonial involvement skewed development and economic policies, leaving a legacy of dysfunctionalism not in existence among the East Asian nations. The unhealthy dynamics of Shell’s relationship with various Nigerian governments can therefore be seen to be, at least partially, as a symptom of a flawed political structure as much as a cause.
Political autonomy, or a degree of it, is not a cure to all evils. It will not automatically solve poverty. But it does address many of the fundamentals, such as helping neutralise ethnic and religious rivalries, allowing for a more robust foundation to be established from which further development can be sustained. Excessive centralism has been a major factor behind many of the Niger Delta’s ills, directly and indirectly contributing towards political, social, economic and environmental damage, which has flamed the ongoing conflict. As a result, instead of espousing reform of the institutions and policies, advocates should be looking towards a systematic reboot of the political structure as it currently exists. Only by moving away from a heavily centralist approach towards granting far greater degrees of political autonomy than is currently the case can issues in the Niger Delta begin to be tackled.