Previous SectionIndexHome Page

7 Jun 2005 : Column 115WH—continued

7 Jun 2005 : Column 116WH

Niger Delta (Development Policy)

1.30 pm

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity to raise the issue of the Niger delta region of Nigeria, particularly so early in the new Parliament. Nigeria has been held as a beacon of democracy for the rest of Africa, and the Commission for Africa points to it as an example of democracy for the rest of the continent. For that to be true, the delta region must be stable, or the fate of Africa's largest democracy will hang in the balance.

At first glance, Nigeria appears to be a prosperous nation, enjoying its first decade of democracy and looking forward to another democratic presidential election in 2007. Under President Obasanjo's leadership, the country has become stable. His anti-corruption drive is to be applauded, but there is still progress to be made.

Through my work with the Niger delta group and with the help of various stakeholders in the region, I have discovered that although Nigeria has massive oil wealth, its oil is also a main source of myriad problems in the delta. Oil accounts for 80 per cent. of Nigeria's revenue and 98 per cent. of its exports, and many thousands of jobs are linked to the oil industry. Shell in Nigeria produced 1.3 million barrels of oil a day in 2004, which was up from 910,000 barrels a day in 2003. It is therefore easy to see why many people assume that Nigeria is a rich country that does not need any assistance from the international community, but we must not accept that rosy picture of it as a prosperous, democratic, oil-producing nation.

For the ordinary people living in the Niger delta, life could not be more different. The advent of massive oil companies has brought not the promised prosperity but poverty, pollution and state-sponsored militia violence, but the picture is not all bleak. The international community is beginning to recognise that something must be done to help the Niger delta. Even the setting up of the Niger delta group and the plan for MPs to visit the delta has given people in the region hope that their plight is finally being taken seriously by western Governments. It is also vital that the Nigerian Government should address the problems to ensure long-lasting peace.

A recent positive step toward securing peace in the delta was the start of the Ogoni-Shell dialogue. Representatives of the Rivers State government, Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Ltd and the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People issued separate statements last week announcing their commitment to a structured process of reconciliation aimed at drawing in all sections of the Ogoni people. The statements came after the President appointed the Rev. Father Matthew Hassan Kukah as facilitator in the reconciliation process. He will be assisted by the International Centre for Reconciliation at Coventry cathedral, which has been particularly helpful to me and others in the setting up of the Niger delta group. The people of Ogoniland have, like many other communities in the region, suffered immensely over the years, and there has been widespread mistrust.

Important as the statements are, they do not mean that peace has been secured, but they are an important first step to demonstrate the feeling that something has
7 Jun 2005 : Column 117WH
to change in the delta for peace and stability to be given a chance. I seek the Secretary of State's assurance that his Department will do all that it can to help the peace process, particularly by supporting the vital work of the ICR at Coventry in encouraging all sides to talk through their difficulties and work together for peace instead of resorting to violent means of protest.

The problems brought about by the influx of oil companies in the delta are interlinked and complex, and tend to fuel each other in cycles of tension and violence. The most obvious are environmental damage, community tensions, bunkering and small arms problems. The overriding theme with all those problems has to be the Nigerian state and its failure to provide for or engage with its people who live in the delta. Without the support of the Nigerian Government and the guarantee that the 2007 elections will be free and fair in the delta, no amount of work by non-governmental organisations or foreign Governments will secure peace in the region.

To explain the problems further, I wish to highlight the environmental impacts associated with oil production, such as gas flaring and oil spills. Gas flaring is the burning off of the gas produced when oil is drilled, and takes place round the clock very close to communities all around the Delta, sometimes only a few metres from people's candlelit homes. Recent global estimates indicate that the flaring of this associated gas in Nigeria accounts for about 20 per cent. of the total gas flared in the world, releasing some 70 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually into the air.

The practice of flaring has been prohibited under Nigerian law since 1984, but it is far more cost-effective for oil companies to make the flare continuation payments—commonly referred to as fines—levied on them by the Nigerian Government than to find better ways of using the gas. Unless the Nigerian Government tighten up enforcement, that harmful practice will continue and the amount of flared gas will increase as oil production levels increase as projected.

The second significant environmental impact of oil production is that caused by oil spills and pipe leakages, which has led to the destruction of the only means of making a living that many people had—fishing in riverine areas and farming the land. Official figures indicate that there are, on average, 300 spills or leaks a year, but many estimate that the figure is much higher. The pollution is now such that the land is unworkable and the rivers are filled with poisoned fish, leaving whole communities with no means of providing for their families.

Oil companies pay compensation to communities for drilling on their land, but that brings its own problems. It creates a culture of dependency on oil company handouts, as opposed to a peaceful and independent existence based on traditional livelihoods such as fishing and farming. The oil companies pay such compensation to what are known as host communities, which are those immediately next to where the companies operate. Designation as a host community means substantial benefits in the form of compensation payments and other development assistance such as schools and clinics. Competition for recognition as a host
7 Jun 2005 : Column 118WH
community has created significant intra and inter-community tensions that frequently result in violent conflict.

The Nigerian state should be supplying such facilities for its people, but the oil companies have taken on the role of quasi-states, providing for the basic human needs of communities. When they feel that they have provided enough money or facilities to justify operating on the land, they—fairly reasonably, one might think—cease to provide for those communities, leaving them feeling betrayed and abandoned.

The presence of the oil companies and their quasi-state role has served only to worsen the ethnic tensions in the delta. Ethnic and tribal tensions are inherently linked to the abject poverty there, where only 27 per cent. of households have access to safe drinking water, two thirds of Nigerians live on less than a dollar a day, and the destruction of farming and fishing means that there are no legitimate means of social mobility.

The people of the delta are resourceful, and were independent and hard working before oil production polluted their land and created a culture of dependency on oil company handouts. There are few legitimate employment prospects for the average young person in the delta. There are no resources for setting up small businesses, because of a complete absence of micro-credit. As a result, there are large numbers of disaffected and disillusioned youths in the delta with nothing to do, no money and no legitimate means of earning any, and, hence, no status in society. Political leaders have exploited that. They have actively recruited, paid and armed local youths in order to secure their political and economic interests. The consequences of that political manipulation were felt particularly strongly in the Rivers state in 2004, when fighting between armed gangs, which at one point were supported by senior members of the state government, spiralled out of control.

Unless there are alternatives for these young men, they will continue to engage in militia activities linked with the bunkering of oil, and that will lead to an explosion of violence. That is particularly pertinent in the run-up to the 2007 federal and state elections, as the jostling for positions of power has already begun. Armed youths are used by local politicians to intimidate Opposition supporters and the local population in order to secure an election victory.

I urge the Secretary of State to look at the situation that young people in the delta face, and to recognise how easy it is for them to be co-opted into a life of violence. I also urge him to look at what long-term development initiatives could be started in the delta, to work with the non-governmental organisations that are on the ground there and to support development projects. As I have mentioned, the lack of any form of micro-finance makes it impossible for people to set up small businesses; perhaps the Department for International Development could assist with that, so that people can pursue sustainable and profitable livelihoods.

In recent months, it has been reported to me by people returning from the delta that the situation with the militia gangs is heating up considerably. Many commentators believe that the delta is about to explode, and if that is to be prevented something must be done about it very soon. Whereas only a few years ago these
7 Jun 2005 : Column 119WH
gangs were fighting each other with small knives, handguns and home-made weapons, now they have AK47s and many other heavy weapons. Therefore, gang warfare has taken a serious turn for the worse. This new influx of arms has been funded by bunkering, which leads me on to the final problem that I wish to highlight.

Bunkering is the theft of crude oil at source. It involves tapping into pipes and diverting the flow of oil to barrels belonging to the bunkerers, which are then shipped offshore and transported mainly to west African countries, but also much further afield to America and Europe. The sums made from bunkering are immense, as is the scale of operations. Industry figures estimate that 100,000 barrels of oil are stolen every day; 10 per cent. of daily output is therefore lost to oil theft.

Given the current price of a barrel of oil even at black market prices, it is clear that bunkering is big business. Many of the gang rivalries that I have mentioned have been linked to bunkering, as rival leaders fight for control of bunkering routes. Bunkering money is also used to buy arms for the gangs. Therefore, we can see how bunkering is fuelling tribal tensions in a number of ways.

As I have said, the importance of a stable Niger delta cannot be overstated, yet neither the media nor the British Government have paid much attention to the region. That is beginning to change, and it should be welcomed.

We have a window of opportunity to make a real difference and secure a stable Niger delta, but in six to eight months that opportunity could be lost. The run-up to the 2007 federal and state elections could either cement democracy in Nigeria or cause a massive explosion of militia violence in the delta, leading to untold bloodshed and massive instability for the rest of Nigeria—Africa's largest democracy.

Nigeria is to be applauded for its courageous move to democracy, but the reality for the people in the Niger delta is not rosy. In the 2003 elections, there was widespread vote rigging in the delta, enforced by heavily armed militia youths employed by political candidates, including members of Obasanjo's ruling party. Unless things improve, feelings of disfranchisement from and abandonment by the Nigerian state will fester even more. That, along with the massive amount of small arms and the poverty and general civil unrest that exists there, is a recipe for disaster. It would be a disaster not only for the delta but for Nigeria as a whole.

In addition, if we view Nigeria as the vital part of Africa that it clearly is, we must act now to secure peace and stability in the country. As we prepare for the G8 summit in Gleneagles, and as all eyes turn to what we are going to do to help Africa, we must not take for granted the country of Nigeria, and assume that its vast oil wealth and democracy are a reality for all its citizens.

Finally, the issue in the delta is no longer how much oil money the region is getting proportionate to its population. If it were indeed the case that the delta was receiving a disproportionately large percentage of oil revenue compared with the rest of Nigeria and that that money was genuinely getting to the people, we would not be having this debate. The reality is that poverty is widespread and that some form of reaction is inevitable. The people do not feel that they are being listened to,
7 Jun 2005 : Column 120WH
and if that does not change, violence will be almost inevitable. If Nigeria turns to revolution, what are the consequences for Africa?

If we cannot solve the problems of, and help support, a country like Nigeria with all its oil wealth, what chance do we have with Africa as a whole? How can we solve the corruption of a continent if we cannot solve the problems of just one country?

I hope that I have not been too negative or alarmist in my analysis of the situation in the delta. Much progress has been made. However, it is important that we are all aware of the reality of the situation. I am concerned about the meagre progress that seems to have been made following the Adjournment debate secured this time last year by my former colleague Bill Tynan. I press the Secretary of State for a firm policy commitment from his Department with regard to the Niger delta.

1.46 pm

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) on securing this debate and on making an outstanding speech. I am left with little to add in describing the situation in the Niger delta.

I welcome the opportunity to focus the attention of the House on this very important part of a very important country. The compelling picture painted by my hon. Friend clearly draws greatly on his knowledge as acting chair of the all-party group, and I pay tribute to him and to his colleagues who are working hard to ensure that we focus more on what is happening in the delta for exactly the reason that he outlines: what happens in Nigeria is of huge importance to the future of Africa as a whole.

I wish to begin where my hon. Friend left off. As Nigeria has such great oil wealth, many people have a perception that it is a wealthy country, but the truth is that it is one of the poorest countries in Africa. Its GDP per head is only $350. It is a very poor country. Why? It has a population of 133 million, 60 per cent. of whom live in absolute poverty, on less than a dollar a day. Nigeria is also home to one in 10 of the world's HIV-positive population. That is not the case because Nigeria's HIV infection rate is especially high; 4 million people in Nigeria are HIV-positive, but it has a large population.

As Nigeria has so many poor people, what happens there is crucial to the achievement of the millennium development goals in Africa—getting children into school, reducing the number of mothers who die needlessly in childbirth and the number of children who die needlessly of preventable diseases. Significant outside help will be needed, including action to solve Nigeria's debt problems. It is worth reflecting on the fact that Nigeria—a very poor country with a GDP per head of only $350 and with 60 per cent. of its population living on less than a dollar a day—currently pays far more to the rich Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nations in debt repayments every year than it receives in aid. I call that an unsustainable debt burden, especially when children are dying unnecessarily.

My hon. Friend alluded to the fact that that country, which has suffered so much, has a long and complex history, and I share his view that it is beginning to take
7 Jun 2005 : Column 121WH
steps to address the consequences of decay, dictatorship, bad governance and poverty, which have been created as a result of its history. One of the big issues in Nigeria is that there is both the federal state and the states; it is a very large country. At federal level, a very ambitious programme is being led by President Obasanjo and his colleagues, which includes a crackdown on corruption, to which I will return later. It is important that we acknowledge the progress that is beginning to be made in Nigeria, and it is important that that is recognised by the international community.

One of the manifestations of that recognition is the fact that we are responding by increasing the size of our aid programme; we are doubling it and, if progress continues, we shall treble it. Relatively speaking, given its population of 133 million and its poverty, the country is under-aided. One of the main reasons why is that many donors left Nigeria during the military dictatorship because, frankly, it was a hard country in which to work.

The Niger delta is hugely important to the future of the country. It is about the same size as Scotland and has nine states, a population of about 20 million, more than 40 ethnic groups speaking 250 dialects and 3,000 communities. Some 70 per cent. of its population lives in rural areas. It is also one of the world's largest wetlands: 80 per cent. of the delta floods every season. The coastal states include vast areas that can only be reached by boat, yet this swamp is where most of the oil is produced. The area has particularly suffered from successive military Governments, as well as from the sense of isolation and of not being listened to that my hon. Friend mentioned.

Of course, the delta is also a rich source of oil. The vast majority of Nigeria's oil—2.3 million barrels a day—comes from the delta, and it accounts for 70 per cent. of the Government's revenue. As many of the 20 million people in the delta live in poverty, do not go to school and suffer from ill-health, what happens there will be hugely important. However, we have to be absolutely honest with ourselves and each other: unless we tackle the violent conflict and the insecurity that has beset the region and, through that, address its development needs, there will not be the progress that we all want and the delta will not have the better future that its people desperately desire.

John Robertson : Does the Secretary of State agree that we have a very short time scale in which to act? Once the country is in the run-up to the 2007 election, the last thing we would want is to seem to be trying to influence that election. The next six to eight months are therefore vital in trying to help and support the country.

Hilary Benn : I accept that point, although the truth is that these are deep-seated problems. As I shall explain, the solution requires fundamental change. If I really thought that there were things that we—the international community and the Government of Nigeria—could do to sort out the problem quickly in the six to eight months to which my hon. Friend refers, I would be more optimistic about what might be achieved, but in all honesty, I think that we are talking about a longer haul than that, for reasons that I shall come to now.
7 Jun 2005 : Column 122WH

Despite the problems to which my hon. Friend referred, it is a fact that, overall, the Niger delta does better than the rest of Nigeria when it comes to school attendance, particularly for girls, literacy and access to clean water and proper sanitation. For example, 20 per cent. of children in the Niger delta have been fully immunised against killer diseases. That seems pretty low to us, yet it is better than the national average in Nigeria, which is 13 per cent. In the north-west of Nigeria, the figure is 4 per cent. So in the context of the whole country, the Niger delta is in some respects better off, although I accept entirely my hon. Friend's point about corruption and violence. The collapse in immunisation rates in Nigeria over the past 20 years is in part a consequence of the fact that donors who were there have said, "We're off." Why? They have done so because of the corruption, military dictatorship and violence that the country has suffered.

At 63 per 1,000, child mortality in the Niger delta is at half the national rate of 121 per 1,000. That is not to say that there is not a great deal more that can and should be done. However, on funding, we have to acknowledge that the nine states that make up the Niger delta receive a higher proportion of the national cake than other states. The Niger delta has 13 per cent. of Nigeria's population, and it gets 30 per cent. of state revenues. The issues are how the money is used, corruption and the governance of the area. In addition, because the states in the area are oil-producing, they benefit from community development support from the major oil companies.

I recognise completely that without security improvements in the Niger delta, sustainable development will simply not be possible. My hon. Friend referred to the bunkering of oil, and a vicious cycle of violence, criminal behaviour and corruption is associated with that theft. Thousands of people have been displaced and many people have been killed. The Nigerian Government, who in the end have primary responsibility, need to take decisive action to halt the violence, stop the flow of small arms into the region and provide more effective policing at community level.

In response to my hon. Friend's specific point, the UK Government are providing support to the excellent work of the Coventry Cathedral International Centre for Reconciliation, which I commend. The centre is working with the Nigerian authorities to try to broker agreements, including one between the Shell oil company and the Ogoni people.

A second thing that we have to recognise is that without better governance things will not change. For too long, the authorities that have responsibility for providing basic services such as roads, health care and education have failed the communities that they are supposed to serve. Funds from central Government intended for development—let us remember that 13 per cent. of the population gets 30 per cent. of state revenues—have been diverted. Improving transparency and strengthening the anti-corruption drive in the Niger delta are essential.

At federal level, the Government are taking forward the fight against corruption. As we speak, a former Education Minister is facing charges for trying to bribe members of Parliament to vote him a bigger budget. He is now on trial. The former leader of the Senate is currently facing charges, and two judges were recently
7 Jun 2005 : Column 123WH
sacked for corruption. In a society where corruption had been endemic, it requires political courage to take the problem on, to change the way in which things work and to make people realise that that is not the way things have to be. Without such a change, we will not get the fundamental difference in people's lives that we want.

In that respect, we should bear in mind Nigeria's support for the extractive industries transparency initiative, which was launched by our Prime Minister just over two years ago. It is based on a very simple principle: oil and mining companies should publish what they pay to Governments, and Governments should publish what they receive from mining and oil companies. If there is such openness and transparency, people have the chance to start asking their Government, "What have you done with the money that you got from the oil wealth? What have you done with 30 per cent. of state revenues?"

If a democracy is to work, the Government must have the capacity to deliver and people must have the expectation that their Government will act on their behalf. Good, accurate information about the resources available and where they have gone is fundamental to an effective debate about the choices that need to be made. I welcome the steps that the Government of Nigeria are taking. The oil companies operating in the delta need to assist in that process by publishing details of all payments made to the Nigerian Government, and they should obviously take action to deter illegal oil bunkering.
7 Jun 2005 : Column 124WH

On the environmental concerns, my hon. Friend is absolutely right about the damage caused. Gas flaring is a very important issue. The Nigerian Government have vowed to end gas flaring by 2008. I understand that Shell says it is unlikely to be able to make progress until the following year, but it is important that it does make progress, because the Niger delta is responsible for 19 or 20 per cent. of world gas flaring; that tells us how big the problem is. Action also needs to be taken to rein in the criminal gangs.

Finally, I turn to what we are doing. We are promoting the extractive industries transparency initiative. The Government have set up their Niger Delta Development Commission, but frankly they have to ensure that the money is spent effectively. We are seeking to support a coalition of non-governmental organisations that can work to demand better governance. I hope that that will include work in the delta. The European Commission has been doing some work, and through the World Bank universal basic education help is being provided. We support both those bodies.

In the end, the issue is the responsibility of the Nigerian Government. As things change, we will be prepared to do more work in the delta, but the circumstances have to be right to allow that to happen. The people of the Niger delta really want that change, because that is the only way in which their lives will improve.

 IndexHome Page