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Shrinking democratic space, opportunities



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A discourse was held in Uyo, the capital of Akwa Ibom State, last week, to enrich perspectives on the growing notion of a shrinking civic space and how citizens have duties and responsibilities to make the space inclusive and liveable.

The parley was at the instance of Niger Delta Budget Monitoring Group (NDEBUMOG), a civil society body that has invested more than two decades in tracking resources deployed in the oil-bearing region and how transparently they are applied. Like other civil society operators, NDEBUMOG is bothered that more citizens are falling into poverty as they are schemed out of the democratic process and its dividends.

The general observations are that the means of production that ought to support individual and communal enterprise have been rendered dormant. For example, manufacturers are complaining that their inventory of raw materials is running low. The Apex manufacturers’ group, Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN), has continued to lament insufficiency of dollars in the forex market. They do not have enough of it to import materials for production and are threatening to reduce workforce or close shop. Urban poverty is on the increase.

The people in rural communities who transact cottage businesses with the help of privatized electricity can no longer do so because the new owners of distribution companies do not factor them as priority customers. Energy cost has gone up for small scale business owners.

The consequence is that ordinary folks at grassroots have been schemed out of better life. They have little impact on the democratic process, not even when they are expected to participate in elections. The incident of poverty is such that the mental capacity to aggregate as an electorate has been stolen by the few who have appropriated the levers of political and economic authority. The State has been captured by a few and for a few.

Convener of the Uyo discourse, Dr. Georgehill Anthony, queried the appalling level of underdevelopment around the country, particularly among Niger Delta states, that have earned huge amounts as their share of the 13 per cent derivation principle.

Data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), showed that in 2021, oil producing states shared N450.60 billion. In 18 years as at 2017, they shared N7 trillion, in addition to their monthly statutory allocation from the Federation Account. Of this amount, the core Niger Delta states of Rivers, Bayelsa, Delta and Akwa Ibom have pocketed a larger share. Yet, Niger Deltans do not enjoy privileges on account of this excess wealth.

The people of these states are just like other Nigerians. They struggle to survive, in addition to living with the burden of degraded homelands after years of oil exploration, exploitation and production. Some environments are ravaged beyond repairs. The remediation process that was promised is yet to arrive. More communities are ravaged by illegal refineries and unwholesome activities of crude oil thieves.

That’s not all. Some Niger Delta states are among the heavily indebted in the country.  As at the end of Q3 of 2021, the Debt Management Office (DMO) revealed that Akwa Ibom, Rivers and Delta ranked high on the list of debtor states. And they are not ashamed of it. You cannot identify employment creating investments that could justify these amounts of revenues and the debts the governments accumulate every year.

The East-West Road that links the states is in a deplorable state. After the devastating flood of 2022, the highway was broken into pieces and another flooding season is here. The states are waiting for the Federal Government to fix the highway. Meanwhile, the budgets they sank into the 2023 elections could have remedied the highway before the onset of the 2023 rainy season. They are not bothered. They chartered aircrafts to fly around the world, to negotiate places for themselves in the ensuing political space. That is Nigeria’s version of democracy, where the bullish are rewarded and the meek remain poor.

The Niger Delta states used to have a development platform, whose agenda was to harness the resources of the region for enhanced collective investment and growth. The BRACED, an acronym derived from Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Edo and Delta was designed to initiate policies and drive South-south economic cooperation and regional integration. Director General of the
Commission at a time, Joe Keshi, diplomat and development expert had great dreams for the zone, among which was the need to build strong partnership, mutual respect and accountability among the states and with the Federal Government, together with development partners. The idea was to turn the states into employment creation centres for sustainable development.

Keshi had canvassed that a strong regional economy had the potential to grow the region and the country. He cautioned in 2020 that if the states do not work, the federation itself will not work. Hence the need to build strong economies at the local levels instead of depending totally on the Federal Government. He said: “If we want this country to work, we must ensure that states and the regions work.”

However, BRACED ran into bad weather when bad-natured and petulant characters muddied its brilliant prospects. In pursuit of vainglory and one-man accolade, one bullish former governor refused to cooperate with the rest to kick-start and empower BRACED.

The ideals remain sound and the prospects are still bright. It will make sense if the new governors, together with the older ones of Bayelsa and Edo reconvene the commission and put it on a solid ground to perform.

A contemporary measure of the failure of South-south governors is the high poverty index in the region. The sharing of palliatives to assuage impact of high prices of petroleum products by state governors has revealed that despite democracy, more people are excluded from the dividends.

Reports by participants at the Uyo parley is quite disturbing. Communities are pairing to share few bags of rice. Hundreds of communities have no idea of any form of palliatives. Apart from putting buses on the road and announcing discount fares in urban centres, far-flung communities that have no access roads cannot benefit.

Meanwhile, these states that are unable to distribute one bag of rice per household have proclaimed their agric potentials over and again in the past two decades.

Cross River state governor Bassey Otu

Back in September 2021, former Governor of Cross River, Ben Ayade, had boasted that the state’s ultra-modern rice mill will end poverty in the state. At the test-run of the touted 10-ton per hour mill located in Ogoja council area, Ayade said the mill was a first of its kind in Africa and it was an outstanding world-class vitaminized rice and would make millionaires out of young farmers in the state. He added: “I look forward to converting the entire people of the state into rice farmers. This is because the storage capacity alone is about 6,500 tons and on continuous production, we have a storage capacity of 240 tons per day at 24 hours operation.”

Last week, this columnist asked colleagues in that state to assist with update on how many tons of rice have rolled out of the Ogoja mill to cushion the fuel hike challenge. The rice is not available yet for mass distribution. More investment is needed.

Delta State was among the first to go into Songhai integrated farming model in this dispensation. Songhai farm in Amukpe, near Sapele, was established by former governor James Ibori in 2002 to provide gainful engagement in the wake of youth restiveness. Good vision.

Songhai was designed as a one-stop comprehensive farming community for crop growing, processing and allied businesses. If successfully and faithfully executed, the farm, modelled after a successful model in Benin Republic could have transformed Delta grassroots in two decades.

There aren’t enough details regarding the progress of the farm apart from news shared in May 2022 that Delta State Government planned to hand over the $40 million farm to an American incorporation, Adventium Global Delta Consortium Limited. An MoU was reportedly signed to transform the farm into an Agro-Industrial Processing, Tourism and Training Park. Last week, a colleague shared that the farm is now in the care of a certain professor and is into small scale growing of fish, poultry and snail.

Akwa Ibom State also made some noise about its agric potential during the last administration, with a lot of fanfare: an integrated cassava production programme of 2,000 hectares; 1,200 hectares of rice with over 20,000 farmers registered in 15 local government areas; a vegetables greenhouse and others. The government recently explained the limitations with sharing rice as the first tranche of N2 billion from the Federal Government cannot buy enough bags to go round.

Rivers State governor Siminalayi Fubara

As for Rivers, in the last eight years, former governor Nyesome Wike busied himself with building bridges and roads. We saw hundreds of road projects commissioned by Mr. Projects, but it’s hard to recall one agric project flagged off and commissioned for production during Wike’s tenure.

Edo State in the last seven years has flagged off different agric-related schemes, in palm oil, cassava and others. What citizens haven’t seen is the impact of agric investments on the state’s monthly IGR and overall percentage on the state’s GDP as well as employment generation capacity. The government will do well to put these out for the public to access.

At the Uyo meeting, participants were told to demand accountability from their governments. Sir Godwin Oriaku, resource person from the National Assembly Bureaucracy enlightened participants on how to engage their representatives to protect the civic space and make it more inclusive. The Constitution enables citizens to engage.

Perhaps if the BRACED Commission had taken off on a solid ground, the wasted investments, lack of coordination and transparency in South-south states’ budgets would have been mitigated. The governments would have been well guarded and citizens may have fared better. And there would be less work for NDEBUMOG and others in tracking the funds and looking for alliances to safeguard the civic space.

But that is not the case. The civic space is choking.


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