x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

When 5Gs is far too high a price to pay for oil

Dope-smoking young men brandishing AK-47s are the modern day successors to Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Dope-smoking young men brandishing AK-47s are the modern day successors to Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian civil rights activist whose family won compensation from Royal Dutch Shell last week. Shell's decision to settle the case brought by the relatives of Mr Saro-Wiwa, who was executed on trumped-up murder charges by the Nigerian government in 1995, is a wise move. The case was brought under a US law dating from the 18th century which can be used against foreign companies that abet human rights violations, and Shell's decision to settle has ended a saga that sullied its reputation for more than a decade and has given the families some closure.

But the US$15.5 million (Dh56.9m) payout will not mark a turning point for the conflict plaguing the Niger Delta, because the Nigerian government has failed to make a similarly bold gesture to the people of the region. Indeed, Shell is unlikely to return to Mr Saro-Wiwa's Ogoniland any time soon because the people there have decided they are better off living without oil altogether unless they control the revenues produced from it.

Over the past two decades, the inhabitants of Nigeria's southern oil heartland have been expressing, in increasingly violent terms, a desire to take control of their resources from the federal government. Nowhere does this call for resource control echo more loudly than in tribal societies such as Nigeria, or the Emirates, where various tribes have competed over resources for centuries. For sure, one of the tenets of this constitution is that each emirate controls its own natural resources.

In Nigeria, the oil producing states of the Niger Delta receive just 13 per cent of their gross oil revenues, on top of a general stipend based on their population. This is not nearly enough. Since Mr Saro-Wiwa's execution by Sani Abacha, the late dictator, the situation in the delta has gone from bad to worse. Peaceful protests and academic tracts have given way to sabotage, kidnapping and extortion. Multinational oil companies have all but withdrawn from the vast wetlands region and production has slumped by more than a third in four years from its peak of 2.7 million barrels a day in 2005.

Thousands of lives have been lost to the simmering conflict, not to speak of the millions of lost opportunities for the growing ranks of youths. The crisis has crippled the federal budget, but also the nation's supplies of petrol and power, hobbling industry and mobility across Africa's most populous nation. In 2005, then-president Olusegun Obasanjo held a political reform conference where delta states demanded a 50 per cent share of their wealth. They staged a walkout when they were told to take 18 per cent or leave it. Since then, the government has failed to stage any credible forum for debate.

Mr Saro-Wiwa, whose brave decision to shun violence was rewarded with a death sentence, was an affable gentleman compared with the wild boys now holding sway in the maze of mangrove-lined river channels. Today's militants might mouth the slogans coined by Mr Saro-Wiwa, but many are hardened criminals, kidnappers and oil smugglers. The failure of dialogue with the federal government has made it impossible to distinguish between the criminal opportunist and the genuine freedom fighter. Even groups who are trying to help rebuild the broken societies in the delta such as charity and construction workers are being chased away.

The "bad boys" are not interested in building communities, boosting cottage industry or improving communications. They prefer to spend their ill-gotten gains on the "Five Gs": guns, ganja, girls, gold and gin. For a few years as the Reuters correspondent in Nigeria, I chronicled the decline of the delta and even took part in the rescue of some Italian hostages with one group of kidnappers. In a convoy of high-powered speed boats bristling with automatic rifles and rocket launchers, such was the absence of the state that I felt strangely safe speeding past Shell's gleaming flow stations on the river bank, even if my pilots were drunk on local brew and high on ganja.

The federal government's latest response to this anarchy appears to be a military crackdown on some of the worst criminal elements of the militant groups. But unless it shows a willingness to give ground on the revenue issue, criminals can always wrap themselves in the garments of the political activist. The only way back to sanity for the Niger Delta, and Nigeria as a whole, is through dialogue and an agreement on a new revenue-sharing formula. To ensure any deal delivers dividends to the people of the delta, state and local governments should offer to audit their accounts.

The alternative for the federal government is far worse. As Mr Saro-Wiwa realised many years ago, the best way of asserting a people's sovereignty over its natural resources is to stop oil production altogether. As Shell discovered in Ogoniland, that is a much costlier alternative. Tom Ashby was chief correspondent in Nigeria for Reuters news agency from 2003 to 2008. tashby@thenational.ae