THIS DAY Newspaper-Ifeatu Agbu

Lagos — The precarious situation in the Niger Delta has got to a point where the Federal Government must stop setting up one committee after another under the guise of generating new ideas on how to develop the region.

The shelves are filled up with reports of similar committees set up over the years awaiting implementation. Now, actions must begin to speak to the long-neglected people that host Nigeria's oil wealth. The message from Niger Deltans is clear and unambiguous: "Develop our land and spare us this rigmarole."

It is surprising that in spite of this clear message, the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs has allowed itself to be bugged down by all kinds of committees and sub-committees. Chief Ufot Ekaette, the minister, says he is waiting for the Infrastructural Development Sub-committee of the Amnesty Programme to come up with the schedule for providing more infrastructures in the Niger Delta region. At a recent meeting in Abuja, he challenged the committee to produce plans that would aid the provision of critical infrastructure for the region.

It would appear that when it comes to developing the Niger Delta, there is a penchant for endless talk-shops and planning committees. Yet, we all know that they would add nothing significant to the body of ideas already generated in the various forums on how best to fast-track the development of the oil-rich region. To say that the people are tired of endless developmental plans is simply stating the obvious, and the disenchantment is beginning to manifest.

A core militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), said recently that it was reviewing its indefinite ceasefire announced on October 9, last year, threatening to resume hostilities anytime soon. It declared: "General Abbe, the current defence minister and his cohorts, rather than encourage the government of Nigeria to address the core issues as demanded by true agitators for justice in the Niger Delta, are still inaugurating one dubious committee after another in a bid to continue stealing funds supposedly allocated for the development of the Niger Delta."

The only way to silence MEND and other militant groups is to immediately commence the massive development of the region. The people should feel and see a remarkable improvement in their lives before they could be convinced to drop the garb of militancy. So far, the execution of development projects in the area has been anything but massive.

Unfortunately, rather than oil the wheels to quicken the pace of implementing the several existing plans on how to develop the region, the Ekaette-led ministry is still waiting for new committees' reports that would, perhaps, provide "extra-ordinary" answers to the Niger Delta challenge.

These are the same answers that have been elaborately articulated in the past by seasoned experts in several forums. The most comprehensive of them all is the Niger Delta Regional Development Master Plan, which the Federal Government itself accepted. The President had said at different occasions that the master plan now being implemented by the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, and other stakeholders has the capacity of adequately addressing the development challenges of the region.

The NDDC, as an interventionist agency, that facilitated the drawing up of the master plan seems poised to spearhead its implementation. The commission has through its Partners for Sustainable Development [PSD] Forum brought all the stakeholders under one umbrella to aid the process of harmonizing projects in the Niger Delta as enunciated in the plan.

Actually, there is nothing wrong with fine-tuning plans and reviewing strategies several times over. Perhaps, it may help to deepen insight or to highlight new angles that were overlooked in the past. However, there is a tendency that too many committees may become sources of distraction. For instance, how do you focus on implementing the master plan when people are busy tinkering with ideas for a version of another master plan? All these committees upon committees may really be no more than ingenious devices to squander the scarce financial resources available for the development of the Niger delta.

The point to note is that there is a generally accepted work-plan on our hands. It is only reasonable that we try to make the best out of it, while adjustments are made as the need arises. Of course, there would be cause to amend the Master Plan now and again. The NDDC Managing Director, Mr. Chibuzor Ugwoha said as much recently, when he played host to members of the Rivers State Chapter of the Nigerian Institute of Town Planners . He said: "The Master Plan is not cast in stone, it is due for review, I urge you to look at it and the region as a whole and give your opinion as a body".

So, the regional plan is a dynamic document that would lead all stakeholders to the desired destination. What is required is an undiluted commitment to the roadmap. Otherwise, those who had said that the problems of the Niger Delta was not lack of ideas on what to do but lack of political will to apply the solutions will now feel justified. Professor Wole Soyinka, a Nobel laureate, shared this view. He said that the master plan, no matter how good would not resolve the problems of the Niger Delta, except it is implemented to the letter. He said that past efforts to intervene in the region did not succeed because the government failed to show commitment to the cause of the people.

The ministry should not waste time on developing new plans as it is not going to re-invent the wheel. It has to start work immediately, using the master plan as its working document. Some modifications to the plan may emanate from the recommendations of the Niger Delta Technical Committee. Even then, that will not significantly change the main focus of the Master Plan which holds the key to the realization of the goal to fast-tracking the development of the oil-rich region.

The Master Plan is a product of elaborate consultations with oil-bearing communities, local, state and federal governments, international donor agencies, oil companies, among others. It is generally acclaimed as a worthy compass for the sustainable development of the Niger Delta. What is needed at this stage is the provision of adequate funds, which should be properly monitored, for the implementation of the regional plan.

Now that the development efforts in the region are expected to be driven by the Master Plan, there is bound to be better coordination and faster delivery on projects that would make profound impact on the lives of the people. The ministry should join the NDDC to drive the Master Plan. The 15-year period of the plan must not be allowed to run out without any significant impact on the Niger Delta. Already, about three or four years have rolled by since its implementation started.

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The Niger Delta Technical Committee, which synthesized all the previous reports and recommendations on the Niger Delta crisis, has long completed its assignment. The consequences of not implementing the recommendations of the Ledum Mittee committee should rather be imagined than witnessed. It will not only be a grave setback to the Federal Government's avowed commitment to addressing the Niger Delta question but it may exacerbate the volatility and restiveness in the region.

It is only tangible development that can change the mindset of a people that have been unjustly treated for decades. The Mittee Committee Report and recommendations sum up what is needed to usher in peace and development in the region.

The strident voice from the South-South has got all Nigerians listening. The message that comes across is that Niger Delta needs massive development in the shortest possible time. It may sound like a dooms-day prophesy, but the truth is that time is running out and further delays in addressing the Niger Delta crisis would certainly not augur well for the nation.


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