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Over the last three decades, both communities and policymakers have become increasingly concerned over the negative consequences of oil exploration and related human activities in the Niger Delta. This has led to the search for solutions to minimise the negative impact of oil exploration, restore the environment and accelerate development. At the regional level, we have had the 1.5 percent Oil Producing Areas Development Fund; 3 percent Oil Producing Areas Development Fund; Oil Mineral Areas Producing Development Commission; and Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC).
The states are not left out. Rivers State government set up the Rivers State Sustainable Development Agency to address the issue of sustainable development. Delta State’s version is Delta State Integrated Development Programme and Delta State Oil Producing Areas Development Commission (DESOPADEC). Other Niger Delta states have different sustainable development vehicles that go by different nomenclatures. The oil companies that are at the centre of the environmental degradation have also set up platforms to address sustainable development. SPDC has its Global Memorandum of Understanding (GMOU). Mobil, Eni and Chevron have similar programmes too.
All these initiatives are commendable, but the communities or the local people are not on the driving seat. The initiatives have, however, brought to the fore the practice of sustainable community development in trying to address the challenge of development in the Niger Delta. The United Nations Commission on the environment and development defines sustainable community development as growth that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It presupposes environmentally sound, economically productive and socially just communities which, without doubt, are not the case in the Niger Delta.
One undeniable implication of the above scenario is the urgent need to change our current development strategy. New community development challenges call for adoption of new strategies. As people of the Niger Delta, therefore, we must do things differently from how we had approached it in the past. One trend that can be inferred from all the community development vehicles or platforms mentioned earlier is that they are not driven by the community people themselves. We face our challenges at the community level; thus, it is also at this level that we can search for solutions to our problems. This is the basis for Andoni-Opobo-Nkoro Economic Zone Development Summit. It is basically a platform that brings professionals and stakeholders from the communities to plan for themselves and seek solution to common challenges. Unlike all the other development initiatives, this is conceptualised and driven by the people themselves. There is no external propelling force.
Andoni/Opobo/Nkoro people are found in two LGAs of Rivers State. On the face value, they are one of the most disadvantaged people in Rivers State. The two LGAs are not accessible by road. The state government, led by Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, is building a 41km unity road with 10 bridges to connect almost all the communities of the two LGAs to the rest of Rivers State. Aside from the challenge of road infrastructure, the people are not connected to the national grid and do not have good source of potable water, despite being located on islands. Rivers State government is building several brand new primary schools and two other 1,000-capacity students’ residential secondary school in the area. The environment is undoubtedly harsh. It is in this development context that they have chosen to do things differently to achieve sustainable community development through the vehicle of a summit. This, for me, is very commendable.
The Andoni-Opobo-Nkoro development summit has four components. The first is to showcase the latent opportunities that abound in the area and invite potential investors to take advantage and invest. The second component is to present to development partners, government and stakeholders a forward-looking master plan that captures the aspirations of the people. The third is to build capacity of the people and communities to prepare them for opportunities; and finally, to raise awareness on sustainability in community development.
Fundamentally, there are numerous differences between the Andoni-Opobo-Nkoro concept of development and others, but five are worth highlighting. Ecological protection is mainstreamed in development by community people themselves. Economic self-sufficiency is emphasised. Livable community marked by opportunities for sociability, diversity, personal development and community participation is prioritised in development planning; access to qualitative and affordable education and healthcare is given precedence; social justice that guarantees peace, law and order is pursued holistically. Most important of all these is that the process is envisioned and driven by communities themselves.At the forthcoming summit, United Nations Under Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of Economic Commission for Africa will lead high level thought-provoking sessions. A former chairman of Federal Inland Revenue Service will train budding women entrepreneurs. There will also be a session for youths on leveraging local content law, amongst other breakout sessions. One of the highlights of the summit is the presentation of Andoni-Opobo-Nkoro draft master plan. All stakeholders in the area are deeply involved in the process. There is a fervent belief that when the issue of sustainability is tied to the community’s vision, it has capacity to successfully resolve many key development challenges faced by the area.