NIGERIA’S BONNY LIGHT; A BENCHMARK IN DISTRESS
The current travails of Bonny where armed gangs strike terror into the marrows of citizens bring to the fore, the painful plight of the people of Nigeria’s Niger Delta region, a confluence of affluence and despair. Residents of Bonny are fleeing from their homes and many have perished during the perilous journey out of the islands. Radio announcements by the Police, Local Government, and Rivers State Government officials have not stemmed the tide of exodus. Bonny is a case-study in failed appeasement, divide and rule, trickle down policy, and myopic strategic planning.
Blessed with a rich culture going back many centuries the people of Bonny are endowed in more ways than one. Thanks to early contact and commercial interaction with the Europeans, the people of Bonny, like their Okrika, Kalabari and Nembe kinsfolk were trailblazers in education with which came civilization that spread to other parts of Southern Nigeria and the Middle Belt. Together with Akassa, Brass, and Abonnema, Bonny was a gateway to prosperity in the pre-colonial and colonial era. It was through Bonny that seedlings of cocoa were introduced into Nigeria which went on to become the world’s largest producer. However, it is for the high quality crude oil, very easy to refine because of its low sulphur content christened Bonny Light which is the benchmark for global crude oil prices that Bonny is now world famous.
So strategic is Bonny to Nigeria’s stability that when during the civil war, heroes like Alani Akinriade and Isaac Adaka Boro fighting on the Federal side risked their lives to liberate Bonny Island, the victory marked the beginning of the end of the Biafran resistance. A young university lecturer named Ken Sarowiwa was appointed as the Sole Administrator of the island. The shiploads of relief materials, cash and other resources were distributed equitably to all those in need. Nothing was diverted to enrich himself or his cronies. No cash was embezzled and used to buy up the people’s common heritage. The rehabilitation was quick and total. People lived without fear. They went about fending for themselves in the creeks and elsewhere unhindered. Decades later, Nigeria rewarded Sarowiwa, not with a National Honour, but with a noose.
To the regret of all, today, Bonny is again a war front. The sight of fully kitted soldiers with fear on their faces, instilling fear on the faces of those they came to protect is disheartening. They are unable to stop the guerrilla-warfare kind of attacks on randomly selected targets, soldiers today, traditional rulers tomorrow; banks today, innocent civilians tomorrow. The sudden collapse of security is incomprehensible. The income stream that flows through Bonny ‘Upstream’ to the Netherlands, home of Shell, all of Europe, and the United States of America and the pockets of a handful of privileged Nigerians is steady. Vessels fully laden with sweet crude and others filled with liquefied natural gas set sail without let or hindrance. “Downstream” the story is different. Open fibreglass boats with rickety wooden benches and outboard engines convey indigenes and itinerant workers from Bonny to Port Harcourt the economic hub of Rivers State. In their bid to escape the sporadic machine gun fire that is now commonplace on the island, they set sail with trepidation and are often ambushed, waylaid, attacked mid-sea, robbed, brutalized and raped
The economic disequilibrium brought about by the massive oil and gas related investment in Bonny is the sole source of this breakdown in law and order. Should the export of crude oil and liquefied natural gas from Bonny be halted today the people will have little or nothing to lose. They neither have equity participation nor symbolic profit sharing from the huge investments. All they receive are a trickle down pittance which invariably pitches brother against brother, family against family and clan against clan. Even with a major oil export terminal and a seven-train Natural Gas liquefaction plant, unemployment is extremely high, cost of living astronomical, and HIV/AIDS in pandemic proportions.
It is not asking too much for the Federal Government to declare Bonny a disaster area. The peculiar problems of Bonny must be tackled head-on. Labour-intensive enterprises must be initiated. The natural beach which is a giant tourist attraction must be made accessible to the indigenes. The policy of appeasing only some traditional rulers, party stalwarts, government officials, and vociferous armed groups must be reviewed. Unless a sense of belonging is created and reinforced in concrete terms, the majority of the citizens will remain alienated and continue to sulk because there is nothing in it for them. For example, when the Federal Government forked out millions of dollars to dredge the Bonny channel to enable large vessels come in with ease to lift oil, there was nothing in the contract for the “Locals”. Such multi billion naira contracts ought to be tied to concurrent local development. For instance, the sand from the dredging should have been used to reclaim land around the various islands. That way we end up with a win-win situation.
Down the Atlantic coastline is Brass Island, Bayelsa State, a mirror image of Bonny. Like Bonny, Brass is a major oil export terminal (albeit offshore) with little to show for it. It has for decades hosted Nigeria Agip Oil Company just as Bonny has hosted Shell. It is now the site for the Brass LNG just like the Nigerian LNG in Bonny. The time to prevent all the shortcomings that have made Bonny a benchmark of discontent and despair from being repeated in Brass is now. The people can be integrated into the project so that they have, not just bragging rights as the host community but something concrete to show for it. The foreshores of the island which have been washed away by the sea should be reclaimed. The beaches should remain open and be used to provide jobs through tourism. Safe and convenient ferry boats should be provided to link Nembe, Akassa, Yenagoa and Port Harcourt. Above all, labour-intensive enterprises must be nurtured to provide jobs for those who are not absorbed by the oil export terminal and the Brass LNG project. The people should have equity participation in whatever form to cement their bonding with the project. The Chiefs and elite should sink their differences and avoid being played against one another. The communities must ab initio support the project wholeheartedly so as to ensure a peaceful and conducive atmosphere which in turn will be rewarded with genuine all-round development.
What is playing out in Bonny today is that the disgruntled, alienated, skilled, unskilled, and impoverished bystanders far outnumber the beneficiaries of the oil export terminal and the Liquefied Natural Gas plants. The billions of naira in investment and even more billions in income from the LNG project, created expectations of dizzying proportions in minds of the people of Bonny. Nigeria has everything to lose if civil unrest forces Bonny to go under. But for a handful of lucky Chiefs, contractors, employees and others, the majority of Bonny indigenes have nothing to lose. It shouldn’t be so. Labour-intensive enterprises, safe ferry boats and a peaceful environment must be established in Bonny immediately. The government is lucky to have the opportunity to learn from the Bonny debacle and discard the trickle down theory in Brass and other high profile investment areas.
By Eben Dokubo
Eben Dokubo wrote from Port Harcourt