Remarks on social services in the Niger Delta

A newborn in the Niger Delta
A newborn in the Niger Delta

 

An NGO researcher just conducted an interview with me regarding the state of service delivery, i.e. social and government services, in the Niger Delta. Below are a few of the transcribed questions and answers.

 

1. How would you describe the current state of service delivery[1] for most communities in the Niger Delta? 

Service delivery is non-existent in most areas, and sporadic or haphazard in the remaining ones.  I think that part of the reason communities so often look to oil companies to offer social services and build basic infrastructure is that the state has been so wholly unable to do any of these things since independence.  It is as if communities have given up on their own government ever acting as a government should, which requires providing basic services to its population. As is common in countries with rampant corruption, projects often begin but then are abandoned because funds disappeared or there was a change in management of that project. In the Niger Delta there are half-finished bridges, classrooms without roofs, and empty hospitals that don’t even have electricity. Additionally, a lack of human capital and maintenance of services mean that as soon as any project is finished, it will only be a matter of time until it is useless because no one can perform maintenance.  It seems that almost as soon as a road is finished, poor construction materials mean that it needs to be fixed again but there is mechanism in which to have that road repaired. This lack of maintenance is an issue that only capacity-building can address.

2. Whose responsibility do you believe it is to improve service delivery in the region, e.g. government agencies like MNDA or the NDDC, or oil companies operating in the region?

It is responsibility of government agencies to improve social services.  The basis of democracy is that citizens pay taxes to their government, vote for their leaders, and then those leaders use those taxes in a responsible manner to provide necessary collective goods that improve everyone’s lives.  Because the Nigerian government can rely on oil profits rather than taxes, and corruption makes elections less meaningful, there is no accountability of state actors towards the citizenry. Part of this government duty is to monitor the behavior of private economic actors like oil companies. Although I believe staunchly in corporate responsibility, it is impossible for a corporation to fully monitor itself; by definition monitoring must come from an outside party, like a government agency.

3. What impact do you think the current state of service delivery has on peace and conflict in the Niger Delta region? 

Lack of service delivery has increased rates of poverty and negatively impacted quality of life, which gives people “nothing to lose” when it comes to engaging in violence.  It also creates a dynamic in which too many people are competing for scant social services and resources, leading to increased tensions. Poverty and lack of services drives rural dwellers into cities like Port Harcourt and Yenagoa, where they may come into conflict with residents already living there, be forced into crime out of necessity, and and don’t have kinship or community networks that would otherwise mitigate their propensity for violence.

 4. Do you think that improved service delivery would increase security in the region?

Yes. Mostly obviously, it would remove violence caused by need, in other words, conflicts over obtaining basic goods.  Additionally, it would remove the incentive for rural Nigerians to move to new areas in search of such services, thus minimizing the conflict that occurs among internally displaces populations and between new urban dwellers and older ones.


[1] “Service delivery” means the quality and availability of essential services, such as health care, primary education,  and basic infrastructure such as reliable access to water, electricity, and road networks.

Daily bread v. liberty

A long-standing (but perhaps unnecessary) debate in the field of human rights is that of economic security versus political freedom. States that stress collectivism such as China and some Islamic states, argue on the global stage that without financial security, political freedom is meaningless. They see sound economic conditions as a precondition for the enjoyment of political freedom. What good is the vote if the people have no shoes in which to walk to polling stations? Conversely, advocates of the latter argue that individuals can use free speech and their own autonomy to create the conditions that lead to economic prosperity for themselves and society as a whole. This notion is highly compatible with laissez-faire free markets and cultures of self-sufficiency, e.g. Western European countries and the U.S. It is far better that some people walk barefoot to polling stations on voting day than not have a voting day at all.

Although my interview subjects in rural Nigeria have not heard of this debate, they struggle with it all the same, just framing it in different terms. I asked them a series of questions about how the oppressive military rule of the 1990s, namely that under General Sani Abacha, compares to today’s democratic administration, albeit a less-than-flourishing one. It was in the 1990s that many of the most notorious human rights abuses were committed in Nigeria, and Ogonis in particular suffered some of the worst. During this decade Nigerian dissidents were killed, tortured, disappeared by state agents, women were raped as a means of asserting political power, and there was virtually no free speech. Today, endemic corruption debilitates government and for the majority of citizens, Nigeria continues to be a really…unfair place to live. However, political freedom is vastly improved from what it was 15-20 years ago. Surely Nigeria must be a better place for Niger Deltans now than it was then, right?

From the perspective of most of my respondents, it isn’t. All but three of my interview subjects said that either there is no change at all now from how the government was under military rule, or even more surprisingly, almost half of them told me that things were better in the 1990s. There are several explanations for this. They may have wanted to make their current conditions seem as dire as possible because they hoped for money after the interview, or because they viewed me as representative of some Western power that could help them. Some research indicates that people tend to remember the “good ol’ days” while their current difficulties seem more salient. For my middle-aged research subjects, they may not have had the adult responsibilities or political consciousness to view the state in the same way then that they do currently. For example, a 20-year-old may not think about the importance of fair taxation in the way that that same 40-year-old supporting a family later on thinks about it.

Of those who told me that life was better in the 1990s, there were two types of answers. One smaller group said that society was less chaotic then and the public sphere was more orderly. The strong arm of Abacha ensured that petty thievery was minimized and that economic transactions were regulated. Women described markets where they sold goods as being more organized and predictable. They said they could plan out their family diets better because they knew how much goods would cost in coming weeks and months.

A more common answer though was simply that things were cheaper in 1990s relative to their income. That’s it. The women I talked to wanted food, medicine, clothing, and housing to be affordable. They viewed inflation and unstable prices today as infringing on their well-being more than the threat of village pogroms and extrajudicial killings of family members. They care about fair elections far less than they care about the availability of zinc roofing. They care about the number of independent media sources far less than the amount of cassava their naira can buy. Although I think their responses are a reflection of political marginalization of Nigerian women and the widespread notion that politics are a male realm, they also indicate that their current economic conditions are so precarious that they are willing to living under tyranny to be able to purchase more than a day’s worth of food at a time.

I haven’t done the background reading on this finding yet, and I am sure other research out there has found the same in the global south. It makes me wonder how vastly different human rights deliberations at the EU would be if they weren’t dominated by rich men and had a few rural African women present.

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Women roasting cassava for gari.

PDP Candidate is the New Governor of Bayelsa State

Yes, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) candidate in Bayelsa, Henry Seriake Dickson, won over 90 percent of votes in Saturday’s gubernatorial election, according to the Independent National Electoral Commission. The previous governor, Timipre Sylva, was barred from running again for allegedly threatening the President.

Timipre Sylva

Reuters reported that at least one person was killed and several injured at a pre-election rally on Tuesday and turnout during Saturday’s ballot was low due to security concerns. The state deployed around 15,000 police to deter any potential unrest. Around 800 people were killed after last year’s presidential election in three days of violence between rival supporters and in clashes between Christian and Muslim gangs.

Some opposition parties refused to accept the result, saying there were irregularities, including ballot box snatching, multiple voting and harassment of party officials. Such accusations follow most Nigerians elections so they are not surprising.

This election matters for three reasons.  First, the federal government doles out oil revenues to states, and then states are supposed to in turn distribute funds to localities.  However, localities rarely receive the sums allotted to them because of state-level graft, so governors are key players in determining the degree of corruption in Nigeria. Second, Bayelsa is considered to be the hub of militant activity so the strength of leadership there has a resounding impact on the Niger Delta crisis and foreign companies’ comfort in investing in Nigeria.  Third, having a PDP governor in office in his home state undergirds Jonathan’s presidency, as he was elected in large part because of professed ability to coordinate easily  with state politicians there to handle security more effectively.

Henry Dickson is the new Bayelsa State Governor.

Let’s Love Taxes

 

Those of us living in developed democracies should feel grateful every tax season. A state that doesn’t rely on popular taxation for its funds can be a very bad place to live. When used appropriately, taxes foster institution-building, transparency, accountability and most importantly perhaps, consent. Taxpayers can and often do demand their democratic governments show how their money is being used. On the other hand, oil revenues allow for a gap to emerge between the state and its populace; because the populace doesn’t fund the government, it has less reason to call for accountability in spending. There is no political need for the consent of constituencies in such places. Oil permits the state to avoid the political costs of voter opposition to taxation, as well as cultivate a population accustomed to low taxes and hostile to politicians who attempt tax hikes that would improve state robustness or democratic conditions. Ultimately, oil states are capital intensive enclaves that require a large investment to get the extraction started and then merely a modicum of rule to ensure uninterrupted flow.

Less than 10% of Nigeria’s annual budget is based on taxes and that is highly problematic. I vaguely recall reading somewhere that the vast majority of commerce of daily goods, something like 90%, is done on the informal market and therefore extremely difficult to tax.  I know that cash is king here, with people using boxes of paper naira to purchase homes and other big-ticket items. This leads to a question of causation: Are taxes impossible to collect because of the informal economy or does the informal economy make taxation impossible?