Constitutional change conference deadlocks over oil dispute

A national conference called to fashion a new more balanced constitution for divided Nigeria has reached deadlock over a dispute on how to share out the country’s immense oil wealth.

The conference was convened by President Olusegun Obasanjo in the federal capital Abuja in February and was due to have closed on 21 June. However, the meeting reached the brink of collapse earlier this month after delegates from the Niger Delta pulled out demanding a greater share of the oil wealth produced on their doorstep.

Its closing session has been twice postponed and the conference is effectively in limbo.

Faced with regular outbursts of ethnic and religious violence that threaten to rip Nigeria apart, Obasanjo called the conference to give Nigeria’s 250 different ethnic groups a better say in their own affairs and to adjust the balance of power between the federal government and the country’s 36 member states.

But lingering divisions between northerners and southerners over oil, which provides 90 percent of Nigeria's foreign exchange and is the lifeblood of the economy, are jeopardising his bid to provide lasting stability through constitutional change.

Scores of delegates from the south-eastern delta region that produces the bulk of Nigeria’s oil, walked out on 16 June after the conference voted to peg the share of government oil revenue retained by each producer state at 17 percent, substantially less than the 50 percent they had demanded.

The conference was adjourned for a week to allow for backroom bargaining and was then put on ice again until 11 July after meetings between Obasanjo and various delegates failed to produce a deal.

Delegates from the Niger Delta states subsequently proposed a compromise, offering to accept a 25 percent share of oil revenues earned from their region, on condition that this be progressively increased to 50 percent over five years.

“The withdrawal of our further participation in the proceedings of the conference remains in force until the above conditions are met,” the Niger Delta delegates said in a joint statement last week.

The dispute underlines the central role of oil in Nigeria’s politics, pitting the mainly Muslim north against the largely Christian south.

Few spoils from oil for ordinary Nigerians

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, with an officially estimated 126 million people. But it is also the continent’s leading oil producer, and the seventh-biggest exporter of crude worldwide, shipping nearly 2.5 million barrels a day.

But most ordinary Nigerians derive little benefit from the billions of dollars of foreign exchange that it generates each year. According to the UN Human Development Index, 90 percent of the population earns less than US $2 a day and one out of three people is illiterate.

Although Nigeria is widely regarded as a regional superpower, with an army that regularly intervenes to quell conflicts in other states in West Africa, the United Nations rates it among the 30 poorest countries in the world.

Nearly all of Nigeria’s oil is pumped from the wells sunk into the swampy forests of the Niger Delta and from platforms offshore in the Gulf of Guinea. But the delta remains an impoverished region, inhabited by ethnic minorities, the largest of which is the Ijaw.

The inhabitants of the Niger Delta complain that during the past four decades the government has taken the oil money generated on their doorstep but has left their region poor, undeveloped and polluted.

They want a greater share of the wealth, which for years has been siphoned off by the federal government

Delta activists recall that at independence in 1960 Nigeria’s different peoples had a bigger stake in their own riches.

At that time the former British colony was carved up into three administrative regions. Each regional government took half of the revenue earned from locally produced natural resources.

Nigeria’s main exports at the time were groundnuts from the north, cocoa from the southwest and palm oil from the southeast.

Oil production began in 1958, but by 1970, when the civil war ended, it had become Nigeria's main foreign exchange earner.

Oil-producing states win right to a slive of revenue

Following the ill-fated attempt by the Igbo people of the southeast to break away to form the independent state of Biafra, the military government of the time created more states to dissipate ethnic tensions. But it took away their right to a share of the country's oil revenue.

After years of campaigning by activists and delta communities, a three percent share of oil revenue was restored to Nigeria's 11 oil producing states in the late 1980s.

This was later increased to 13 percent under the 1999 constitution that returned Nigeria to democracy after 15 years of uninterrupted military rule, but since then people across the delta have continued to clamour for an increased share.

Even state governors and other south-eastern politicians from Obasanjo's ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) backed the walkout by delegates at the constitutional reform conference, endorsing their demands for more local control over the Niger Delta's oil wealth.

But the view from the north is diametrically opposed, and equally intransigent.

“It is God that gives this oil, it is not anybody’s sweat,” said northern delegate Hassan Mu’azu, insisting that there be no increase above the 17 percent share already conceded to the delta states.

“It is not like farming where you go to the farm and sweat; nobody in the south knows where this crude oil came from,” he added.

But Kimse Okoko, president of the Ijaw National Congress and a conference delegate, said the Niger Delta people would not give in.

“We are not going to accept this logic from the north anymore on resources that belong to us,” Okoko said. “No amount of postponement will change our position on what we consider to be a very significant concession on the part of the people of the Niger Delta.”

Many analysts were surprised by the split at a conference where all 400 delegates were either appointed by Obasanjo or nominated by the 36 state governors, 28 of them members of the ruling PDP.

“One would have expected that contentious issues would not be debated by the so-called ‘trusted nominees’ of government,” said newspaper columnist Mobolaji Sanusi in the Vanguard national daily.

Will Obasanjo cancel the conference

Political commentators are speculating about the options left for Obasanjo, who will be obliged by the constitution to stand down once his second four-year term as elected president expires in 2007.

“No one should be surprised if Obasanjo suddenly decides to suspend the now problematic conference, beat a retreat as it were, and throw the entire process into the dust-bin of history,” said Reuben Abati in the influential Guardian daily.

“This would be the easiest, cheapest way to avoid the dangerous stalemate, the keg of gunpowder situation that the conference has now confronted the Obasanjo government with,” he added.

Whether or not the president decides to kill the conference, the prickly questions now raised are unlikely to go away.

The forum’s failure, on the other hand, would play into the hands of opposition groups who boycotted the conference on the grounds that the delegates were all government nominees.

These groups are now planning a parallel national conference.

Known as the Pro-National Conference Organisation (PRONACO), this parallel forum brings together several unlikely bed-fellows, including Nobel Prize winning author Wole Soyinka; former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, who was Obasanjo’s main rival in the 2003 presidential elections, Moujahid Dokubo-Asari, the leader of an Ijaw militia movement in the Niger Delta, who threatened “all-out” war against the government last year, and dozens of pro-democracy groups.

Obasanjo, who was formerly opposed to the idea of constitutional reform, changed his mind last year after Dokubo-Asari's Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF), threatened in September 2004 to attack foreign oil workers and shut down oil production across the delta.

This threat to flick the switch on Nigeria's economy and deprive the United States of a major source of oil imports, sent world oil prices shooting to record highs of more than US $50 per barrel.

Members of the PRONACO parallel forum appear united in the conviction that Nigeria needs new foundations as the pillars currently holding the country together become increasingly shaky. But it remains to be seen if this counter conference ever gets off the ground.

Political commentator Abati wrote in the Guardian: “Whatever happens, we can either address these problems once and for all … or postpone the evil day.”