The Disenfranchisement of a Generation in the Niger-Delta: Reflections of a Community Development Worker. | by Anonymous

Author: Anonymous (Due to the relatively sensitive nature of the topic, the writer has asked for their name not to be revealed.)

Country: Nigeria

As part of a series in the run up to the Nigerian elections on the 28th of March, this blog has chosen to focus on a set of persistent issues which do not threaten to disappear come the 29th of March. It will be the responsibility of any government that enters into office to deal with these very serious concerns, and it will continue to be part of the duty of the Nigerian citizenry, after it has voted, to keep many of these issues firmly in the government’s sight of action. This week our focus turns to the Niger-Delta.

A great deal has been written about Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger-Delta region. Both in the international and domestic presses, there has been a heavy focus on the violence that has tended to permeate the area and its effect on levels of oil production. Attention to the violence that is often seen to be perpetuated by a restive youth, has been highlighted by the kidnappings of foreign national oil executives or by the destruction of oil pipelines for the purposes of looting.

Though the outwardly violent nature of many of the youth militias operating in the Niger-Delta is well documented, what has often gone under noted has been the manifested effects of an environment that trades in brutality on the current generation of young people in the region who do not explicitly belong to organised militias. Over the course of the last 30 to 40 years, the Niger-Delta region has been an intensely hostile setting to live in for the present generation of young 18 to 35 year olds. As well as representing a significant portion of Nigeria’s total labour force, they also constitute the absolute majority of the population in the Niger-Delta. The effects of this militarised environment on the youth is not only detrimental to young people themselves but also to the future possibilities for a peaceful and developed Niger-Delta region. The implications for Nigeria as a whole also cannot be ignored.

From 2010 to 2013, I had the privilege of working for an international NGO that implemented environmental and community development projects in rural and hard to access parts of the Niger-Delta. We operated specifically in Rivers, Bayelsa, Akwa-Ibom, and Delta States. Using various mechanisms including household surveys, focus group discussions, and town hall meetings, our work involved engaging different groups in the community – women, youths, elders, and community leaders. Our aim was to document the immediate needs of the local people in these states. Part of our goal was also to encourage the participation of community dwellers in development activities through the construction of quick-win infrastructural projects requested by the community. Such projects could include: water boreholes, market stalls, and school blocks.

Due to close interactions with community members I was able to observe re-occurring trends in the general behaviour of the youth across the different communities we visited in Rivers, Bayelsa, and Akwa-Ibom States. Much of what I saw was indicative of a generation of people who have lived in an environmentally and physically aggressive society for the major portions of their lives. From my observations, it is clear that the region is beset by a number of deep-seated issues that require a systemic response.

Culture of violence- In most rural communities, the youth groups – including, though not exclusive to, non-militia civil society youth organizations – constituted a powerful force to be reckoned with. It was not unusual to see young men carrying large cutlasses in their hands. This was standard practice and part of their everyday apparel. For those of us working in the communities, it was a constant reminder of what could happen if our actions were in conflict with their interests. Indeed, on one occasion my colleagues were injured with stones and cutlasses as a result of their conducting a focus group discussion with people against whom some youth associations were opposed.

Distrust for NGOs, Government officials and outsiders- Most of the youth in these states were paranoid about our NGO activities in their communities. This does not come as a surprise as the Niger-Delta is full of uncompleted infrastructural projects funded by previous governments and development agencies. The average Niger-Delta youth does not believe that people will come into their community and leave a lasting and positive change. Their disbelief can be readily understood since most of what the current generation has experienced throughout its life is the exploitation of oil in the region with no tangible benefits. Government officials, NGOs, and oil company officials were, therefore, not always received positively in some communities.

In many cases, at first glance our NGO was seen as an oil company representative by host communities. This was because we were there to conduct needs assessment studies commissioned by an oil company. Our NGO gradually gained the support of the youth and of community leaders in some communities, particularly after community members began to see visible results in the form of small-scale infrastructure funded by oil companies and/or development partners.

Sense of entitlement- On various occasions, our organization needed to engage the youth in our development work. For example, we needed to conduct interviews to ask the youth about their livelihoods, education, and other pressing needs. We largely conducted these interviews in order to better guide the community relations departments of oil companies on how to properly allocate resources to improve the lives of young people. However, it was not always easy to convince the youth to participate. Even when information was successfully gathered from them, they expected us to give them “an envelope”. Our NGO provided refreshments (drinks and biscuits or pre-packaged sausage rolls); but no cash gifts were provided in accordance with the organization’s policies.

However, there are other organizations working in these rural communities that operate a different policy. They give a stipend to community leaders and youth groups in order to get work done. In my opinion, this is unfortunate as it exacerbates the environment of financial corruption that is prevalent in the area and it further debases the minds of the young who have their currency of violence and money reinforced by those who should know better.

Poor representation of women in youth associations- I also observed that women are underrepresented in youth groups and associations. When youth representatives gathered for town hall meetings, the majority of the time women tended to be visibly absent.

I noticed that women were poorly educated and unable to read and write in any language. Through interactions with the community I discovered that parents preferred to invest in the education of their sons over that of their daughters as women were expected to fulfill their sole and only purpose of getting married, having children and taking care of their families.

The impact of the violence in the region on women in particular was also palpable as there were a significant number of widows and single mothers in these areas. Their husbands had lost their lives in the community clashes that occur regularly.

Lack of careers and aspirations among the youth- It was also clear that little diversity exists amongst the youth in terms of career choices. Most of the youth aspired to work or contract for oil companies. Many of the skills they learnt, therefore – if they had any – were skills that would help them achieve these goals i.e. welding and managing community relations. This trend is, however, changing gradually with the growth of the entertainment industry which has employed a decent number of young persons. Many of the youth in the Niger-Delta now aspire to be part of the music or film industry, particularly with the recent availability of a well-equipped television studio in the region. Tinapa Studios is located in Cross River State. It is used daily by Ebony Life Television (a Nigerian youth-oriented television station that features on the DSTV satellite network).

It must be noted that the characteristics and attitudes described above do not pertain to all youth living in the Niger-Delta. There are young people from the poorest and most marginalized communities in the region who have been able to rise above their circumstances. I have worked with such people and they can only be admired for their positive attitude and resilience despite all the odds that they face. However, these are exceptional cases.

Moving Forward- It is of the utmost essence to create attitudinal change among the current generation of young people living and dwelling in the rural parts of South-South Nigeria.

In order to encourage job creation and diversity in skills, a spirit of entrepreneurship needs to be encouraged along with incentives such as entrepreneurship training and grant funding for start-ups. The youth crucially need to be exposed to other opportunities that exist beyond the oil and gas industry.

Through no fault of their own, the current generation of young people living in the Niger-Delta is one that has been raised in a violent and hostile environment where people do what they believe they need to do in order to survive. The young and youth groups need to be rehabilitated through value re-orientation programmes that are similar to the programmes that were put together as part of the Amnesty package for Niger-Delta militants. If ex-militants can be given the opportunity to receive training at home and abroad and given job placements in countries like South Africa and the United Kingdom, the same opportunities should also be available to the everyday youth who though they do not belong to militant groups are no less traumatised by their highly militant surroundings.

The young constitute the majority of Nigeria’s population. We need to ensure that the present generation is equipped mentally and emotionally to lead this country in the present decade and beyond. For this to be realized, attitudinal change through value re-orientation and soft skills acquisition is extremely important for this generation. Professional training and technical skills are crucial as well but these skills are of no use to an individual whose development has been hampered by anti-social tendencies. This is precisely the socially alienated behavioural character which many in the Niger-Delta have been forced to adopt. They are literally unemployable in any normal work environment.

The federal, and some state governments, have made some efforts to put schemes in place to create jobs through skills acquisition programmes and entrepreneurship opportunities; such as the nation-wide ‘YOU WIN’ programme, which awards grants to promising young entrepreneurs and the Lagos State Agricultural Youth and Empowerment Scheme. We must, however, go further in ensuring that skills development is targeted in a deeper, wider, and more holistic way. And much more attention needs to be paid to gender sensitivity and balance.

The difficulties in the Niger-Delta has affected females in different ways from how it has affected males, though the result is no less severe. Equal attention must be paid to developing the soft skills and value systems of both our male and female youth who have been demoralized in the Niger-Delta.

The author is a Nigerian national and an independent development consultant with 12 years of experience working in the Not-For-Profit sector and implementing projects for donor agencies and development partners including the EU, the UK FCO, and the Social Development Fund of the French Embassy.

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