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One of the most fundamental of the many debates that are regular features of contemporary Nigerian society is how to devise the formula that can begin to address the inequities that are glaringly visible in the distribution of wealth in the country. In the immediate post-Independence era, the semi-autonomous regions enjoyed full benefits of the wealth that accrued from the resources that were generated in their areas of jurisdiction. The centralization of the national economy was one of the unfortunate consequences of the Civil War. In post-war period, the logic of pooling the nation’s resources to pay for the war and the perceived need to emasculate the then powerful regional power bases, especially the subdued Biafran enclave, may have informed such a radical transformation of the status quo. As it turned out, the centralized national economy has since been regarded and treated as a war booty which was to be controlled and dispensed almost to the exclusion of the losers of the Civil War. It happens that the losers’ ancestral land contains the major resource that powers the national economy – crude petroleum. Even though the bulk of the nation’s revenue is derived from east of the River Niger, more than 90% of the industrial development and large-scale commercial activities of the nation are based along the Lagos-Ibadan and Kaduna-Kano corridors.

The disarray that visited the former Eastern Region in the immediate post-war period culminated in retributions which were exerted by the ethnic minorities on the majority Igbo population who resided outside their home base. Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa and Cross River States, which were created out of the former Eastern Region, contain many ethnic minorities that might have nursed some grievances against Ndiigbo since the advent of self-rule. Ndiigbo dominated the city of Port Harcourt and controlled its politics and economy before the war. The Rivers State elite, who constituted the new government in post-war Port Harcourt, took the unprecedented decision to dispossess Ndiigbo of their landed properties in the new state capital by declaring them “abandoned properties”. Since those landed properties were actually deserted by their owners when Port Harcourt was sacked by the Federal troops, the new governing elite found some justification for impounding them, to the chagrin of former Igbo landlords. The “abandoned properties” saga has remained a sore point between Ndiigbo and the minority populations of the former Eastern Nigeria, especially in the Rivers State.

The present-day Port Harcourt has lost ground developmentally when compared to its relatively boisterous image as the “Garden City” of the pre-war era. Ndiigbo, disgusted by their huge losses in post-war Port Harcourt, looked away from the city as they assiduously rehabilitated their businesses elsewhere. Even though parts of Port Harcourt is in the Igbo-speaking area of Rivers State, only a handful of Igbo entrepreneurs do substantial business in the city while a far-away seaport of Lagos is hosting millions of them. This situation has actually neither benefited the Rivers State indigenes nor Ndiigbo who have not utilized the strategically situated port facilities next-door to their home base in Port Harcourt and Calabar. Ndiigbo have also remained indifferent, to say the least, to the plight of many ethnic minorities of Rivers State as they attempt to single-handedly take on the might of the Federal Government over the issues of environmental devastation from oil production and pervasive poverty of the indigenous populations. Return of economic vibrancy to Port Harcourt metropolis should be envisioned as a necessary component of the grand design to uplift the fortunes of the inhabitants of the Niger Delta, Southeastern coastal states and the hinterland.

After almost three decades of ill feelings between Ndiigbo and the minority populations, who occupy the coastline of the East and the Niger Delta, opinion leaders in the two camps have seen through the futility and negative consequences of the status quo and are diligently searching for the means to do the right thing for the benefit of their mutual interests. Now that the minorities of the former Eastern Region have four states of their own, the fear of political domination by Ndiigbo is no longer plausible. Everyone appears to be realizing that political emancipation that is not buoyed up by optimal socioeconomic infrastructure and lucrative enterprise is hollow. A fusion of the interests of Ndiigbo and the minorities that inhabit the coastline of the Bight of Biafra is an essential ingredient in a medium to long-term stratagem to open up the Nigerian Eastern Economic Corridor, which extends from the Warri estuary to Calabar and the hinterland. A strategic alliance must be forged, as a matter of urgency, to establish the basis and framework for mobilizing the populations in this corridor to support this bold initiative which can quickly and radically change their livelihood for the better.

The Nigerian Eastern Economic Corridor roughly corresponds to the epicenter of crude oil production in the country. Instead of creating a bureaucratized body like Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission (OMPADEC), which has been hijacked and exploited by a handful of powerful politicians in the oil-producing zone, the Federal Government should set up trust funds for autonomous communities in the area where their share of the revenue from sale of crude oil will be deposited. It will be up to the various communities to determine their individual priorities and invest their money as they see fit. The infusion of cash directly into the communities will instantly attract developmental activities and entrepreneurship within the local populations along this corridor. The indigenous populations of the oil-producing communities have demonstrated in many ways that they can handle their own developmental agenda better and their contributions to the national economy ought to be rewarded in such a way that each community can feel the maximal impact of its God-given wealth. The Federal Government should invest in this corridor’s development by constructing a coastal highway that will link Calabar, Eket and Bonny with the Lagos-Badagry Expressway to the west. The Port Harcourt International Airport should be upgraded to handle direct intercontinental flights and should be equipped with similar capabilities as those that exist in Lagos, Kano and Abuja.

The best solution to the perennial crises that plague the populations of the Niger Delta, for example, could be best handled through the implementation of a bold economic developmental program that actively engages the inhabitants of the area. Facts have shown that use of short-term political solutions, like the creation of new states and local governments, have not only been unable to effectively address the real aspirations of the people but also they appear to complicate matters. Some of the impoverished communities have now been made to divert their energies into fighting each other over the designation of administrative headquarters for these newly created jurisdictions instead of collaborating to evolve solutions to their common dilemma which is abject poverty in midst of plenty. The lip service that is often paid, from the comfort of Lagos, Abuja and elsewhere, to the plight of the inhabitants of the Niger Delta will come to naught if, at the end of the day, no real feasible economic agenda is put in place to begin to address the deprivations that they have been subjected to over the years. Nigeria already has a vibrant western economic corridor that encompasses Lagos, Ogun, Oyo and contiguous states. Equity and fairness demands that a commensurate effort and investment should be made, as a matter of urgency, to open up the Nigerian Eastern Economic Corridor east of River Niger. The Nigerian economy will be better for it and more so, the inhabitants of this new economic corridor will be given a real chance to strive for a rewarding livelihood in their various communities.

Apart from hosting most of the activities of the oil industry in the country, the Nigerian Eastern Economic Corridor has very good port facilities of international standard as well as giant manufacturing outfits like National Fertilizer Company of Nigeria (NAFCON) and the aluminum-smelting plant at Ikot Abasi, Akwa Ibom State, for example. One of the nation’s Export Processing Zones (EPZ) is located between the seaports of Port Harcourt and Calabar. The ingredients for establishing a vibrant economic power base for the country, in general and the under-developed parts of the East, in particular already exist. All that is needed now is the willpower at the federal, regional and local levels to set the machinery of economic development in motion. Political and community leaders in this corridor should start immediately to encourage the populations in the area to begin to act toward each other in such ways that can engender mutual respect, goodwill and cooperation amongst these contiguous groups. Previous political disagreements and mutual suspicion must be laid to rest so that the full economic potentials of this naturally well-endowed corridor can be quickly unleashed to enhance the wellbeing of the local population and the nation. The Obasanjo administration should seize the initiative and provide the necessary political leadership and resources to see this worthy venture take off. The proposed bill on the Niger Delta should, when presented to the national houses of legislature, be modified to enable the opening of the Nigerian Eastern Economic Corridor.

Osondu
The Survival Struggle for Ndiigbo

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