OPINION: Burning barricades, angry demonstrators and hoodlums running amok in Lagos have sparked anxiety among upstream industry watchers, with the Nigerian diaspora watching on as crowds at home broke curfew to protest.
Triggered initially by outrage over persistent civil and human rights abuses perpetrated by the infamous Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), street protests swiftly became violent as hungry looters and mischief-makers attacked warehouses, businesses and even police stations.
A predictably heavy-handed response claimed 69 civilian deaths as of late last week, although Amnesty International said far more fatalities were sustained during the police crackdown that resulted in 1520 arrests nationwide.
Yoruba traditional leader Gani Adams accused politicians of calling in the military while deploying agents provocateurs to brutally disrupt protest and suppress opposition voices, even turning a blind eye to arson and murder.
The National Broadcasting Commission warned against reporting events “in a manner that might embarrass the government or individuals, cause disaffection or incite panic” and even issued fines — but the intervention did not save media houses from the torch.
Nigeria has not seen social unrest on this scale in decades, with crowds storming the Lekki Toll Gate, closing in on the well-heeled suburbs housing oil companies and their families.
By contrast, anti-SARS protests in the restive oil-patch states of Delta, Bayelsa, Rivers and Akwa Ibom briefly disrupted commerce, but remained eerily peaceful, belying far deeper strains of dissent and a fractious underbelly of oil-creek militia poised to strike at a weakened state.
Last week, Delta Central’s Senator Ovie Omo-Agege pleaded with a prominent militant, group the Reformed Niger Delta Avengers, to halt plans to attack the nation’s oil and power infrastructure, pledging to take its grievances direct to the presidency.
Omo-Agege and like-minded lawmakers are valiantly battling to embed host community rights in the Petroleum Industry Bill to a fair percentage of oil company expenditure — and rightly so.
But simply doubling entitlement to 5% or even 10% will not defuse the accumulated anger of jobless youths and their armed colleagues.
Host and transit communities lack employment and need to see development.
Simply promising to tinker with trust funds will not achieve peace in the Niger Delta unless lawyers are followed by enterprise initiatives.
Nigeria President Muhammadu Buhari earlier sacked the entire executive of the allegedly corrupt Niger Delta Development Commission and is now seeking senate approval to appoint 16 eminent oil-zone indigenes to the board.
However, few believe this infamous bureaucracy will ever do more than paste up placards.
“The authorities are confused; they don’t know how to break this stalemate,” the Nigerian chief executive of one offshore oil producer tells Upstream.
“The protests made people understand how vulnerable the government is. They’ve lost all faith in it while the administration has finally realised it has no real authority,” says the head of another indigenous operator.
Buhari’s drive towards gas-fueled power, his decision to revamp oil laws, remove subsidies and give marginal fields to local contractors may yet revive local industry, salvage expertise and even create jobs.
But without sweeping reform of the political process, is this all too little, too late?
Not necessarily. Nigeria’s obituary has too often been penned prematurely by outsiders and this author shall not be the one to write another.
(This is an Upstream opinion article.)