The states of Nigeria’s southern, oil-rich delta region are receiving more money than ever before thanks to booming world oil prices and constitutional reform. But corruption has undermined prospects for development there, leaving schools without books and desks, clinics without medicine and running water, and youths lacking hope other than through violence.
“You see local governments by and large investing almost nothing into healthcare and education beyond the very bare minimum to pay salaries and sometimes they don’t even do that,” said Chris Albin-Lackey, Nigeria researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).
In a report released on Wednesday, HRW detailed alleged corruption in Rivers State in the delta. Albin-Lackey told IRIN that civil servants in the state have a “profound sense of demoralisation” in the face of graft, official neglect and a sense of opportunity lost, following elections in 2003 that people hoped might change things for the better.
Those polls were marred by violence and blatant vote rigging, most prominently in Rivers State, according to international observers. They fear even greater violence this time around because resentment has deepened among youths in the delta who have fewer job prospects but easier access to arms to carry out the will of local politicians seeking office.
Nigeria is Africa’s top oil producer and was plagued by decades of military rule and corruption. Democratic elections in 1999 brought President Olusegun Obasanjo to power and Nigerians hoped the newly elected leaders would help stop the graft and waste that had bled Nigeria of as much as US$380 billion between 1960 and 1999, according to the nation’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
Poor social indicators
As a result of misused and mismanaged funds, basic health and social indicators for Nigeria’s wealthiest states are dismal, according to the HRW report, which is based on more than 100 interviews with people across a spectrum of Nigerian society.
“A few decades ago Nigeria was considered to have one of the best education systems in Africa and now the schools in the richest state in the country are literally falling apart,” Albin-Lackey said of the schools he saw in Rivers State during his research mission there.
Overall, despite Nigeria’s wealth, the nation has one of the worst child survival rates in the world. About one out of five Nigerian children die before the age of five, most succumbing to diseases that are easily preventable or treatable at low cost, according to the United Nations children’s agency. The country’s maternal mortality rate is also among the highest in the world, the UN says.
Data for the delta, including Rivers State, reflects the national picture. The delta has the worst post-neonatal mortality rate in Nigeria, according to the Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey of 1999. It said nationally 30 percent of women said they cannot afford healthcare, compared with 47 percent in the delta.
Defending the delta
Magnus Abe, commissioner for information for Rivers State, said it was unfair to single out his state and its local governments when looking at corruption and poor development in Nigeria.
“What people have to appreciate is that the problems of the lack of development in the Niger Delta were problems not created today,” Abe told IRIN. “These are problems created over the years.”
Abe said schools, roads and clinics were being built, and electricity was being restored. He called attention to the Braithewaite Memorial Hospital under construction in Port Harcourt to replace one built during British colonial rule.
But patients using the old hospital doubt the new buildings will mean improved services.
“Right now we are simply given prescriptions and are required to buy everything required for treatment ourselves,” said Amadi Woji, one of a group of patients waiting to see a doctor at the hospital. “It’s not just the drugs that we are required to buy, but also syringes, bandages and disinfectants. I don’t think it will make sense to move into the new hospital complex where patients will continue buying for themselves things a normal hospital should be able to provide.”
Other patients who did not want to be named said they believed politicians were investing in grand building projects because it provided channels for inflating costs and siphoning government funds for private use. They said they believed what was needed was better medical services rather than new buildings.
When Nigerians went to the polls in 1999 and 2003, they had hoped that their votes would result in a better standard of living. On paper, for the people of the delta, this was the promise. The constitution was amended to stipulate that no less than 13 percent of revenues would go to oil-producing states.
Rivers State had a budget of $1.3 billion in 2006 – roughly 10 times the budget of post-war Liberia, which has a slightly smaller population.
“You would have expected that [increase in revenue] would have translated into a qualitative improvement in health and human welfare and it just hasn’t worked out that way,” said Nnamdi K. Obasi, Nigeria analyst for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “There is tremendous leakage, to use a very charitable word, with state and local governments – a lack of accountability.”
Thirty-one of Nigeria’s 36 governors face possible charges of corruption after leaving office, according to the EFCC. Its executive chairman told HRW that the conduct of many local government officials went beyond corruption, saying it was tantamount to “gangsterism” and “organised crime”.
The HRW report said the governor of Rivers State “budgeted tens of millions of dollars” in 2006 “on questionable priorities like foreign travel, ‘gifts’ and ‘souvenirs’ to unspecified recipients, and the purchase of jet aircraft and fleets of new cars for his office.”
The report also said the chairman of Khana local government in Rivers State was allocated nearly $376,000 for his own salary and “allowances” – nearly half the total amount allocated for the wages and allowances of Kana’s 325 health-sector workers.
“There’s greed all over,” said Obasi, who is based in Abuja. “Everybody wants some of the money and they know the governor has the money and everybody just plays along with him.”
Elections coming up in April could be an opportunity for change if the polls are carried out peacefully and transparently, Albin-Lackey said.
“It would make a difference if they could be turned out of office,” he said of the region’s allegedly corrupt governors, assembly members and councilors. “One of the biggest questions in the coming months… is whether people will have the opportunity to put someone in there who has an interest in trying to meet their responsibilities.”
Albin-Lackey and other Nigeria analysts said the federal government has made efforts to tackle corruption by establishing the EFCC and the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission, but more needs to be done. They said graft at local and state levels often escapes scrutiny, despite the existence of state legislatures that are supposed to provide checks and balances.
“All they do is rubber stamp,” Obasi said. “We can only hope that with time you may have legislatures that are more alive to a watchdog role over their executives but that’s a very tall dream.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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