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Initiative Seeks to Improve Life in Nigeria's Troubled Oil-Rich Delta

Tensions in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta have flared in recent months as local communities accuse foreign oil companies and the government of reneging on promises to provide jobs and social amenities. Gilbert da Costa in Abuja reports for VOA on a new initiative that seeks to create opportunities and improve living conditions in the long-neglected region.

The Niger Delta, which provides all of Nigeria's crude oil, has a long history of militants attacks and kidnappings at oil facilities.

Violence in the delta, a wetland region, is rooted in poverty, corruption and lawlessness. Most of the inhabitants have seen few benefits from five decades of oil extraction that has damaged the environment.

President Olusegun Obasanjo, while endorsing a new U.S.-led initiative to improve living conditions in the delta, acknowledged that corruption had blighted the oil-rich region.

"Even when money was made available either to regional development boards or even to the government, a lot of it went into corruption, and what needs to be done was not done," he said. "I hope now that we are becoming partners, we will be watching one another. I f we jointly put money, I will make sure you do not spend it the way you should not spend it. And we are getting people from the private sector, from outside who would say, government put in your money. If you put one billion [Naira], you will then not say to us that a contract that is worth 50 million [Naira], you will give it away for 50 million."

Most of the delta's people have no access to clean drinking water or regular sources of electricity.

The U.S. Agency for International Development in partnership with the Dutch-based Shell Oil company and the Bayelsa state government hope to address some of the region's long-standing economic grievances under a multi-million-dollar initiative. The initial phase of the project estimated at $50 million, involves cassava production and processing, aquaculture, and improvement in health delivery.

Shell Oil is Nigeria's largest oil producer, and it accounts for almost half of the OPEC-member nation's daily crude output.

Shell's deputy chief executive in Nigeria, Mark Corner, says the company is willing to commit more funds to social and economic programs in the Niger Delta and appealed for a more conducive environment for its operations.

"It is an obligation of our company, and other oil companies generally as good corporate citizens, to make sure we are putting something back in the communities, in terms of social and economic development," he said. "We are committed to do that, but we need help. We are experts in oil-and-gas production, we are not experts in social development, health, education etc. So, the concept of partnership is one which is fully supported by us."

Critics say that activities of oil companies in Nigeria have been a major contributor to the poverty and deprivation endemic in the region. President Obasanjo wants oil companies to provide more resources to help in addressing the delta's development challenges.

"The oil companies are ready to spend millions of dollars for public relations in Europe, in America," he said. "This is where the problem is, this is where the problem is ... You employ lobbyists and things there, this is where you need to spend the money. You said though you are not in the business of social development, but you are not in the business of public relations either. All that money you are spending on public relations, come and spend it here. You spend money advertising there, this is where the problem is."

A U.S.-based company has also reached a partnership with three Nigerian banks to provide $2.5 billion in mortgage financing for Bayelsa.

Analysts say the new Niger Delta initiative offers the delta its best chance of a turning point, especially given the direct involvement of foreign partners like USAID.

The poverty-stricken region has seen millions of dollars provided for its physical development pocketed by corrupt officials.

A representative of the USAID, Patricia Fleuret, says the U.S. government is committed to the programs that will bring a better future to the region and reduce tensions.

"I came not just for USAID, but also representing the World Bank and DFID [British Department for International Development] to congratulate you on your Bayelsa Partnership Initiative," she said. "It is a strategy that we hope to see replicated around the country and we hope to support throughout. We also like to say, I come with the full authority of the U.S. government to say that we will continue to look for ways to support your initiatives. Anything we can do to further assist you, we will."

As the demand for the delta's oil-and-gas resources becomes greater, it is expected that other major world powers will take a more critical interest in the long-term development of the Niger Delta.