The Aridolf hotel in Yenagoa is an unlikely monument to kitsch on a reclaimed swamp in Nigeria’s oil-producing Niger delta. In the lobby, Louis IV furniture is accompanied with bowls of plastic fruit, faux Dutch landscapes and a grotesquely gaudy chandelier. The hotel is redolent of the riches on display in a region that for half a century has generated the bulk of Nigeria’s wealth.
Only a decade and-a-half ago there was just one petrol pump in Bayelsa state, which produced a quarter of Nigeria’s 2m barrels per day of oil, and Yenagoa, the state capital, was a string of tin-roofed shacks. Resentment at the region’s under-development erupted in violence, with militants blowing up pipelines and kidnapping oil workers.
Today, Yenagoa is a sprawling construction site. But the Aridolf, which is owned by Patience Jonathan, wife of the outgoing president, is symptomatic of how superficial progress has been in addressing the festering sense of marginalisation in the region, which remains desperately impoverished despite benefiting from a tide of petrodollars in recent years.
Bringing more sustainable answers to myriad development challenges and preventing resentment from again boiling over will be among the toughest tasks facing Nigeria’s president-elect and former military ruler, Muhammadu Buhari, who hails from the far away state of Katsina in the north.
Goodluck Jonathan, his rival in last month’s elections, was the first Nigerian head of state to hail from a minority group in the Niger delta — a position he won in part because more powerful ethnic groups recognised the need to assuage the feeling of neglect that had overwhelmed his region.
When he assumed office the campaign of violence by delta militants had slashed oil production in half and helped push world crude prices to record highs. He implemented an amnesty programme that helped end the violence and lavished spending on former fighters.
“There was that sense of relief that at last we in the region were part of it, [Nigeria’s power structure]” says Dr Peter Odili, a former state governor from the region of Mr Jonathan’s ascent to the top.
That sense of belonging is now at risk as Mr Jonathan prepares to stand down after becoming the first incumbent in Nigerian history to lose an election.
Mr Jonathan was routed at the polls in most of the country. But in the oil-producing south his party muscled its way to victory amid allegations of flagrant rigging and widespread violence that augurs ill for Gen Buhari’s incoming administration.
“We felt it was Goodluck Jonathan’s right to have two terms in office,” says Udengs Eradiri, president of the unarmed but militant Ijaw Youth Council, which has thousands of members across the delta. “All the people who ganged up against him [in the run-up to elections] were the people who bastardised Nigeria . . .It was the north and the south west conspiring against the minorities,” he says.
His comments reflect a widespread perception in Mr Jonathan’s home region that their man was cheated of a second term. But many also think the outgoing president failed to improve their lives.
“We had a president and an oil minister from the region. It was unprecedented in the history of the country. Everyone now feels we have wasted this opportunity. He has done nothing for the Niger delta,” says Timipre Sylva, a rival politician from Bayelsa state.
Mr Sylva has been charged by Gen Buhari to negotiate with former delta militants, some of whom threatened before last month’s election to take up arms again should their candidate lose.
“What we are trying to do is to collect their [the militants’] demands and expectations so we can build a policy that is sustainable,” Mr Sylva says.
After consulting broadly earlier this month, the Ijaw Youth Council produced its own conditions for keeping the peace. It wants a costly amnesty programme extended and federal structures such as the Niger delta ministry and its development commission — neither of which have proved much more than vehicles for patronage — strengthened.
It also wants reform of the federation to raise the amount of oil revenues allocated to producing states from 13 to 25 per cent.
Implicit is the threat that the oil industry will be sabotaged anew if these demands are not met.
“Without us Nigeria will cease to exist,” Mr Eradiri warns. “Our environment must get the attention necessary because we produce the resources that keep this country moving.”
Gen Buhari has pledged to start cleaning up the myriad oil spills that have despoiled the region’s creeks and swamps — a project that could also generate mass employment. But how he plans to deal with the former militants is unclear. Some leading politicians in the region want him to face them down.
“They are scared because most of them have become rich. They would rather run away with their money than fight,” says a chieftain of Mr Jonathan’s PDP, party who believes the amnesty programme has incentivised criminal activity.
With the treasury depleted by the collapse in oil prices, the incoming government is unlikely in any case, to be able to continue buying peace. But it could make progress of a more lasting kind, says Chris Newsom a New Zealander and environmental activist who has lived in the delta for many years. “Money has been spent so poorly in so many areas [that] if you are able to use it more effectively it will look dramatic.”