Twenty years ago, local resistance arose in the Niger Delta because of the way oil revenue was being shared and how oil pollution was undermining local livelihoods.
Young people helped bring development agencies to the region through their activism for social justice. The government eventually created the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) to bring development closer to the region in response to local demands. Local people welcomed it with a renewed sense of belonging within the national community. But now, 20 years later, they have been left behind in regional developmentand young people’s lives, in particular, have not improved.
Local elites have hijacked the Commission, and the agency is seriously under-performing. But these elites claim that’s the fault of national-level politicians who take a larger slice of the NDDC contracts. Since inception, the commission has received $40 billion to invest in development projects. These include road construction, health care, education and job creation. But there is very little on the ground to account for this money.
Contracts are often inflated. Projects get abandoned. And shoddiness is normal. Young people will have to live with the fallout. They are already suffering the impact of political corruption, because the money that should have been used to improve their lives has simply disappeared.
Unlike many young people, local leaders live a life of luxury.
Similarly the Amnesty Programme, implemented more recently to end violence in the Niger Delta and benefit young people, has been hijacked by elites and local politicians. Funds meant for youth development projects are often embezzled. Inflated contracts are awarded to the elite youths, and while the youths who enrolled as ‘ex-militants’ get monthly cash payments, their non-violent counterparts have nothing.
But this is not the whole story, as my research reveals. I wanted to understand young people’s perspectives of violence in the Niger delta, and to compare their perspectives with the explanations of institutional leaders. This comparison helped me to produce an analysis of youth violence that locates young people’s experiences within the institutional structures that contours their lives.
My research found that while the local leaders undermine young people’s well-being through political corruption, they conceal their complicity, and maintain this inequality, through the way they explain youth violence. In sociological terms, these explanations are called doxa – meaning assumptions about people and explanations about reality which are popular, but not always true, and which reproduce exclusion. While direct violence in the form of deaths and bodily harm has declined in the Niger Delta because of the Amnesty programme, indirect violence in the form of exclusion has continued.
Local leaders explained that young people embrace violence because they are lazy and unwilling to work. ‘These youths are lazy, they think they have oil so if you give them job they don’t want it, just militancy’ an official from the Niger Delta Development Commission told me. This presents local leaders as hardworking people deserving of their wealth, while portraying young people as the lazy, undeserving poor. Attributing youth violence to laziness ignores the high unemployment rate in the Niger Delta. It also absolves the local leaders from failing to create jobs.
Local leaders also said youth violence occurs because young people are deviants and always ready to fight. ‘After taking Igbo (weed) and alcohol they want to fight everybody.’ ‘They are yahoo-yahoo (cyber fraud) boys, always clubbing.’ These are some of the common portrayals of young people by institutional leaders.
I visited many clubs for my research in the Niger Delta and saw young people laughing, dancing, sharing liquor and discussing plans on how ‘to leave this nonsense country’, as one of my respondents put it. Clubs serve as a space of solidarity for young people in a world where they feel left behind, and social drinking is their way of escaping boredom and the many frustrations of their daily life.
A director at the Commission said young people are incapable of good leadership while older people are wiser, and therefore better leaders. He was responding to my question about what he thinks of young people’s complaints that old people dominate leadership positions within development agencies, and this was a typical response. The idea that older people are better leaders legitimises the political domination of the older generation.
By portraying young people as lazy, unwise and deviant, local leaders preserve their political, economic and social power and maintain their domination over young people.
It is not accidental that young people are the main perpetrators of violence in the Niger Delta, because many of them feel that Nigeria does not work for them. Hence, they use violence to get by in life. Yet by using violence, young people also undermine the very development they yearn to have. Violence leads to the loss of lives and destruction of valuable assets, which slows down development.
To address youth violence in the Niger Delta, it’s necessary to demand accountability from institutions and to challenge the common ideas used to exclude young people from the development process.