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The Canvas: How SPDC mobilises new attitude, new thinking in Niger Delta
Twice every week, the people of Niger Delta engage in a dialogue on how best to maximise the opportunities at their feet and how to identify the openings available to them. They also talk about how not to destroy their future unknowingly.
This comes to the people in a radio programme called Canvas…the Niger Delta Roundtable that runs on the two most powerful and most popular frequency modulated (fm) radio stations in the Garden City, Rhythm 93.7 and Nigeria Info 92.3, in the prime morning and evening periods on Mondays and Wednesdays, respectively. Two of Nigeria’s most persuasive and compelling on-air-personalities and interview hosts at the moment in the Niger Delta, Segun Owolabi of Silverbird (Rhythm) and Dayo Elusakin of Nigeria Info, guide carefully selected experts and non-political personalities at those sensitive times every week to lead a roundtable of the people, as they educate, counsel and persuade the people of the oil region to begin a new thinking, a positive thinking that could open their eyes to greater opportunities.
The radio programme is a collaborative project between the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) and the Rivers State government (through the Ministry of Chieftaincy and Community Affairs). Owolabi, Rhythm’s general manager, is an authoritative talk-show host who has emerged as the voice of the Garden City public affairs. No important personality who has an important issue to trash would fail to set up an encounter with Segun, as he is popularly called right from when he was a presenter. Nigeria Info’s Dayo, on the other hand, is emerging as a witty and self-assured host who pokes fingers in the eyes of lions as far as public debate is concerned. They both honed their skills in western Nigeria where broadcast journalism started and where television broadcast started in 1963 in Ibadan. Present and past governors of Rivers State and many ministers have squared up with either Segun or Dayo at important moments. Most breaking accusations and political twists emanate from Segun’s Rhythm station in particular, while most trending and topical developments flow over to Dayo’s Nigeria Info for provocative and comprehensive post-mortems.
Apparently realising that these two stations in particular seem to dictate the pace and direction of public discourse and set agenda in the Niger Delta, SPDC and the state government laid the canvas at both ends and have continued to invite top resource persons to come roll on it every Mondaymorning and Wednesday evening rush hours for one full hour.
The idea is said to have originated in the womb of the External Relations division of SPDC in Port Harcourt, headed by the General Manager, Igo Weli, with two of his media relations sidekicks- Precious Okolobo (Lagos office) and Joseph Obari, Port Harcourt- coordinating the production of the shows. According to a briefing note on the essence of the radio campaign sighted by BDSUNDAY, there is an urgent need to help direct thinking in the oil region. This is said to be as a realisation that the adoption of more confrontational approach to resolve issues and conflicts has cost the region so much and likely to cost it even more in terms of flight of investments. The idea is to strike at what experts have described as ‘entitlement mentality’, where people, especially the youth do nothing but to wait for bags of money to drop on their laps instead of lacing up their canvases and grab awaiting opportunities.
The seemingly most dangerous scenario in the region is the inclination of most youth to vandalise pipelines and to heat stolen crude oil in a very crude way to extract fuel to sell to buyers and in the process burn down facilities, destroy the environment and cause mass damage. An over flight of most the Delta reveals a wasteland; burning waters, scorched lands, ruined forests, glistening creeks, and condemned vast-lands from these activities.
Deeper even is the damage that however seems to show in the form of the hopelessness of most of today’s youth and their reluctance to take to entrepreneurship. There seems to be a dominance of the erroneous perception that those who take to entrepreneurship are school dropouts and unfortunate persons without connection; a condescending perception of business people. The more the youth of the oil region look down on entrepreneurship, the deeper the region seems to sink in economic disparity in comparison with western Nigeria and the east. As the future of the world continues to run fast into the direction of entrepreneurship and smart economy, the fear seems to grow bigger that the region may miss out if a new orientation does not start now.
SPDC began decades ago by creating scholarship schemes of various shades, at home and abroad, to produce an intellectual class that today rules the region. Weli who recast this at the University of Science & Technology (UST), now, Rivers State University, where a majority bulk of the state’s educated youth emerge per graduate from every year, talked of how Shell has built libraries to promote intellectual feeding. “We built a model library right behind the Pleasure Park. We put $5m into it and we expect every student to make use of that place. The National librarian described it as the best library in Nigeria. I go there and read,” he said.
He went on: “We have the normal scholarships and the Cradle-to-Career (C2C) programme which seeks out 60 brilliant but rural pupils and bring them to Port Harcourt in the best schools. We have the Post Graduate Scholarships where we pick the best 10 graduates from the Niger Delta mainly from Rivers, Bayelsa and Delta states to the UK. Most of them work in the oil companies such as Edafe Edivri who schooled in the UST. He is one of the guys in the first set that went to the UK and is one of the best talents in the exploration side of our business.”
A guest on the radio show gave an interesting analysis of the emergence of the desire to claim entitlement: Those who chose education or applied themselves to entrepreneurship seem to have created a super class at the top. Those who have not taken good opportunities or copied negative role models then feel a mad hunger at the bottom. This latter group of youth who simply want to be like the super class even without working for it, think it is a matter of right to ask and receive whatever they desire. This gave birth to the so-called ‘entitlement mentality’. The attendant consequence is that the youth seem ready to wait for whatever time it takes to become effortlessly rich and tend to shun what they believe are small-time jobs and businesses. As years go by, such youth miss both the big opportunities and the small ones they had ignored. This seems to have created a class in the middle (not middle class, please) who reject poverty but are not rich. These ones seem to hold the region hostage at the moment
The radio programme runs on the philosophy that since it was such wrong ideas that slipped into the heads of the youth in the first place, correct and consistent messaging through home-grown resource persons could also sink in and make a change in the upcoming ones.
Weli is one of the sons of the oil region burning with anger over waste of opportunities by the present generation. He seems to brim with passion on how to get the youth of the region to think well and grab the future now. Each time he talks in public, he lays bare the opportunities slipping away by the day. His present outcry is the relocation of the Dangote refining and petrochemicals chain to Lagos with over 149,000 job opportunities. He thinks it is private investments from around the world that the Niger Delta needs, not some of these tokens for which the youth seem to break all bones over. He thinks the people of the region ought to court investors and make the region the place of choice for those with funds to invest, and not playing scare mongers.
He made it clear that oil companies especially Shell can do a lot of good things in social investment as if businesses could improve. “Some years ago, we had capacity to do even more. That capacity is being reduced by the harsh environment we find ourselves in. We say, there are better ways of managing disagreement and descent. We are not saying don’t disagree. It has positive sides, but it depends on how you manage the disagreement. Let’s go to the table and have a dialogue.”
Weli went on: “That is why we collaborated with the Rivers State Government to set up a platform for discussion, Canvas. It is to show to the world that we have better ways of disagreeing, that if you invest in the Niger Delta it is not going to be destroyed because people are not happy. There are ways of managing unhappiness. The current commissioner for Chieftaincy (now former) has been very good. He listens to every complaint. Every day he talks to community people and corporate organisations to try and resolve issues. That is what we are asking for.”
The GM explained to the large body of university students that SPDC has community contact telephone lines and emails to ventilate their opinions. “I am not asking people to shut up or that SPDC is doing everything in every community. It is not normal, but in areas you think we can improve, let’s talk about it. That is how Lagos attracts investors; that are why a Nigerian took $10bn to Lagos to build a refinery that should be here. I have no problem with that. It is how you make your bed that you lie on it. You cannot decree to an investor where to invest his money, except government, but a society can deliberately attract the investor. You can make good things to happen.”
He said students have opportunity for internship, which helps them to enrich their knowledge and add value in their professional lines. They can get better jobs too. While in school, a student would look out for those companies that can absorb him later. “If the operating environment is the way it should be, then our younger ones would have opportunities to broaden their chances. I know we can do better.”
He touched a sensitive chord when he said he could see buildings previously occupied by multinational oil companies and oil service companies now occupied by mere fast food outfits. “No problem with fast food industry but what does that mean to the economy of the state, the careers, and the economy of the Niger Delta? Some 20 years ago, virtually every graduating student wanted to come to the Niger Delta because of opportunity and the chances of getting a very good job. That has changed. So, let us ask why that has changed. It changed because of the choices we made. Let us make the right choices.”
To Weli, it is not about Shell, it is not about oil, but about the ability of a people to know what is good for them and make right choices, to imbibe entrepreneurship and a life of creativity. It is about the future.
To help drive home the new thinking, such personalities as Onene Osila Obele-Oshoko, a finance expert, accountant and administrator who pioneered the state’s revenue board from dependence to autonomous status, has once taken to the Canvas to preach to her people. The immediate past president of the Port Harcourt Chamber of Commerce, an engineer, Emeka Unachukwu; who is a world acclaimed motivational speaker, has also bared his mind on how the oil region can leverage its opportunities to get ahead. The present president of PHCCIMA, a medical doctor and former commissioner in the state, Emi Membre-Otaji, Chuks Ofolue of BRACED Commission, and John Bazia, immediate past Commissioner for Chieftaincy Affairs in Rivers State have come to the Canvas too. Yet, university vice chancellors, leaders of various professions, and other notable resource persons have continued to line up twice a week to take the people of the region to the Canvas to sketch to them what the future could be through a new orientation. The hope is that soon, as Weli said last weekend, the people would begin to weigh these messages and take informed decisions. The result could be a brighter future for a delicate region.
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