Hope for the revival of the moribund South-South regional integration bloc of Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Cross-Rivers, Edo and Delta States (BRACED) has been rekindled. Aware of the immense benefits of regional economic cooperation and integration offer as means for accelerating and consolidating economic and social development, the BRACED states which are all oil producing, had decided to stimulate development in agriculture, environment, infrastructure development, human capacity development and industrialization.
However, the South-South states’ attempts at regional economic integration aimed at pooling of resources together, enlarging local markets, stimulating production, trade and investment which will in turn alleviate poverty, generate employment, and improve per capita, have been ineffective because of parochial politics.
Endowed with abundant natural resources such as oil and gas, huge forest reserves, minerals from kaolin to iron, and huge water bodies for commercial aquaculture, the BRACED states in their last summit in 2012 in Asaba, Delta State, mapped policy frameworks aimed at deepening regional integration. Those in attendance at the meeting were Governor Seriake Dickson (Bayelsa State), Governor Chibuike Amaechi (Rivers), Governor Godswill Akpabio (Akwa Ibom), Governor Liyel Imoke (Cross River), Governor Adams Oshiomhole (Edo State), and host Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan (Delta).
The governors had resolved to strengthen the nascent governance structure in the region to incorporate private sector and other non-state actors with a view to creating favourable policy, legal and regulatory environment that would stimulate greater private sector participation in the development initiatives of the region.
In a bid to attract investment and industrialization in the region which has over 40 million inhabitants beyond her natural resources, the BRACED states had planned to review the policies and regulations on power and gas to enable the states generate, transmit and distribute power. In pursuit of this, they agreed to set a Niger Delta Energy Corridor, a project with potential for connecting the people, industry and natural resources and creating jobs. To maximally reap the benefits of economic integration, the BRACED states agreed also to develop integrated transport facilities in the region through a balanced development of rail, roads, waterways, and airport facilities.
As part of strategic agenda of pooling their resources together and exploiting their comparative advantages, the BRACED states had planned to ensure quality education in the region and the adoption of information and communications technology (ICT), and collateral equipment for all levels of education (primary, secondary and tertiary). There was to be a renewed impetus in the areas of curriculum development, teachers’ preparation, re-certification (in-service and professional education) and holistic training approach.
Besides encouraging research and use of technology to promote the desired accelerated development of the region, the states had agreed to adopt and implement policies that will release the vast potential of the economy of the South-South in the areas of creative industry, entertainment, culture, and tourism. In addition, the states were to accelerate the implementation of agricultural development initiatives.
Regrettably, these lofty goals that are useful for economic, political and social development of the states were stifled by political rivalries among the South-South governors over the politics of 2015. The decision of former President Goodluck Jonathan to seek reelection in 2015 that crystallised in no love lost relationship with then Governor Amaechi, polarised the BRACED governors.
Out of the six states in the region, only Edo was governed by the opposition, with the remaining five states were controlled by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The cold war between Jonathan and Amaechi caused the latter to defect from PDP to join All Progressives Congress (APC).
In addition to the 2015 politics, the states’ governors were also engaged in sometimes bitter or better still, acrimonious economic wars that triggered suspicion among them. For instance, the Jonathan-controlled Federal Government had ceded Rivers State’s oil wells around the Kalabari area of the state to neighbouring Bayelsa State which is the home state of the former president. This singular action bred bad blood between Amaechi and Governor Dickson. Similarly, oil wells once controlled by Cross River were ceded to Akwa Ibom State.
Because of Amaechi’s defection to APC at the height of the cold war with Jonathan and his wife, Patience, apart from Oshiomhole, all the other PDP governors practically ostracised him to avoid incurring the wrath of the presidency. Under this atmosphere of political mistrust and intolerance, it became impossible for the governors to meet and drive the process of their intended objectives of poverty reduction and economic development after the April 2012 summit in Asaba.
Polarization of the BRACED states continued even after the contentious 2015 election as the governors under the chairmanship of Oshiomhole before he left office in 2016 had attempted to meet about twice or thrice but it did not work. In fact, one of the South-South governors had told The Guardian of his unwillingness to sit at table with Oshiomhole and discuss the issue of BRACED states.
Recently at the Africa CEO Forum in Kigali, Rwanda, Governor Dickson had corroborated how politics conspired to stall the BRACED states from realising and reaping from the immense benefits of economic cooperation and integration. He, however, expressed optimism that the projects would be revived.
His word: “The reason for such a regional bloc is that if the states came together, those things we cannot do individually, we may be able to pool our resources. For instance, we had the regional body encouraging all our states to invest in the power sector when Nigeria introduced privatisation. Now we have the 4Power Consortium Limited, which is jointly owned by Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross River and Rivers states. We used the company to acquire assets in the biggest power company in the region, the Port Harcourt Electricity Distribution Company, which we jointly own. The thinking was that we were going to proceed from that to invest in oil blocs.”
He, however, said sometimes politics and political considerations affect well-intended programmes everywhere there are such blocs.
“Unfortunately, politics sometimes get in the way of most laudable programmes,” he conceded. “I think a lot more needs to be done about the BRACED Commission. We have not given up on it. We intend to reinvigorate it because it is mutually beneficial to all of us.”
In appreciation that BRACED offers enormous potential in promoting economic growth and employment, improving social outcomes, reducing rising inequalities, and addressing environmental degradation and that members states can devise common solutions and use resources more efficiently to achieve better outcomes, the governors met again in Asaba in 2017 with the aim of reviving the BRACED Commission.
Akwa Ibom State Governor, Udom Emmanuel, hinted that they were desirous of ensuring that the commission was revived and made functional.
“On behalf of all our colleagues from the South-South geopolitical zone, we just came together to discuss a few economic issues and how we can revive the BRACED Commission,” he noted. “And also, we looked at how we can try and fortify security network, especially now that the oil prices are a little bit epileptic; we need to make sure that we maintain production.”
In March, Edo State governor, Godwin Obaseki, after a closed door with his Delta State counterpart, Ifeanyi Okowa, said his visit to Delta State was to discuss the issues of economy, security, energy, and the two states involvement in BRACED integration.
“We came from the legacy Bendel State,” he said, “we discussed economic cooperation between our states. Today, Edo and Delta can be the main powerhouse of the country given our energy and agriculture potential. We looked into how to strengthen our economic ties and our participation in BRACED Commission.”
The Director-General of the BRACED Commission, Ambassador Joe Keshi, told The Guardian that after the 2019 general elections, the governors are now ready to sit together and drive the regrettably stalled BRACED agenda.
According to him: “Right now, there are efforts to hold a meeting. Once that takes place the commission will be revitalised”.
Keshi explained that the BRACED Commission which is supposed to formulate policy and oversee the development process of the South-South states is keen on pursing the development of the region in key areas.
According to him, “One of the areas we were focusing on, we are actually focusing on two main areas for the Niger Delta: Number one is power. If the Niger Delta governors at that time had had the courage and understanding they could have actually persuaded the Federal Government to decentralized power and let each region build up its power requirement. Today, the country will not be probably talking about a negligible 1000 megawatts because the Niger Delta today has a lot of plants that can make it self-sufficient and even pump power into the national grid if they allow it to do so.
“The other one is agriculture. As part of the default Eastern region, that part of Nigeria survived on oil palm and we are trying to say to everybody, ‘grow this oil palm because it is still doing well in the world market.’ In fact, there is a shortage in Nigeria. We import oil palm. There is a global shortage which we can fill if we begin to grow oil palm.
“Today, the Niger Delta, if the leaders had listened, it takes about six to seven years for oil palm to grow, the same thing with timber, they would have been exporting more than they had 10 years ago and they would be making more money from it, in addition to the money they are making from crude oil. They will have enough money to spend on education, health and infrastructure.”
Keshi said he was exhilarated that the current governors are ready to bury all the hiccups generated by the 2015 elections. He stated that once they find a date that will be convenient for everybody, the BRACED Commission would be revived from its comatose state.
He lamented that the region has lost a lot of grounds, but expressed confidence that if the various stakeholders bury their difference for the commission good, the region will be better for it.
“When you look at the economy of all the South-South states in the country, they are very small economy but when you have a zone of economic prosperity, that is what investors look at,” he said, “that instead of dealing with a population of three million, you are dealing with a combined population of 25 million. In other words, if you invest in one state or in one city in Niger Delta your products are likely to reach 25 million people. That is a big market. So, it is a market that is very attractive.”
“One of the decisions that was taken early which was not implemented, a decision by the governors themselves, that as long as you are from the Niger Delta, you will pay the same school fees in any of the states. So, you don’t go to Delta and say because you are from Rivers you are going to pay a different school fees, or because you are from Cross River and that because you are schooling in Rivers you will pay higher. No. Wherever you are in the Niger Delta, you pay the same school fees. I thought that was very good. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the commissioners of education at that time actually issued out the required directives. It was a beautiful decision. That was some of the early decisions.”
He noted that though the region has not been successful achieving its intended objectives of economic integration, which is in tandem with current global economic order, all hope is not lost. According to him, the fact that most of the states in Nigeria are not performing to their optimal level makes the prospect of the BRACED Commission the way to go for other zones.
“When you look at the United States for example,” he said, “a state like California is probably the 9th largest economy in the world and California can survive on its own. But when you look at the Nigerian situation, only a few states are actually generating the resources that all others are enjoying. There are states in this country, they contribute practically nothing to the national purse, which is part of the national problem we have. But you know what, every state, every zone can contribute to the national purse if they first of all build up zones of economic prosperity.
“If you take the Middle Belt, for example, there is absolutely no reason why anyone should say the Middle Belt is poor. It produces a lot of fruits and foodstuffs and they can make an economy out of that if they can combine their resources together, build up their agriculture, build industries to process these and then contribute to the nation’s purse. In case of the Niger Delta, they have a tremendous amount of opportunity, but as I said, there are a lot of challenges. We have to get off this whole idea that we have oil. You cannot drink oil; you have to translate that oil to something more prosperous for yourself.”
Despite the prospects for the revival of the BRACED Commission, some stakeholders in the region have argued that it has failed largely in meeting its objectives. While speaking with The Guardian in Calabar, the Chairman of Davandy Group, Mr. Asuquo Ekpenyong, said, “The intension of the South-South governors was quite in order and this was in 2009, to have the South-South economic integration. In April 2009, they had the first summit here in Tinapa. In 2012 they had another one in Asaba. In 2010 they had their headquarters in Port Harcourt, Rivers state.”
Ekpenyong who was also the Chairman of the Finance Committee of the South-South states before the BRACE Commission was adopted, said, “It was a good intention to bring about regional integration and for the region to benefit from a comparative advantage of each state. For instance, if you have enough raw materials for a particular thing, concentration should be there. Our state Cross River at that time was talking of tourism. Tourism was to be the main thing for us.
“But you see, competition started coming in and very state wanted to have its own airport. Akwa Ibom has its own airport and what is the distance between Akwa Ibom and here; it’s just an hour. Bayelsa and Delta have their airports. Rivers also started its carnival. They started working outside the original intention of the BRACE Commission.
“However the best they achieved after all the jamboree and so on, they were able to have the BRACE Commission registered and appointed a Director General. But some of the things they promoted during the outing here in 2009 had actually been abducted indirectly by the Federal Government like the East West Road, but because of the pressure it has been extended to Calabar here. So, they were able to achieve that but it was originally intended to be achieved by the BRACED states.
“They had some low hanging fruits which they were to achieve but I can tell you, as the chairman of that Finance Committee before the BRACE Commission was adopted, some of their ideas like the rail road have been adopted by the Federal Government, but many other laudable objectives they had have not been put in place. I can tell you that the commission is more or less down now because I have not heard anything about it. Even the Director General, Keshi, I am sure, has picked another job. I would not say the commission has failed but it has failed to carry out its initial objectives and its not functioning”.
The chattered banker stated that even “the initial money they put into the commission was blown during the summit and I don’t think the states are even contributing money to the commission anymore. This is partly because of the difficulty in the system and I don’t see the governors working together as it was in 2008/2009 because even before the end of that regime in 2015, you could see some governors were not working together and that affected the BRACED Commission”.