A Personal Account of Challenges Faced in Community Mapping and Selection in the Niger Delta

“I cannot give information about communities in our Local Government Area without chairman approval” ……”What if I give you names of our communities and you use it against us? How can I explain that to the Chairman?” These were the words from the person saddled with community development issues in Ahoada East LGA. Before this time, I did not know that communities were the properties of the Local Government Chairman. I thought they are entities that exist in a particular geographical space that anyone who has an interest can decide to just visit without seeking permission from any government officials. But that seems not to be the case in Ahoada East LGA.

Development work in rural, riverine, semi-urban and urban communities in the Niger Delta is a very challenging and exciting experience.

The process of our selecting 120 communities for the Niger Delta Citizens Report Card project sponsored by the European Union has taken me to well over almost 100 communities in the Imo, Rivers, Delta, Bayelsa and Ondo States in the last four months.

A day before the re-run election in Ilaje LGA, I arrived at the Secretariat located in Igbokoda to inform and sensitize the LGA and to have a meeting with some community contact persons. At 10 a.m. when I arrived at the Secretariat, no senior officer had resumed work for the day, largely because of the heavy politicking that was going on as political gladiators and their loyalists put in last minute strategies and plans in place to win the election. I was told that officials of the Local Government were busy outside their offices finalizing logistics for the elections.

While waiting for government officers, I decided to have a meeting with the community representatives in one corner of the premises. Supporters of various political parties were all over the place within the Secretariat. While I shared information about the project to the people who had come to the Secretariat in response to my invitation, there was this group of people who were close but did not appear to be listening to our conversation. After the discussions and the question and answer session, the local resource persons from the various communities demanded money from me to cover their boat hire to enable them to travel to the communities as an advance party to our assessment visit to sensitize their people about the project. Suddenly I was surrounded by the passive crowd within the premises who clearly had been eavesdropping in our conversation. While I tried to explain my mission, a man likely to be in his mid-40s introduced himself as the Youth Chairman of Ugboland. He said that he was the legitimate authority I should deal with. He went further to say that the community representatives I had meetings with were mere impostors (even though I had vetted them from the Secretary and the immediate past Chairman of Ilaje Regional Council, which was established with funding from Chevron Nigeria Limited. The “young” man’s statement ignited anger and led to pitched shouting. Clusters of different parties began to emerge, and people began to take positions in support of and against the claim of the self-described “Youth Chairman.” There also were hushed but persistent voices by my side asking me to ignore all that was happening, but to explain to them what I was doing in the Local Government and how they can be part of the action. To convince me of his position as the man in charge, the “Youth Chairman” made a few phones calls. Within minutes, large groups of young men riding on motorbikes surrounded me and starting demanding from their “leader” what was going on. Some of them turned to me demanding an explanation for what was going on. The challenge in this kind of situation is how do you deal with the different interests and positions in such a way that you will not be seen as taking sides. How do you de-escalate the conflict situation and cool down frayed nerves? It is also crucial to monitor the way you manage your own emotions so as not to become part of the problem. This particular moment tested the elasticity of my patience and required me to deploy all my facilitation, negotiation and mediation skills. After about one hour, the situation was brought under control.

In Oguta Local Government area, the Chairman of the Town Union in Ejemekuru listened to me patiently as I delivered my “sermon” about the project. Feeling very tired and exhausted from driving through bumpy roads, under very heavy rain, I pulled myself together to discuss the project with him as we sat by a small beer parlour/restaurant that appeared to be the only one in the community. As soon as I finished my sensitization and awareness description of the project, he paused for a while, and then responded in a tone that clearly showed deep emotion. Almost in tears, he declared “you are God sent.” He told me that Ejemekuru is like a forgotten community in the Oguta Local Government Area. “My brother, you see, Izombe and Obudi are our neighboring clans and they are oil producing, but they do not share benefits with us. Ejemekuru does not belong to any clan; we are just alone and because we are alone, even the government at the state and local level have forgotten us.”

For those thinking about starting programmes in the Niger Delta, it is also important to understand that not all that is being said about the attitude and behaviour of people in the communities we are working in is true. Stereotypes of “those young men” in the Niger Delta that say that they will not do anything without money is an overstatement. Men and women, young and old, they all showed great hospitality, support and care. From place to place someone would get into our vehicle and on our boat to show us the way to various communities and to serve as interpreters for us. Even though there may be an expectation for some financial benefits, they never put it forward. It only came at the end of the assignment.

We were warmly received in most communities; in only a few communities were we turned away. I witnessed hope and hopelessness, joy, sadness, despair, frustration and helplessness in the voices of community people as they listened and shared their own stories about government neglect, deprivation and abandonment. Our team represented different things to different people. To some I was part of the elite, to others I was a messiah. I also felt their suspicion of me as an insincere NGO man. Over and over, I heard people lament that “many other NGOs, government people and oil company people have come here and promised us so many things… They collect information from us, take photographs and go away. We don’t see them again. How will this--your project--be different?”

I witnessed the collage of abject poverty, lack, want and scarcity and the massive display of wealth, abundance and plenty. I was hosted in magnificent edifices and in shanties owned by community leaders in different communities. I witnessed among community leaders the show of power, wealth, influence, deception and arrogance; I also witnessed powerlessness, poverty, honesty and humility. I witnessed peace and tranquility in communities. I also witnessed factions, disunity, anxiety and fear. I witnessed the dynamics that exist in community leadership. I saw communities where the youth have taken over leadership-disbanded Town Unions and Community Development Committees. I also saw communities where youth groups and their activities have been disbanded. I faced the challenges of coordinating and setting up meetings with groups from various segments of societies in communities where one group had taken over power from another. In all of these, the women were very passive. In all the communities where I met with CDC and town union leadership, none had women in attendance.

I observed ethnic diversity in the Niger Delta. I spoke to Ijaws, Itsekiris, Urhobos, Ilajes, Apois, Ikwerres, Ekepeyes and Ibos. One thing that was common to a number of communities, especially in the oil producing communities, was the large presence of young, unemployed youth roaming the streets or gathered and drinking in the early morning hours in beer parlours.

I observed farmers struggling to harvest as much of their crops prematurely because of scourging floods. I also observed farmlands and crops washed away by floods as local farmers watched helplessly. I witnessed the remains of communities destroyed and devastated by communal and tribal conflicts.

I offer these observations to others who might be responsible for selecting communities in the Niger Delta for various development programmes.

This account was provided by Joel Bisina, Executive Director and Founder of NIDPRODEV. For further information or feedback on community selection planning and implementation, please contact NIDPRODEV at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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