Nkasi Wodu is a lawyer, peacebuilding practitioner, and development expert based in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.
For multi-national companies (MNCs) operating in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region, doing business can be a daunting prospect. The problems are numerous, and many solutions have been offered and implemented with varying degrees of success across the nine Niger Delta states.
In a context characterized by rising unemployment and underemployment above the national average, rising poverty levels, a growing youth population, a history of perceived marginalization, weak political and institutional governance, and an infrastructural deficit, MNCs operating in the Niger Delta must invest significant proportions of their profits in corporate social responsibility (CSR) interventions. They have come to understand that they must also secure the social license that allows them to operate in local communities. These CSR interventions take the shape of building health centers and schools, and construction of roads, bridges and other infrastructural projects.
Already operating in an environment with structural weaknesses and rising demographic pressures, MNCs also must confront these conflict dynamics. These include a mix of criminality, gang, election, ethnic, and communal violence, all of which feed into and are exacerbated by a culture of militancy. According to reports by the PIND Foundation, this conflict landscape is further defined by political patronage, ethnic rivalry, clashes between cult groups, and a general competition for resources – including land.
All of these factors taken together drive conflict in the region. Some MNCs have responded to these systemic weaknesses and subsequent conflict risks by establishing and funding community structures to meet the infrastructural and welfare needs of their host communities. These strategies are intended to facilitate host community projects, and secondarily, also act as conflict management structures in an attempt to address drivers of insecurity. Unfortunately, in many instances, the indigenous actors that take up positions in these community structures are often the very same patrons or beneficiaries of various criminal networks that drive the conflict dynamics in the region to begin with. The implication of this is that the responsibility of maintaining “peace and security” in these communities is often left in the hands of conflict actors themselves. In other words, the mere presence of an MNC in local communities can actually be a source of conflict.
This then begs the question of: Whose business is it, anyway, to maintain peace? An argument can be made that MNCs as business enterprises are not responsible for building peace in the communities where they operate. To paraphrase Milton Friedman, the only social responsibility [there is] is to make profit. However, contemporary literature in the field of business and peace has evolved significantly since Mr. Friedman’s thesis. For one, the United Nations has reinforced the role of the private sector in contributing to the actualization of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially SDG 16, which focuses on the building of strong and peaceful institutions.
MNCs need to broaden their perspective of “peace,” and become more conflict sensitive. MNCs occupy a pivotal position as major contributors to the economy in a complex and dynamic context. They are faced with competing demands from communities and ethnic or socio-political groups, and cannot afford missteps that could characterize them as favoring one group over the other. MNCs need to improve their understanding of the socio-political context in which they operate, and based off of that understanding, develop relationships with local peace actors and invest in building their capacities for conflict mitigation, to better respond to emerging dynamics. For MNCs, contributing to a stable environment also has huge economic gains. It is beneficial in securing their assets from disruptions, ensuring the safety of their staff, and fostering cooperation with communities in addressing problems that could adversely affect the company. This is certainly good for the bottom line.
There are rarely any “quick wins” for MNCs in fragile and conflict affected environments like the Niger Delta, but the long term benefits of investing with foresight and knowledge, and coming equipped with the proper tools and relationships, can have the long-term benefit of contributing to local and regional economies and potentially lifting millions out of poverty and insecurity. This is something worth investing in.