Now there will be no need for war over natural resources if they are managed well.” -- Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo endorsing KYB $125 million CMP

KANO CITY, NIGERIA – On some days Daniel Yawson felt like nothing in Nigeria worked, including him. 

The nation exported oil to America but its own petrol stations were empty. Stranded farmers dry fresh tomatoes on the roadside. Africa’s largest democracy is accused of widespread electoral fraud. Reports of violence scared his wife out of the country. His vehicle’s new air conditioning died. Electrical surges fried his TV. Repeated power failures put his laptop memory at risk. His project funds had been cut by half, while better-financed ‘partners’ took his credit and blamed their setbacks on him.

Still, he reminded himself that he had gallons of fresh clean water nearby, more than 10 million people in his basin could say. So he kept typing, hoping his laptop battery held on.

As an expatriate from Ghana, he had arrived as IUCN Project Coordinator expecting to encounter simmering resentment or distrust against him. True, officials had teased the outsider over his clothes until he traded jeans and collared shirts for robes and hats. 

Then he confronted the political tensions simmering in the KYB thrust Nigerian against Nigerian, state against state. Borno, Yobe and Bauchi states railed against Jigawa, Kano and Plateau states for holding back the river and altering its course. On top of all that, Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon distrusted each other over the shared river and Lake Chad. They were paralyzed by inaction that any proposal might offend.

That bitter, widespread, and deep-rooted level of distrust, on all sides, by all parties, left little room for progressive ideas and institutions to grow. Distrust worsened as precious waters continued to vanish under the onslaught of weeds, sediment and evaporation.

Enter the outsider, whose foreign passport ironically became a powerful asset. Why? It showed the stranger was disinterested, neutralized as a perceived threat.

Only someone from Ghana can talk to anyone in Nigeria with no hidden agenda about our waters,” said Engr. I.K. Musa Director at the Ministry of Water Resources. “He can say: Look, I don’t come from here, and I’m not going to stay here. I have no stake in this project, and am only here to advise, and then depart.”

Because he came from conservation, rather than any specific sector, he earned the trust and confidence of fishermen, herders, farmers, cities and industry alike.

Yazon’s presence opened up enough space to allow dialogue as an honest broker. And because its exit strategy was, literally, to strategically exit, IUCN had a self-interest in building on existing structures and institutions that will survive and take over the project.

Step by step, he had moved toward that exit: establish in-house expertise; ensure data from an audit remains transparent; collate a Catchment Management Plan; keep the secretariat independent until it is ready to transfer into an official home; forge a ‘Water Charter’ to clarify rights and responsibilities; and set up a Trust Fund to pay for it all.

The process was slow. The meetings were tedious. The paperwork was maddening. But with each stage, he saw the trust grow, little by little. When people saw independent data, they found room to agree. When stakeholders could agree on problems, the solutions became clear, and soon people sought to harmonize tasks and pitched in a fraction of the costs required to pay for it. 

In less than two years, six states got to the point where they trusted each other enough to pitch in more than $1 million each. “There is no precedent for the trust fund in the entire country,” said Musa. “That was what so excited the president Olusegun Obasanjo, and that is why he agreed to match what each of the states put in, and to keep them from withdrawing.” 

Yet even the total $13 million was merely a down payment for the eventual $125 million required to carry through the CMP. It has been widely hailed as a new model. Said Musa: “The federal government is still in control, but as continuing stakeholders they have a clear right to decide what is done in the Basin.”

Eventually the power went back on. His driver returned with a repaired air conditioner. As the predicted violence failed to materialize, his wife called to say she would be joining him again the following week. 

Perhaps things could work in this rich country. The only missing ingredient was trust.
Written by Jamie Workman