Regarded as the Father of modern Akwa Ibom State, Obong Victor Bassey Attah, an architect, was a two-time governor of the state from 1999-2007.
In this interview with Omeiza Ajayi, the former governor, who is a co-chairman of the Central Working Committee of the Pan-Niger Delta Forum, PANDEF, speaks on the group’s recent meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari and posits that the 16-point demand tabled before the President is the panacea to sustainable and enduring peace in the region.
Last week, your group,
PANDEF met with President Muhammadu Buhari and made a 16-point demand. Did you actually ask for oil blocs as reported in some sections of the media?
Well, I must regrettably say that there is a lot of irresponsible journalism out there. And having said that, I want to immediately follow with an appeal that if the problem in the Niger Delta persists, it is going to affect all of us including the journalists that are in this country. So, if they see a genuine effort to try and calm the situation down, they should support it rather than trying to find a way of discrediting it at once. Nobody went there to ask for any oil bloc.
Nobody went there to ask for any contract. At the moment, there are in fact contracts awarded for surveillance to individuals and it has not helped the situation. What we suggested in our paper was that they should rejig these and find a way of awarding these contracts to the communities as it were, because it is a lot easier if it is the community that picks the responsibility for the pipelines that are passing through their areas rather than an individual.
So, let the community feel a sense of participation. Right from the beginning, we tried to indicate that a sense of alienation is really the major cause of the problem in the Niger Delta. It does not matter how good the food is, if somebody ties your hands behind your back and says open your mouth and spoonfeeds you with the best meal in the world, you are not going to enjoy it. So, it does not matter how much you said you are giving back to the peope, if the people do not feel a sense of participation, of involvement, the alienation continues, then that is where we are having real issues. So, we asked for a review of this and people want to interpret it to mean that the Niger Deltans went there to ask for contracts.
On the oil blocs, I can quote the Minister for Solid Minerals copiously where he said, “so because I sit in Abuja and give you a licence, you think you can go there and drive people off their land and start exploiting solid minerals? You are wrong. You have to involve the people of the place and you have to carry them along.” It has not happened in the case of oil, and that is what we are complaining about and this is why the people feel that they are just being forced and their products taken away and nobody is involving them.
Go and read the ownership composition of Itakpe Iron Ore Company. The community is written into it so that everybody feels a sense of ownership so that nobody wilfully destroys what belongs to them. The Niger Delta today does not have a sense of anything belonging to them other than the position they are left with. So, we want to see how we can correct all of these.
As a governor under Obasanjo, we formed a company called BEDROCK Oil – Bayelsa, Edo, Delta, Rivers, Cross River and Akwa Ibom – and applied for an oil bloc. These are all oil-producing states asking for one oil bloc and we were denied. Does that give the people a feeling that they have any form of participation in this oil? And it has continued like that. So, we are saying, please, review this matter and see how the people can come into the ownership position of this oil which is naturally found in their land so that they would be the ones determined to protect it; determined to make sure that nobody steals it. People want to change that, and then they now said we went to ask for oil blocs. I think that is divisive.
As Co-Chair of PANDEF’s Central Working Committee, what are we expecting from you?
The committee was a very interim committee to bring about this meeting with the president; to suggest the structure for the new body that has been formed, called the Pan-Niger Delta Forum, PANDEF, and we have done that and even set the criteria for the selection of the people that met with the President. We are yet to make a presentation on what the structure ought to be, but PANDEF as conceived would be the only one focal reference point for issues in the Niger Delta. It would be in a similar manner to what Afenifere is in the West or if you like, what Arewa Consultative Forum, ACF, is in the North. So, we have one more assignment which is to present our suggestions on what the structure ought to be and how the body ought to be properly registered and recognised and when we finish that, our work stops there.
You reportedly made 16 demands to the President. Are there timelines attached to these?
Here, there is also a misconception. If you read that presentation properly, the essence of it is to say to Mr President, we have to build confidence on both sides. The militants in the creeks must trust that the government is determined to do something about changing the situation that they find themselves in today. The government must feel that the militants are prepared to lay down their arms and accept dialogue as a means of solving the situation. So, this confidence-building is one of the key issues and the first thing that needs to happen to demonstrate that is for the government to set up its own dialogue team without any delay. When the government does that, everybody would know that yes, government is now prepared to talk and find solutions. What we went there with were just issues that we know if discussed and resolved satisfactorily would bring peace.
In fact, I dare to say total peace to the region. So, it is not as people think. Yes, there are suggestions, there are even demands, if you like. Such things as, please stop gas flaring! How can anybody suggest that gas flaring should continue in today’s world with this global warming and the devastating effects that we are seeing in it? Ask the International Oil Companies IOCs to relocate to their places of operation. That makes sense to everybody. Find a way of training these militants and transiting them into proper jobs. Give a robust ICT programme for them to go into so that they can make themselves entrepreneurs. Agriculture too is very important. These are the kinds of things we are suggesting but all these are yet to be discussed fully with the government team, so that the modalities for their implementation or actualisation can be arrived at. So, nobody can ask, has the government agreed to do this or has the government agreed to do that? No! All we want the government to do at the moment is to agree to set up its own dialogue team.
These IOCs that you want relocated, would that have any major effect on the peace process in the region?
Certainly, yes. If you used to watch a television programme, Dallas, you can see that Dallas is built around oil and the effect of the fact that oil is there and it is being exploited there and the money being used to develop the place. Perhaps, without oil, Dallas would not be what it is today but when you come here, you see Oloibiri. Compare Oloibiri to Dallas. What is the difference between Oloibiri and Dallas? The difference is that the people exploiting oil in Dallas are in Dallas, developing Dallas, but in the South-South, you find that the people exploiting oil are not in the South-South but they are just extracting, and if you like, “whatever happens to you, happens to you”. They couldn’t care less and we are saying no, that may have been the case in the first instance, but it certainly cannot continue.
Come to where we are, we would guarantee your safety. Mobil has an airstrip in Eket and everyday, they have a minimum of two flights, flying people in and out. Look at the cost of that. That could have established a place for people to live and work and be comfortable and even the mere fact of their being there, employing drivers, employing stewards and whatever could have changed the economy of that place – but that is not happening. The same with Chevron. Look at the establishment they have in Lekki and other places. The same with Total and even Shell that used to be in Port Harcourt before moving to Lagos. If these people were living there and earning what they are earning today, you could say those places could have been like Dallas too.
Could it be that they are afraid of being kidnapped?
Now, we have gotten to the chicken and egg situation. Which one came first? Is it the fact that maybe people were kidnapping them and saying stay with us? Or is it because they were kidnapped, that was why they ran away? This is why we are talking about confidence-building. We are saying there is peace now, so, let’s come and stay, and we guarantee your protection; we guarantee your safety.
The Ijaw Youth Congress have said they are not satisfied with the outcome of your meeting with the President. What is your take on this?
I read it and it is exactly what I referred to, because we did not hear the government say they are going to do this, they are going to do that. They (IYC) are jumping to the next level. They should just understand what we went there for which was to say to Mr President, these are the most critical or pressing issues that would have to be discussed but please set up a team. There is no way you can say to somebody set up a team to discuss these things and expect at the same time, that person to say he has taken a decision on this, he has taken a decision on that. It is the negotiations that would bring out the results. So, all I can advise the IYC is that, please, be patient, it is coming, and that is why I said one of the most critical things that should come up next is the setting up of the negotiating team by the government.
You seem very convinced that these 16-points would bring sustainable and enduring peace to the region….
You know why I am? Because sitting there in that room (Aso Villa), I listened to the Minister of state (Petroleum) talk and he mentioned quite a few of the points we have itemised here. I listened to the Governor of Delta State talk and again, he mentioned others including some that the minister had mentioned and they are all there among the 16. So, we cannot all be wrong and Okorocha in particular strongly talked about these IOCs and said they are the problem and that when we start these negotiations, they must be brought to the table and this is something I know we tried with President Obasanjo and failed. We kept saying these IOCs would come and complain to you, then you call us governors and you want to spank our hands? I, in particular said, you will not spank my hand; call the IOCs, let them sit at a roundtable with us the governors of the oil-producing states, let us talk face to face and you listen and then you would see who is right and who is wrong. The IOCs, in fact, hold the key to solving the problems of the Niger Delta if they wholly treat that area as their host communities rather than communities to be exploited.
Is PANDEF working in concert with all the governors in the region, considering that not all of them attended the meeting you had with the President?
Delta governor was there. Akwa Ibom governor was there; I do not know why Rivers governor did not come but there were at least four governors there and one was represented. This body has just been formed; the governors came to the first meeting and we have made it very clear in one of the requests here that going forward, the governors must be involved because whatever the federal government is doing cannot be to come and take away the responsibilities of the state government. The state governments have their responsibilities and the federal government also has some supervisory roles. If the federal government shows the political will today, the IOCs would move.
Some of these issues raised entails liaison with the National Assembly to review some existing laws. Are you working towards that?
That one has always been a very touchy and contentious issue. I do not know that as PANDEF we want to meet with the leadership of the national assembly but we know that our representatives in the national assembly are expected to be members of PANDEF. So, through them, the ones that they want to take to the national assembly, they should take to the national assembly. We have tried in the 16 things that we have suggested, not to delay them by looking for how to change the laws. Take for instance on the restructuring of the NDDC, we are not suggesting any change, we are just saying that the percentage, a portion of the ecological fund that is due to the participating states should be paid to NDDC. It is in the law already but that has never been done.
We are saying let us implement some of these laws appropriately. Every year, they say we would stop gas flaring. They set the target, they shift the target. Do not keep shifting the target. And in any case, is it the federal government that is suffering, because they are flaring the gas? It is the local people, but it is the federal government that is collecting the penalty that people are paying for flaring gas. These things are wrong. It should not be so. If there is a penalty for flaring gas, it is the people that are feeling the effect that should be paid to ameliorate some of their sufferings but it is the federal government that is collecting the money; there is tax on gas flaring. We are just pointing out some things that if they can just be changed, there would be peace in the Niger Delta.
Don’t you think some of these issues could be addressed in the yet-to-be passed Petroleum Industry Bill, PIB?
We did not feature the PIB in our presentation. One of the main reasons is that we don’t even know which version of the PIB we are talking about.
How about the states that make up PANDEF? Are other oil-producing states like Ondo, Imo and Abia included?
In PANDEF, we defined the Niger Delta as truly the states of the Niger Delta, but with recognition for the states that you mentioned. We cannot exclude them, but the geographical definition has to be the South-South.