Implementing PIA will cause crisis in Niger Delta host communities – INC President, Prof Okaba

The President of the Ijaw National Congress (INC), Prof. Benjamin Okaba, speaks on the Petroleum Industry Act (PIA), the Niger Delta Development Commission crisis, the 2023 general elections, among other national issues.

Excerpts:

What is the position of the Ijaw National Congress on the submitted Niger Delta Development Commission forensic audit report?

From the outset, we did mention that the forensic audit (although it’s a normal and usual necessity for every organisation) should not be a reason why the NDDC should run without a functional board. That has been our position and we gave examples of some other organisations that require some form of clean-up or audit. But the Federal Government insisted the audit needed to be done before the board could be reconstituted and we decided to place confidence in the Federal Government’s plea for time. They promised to conclude the forensic audit before the end of July and the board would be inaugurated.

The long and short of it is that on September 2, 2021, the report was submitted through the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), but nothing has been heard about it till date. The only information available is some comments made by Malami who received the report from the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Godswill Akpabio, indicating that N6tn was spent on projects; over 130,000 projects are abandoned, and that there is a need to downsize the NDDC, among other recommendations.

But our position is that, now that they are through with the forensic audit, let President Muhammadu Buhari put the report in the public domain for the public to have access to it. Let us invoke the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. Public resources were spent on the exercise and the investigation; we should not just be told that contractors ran away with trillions of naira and that thousands of projects were abandoned. There was said to be at variance with reports that were published by external auditors and the office of the Accountant General of the Federation that had conducted some form of audit around the Ministries, Departments and Agencies.

We are also curious that the money owed by the Federal Government to the NDDC, amounting to N1.3tn, was not given any serious attention in the NDDC audit report. Money owed the commission, amounting to N4tn, was not also mentioned. We are also not particularly happy about the silence on the over N600bn payments made for emergency contracts; the over 1,000 persons who were allegedly employed in the NDDC between January and July, 2020 without due process. We are also aware that the 2020 budget was passed in December and N400bn was voted for the NDDC but the commission had spent over N190bn before the budget was passed. So, what happened to the Procurement Act? These are issues.

We also want to know the details of the 13,000 abandoned contracts and the contractors. Where are they located? What are the names of the companies? That should be the first step of accountability and the prosecution of those who abandoned projects and caused pain to the people. We want to know. Let the public know about it. Beyond that, the president has the report, so what is stopping him from inaugurating the board? There are a few collaborators who use politics and praise-singing to attract attention. I’m happy with the kind of responses and the backlash they have got from the Ijaw people.

What will the INC do if the report indicts some prominent Ijaw political leaders, traditional rulers and opinion leaders?

The INC will not support any Ijaw person, or defend Ijaw men and women, whether young or old, that has defrauded the Ijaw nation. The reason is you cannot say you are a leader and refuse to attract dividends of democracy to your people. You cannot say you love the Ijaw nation and abandon projects that are meant for the development of our people. We cannot be crying for development and inclusiveness when you are out there advancing your personal interests and leaving the Ijaw people to suffer.

The truth is, be it a senator, governor or president, whoever is involved or culpable will not be defended by the INC. This will happen as far as due process is followed. For instance, there was a recent rumour that Pa Edwin Clark had some contracts from the NDDC in Nembe and Abonnema or so. The Ijaw people attacked him and demanded to know the truth. He later came up with the facts of the matter in publications, pointing out that he had no such contracts. The Ijaw people said they would cross-check those claims. According to them, if he is found to be culpable then will cease to be a leader of the Ijaw people.

What is the way forward for the Ijaw nation concerning the Petroleum Industry Act, considering the fact that the three per cent equity revenue share for host communities was not reviewed upward before the presidential assent to the bill?

Our position has not changed and daily we discover more annoying infractions in the PIA that show that those who wanted the bill passed did not want the good of the Ijaw nation and the Niger Delta people. To start with, the three per cent represents zero. You give us three per cent and you take 97 per cent. Beyond that, you allocate 30 per cent for frontier basins, which we know is a wild goose chase because there have been explorations in those areas for years and nothing came out of them. Injustice will not breed any fruitful results. They have to pay for the injustice.

Apart from that, in the management of the three per cent, the structure put in place by the Federal Government in collaboration with the IOCs excludes the state government and local government areas. Already, there is a crisis in the Niger Delta resulting from the management of the Global Memorandum of Understanding in our local communities as they are left with serious inter-family, inter-communal and intra-communal conflicts. Removing the states and local governments that are, by law, the second and third tier of government respectively, is wrong. These states have deputy governors who oversee community development processes in their respective states.

If the states don’t have regulatory roles, who will regulate the management of the three per cent? Is it going to be one person that will be appointed by the Federal Government? Is it going to be another NDDC? That is a serious problem! The state governors are the Chief Security Officers of their states. Whenever there is a crisis, they are at the forefronts of efforts to resolve such a crisis. But if you don’t give them any responsibility, how will they function?

If the PIA is implemented the way it is, there will be a serious crisis that will turn our host communities into a crisis zone. We see that as another way of causing crises in the communities and putting the blame on our people. It is tantamount to dividing the Niger Delta people and causing internal crises by depriving them of what they should have. They are only trying to set us ablaze so that we can be consumed by internal crises.

What precisely does the Ijaw nation want concerning restructuring?

Our idea of restructuring as a philosophy is that the current structure of the country, which nobody wants to call a federation, is defective and anachronistic and has to be reworked. Nigeria is not working, so let us come out with a method that will make Nigeria a truly federal state. It means, therefore, that there must be a centre that is weak with some constitutional items of national interest that would be managed at the centre such as external affairs, currency, immigration and so on. We can then allow the federating units to take charge of the running of their affairs. One major corollary to restructuring is resource control, which means that whatever resources are found or domiciled within your territory should be harnessed by you and you pay tax to the centre and make laws.

There is already resource control in some parts of this country. The gold and other mineral resources found in other parts of this country are explored and sold by individuals and state governments. Recently, we heard that the CBN was going to buy gold from some states in the northern part of this country. Why do we have two sets of laws in this country? We have one law for solid minerals and the other for oil and gas resources? In the laws for solid materials, there is a provision for resource control and remediation.

On the issue of VAT, for instance, we have to thank the likes of the governors of Rivers and Lagos states, Nyesom Wike and Babajide Sanwo-Olu, respectively. How do you generate funds in a place and send the total amount elsewhere? Now, states in the North generate revenue but what percentage of their revenues go to the national purse? Rivers State, in addition to its oil resources, generates so much. About 70 per cent of VAT comes from the South-South states and Lagos, then you now go to the centre and receive a paltry share. Meanwhile, the revenue you [the North] collect at your backyard, you keep to yourselves. So, what they are saying is that the Niger Delta oil belongs to everybody; what belongs to us belongs to everybody but what belongs to them belongs to them. That is not fair. Let me make this clear: restructuring is not about the Niger Delta alone, but we need to keep every state afloat. God has blessed Nigeria.

There is no part of this country that cannot sustain itself. There are mineral resources everywhere but crude oil is making us to be lazy as a country. The North was known for groundnuts. The Middle Belt, up till now, is the food basket of the nation. If states are told to harness their resources and pay a percentage in form tax to the national purse, you will see them taking things seriously. Most importantly, people will be more prudent with the management of their resources because if what you get is what you use, a governor will not need 20 cars in his convoy; he will not charter aircraft, he will know the number of persons to appoint into office, the National Assembly will not be the way it is. The revenue sharing mentality has made us lazy. When you don’t work hard for your resources, you won’t cherish and value them. There is so much free money in this country, but the economy is collapsing every day. Very soon the exchange rate may get to N1,000 to one dollar. The leadership question remains unresolved and the capacity to do the right thing is lacking; love for the country and national interest is very critical. We have all it takes to be a great nation. We used to be the giant of Africa. We have a lot of billionaires in this country, but the country is broke and this is one of the biggest contradictions in this country. So, restructuring is the only way out.

The amnesty programme for former agitators of the Niger Delta region appears to be running without an end. What do you make of this situation?

The amnesty programme was designed to be in four phases: disarmament, rehabilitation, reintegration and all that. Ordinarily, we ought to have a scheme with precise projection and definite timelines so that the beneficiaries, after their training and having garnered enough skills, can go into the society and be on their own. I have never supported the idea of somebody being placed on a monthly stipend of N65,000 perpetually. Such a person does not have value for the money because he doesn’t work for it. It doesn’t make sense. This money, over the years, should be paid to only those undergoing training and skills acquisition and there should be a point where they have to vacate and get integrated into the society.

This is a programme where people are not graduating from their training. You don’t have an unending process; people should go in batches and graduate to generate capital as employers of labour and entrepreneurs to achieve attitudinal change. That’s my take on the amnesty programme. Look at the revelations coming out of the Presidential Amnesty Programme Office. Over 400 fake names were discovered recently. I’m sure if they go deeper, there will be more discoveries and it is another conduit pipe. That’s why despite the huge sum of money that had gone into the scheme, there is no sign of its use.

There is no remarkable difference among the beneficiaries who have done the training. The programme was designed to make a change but with the N65,000 stipend, the beneficiaries are as old as the 10 years since which the programme has been running; this is wrong. I have interacted with some of them and they don’t attach value to the money. They still claim to be unemployed, but fail to realise that there are people who are employed and still earn N65,000 or even less than that. These people are still happy because they are working for it. But the amnesty stipend is free money.

Who, in the view of INC, should be Nigeria’s President in 2023 given the current predicament the country has found itself?

We are more interested in fundamental questions about this country which borders on restructuring. Going into the 2023 presidential election in this kind of structure that Nigeria currently operates in would bring no good to anybody unless we restructure. This is because the system will arm-twist the best of candidates that emerge as president. For instance, if a president is not strong and he is trying to be a statesman, this corrupt system has a way of influencing him to do things that will make him sustain a corrupt system. There is a systemic problem that has to be dealt with before we think of who emerges as President in 2023.

There is a systemic problem that must be corrected, if not, if you bring angels from heaven to rule over Nigeria in its current form, the angels will become the devil. Let us assume a genuine southerner becomes president with all the superlative credentials and he has to go to the National Assembly to seek support over projects or policies some people may not like, It will not work. The National Assembly is over-bloated by people who have no business being there in the first place. You hardly record 30 per cent attendance in the National Assembly except when there is money to share from the International Oil Companies. The current politicians in this country are more interested in politics of advancing personal aggrandizement. The best of leaders will not emerge when you spend all your time as president trying to persuade and assuage these persons. If you don’t do what they want to do, they will impeach you because some areas have the numbers in the National Assembly.

So instead of talking about 2023, Nigerians should be thinking about how to restructure this country, if not the poverty level, mismanagement, poor economy and insecurity will continue to rise. That is the truth. Again, in restructuring, we talk about community policing; when communities are involved in managing their security architecture, it is much easier. An enemy doesn’t come to a community and goes scot-free unless there is connivance. So, we have a lot to gain from restructuring this country.

A lot of people believe that the time has come for a South-East presidency. Do you also subscribe to this view?

From the point of view of ethnic balance and inclusion, you can say that after the Nigerian Civil War, no South-Easterner, apart from Alex Ekwueme who was vice president to President Shehu Shagari, has occupied the number one and two positions in this country. This should be a cause for concern, particularly to those from the South-East who are asking themselves if they are still Nigerians. They are asking that if the Yoruba and Hausa can be president, why can’t they? The Hausa has done it a couple of times, The Yoruba has done it, what stops them [the South-East] from occupying the presidency? To scheme them out, for me, is a way of deepening the sense of marginalisation that they have no stake in this country. Why are they in a country where they cannot be president? Again, the political system we operate is such that unless you hold that office, you get nothing. We have a zero system. So the belief is that it is when there is an Igbo presidency that the myriads of problems facing the Igbo can be addressed. So, from that point of view, why not? If we believe in a united Nigeria where equity, justice, fair play reign; where we are all treated as equal without discrimination against any group, why can’t they produce the president? But the question is: do the political gladiators think this way?

Ordinarily, we should develop as a nation to a point where we should not be thinking of where the president comes from if we had the right system. But it’s not this system.  We should have a statesman who sees every village in the country like Nigeria, irrespective of creed and gender; a statesman who believes in meritocracy. But in a country where all the service chiefs are from a particular region, it is somehow. In the NNPC, all the top management positions are occupied by people from a section of the country. The other day, we were talking about the siting of a naval base in Kano and this shows a system of injustice whereby, because you are in power, you engage in primitive accumulation of things that are useful and not useful. You want power but how you use it is not important. The important thing is that you have power and with the power, you can drag anything to your place; you can drag a naval base to a Sahara desert.

Transforming this country will be at the detriment of many persons who believe that if a good system prevails then they will go down because of the havoc they have wreaked on this country. They want the status quo ante to remain, they want to be recycling themselves, push one of their own to power to protect their interests and sell oil wells, make billions and let Nigerians remain impoverished. – Punch.

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