The lawmaker representing the Andoni/Opobo/Nkoro Federal Constituency of Rivers State in the House of Representatives, Awaji-Inombek Abiante, talks about fiscal federalism and agitation for resource control.
You sponsored a bill that seeks to make each state to retain not less than 50 per cent of the revenue generated from its natural resources but it was controversially stepped down at the second reading. What inspired the proposal and what do you want to achieve with it?
Are you a Nigerian? When Nigeria gained independence (in 1960), do you remember the incident that led to the independence of Nigeria? Were there discussions among the people before independence? There were discussions among the various ethnic nationalities and interest groups, as I stated in my debate (during the second reading). It was those discussions, negotiations and agreements that gave rise to the 1960 (Independence) Constitution. If discussions led to that, then what discontinued the discussions? If it was 50 per cent then, at the point where the military took away the 50 per cent, did they discuss with anybody? So, which is more binding between the one that was unilaterally done and the one that was done out of concession? I want us to get back to what is right and what is right is the term as discussed among the people and the agreement reached.
Are you aware you will have to convince all the House caucuses of the various geopolitical zones to buy into the idea being proposed in your bill?
Yes. I know that some people will eternally – that is, until they die – want to work against what I am saying. There are people who-until tomorrow, next tomorrow and forever-will want to think that they have an advantage and that the advantage should stand and remain so.
Who are the people you are referring to?
I don’t need to name them but there are people who want to leave it the way it is. To such people, no matter the negotiation or what you tell them today, they will not believe you; they will not even listen to you. Even if they listen, they will feign ignorance. But the good thing is that there is a discourse. At least there are certain things that you didn’t know happened if you read my lead debate. For instance, there were the Chicks Commission (of 1953) and the Independence Constitution that discussed the issue of derivation. Today, you know. Some people did not even know that the issue of the Niger Delta was a constitutional matter at a point. It was in the constitution, the Niger Delta Development Board. If I expect that I will do consultations and build bridges across in order to reach everybody and get them to understand, I may be deceiving and overrating myself. But the good thing is that I have thrown a discourse in the public domain and Nigerians should get involved in the discussion. Those who have a sense of history should also make commentaries regarding those things and let us continue in that trajectory. That is what I would have achieved.
Are you talking of solid minerals or all mineral resources, including petroleum?
I am talking about every resource – all, not just oil. Every resource that is available should enjoy that 50 per cent, including the Value Added Tax.
Are you saying each state should also retain half of the VAT it generates?
Let me tell you why that one is important. There are some people who go to club, they drink and they get ‘high’ (drunk). They pay VAT on the drinks. Somebody else will sit down somewhere saying ‘I am very holy; I am a very holy man’ but also collects from that (tax) which the unholy man has paid. How justifiable is that? You don’t do ‘owambe’ (party) but somebody is doing ‘owambe’ and you say ‘owambe’ is evil. So, allow those who suffer or who will suffer the hazards of the ‘owambe’ (to enjoy the VAT) because ‘owambe’ comes with its own hazards. People drink, get drunk, drive and have an accident. I don’t pray for that. People get into clubs and there is noise pollution which people suffer from. So, let them enjoy from them, including VAT. The pre-Independence arrangement indicated Pay-As-You-Earn; that one is for the states. (There is) no problem with that. However, every other resource should be 50 per cent; the state should also take it.
The 50 per cent argument is not just for natural resources but also Value Added Tax, so that the man in Lagos who generates so much resource (for the government) from his activities will be able to have a return. For example, how many people from Apapa, Lagos are benefiting from the ports there? What are the hazards in Apapa? You cannot drive your car, there is traffic every day, you are suffering health challenges, yet you are not enjoying from what is (generated) there. How many of them have been made the managing director of the Nigerian Ports Authority? Members of the House of Representatives from Lagos State once proposed special status for the state in the 8th Assembly for being a former federal capital and generating the highest non-oil revenue for the country, but it met stiff opposition, especially from their colleagues from the North. Also, all the geopolitical zones now want development commissions after the establishment of the Niger Delta Development Commission and the North East Development Commission. Do these not confirm agitation over resources?
Don’t you think this argument has thrown up the restructuring debate?
People can feign ignorance and try to live in denial but the truth remains that Nigeria needs to be restructured…like 10 years ago. All those things you are seeing and hearing are just a window to restructuring so that there can be progress. Let us be frank with ourselves; the foundation that we had that made meaning was when we had a regional arrangement. That was what helped Nigeria and sustained the country to a point. The agitations will continue until things begin to work. Is anything working? Is it in the area of security? They opened a portal for N-Power and in less than 48 hours, how many millions of Nigerians applied? The government of the day has promised employment and a minister has said they are giving employment. But they are not giving employment, they are impoverishing the people. On the special public works, how long is it going to last? Three months? So, if somebody has been given bread for three months, have they given him or her employment? And what are they paying them? You are paying below the minimum wage. Is the minimum wage not a law? But you are paying people below the minimum wage, the law that you put in place and signed. Is it not a contravention of the law? That is why sometimes when we get into this discourse, they ask what we are talking about. They are not providing any employment, it is just part of the palliative measures that they have. It is even more dangerous when a man starts eating and he does not have something to eat again. If you are a man and you get up in the morning, go out, come back and can take care of yourself, but suddenly you don’t have where to go again; it is going to create more chaos than solve problems.
A member of the House from Rivers State, Honourable Farah Dagogo, recently alleged that the Presidential Artisanal Gold Mining Development Initiative of the Federal Government is a plot by the northerners to keep the revenue accruing from gold. Is it a coincidence that you are also calling for the retention of half of the revenue generated from states?
Is oil a resource? Is gold a resource? Why are they treating ‘A” differently from “B’? If you can guarantee that gold is in a certain area and that is why it is free for them to explore, allow us to explore our own (oil) too and take it to the refinery, refine it and you buy it. Is that not what they are doing to gold? It is like looking into our face and saying ‘after all, you are five per cent’. The equation of 95 and 5 per cent have not been solved. In all the appointments, we are still 5 per cent. Treat our oil the way you are treating gold in the North. Our oil has sustained Nigeria for close to 60 years. If you give it back to us now, we will manage our resource and we will be very grateful. We will thank you for it.
Do you think Nigeria will survive economically by leaving its main source of revenue to a geopolitical zone?
Did Nigeria survive without oil in the 1960s? If Nigeria survived, Nigeria can still survive. In fact, Nigeria will survive longer because everybody will look inward to find what they can get. Because you want to survive with my oil, I should die? How about the issue of pollution, the health challenges, the environmental issues…no, no, no.
You were forced to withdraw the bill for further lobbying and consultation. How did you feel about that?
Even before the bill came up for second reading, I had decided that I wanted to bring up a discussion. Whichever way it goes, the bill has come up. It may not go further but that alone is a positive for me. If those that had been there before us had sustained this discussion, probably some people would have had a better understanding of what the issues are earlier than now. It will continue to remain on the front burner as far as we are concerned. Every Assembly from this point (9th) will continue to demand it until when people who are supposed to hear will hear.
Have you started the consultations and who are those you are consulting?
The consultations are ongoing and I am getting a very positive response from some who, hitherto, did not understand what the bill was all about. Even from areas where I least expected, people are getting the understanding that there is the need to get everybody involved.
When are you bringing back the bill?
(I am bringing back the bill) as soon as possible. I have already taken care of a few of the grey areas. Once we return from vacation, as soon as possible, I will get it back. – Punch.