‘Wike’s success story is proof that political will can change face of Niger Delta’
Comrade Joseph Evah is the Coordinator of the Ijaw Monitoring Group (IMG) and a former Publicity Secretary of the Ijaw National Congress (INC).
During the Gen. Sani Abacha regime, he joined forces with the international community to oppose the hanging of the late environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni eight.
After the hanging of the Ogoni leaders, the Niger Delta activist dragged the military government to court to stop the dredging of River Niger from Warri to Abuja without Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), through his lawyer, Femi Falana (SAN).
In 2016, he was honoured with the Hero of Democracy Award by the Oodua People’s Congress (OPC) led by Aare Kankanfo of Yorubaland, Otunba Ganiyu Adams, at an event to commemorate the June 12 Democracy Day, in recognition of the role he played during the struggle to return Nigeria to democratic rule.
In this interview with ONYEDIKA AGBEDO, he speaks on the recent revelation by Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State that the Federal Government has released 13 per cent derivation funds owed to states since 1999, the launch of commercial production of crude oil and gas from the $3 billion Kolmani Integrated Development Project located along the fields of Gombe and Bauchi states and the N48 billion oil pipeline surveillance contract awarded by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation Limited (NNPCL) to a private company linked to a former Niger Delta militant leader, Government Ekpemupolo, also known as Tompolo.
The Niger Delta activist also bares his mind on the latest nomination of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) board members by President Muhammadu Buhari, among other sundry issues.
The recent revelation by Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State that the Federal Government has released 13 per cent of derivation funds owed to states since 1999 jolted many Nigerians. As a Niger Delta activist who agitates for fair treatment of the oil-rich region, how have you been pondering the development?
IN fact, I was really surprised. So, I’m really thanking God that Governor Wike made the revelation. If not, many people were wondering where he is getting money for all the projects he is executing in the state.
The whole Niger delta terrain is the same. The terrain in Rivers State is the same as those of Delta, Bayelsa, and Akwa Ibom; there is no difference. We know that Rivers State is oil-rich, but in those days, Warri was known as an oil city. So, people were wondering where Wike is getting this money. The thing is just like what you will call a miracle religiously, or magic naturally.
Personally, I thought that Wike had a money-making shrine in his house where a juju man was making money for him because every day he is restlessly embarking on projects. He just wants to make sure that if he leaves office after eight years, the face of the state will change. I mean that was just the ambition. But without money, that ambition would have died on arrival.
So, Wike was able to pursue his ambition of changing the face of the state, because he had the money to do that and he was using the media to showcase his achievements. So, when he made the revelation, it settled the curiosity of a lot of people who doubted where he was getting the money. Day after day he announced that he was not borrowing money, no opposition party, even in his state, has faulted him on that.
There is also a lesson to learn from the revelation. In this life, when somebody does you well, go out and be saying it. If Wike had kept this thing in his mind and did not disclose that the Buhari administration graciously released the 13 per cent derivation funds owed the oil-producing states since 1999, which has helped him to achieve the much he has achieved in office, the world wouldn’t have known. And I don’t think that spiritually he will have peace.
Sometimes, he brought members of the opposition and traditional rulers from across the country to commission projects in the state, thereby making every part of Nigeria feel the impact of what he is doing. He has been getting praise left and right; he has been recognised locally and internationally. If he failed to tell us where he is getting the money, I don’t think he will have peace spiritually. But now he can have his peace. So, I commend him for that disclosure.
What then do you have to say about the level of development in other Niger Delta states that have also benefited from the release of the fund by the Federal Government?
Now, another drama is playing out in the region. Wike came out personally to tell the whole world that his administration received the money and invested it in projects across the state. But some other governors are using their political aides to give their own account of the money. We say no; they should come out personally and give us statistics and also show us what they have done. You cannot use your commissioners to come and be telling us what you have done with the money.
If the president of Ghana directly accuses President Buhari of something and Lai Mohammed chooses to reply to him on behalf of Buhari, then he is belittling Nigeria. So, what I am trying to say is that no government should respond to Wike through his commissioners or whoever. They have to personally come out with their own statistics of what they received and show us what they have done with it the way Wike is doing.
We are not saying they have not done anything over the years. Are they using the media? Do they have respect for the media? I think Wike has challenged them to respect the media. It is the way Wike displays the work that he is doing that made President Buhari recognise him and give him a national award as the Best Governor in Infrastructural Development. It is not Joseph Evah saying it. The president, who is from another party, said it. That alone is a lesson. Another lesson about it is don’t think that the person you see as your enemy today cannot help you tomorrow. For me, Wike has done publicity for Buhari’s government with that revelation.
So, I want to tell these governors who are now quarrelling with Wike that there is no need for quarrels. You have your Commissioner for Finance, Accountant General and Auditor General; let them furnish you with the records. Call a press conference inside your bedroom or wherever and explain everything to the world. Now, carry the media and let them see the projects you have been doing. That is very simple.
Everybody says that during the era of the regional government, Chief Obafemi Awolowo was the greatest. You can’t deny it. If you like, re-start the debate today; you are still going to see the structures he built then like the Cocoa House and Olympic Stadium in Ibadan. Many beneficiaries of his free education programme are professors and vice chancellors of universities today. Many others are movers and shakers in the industrial sector. The beneficiaries themselves are saying it.
So, come out and tell your story. Wike has challenged them to come out. Tell the world what you received and at the same time what you have done with the money. There is no crime in that.
Now, let me talk about the opportunity Niger Delta people have got from Wike’s stewardship as governor of Rivers State. Before now, people said that we don’t know what we are doing with our derivation money, but Wike’s success story has changed it. Wike’s success story is proof that political will can change the face of the Niger Delta. With what we have seen in Rivers State, the narrative that Niger Delta as a region doesn’t know what to do with money or lacks vision has changed. Before, others abuse us and challenge us to show what we do with our derivation money. Wike’s success story will reduce the abuse we are getting from other parts of the country.
The money in question accumulated over the years, because former administrations held unto it even though it is statutory. As one of President Buhari’s critics, has the release of the money changed your perception of his administration?
Well, I commend the president despite all our criticisms. I am one of those who are always criticising Buhari. Even when the flood came and ravaged communities, I came out to ask what the president was doing. I said he didn’t release Ecological Fund. But I now know that if the president could release 13 per cent derivation funds to the Niger Delta area, owed since 1999, then ecological fund release is also going on.
We saw the massive destruction in Kwara, Kogi, Niger, Bauchi, Kebbi and Bayelsa states. A lot of people died in the flood disaster. Bridges were cut off. In fact, there was no movement between the South and the North as a result of the flood. The flood was worse that the 2012 flood. In the 2012 flood, we saw the former Minister of Aviation, Stella Oduah, paddling a canoe to go and see her destroyed mansion in Anambra State. I still have the photograph. This year, we also saw former president Jonathan paddling a canoe to his house in Bayelsa State. My parent’s graves were submerged. Thousands were displaced and I had to mobilise food to our communities where people were crying from starvation.
Now, I’m begging Wike to come out again and tell us how much was released to each of these states from the ecological fund. We expected these governors to come out and explain how they expended the ecological fund while the flood was ravaging but they didn’t do that. Even if the problem is beyond ecological funds, how did they spend the ones that have been released to them?
So, I’m praying to God that Wike should also come out and tell us the amount of money that was distributed to states as an ecological fund because I now believe that Buhari must have done that just like the 13 per cent derivation funds, which no governor is denying. Some of the governor’s aides have come out to say, ‘yes, we were given, but we had used the money to borrow money and they are confusing themselves. It’s so childish. They never told us that such money was released to them until Wike blew the whistle. It’s very funny.
They should still come out and explain or else in the next 100 years when their grandchildren will come out to seek elective offices, they will be reminded how their grandfathers managed money that accrued to their states over the years and was released by the Federal Government. So, they should document what they have done for history.
Oil exploration in the northern part of the country has become a reality with the inauguration of commercial production of crude oil and gas from the $3 billion Kolmani Integrated Development Project located along the fields of Gombe and Bauchi states by the President last Tuesday. What’s your take on the development?
We congratulate our brothers in the North. It is not the first time oil was found outside the Niger Delta. We even have oil in Lagos. But you know that Yorubas are sophisticated because Awolowo’s leadership trained their minds.
Folawiyo Petroleum is in charge of the oil in Lagos State. What I am trying to tell you is that having seen the mess in the Niger Delta, Yoruba people don’t want that in their land. And even President Buhari told Bauchi people to learn from the Niger Delta experience and know how to manage the oil in their land.
I don’t think the people will keep quiet if the company exploiting the oil there flares gas the way Shell and other companies are flaring gas in the Niger Delta. Gas flaring is still going on in the Niger Delta today because we lack political leaders who are supposed to stand firm and ensure that it’s stopped.
You remember a former General and retired Chief of Army Staff who told us that he didn’t know what to do with oil money. He owns oil blocs in the Niger Delta. This retired General is not even of the generation of the first military governor of Rivers State, Alfred Diete-Spiff.
Diete-Spiff was in power before that General came to power but Diete-Spiff doesn’t have the type of oil blocs that this General who doesn’t know the colour of crude is enjoying. He told us that the oil money was so much that he didn’t know what to do with it. It was a big insult to the Niger Delta. The northerners will not allow it; they will make sure there is indigenous participation. They will be very firm.
I will also advise them to learn from our pathetic situation, where people who flare gas in our environment enjoy the oil money in Abuja while the indigenes are suffering under poverty and any president that emerges will come up with one political manipulation or the other.
Look at the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) they gave us. It was established through parliamentary legislation, but the president, on his own, because some fake Niger Delta leaders go and deceive him, will say that the head of the commission is the interim administrator.
The constitution says there should be a board, chairman and managing director, now they have abolished that for about three or four years. And they were manufacturing all kinds of designations to suit their purpose. In fact, the nomenclatures were so numerous that there was a time I suggested to the president to call the head of the commission general overseer and rename the commission itself to Niger Delta Gambling Centre since they didn’t know how to insult us again.
So what do you have to say now that the president has sent the list of a fully constituted board of the commission to the Senate for consideration?
We saw that on Wednesday, but we don’t have faith in the process until it becomes a reality. We have been deceived several times. There was a board that was sent to the National Assembly, which was approved. But some manipulators went to the president and they said they were coming up with a forensic audit. They used that forensic audit to deceive us for more than two years, but they told us it would last for six months. Where is the result? Where are the people that were involved in the looting of the commission’s funds?
Now, why did the president not inaugurate the former board approved by the National Assembly? You can’t see it in any sane society. You, as the president, were the one that sent the names to the National Assembly for approval only to turn around later to jettison the board and appoint somebody from within that same board as the sole administrator. Where were all those confusions coming from?
So, we are watching. We cannot clap and dance because someone can go and tell the president to change the members, because somebody among the nominees is pregnant and we will see another drama. That is how we have been managing Nigeria; that is the fact. We are watching whether the names we are seeing now will come out alive and the board inaugurated.
Back to the issue of oil exploration in Bauchi/Gombe states, do you envisage the problem of oil theft in the Niger Delta that made the Federal Government hire a private firm to secure the pipelines in the area?
I doubt it because the political class in the North is different from the political class in the Niger Delta. I gave you an example of oil exploration in Lagos State. The political class is solid; the political class is not petty. For instance, if we have a strong political class like the South West, what has been happening in NDDC will not happen. They will not allow the president to toy with commission; they will not allow some cowboy politicians to go and manipulate the president.
Northern politicians have been receiving a lot of abuse from Niger Delta people, who say they are parasites and this and that. Now that they have oil, they will be so wise to handle it.
However, I want to thank the president for bringing state police to secure the pipelines. And I want to thank Tompolo for what he is doing. Yes, he has even restored confidence in the international community that if they invest in the oil business in Nigeria, their investment is safe because there is a well-organised leader in the Niger Delta who does not believe in the destruction of the environment.
Tompolo did not take this assignment out of selfish reasons. People who are not from Niger Delta are the ones coming to do the policing; they are the ones that connive with oil thieves to sabotage the economy and destroy the environment. Tompolo’s father was buried in the Niger Delta; he too will be buried there and he wouldn’t want to be buried in a polluted environment. So, he accepted the assignment out of patriotism; he had to take the challenge on behalf of the whole Niger Delta.
What Tompolo’s firm is doing is state police. We are not saying that national security outfits like the Army and Navy are not working. But many of them are not interested in our environment.
They will not be buried in the Niger Delta, so they don’t care. If you look at all the illegal pipelines that are being discovered, as you can see on social media, can any Ijaw illiterate go and do that? Those who do that are trained and technically sound; people who are working in the oil firms. While they are doing that, corrupt security operatives posted there to give them cover. That is what Tompolo wants to stop. So, the government is so wise to have given Tompolo’s firm the contract to help it to curb oil theft.
When I was young, tapping ogogoro (local gin) was a thriving business. Fishing was a thriving business. Just throw your net into the water in front of your house and you will have fish to cook. Oil pollution has destroyed all that. So, the people of Bauchi and Gombe states are learning now; they are seeing it. It will never happen in Bauchi, Gombe or anywhere in the North.
Look at the way they are running the North East Development Commission (NEDC), an interventionist agency like the NDDC. Look at the way they operate. You will never hear of sabotage. If you sabotage anything in NEDC, it is not the police that will declare you wanted but the people themselves. They are learning from all the mistakes of the Niger Delta.
Finally, you spoke about the flood that ravaged communities barely two months ago and the management of the ecological fund. What do you think could be done to avert a future flood disaster?
It is the dams. We have done our investigation and Cameroun did not deny it. But the political will to engage the Camerounian president is not there. We have states that share boundaries with Cameroun, where water from the dams is coming from. We have the Chad Basin Development Commission, of which Nigeria is a member.
Now, the Federal Government told us two weeks ago that next year’s flood will be more than what we saw this year. But they didn’t tell us that President Buhari would engage presidents of countries that are releasing water from their dams.
The President of Nigeria should sit down with our neighbours, the countries bordering us that are releasing water from their dams and discuss this problem with them. I expect to see this type of discussion and it should be televised to give hope to Nigerians that our leaders are talking over this flood matter so that the situation next year will not be more than this year.
So, we want a political solution. We want the president of Nigeria to move to Chad, Cameroun and other countries that are operating dams and engage their governments. Even if they say we should be compensating them and we know that lives and property are destroyed here, why don’t we do that?
On the ecological fund, I’m still begging Wike to come out and blow the whistle. If he does that, it will help the affected states to put their governor’s on their toes.