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OKOKO: No Government Can Ignore Niger Delta

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OkokoProfessor Kimse Okoko is the former president, Ijaw National Congress (INC). Currently, he is the president of Conference of Ethnic Nationalities of Niger Delta (CENND). In this interview with KELVIN EBIRI, he argues that the priority of Niger Delta and the South East in post President Goodluck Jonathan era should be insistence on the full implementation of the recommendations of the 2014 National Conference and a new constitution for Nigeria.

What is the implication of the just concluded Presidential election for Niger Delta? FIRST of all, as usual, elections were massively rigged, which is unfortunate.

Thanks to the President for conceding, otherwise, there would have been utter chaos in this country’s post election because of the rigging from North to South, East to West.

The election has been concluded, but as far I’m concerned for the Niger Delta, I have always argued that so long as the Nigerian system remains the way it is, the minorities of this country will continue to remain disadvantaged.

So long as we have this faulty Federal system, we will continue to suffer in this country and that is why we have argued for the restructuring of this country along the line of true federalism.

If we don’t achieve that, I am afraid Niger Delta should not expect much from this incoming administration. The first priority is for us to insist on the implementation of the recommendations of the 2014 National Conference, where it was essentially agreed that a people’s constitution has to be written using the content of the national conference as the basis for the new constitution.

That is what the people of the Niger Delta and South East must continue to insist on. But it is worst for the people of the Niger Delta, because of their minority status in this country.

So, there should be no letting off guard, as it were. We must continue to insist on the restructuring of this country so that the component units will own and control their resources.

Without that, I don’t see anything that the Niger Delta will benefit from the incoming government. Already, there is a rumour that they are going to merge NDDC with the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, which is a sign of things to come.

For now, I want to wait and see, but I am not optimistic that the Niger Delta will benefit from the new administration. It is unlikely that the incoming administration will go ahead to implement the recommendations of the 2014 national conference. Did President Jonathan make the Niger Delta a priority? I don’t think so, quite frankly.

I think he was being careful to present himself as President of Nigeria, and perhaps, he felt that if he started developing his own region, people would not be kind to him.

That might have been the reason for what he did while in office. But quite frankly, Niger Delta did not benefit significantly from the Jonathan regime because; most of the oil blocks are still given to people outside of the Niger Delta.

In the instance of petroleum product importation, very few Niger Delta people participate in the process. The East-West Road has not been completed, and when he goes, we are not even sure that the incoming administration will want to complete the road.

And he (Jonathan) recognises that too. I recall that in one of the campaigns when that issue was put before him, he said, ‘when I come back, I will make amends’. So, he had recognised that he was not able to do much for the people of the Niger Delta.

Why would Niger Delta expecting special attention from the incoming government that it didn’t support? That is why I said I don’t expect much. Ordinarily, if we have governments that are based on fairness and equity, it does not matter whether you supported it or not, the people still get what is due to them. We expect something from them because; we are feeding and supporting this country with our oil wealth.

So, there is no way the incoming administration should turn its eyes away from the Niger Delta. They just have to give us what is due us for the singular reason that the wealth of the nation is coming from the Niger Delta.

It will be extremely difficult for any government to ignore us. If they do so, they are doing so at their own peril. People in the South have been clamouring for restructuring of Nigeria, which has produced two presidents since 1999, why didn’t these presidents consider this a priority?

Let me start with Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, he had a dictatorial tendency and he was so obsessed with power that he would be the last person to accept a situation where the power at the centre would be whittled down because, that is what restructuring means.

Obasanjo would not support reducing powers at the centre, as far as he was concerned, that was a no go area. And that was why, during his political conference, you could see several no go areas.

That is at the heart of Obasanjo’s refusal to push for the restructuring of this country. Jonathan had interest in the restructuring. So, when you look at the national conference he convened, you will notice that there was absolutely absence of no go areas.

And you can argue that when the federal executive accepted and approved the recommendations of the national conference, you can say it was political, it does not matter, but the Federal Executive Council approved it and they are prepared to implement it. So, you can see Jonathan’s situation is different from that of Obasanjo.

For Jonathan, everything happened within four years. Obasanjo stayed for eight years and could not do anything. I believe that if Jonathan had stayed for another four years, he would implemented the national conference recommendations.

Do you subscribe to the notion that the South West aligned with the North to oust President Jonathan from office? If you look at the emergence of the APC, it was made up of people who hated Jonathan and his administration. So, if that was said to be a conspiracy, it should not be far fetched from being true.

You have a strong presence of the South West in All Progressives Congress (APC), and it had become a national party. It is different from when they presented Nuhu Ribadu as Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) presidential candidate.

The West went ahead to support Jonathan then. In this case, Bola Tinubu and others have very strong influence in APC that they were able to make somebody from the Southwest a vice presidential candidate.

So, it was, therefore, not the same scenario as the ACN situation. The South West saw themselves as kingmakers in the Nigerian political system and saw the need to vote for the APC because they knew they were going to play a dominant position.

You watch what is going to happen. There is going to be a struggle between Tinubu and the feudal oligarch of the North over control of APC. I wasn’t very surprised that the Southwest voted for Buhari.

There were also governors of APC in the Southwest who were also prepared to deliver their respective states to the APC. The issue of conspiracy is not improbable, but I want to see the conspiracy within the context of the dominancy of the Southwest in the APC.

I don’t want to look at it in a void. Within the APC, there is going to be internal turmoil, because of the desire to control the party. It will be interesting to watch what is going to happen.

How should the Niger Delta now relate with the rest of Nigeria? We have to relate with the Nigerian State by demanding for our rights, by insisting on restructuring and to make them know that if they think they are going to lift our oil at our own disadvantage, we will continue to say no to them.

That is what the Niger Delta region should get prepared to stand up to, the injustice, oppression and exploitation of the people of the region because we will not accept it. We will continue to resist the inequity until Nigeria sees the reason to restructure in line with the principles of true federalism.

That is why I argued at the national conference, ‘don’t bother yourself asking for percentage increment of the derivation formula. It is of no use. Ask for ownership and control of your own resources’.

That is what federalism means. The minute you begin to ask for percentage, you are trying to beg the person who does not own it. We must own and control our resources. A group, the Lower Niger Congress, has called for referendum to decide if the Niger Delta and the South East still want to be part of Nigeria.

What is your reaction to this? I got the invitation; unfortunately I could not attend because I was busy. I’m not opposed to a referendum in a democratic setting, if they refuse to listen to our request for the restructuring of this country.

We are a part of Nigeria and we still want to be a part of Nigeria. I’m not opposed to referendum. I will not be opposed to that if those who are in power refuse to concede to the implementation of the recommendations of the national conference.

For goodness sake, we should be able to express our will by way of referendum in democratic setting. What is wrong with that? Why didn’t the Niger Delta and the South East exert pressure on Jonathan to push for the restructuring of this country long before now? They did. If that pressure were not there, Jonathan wouldn’t have called for the national conference.

They did. The fact that Jonathan’s cabinet accepted the recommendations of the conference is a satisfactory development for the people of the Niger Delta. It is not easy for somebody to assume office and take on the issue of national conference. National conference was a major issue in the country, so it took him time to do that.

But it was still done within the four years. I don’t think I want to blame him for that. I don’t. It will be wrong to say that he didn’t listen to the pressure coming from all sections of the country, especially the Niger Delta calling for the restructuring of the Nigerian federation. I think it will be wrong for anybody to say why didn’t they have a referendum when Jonathan was in power.

They didn’t have a referendum because Jonathan conceded to national conference and accepted its recommendations, which meant that there was no need to call for a referendum if it was implemented. If the national conference was a priority, why didn’t Jonathan convene it in his first two years in power? You see, he was a president, in concrete terms, for four years.

The year preceding that was a very shaky one for him; so, one wouldn’t have expected him to do that within that period when he took over from the late Umaru Yar’Adua. But within his four years, he was able to plan and in the third year, executed the national conference. I don’t think it was wrong that he was able to do that because his own four years was compounded by an unprecedented security problem in this country. This country has never witnessed this kind of Boko Haram security problem before.

So, he had many things to tackle. The bottom line was that he was able to call for the national conference within the four years and I must give him credit for that. If he had not done that and waited for a second, then I would say he didn’t push it enough, but he did it. What will be the implication of APC’s refusal to implement the national conference recommendations since it declined to participate in it? The implication is that it will be difficult for them to have the environment to implement whatever projects and programmes they want to, because the conference was for the entire country.

As for APC’s refusal to participate, they know the reasons why and that is why I say they are unlikely to implement the recommendation of the national conference.

The minute they refuse to do so, they will also be confronted with the problem of agitation for national conference and restructuring of this country.

That one is certain. The Niger Delta was quiet under President Jonathan; do you envisage resurgence of insurgency to demand for a more equitable Nigeria?

Let me put it this way, if this incoming administration completely rejects the recommendations of the national conference, then they would have stepped on the toes of many people in this country, especially, in the Niger Delta and other minorities. And if that happens, the agitation for justice, fairness and against oppression will continue. I have no doubt about that in my mind and in what form I don’t know.

Agitation will be there as it has always been there right from the pre-colonial days and it will continue if they pay deaf ears to the yearnings of Nigerians for the restructuring of this country along the line of true federation. Did you envisage President Jonathan’s defeat at the polls?

Yes, due to the debacle about permanent voter card and card readers. When I became suspicious was the first publication of the distribution of the PVCs, how successful it was in areas where there were insurgencies, in some instances, 80 per cent collection. This paved way for massive rigging.

I cannot see a situation where internally displaced people will have highest number of PVCs distribution. I knew something sinister was in the making and I started having my fears. Then the card readers came and you saw the hiccups.

I knew there was going to be problem. Worst still, is the perennial feature of thousands of underage children voting in the full glare of INEC. All these showed me that Jonathan would not win. Considering the character of the Nigerian political class, do you think the Niger Delta and South East can sustain being in the opposition? I have described Nigerian politician as catwalk politicians.

The only difference between Nigerian politicians and catwalk models is that models are more honourable. Catwalk politicians because they change at will. Today, they jump to APC; tomorrow they go to PDP and the day after they return to the APC.

That is the most irresponsible way of playing politics. A democracy without opposition cannot progress. There must be a strong opposition.

So, I feel sad to see these catwalk PDP politicians moving to APC and I want to thank Buhari for saying that nothing will be given to these kind of politicians, who have crossed over to the APC. We need an opposition to move this country forward. We need an opposition to make a strong case for the quick restructuring of this country along the line of federalism. Even if APC says no, the opposition should stand up and insist on that.

If we continue to experience politicians jumping from party to party, I don’t think much will come out of it because the minute you allow a one party system to evolve, you are also saying yes to dictatorship as power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Those in power will want more power, absolute power. Without viable opposition, there will be nobody to challenge them. If that happens, the agitation for the restructuring of this country will perhaps intensify in what form, I don’t know. But at least people will continue to agitate as they have always done for justice. Because without justice, there can be no peace in any system.


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