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FG’s alibi for botched meeting agitates South South leaders

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Stakeholders insist on restructuring, resource control

Bland. Insulting. Demeaning. Those were adjectives used by leaders of the South/South geopolitical zone as they angrily dismissed the excuses given by the Presidency over the failure of its delegation to attend the crucial meeting earlier fixed for Port Harcourt, Rivers State last week.

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As happened with North, Southeast, and Southwest, the Presidency’s delegation was to meet with South/South state governors, traditional rulers, opinion leaders, and youths as part of the consultations to address the violent aftermath of the #EndSARS protests. But the Presidency seems to have added insult to injury when it merely phoned one of the governors to explain that the meeting could not take place due to President Muhammadu Buhari’s security meeting with service chiefs. That shoddy arrangement appeared to have piled more insult to the stakeholders of the Niger Delta region, who viewed the action as a deliberate assault on the psyche, interest, and wellbeing of the region.

One after another, the angry stakeholders pointed out that while other zones held their meetings gracefully, without hitch, their own region that occupies a central place in the economic survival of the nation was left in the ditch, even after the governors, leaders, and stakeholders had assembled for several hours.

The stakeholders swiftly reiterated their aversion to further meetings with the Federal Government except for the crucial conditions they set out were met.

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Golden goose
FROM the immediate post-independence era, the hydrocarbon-rich Niger Delta region is known to have sustained the nation’s economy through its natural resources. But the region has correspondingly suffered serious neglect, poor infrastructural development, and security challenges, especially pirate attacks and youth restiveness.

Attempts by the stakeholders in the past to draw the Federal Government’s attention to the zone’s peculiar socio-economic challenges seem to have fallen on deaf ears. For instance, on November 1, 2016, stakeholders in the region visited President Buhari, during which they presented a 16-Point Agenda, which encapsulated critical concerns and interests of the entire Niger Delta people.

But, to date, none of those demands has been met, except the Ogoni cleanup and the Nigeria Maritime University, Okerenkoko, which status the people said, is still unclear.

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This time, the Federal Government delegation through the office of Chief of Staff to the President, Prof. Ibrahim Gambari, had scheduled to meet with the South/South leaders as part of the ongoing dialogue with stakeholders of various geopolitical zones to discuss sweltering national issues affecting the region at the wake of the EndSARS protests.

Pain of disappointment
THE Niger Delta people had looked up to the meeting as an avenue to address some of their grievances. But, sadly, it failed again. So disappointing was the development that even ministers from the zone, who were billed to attend the meeting, failed to show up. It was learned that the Minister of the Niger Delta Affairs, Godswill Akpabio, came at the end of what was a very long wait, while the Minister of Transportation, Chibuike Amaechi, and the Minister for State for Petroleum, Timipre Sylva, did not turn up, neither did they put any phone call across to register their regrets.
 
It was gathered that the well-planned meeting had the six governors from the zone in attendance: Ifeanyi Okowa (Delta) Nyesom Wike, (Rivers) Ben Ayade (Cross River) Udom Emmanuel (Akwa Ibom) Douye Diri (Bayelsa), and Godwin Obaseki (Edo).

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Also, representatives of traditional, opinion leaders, youth, and women leaders from the zone arrived in Port Harcourt Monday, November 16 for the meeting, which was scheduled to commence by 11 am on Tuesday, November 17.

The Guardian learned that the meeting time was adjusted twice from 11 am to 1 pm on the excuse that President Muhammadu Buhari was in a meeting with the Director-General of Department of State Services (DSS) and the Inspector General of Police, who was supposed to be part of the presidential delegation for the South-South meeting.
 
However, as the waiting stretched beyond 3 p.m., there was uproar at the Banquet Hall of Government House, Port Harcourt, when stakeholders, who had waited for hours, were informed that the meeting had been cancelled entirely.
 
Attempts to calm the situation by the Delta State Governor, Ifeanyi Okowa, who presided over the session, met stern resistance. The delegates said the Presidency’s action smacks of insult and disrespect for the region. But when the outbursts abated, Okowa, in a solemn appeal, implored the people to remain calm in the face of the disdain and embarrassment caused by the Presidency’s treatment.

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The Delta State governor disclosed that the stakeholders have demanded an unreserved apology from the Presidency as a pre-condition for any meeting with the region’s leaders again. It was obvious that the ‘flimsy reason’ given by the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, exasperated the stakeholders the more.

Shehu had, in a statement last week, pointed out that the meeting could not hold, because the delegations were directed to stay back for a security meeting.
 
The apex Socio-Cultural Organization in the zone, the Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF), described the excuse as appalling and an ignominious display. According to PANDEF’s National Chairman, Air Commodore Idongesit Nkanga (rtd), “How else can anyone explain what happened, if not as an act of disrespect, disregard, and contempt to the entire South-South Zone? They went to the north, southwest, and southeast, met with the people, no emergency security meeting was summoned to stop them from attending those meetings. But, when it was for the south-south zone, an emergency arose to scuttle the meeting. 
 
“What they have told us, in essence, is that we do not matter, but the truth is that we do matter. It is awful and preposterous for anyone to delude us that we do not matter. That they can treat the region that has sustained the country for decades, in this way and manner, only speaks to the kind of “upside-down” thinking that has kept the country in its unworthy state. 

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“We are, however, not overly surprised at all of these occurrences because we have been talking of the inconsistencies, discrimination, and injustice against the Niger Delta region by this administration for the past five years.”
 
The PANDEF Chairman, who is also the former Military Governor of Akwa Ibom State, recalled how the stakeholders visited the President on November 1, 2016, and presented a 16-Point Agenda, which encapsulated critical concerns and interests of the people of the entire Niger Delta Region.
 
He regretted that four years after, the 16-Point demand has remained unattended to by the Buhari administration, except the establishment of the Nigeria Maritime University, Okerenkoko, Delta State, and the launch of Ogoni Clean-Up, which status he said is unclear to the zone’s leaders.
 
“And the region continues to suffer untold neglect and discrimination, in terms of developmental projects, policies, and programmes, appointments, among others, and now, even in simple issues such as meetings with the regions, our zone is neglected
 
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“Let it be known to them that whether they desire to meet with us or not, the people of the South-South geopolitical zone have taken a firm stand on the issue of restructuring of Nigeria. We are the biggest victims of Nigeria’s flawed federal system. All we want is true federalism,” he declared. 

Nkanga noted that Nigeria is not the only country operating a federal system of government in the world, adding: “They cannot continue to pretend that they do not know what true federalism or fiscal federalism implies. Nigeria has to be restructured, things have to change.”

Also, the National Coordinator of South/South Elders Forum, Chief Anabs Sara-Igbe, agreed that restructuring and true federalism remains the only thing that could resolve the numerous conflicts and problems in the country. The Niger Delta Activist, however, blamed the botched meeting on disunity in the region.

He stated: “If the region is not divided, those who are ministers, those who are in government; should have been able to ensure that the right thing was done. Even if the meeting was postponed, they would have given advanced information to the people, but there is no unity, everybody is doing his own thing, trying to sabotage each other. That may be the reason why everything happened.”

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Sara-Igbe remarked that the Presidency’s action is an insult to the region, but expressed the belief that regional matters should be above partisan considerations. He contended that those invited for the meeting were one-sided, while those who are not in the same boat with the governors were left out.  
 
His words: “The South/South zone is being governed by PDP and most of those invited are PDP supporters or members, but those who are not in the party were not invited. They should have extended the invitation to other parties, pick people based on their credibility, their outstanding performance, and not on party lines.  

“In other regions, like the West, after elections, politics ends and they talk of development, but in this part of the country, it is politics from beginning to the end.
 
“We should know where politics ends and where governance and development starts, when it comes to governance and development, both parties join hands together to develop the region.

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“There should be unity in diversity, the region must have a common goal, common agenda, and work as a team when it comes to governance and development.”

Speaking further, Sara-Idigbe said restructuring is good for Nigeria, arguing that that is what is needed now, stressing: “That is what will take us to industrial level because the entire country is blessed with one mineral or the order. Allow all of us to tap from the resources, don’t allow Zamfara to sell gold and collect the revenue, while you will not allow the Niger Delta to tamper with their crude oil. We need balance, where there would be true Nigeria, true federalism, and when this is done, the agitations would reduce.” 
 
On his part, a political analyst and Senior Lecture’s at the Department of Sociology, University of Port Harcourt, Prof. Sofiri Peterside, said the South/South region plays active roles in the economic survival of the nation. He stressed that in recent times, the area has been faced with serious security challenges, deplorable infrastructure, attacks by sea pirates, the heavy negative impact from the EndSARs protest, among others.
 
He said, the people of the region had expected that the meeting would have been a great opportunity for the Federal Government to address the anomalies and years of neglect in the region but it failed to turn up.

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Sofiri described the Presidency’s action as a serious disrespect for the region and fellow citizens of the country, adding: “What was more intriguing was that all the ministers from the region were absent. The reason given for this is untenable, why were the two (Council) meetings slated for the same day, why is it that there was no pre-information, this shows that the region has not been treated fairly by the presidency.
 
“It demonstrates a lack of respect for a region, which resources sustain the economic life of the nation.”

A former President of Movement for the Survival of Ogoni Peoples (MOSOP), Ledum Mitee, said for the Federal Government to hold meetings successfully with other regions and paused that of the South/South region, demonstrates its perpetual injustice and inequality to the region.

Mitee stated: “The Federal Government should know that talk is a dialogue and not a monologue and should not feel that the region always wants to be talked to. To treat equally unequally is injustice. To also treat unequal, equally will be an injustice. So, if you held meetings with other people successfully and when it comes to us, you cancel it at a time the meeting  was  supposed to end, it shows disdain and the value the government places on the region.”

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Speaking on a similar tone, Convener of Niger Delta Self Determination Movement, Ms. Ann Kio Brigss, traced the sad development to the 1999 Constitution, saying, “The 1999 Constitution restrains the governors and representatives of the region  from certain actions that would have improved the region and benefited the people.”
 
“Since 1999, this is the first time that governors of the oil-rich region have held a meeting like this with all the stakeholders. This particular incidence is divine; there are things that happen in peoples’ situations and lives that you have no control over them.

“The Federal Government of President Buhari has taken a final position to get us angry because we have been angry because of what happened to the region since 2015. But, I think, they are doing this to facilitate some levels of actions that they can rely upon to do certain things that they want to hold on as an excuse.”

The Niger Delta activist said further: “Our survival is very important, this cannot be taken lightly, we should make a decision that our representatives need to come back home, we need to tell them what we want them to do. The line has been drawn, we will not allow a situation whereby they see one or two governors be troublemakers, and we will not allow the 1999 Constitution to continue to restrain our governors to act. I think the time has come for us to say, enough is enough, there cannot be any other disregard than this.”

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Visibly irked by the Presidency’s action, the spokesperson of South/South Monarch’s Forum, Etim Okon Edet, noted that it was rude, an affront for the traditional rulers to be kept waiting for several hours, whereas a district Emir in the North cannot be kept for more than 30 minutes.

“We the traditional rulers sat here since morning, this is very annoying, we are going to take a decisive decision, Bakasi has been ceded for a long time, with no rehabilitation. So many things are happening in the Niger Delta and nobody is saying anything, we will make them understand that we have teeth and we can bite, if we don’t do so, they will believe we can be producing resources for them to enjoy.”   

President Ijaw Youth Council, Peter Igbifa, was visibly enraged by the Federal Government’s action and threatened the shutting down of the nation’s economy if the region’s grievances are not given priority attention forthwith.

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