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‘If restructuring fails, best option for Ijaw nation is to pursue self-determination’

By Godwin Ijediogor and Julius Osahon
22 March 2022   |   2:32 am
President of the Ijaw National Congress (INC), Prof. Benjamin Okaba, spoke to GODWIN IJEDIOGOR and JULIUS OSAHON in Yenagoa, the Bayelsa State capital, on activities of the socio-cultural group, non-reconstitution of the Board of Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), and what the Ijaw nation believes regarding self-determination.   How far have you pursued the ideals of…

President of the Ijaw National Congress (INC), Prof. Benjamin Okaba, spoke to GODWIN IJEDIOGOR and JULIUS OSAHON in Yenagoa, the Bayelsa State capital, on activities of the socio-cultural group, non-reconstitution of the Board of Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), and what the Ijaw nation believes regarding self-determination.  

How far have you pursued the ideals of Ijaw nation since you came on board?
Our greatest achievement is stabilising the INC. It is not easy, because for close to eight years, we had impeachments after impeachments to the extent that at one point, we had factions and court cases.  
 
Efforts were made, particularly by then Bayelsa State governor, Senator Seriake Dickson to see the issues resolved, but it was not possible. Then all the INC structures, from the community to clans, zonal chapters were dismantled.
 
But we have been able to put back all the structures. We now have community, clan and zonal executives and by next month, we are going to constitute the National Representative Council (NRC), to be made up of prominent Ijaw people from all the zones. It is like the legislative organ of the INC. Thereafter, we will have the body of traditional rulers and eminent Ijaw personalities.
 
We are building the structure again. We have been able to have the Ijaw Summit. Only last two weeks, we had an all-Ijaw Thanksgiving that was celebrated across various clans, zones and at the national level.

 
We are very interested in the stability and unity of INC, because the Ijaw cause is about Ijaw unity and Ijaw agenda for freedom and self-determination. All of these can only be actualised when we are united and there is unity of purpose, where the spirit and consciousness of Ijawness is seen above personal considerations. That, we are building.
 
It has to do with attitudinal change. There was a time we had a high level of polarisation, with different people saying different things at the same time as the Ijaw position. Now, people have to authenticate whatever is being said as the Ijaw position. We now speak with one voice.

There were times INC said one thing, while the Ijaw Youth Congress (IYC) said something different?
That was before. Since we came on board, the IYC has been properly nurtured and tutored to be the youth arm of the INC. If there are issues, they only try to amplify what we have said.
 
Where we don’t seem to have a consensus, I call for a joint meeting or we even address the press together on certain issues. They now understand where we are going and all their statements are in that direction. 
 
We have not had cause to contradict ourselves, as the young men now understand our positions and even when they go out to make presentations without consultation, we have never seen any faults in those statements, because they seem to understand where we are all going as Ijaw people at this time. They only give our position that youthful vibrancy.

You mentioned self-determination. Is that still on the table?
Self-determination is the only thing that’s on the table! This is because we had visited the President of this country in June last year, where we explained that the Ijaw are very peaceful people and believe in the Nigerian project.
 
We enunciated the modest contributions we have made to this country and in stabilising it, not only economically, but also politically right from the pre-independence era, the latest being former President Goodluck Jonathan, following the 2015 general elections. 
 
Our patience and silence was being taken for granted. All the four crude oil export terminals are in Ijaw land, but look at the state of these places. Take Bonny, for instance, despite what comes from there, there is no road to the place. Practically nothing goes to Bonny, except through the Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas (NLNG) Limited. Government presence in Bonny is very minimal, compared to what gets out of there.
 
Look at the environmental devastation and degradation in Ijaw land. What have we done to merit all the lack and underdevelopment? Ijaw, being the fourth largest ethnic nationality, has been balkanised and for long, we have cried to be united into a region.
 
Issues concerning the Ijaw nation have always been addressed with mere palliatives, such as the defunct Oil Mineral Producing Communities Development Commission (OMPADEC), Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), and Petroleum Industry Act (PIA). We are not interested in palliatives; we want resource control or at worst, 50 per cent, as was there before 1963. We want to manage our resources.

 
We told him (Buhari) that if he doesn’t address these issues, there would continue calls for self-determination. Look at Bayelsa State for instance, it has just eight local government areas, far below the constitutional provision of at least 10 local government areas in every state.
 
When they raised the issue, he asked what disadvantage it has on the state, that after all, Kano State has three senators, just like Bayelsa, ignoring that Kano has 44 local government areas and probably over 20 House of Representatives members.
 
Revenue is not shared according to senatorial districts, but local government areas and when the Constitution pegs the local government areas in the country at 774, it is the number of local government areas that you have that determines what you get, no matter what is coming to the table from your state.
 
We should be fairly represented in appointments, especially as regards oil companies or corporations, etc. We gave him time, but have discovered that rather than improvement, things are getting worse, particularly with the PIA. We asked for a minimum of ten per cent to the host communities, but what did we get? An insulting three per cent! For what?
 
Just as we projected earlier, implementation of even that paltry amount will be a problem. Meanwhile, the exploitation is going on and thirty per cent of profit from it is used for the exploration of frontier basins, all of which are outside the Niger Delta.
 
On December 4, last year, the Ijaw people met, what we call the Ijaw Summit, and did introspection and retrospection of the struggles, efforts and strategies we had applied in the past. Recently, we made it very clear to ourselves that we had fought wars, destroyed our environment and gone into advocacy.

I think the best is to begin to pursue self-determination, to begin to say it is time we are on our own, legally.

How is that going to be different from what we have seen in the Southeast and Southwest?
The difference is that ours is non-violent; we are using a non-violent approach, because the moment you march people into the streets or carry arms, is violent.
 
Ours involves sensitisation and telling the world our plight. There is a procedure, following the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. We are looking at those strategies and there are stages and steps we are studying.
 
We have a self-determination team, put in place recently after the declaration. They will come up with the processes and we will take them one after the other and make our presentations within and outside the country. The infractions on our rights as a people and on our resource rights are clear and being documented.   
 
To make the country to be aware of these, we also went to court to join in the suit instituted by some northerners asking that the Igbos should leave Nigeria. On March 15, we were there to defend our positions. We should also leave, because the conditions that warranted the agitations for secession are even worse in our own case.
  
The Igbos, in their own agitation, included the entire Delta State, parts of Bayelsa, Rivers and Edo states as part of Biafra. We have also challenged them on that, because these people have wrongly captured us in their map.

 
We want our territories extricated from them, because at no point did they conquer us, and we cannot be conquered. At no point did we have any meeting or agreement to be part of them. Ours is that the federal government should let us go and that Biafra, if they are going, should leave us alone and let us determine when we want to go.
 
When I receive that committee’s report, which will come very shortly, we are going to follow very legitimate processes. Some people ask whether that is possible and I tell them there is nothing that is not possible in the world.
 
I just pray that the peaceful approach will get us to where we want, as that will be good for Nigeria and everybody.

Would you not rather opt for restructuring of the country?
Is restructuring itself easy? It is because we have no hope in this country being restructured, that is why we are opting for self-determination. 
 
At the 2014 national confab, we took a position on restructuring, but we discovered that the oligarchy seems not to support that, which ordinarily should have favoured everybody. Even the issue of Biafra could have just died down and calmed the political atmosphere and noise about where the president should come from.

Some Niger Delta people alleged that the region is still marginalised in the scheme of things. Do you think so?
I don’t just think; I feel so. What is our level of participation in governance today? Very minimal! Take the issue of appointment, for instance, at the federal level, apart from the constitutional provision that a minister shall be appointed from every state, how many appointments are given to our people?
 
Look at the appointments into and management of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), there are very few appointees from the Niger Delta. Look at the service chiefs from 2015 till date and distribution of amenities. We are not being given our fair share, and that is very clear.

Could the issues with the NDDC be related to this alleged marginalisation?
The issues with NDDC, at some point one finds it difficult to know what is going on. Whose interest is being served, because we have rules governing any particular institutions? Why are those rules being set aside and an interim sole administrator appointed? They instituted forensic audit of the agency, but have refused to publish the report months after it was submitted.
 
It is obvious that there are some things they don’t want to tell us about what they are doing with the NDDC, giving room for so many speculations.
 
But I want to assure you that the people are not resting; we will continue to call for the Board to be reconstituted and substantive appointments made into it, for the NDDC to be managed the way it should be managed, with fair representation, and that the current sole administrator should be audited and the forensic audit itself go through another audit.

There appears to be a conspiracy of silence, as some stakeholders and top government officials from the region are hardly pushing hard enough on this NDDC matter?
 
That is true, because the government officials and other major groups from the region, who should have been at the forefront are rarely heard.  
 
For government officials, probably we can understand their position, as politics in this country is not about sticking out for the people, but what you want to get. So, there should be a reason why the government officials are keeping quiet now. If you want to retain your job, or get a ticket to return or for a position, you have to be quiet.
 
But what about other ethnic groups? It is mainly the INC and IYC that have been pushing, as if there are no other groups, to the extent that a governor accused us and asked if we are the only people in the region, that we are behaving as if we own the Niger Delta.
 
The Ijaw have never said they own the region or kicked against appointment given to a fellow Niger Deltan, but if they say we are shouting and crying over the issues dear to us, we have no regret doing so, because in every system, leadership must be provided by some people, who feel they are more concerned. 

What is your assessment of the Presidential Amnesty Programme (PAP) and calls for it to be scrapped over corruption allegations?
 The amnesty programme had a plan to principally rehabilitate ex-militants by taking them off the street, train them and reintegrate them into society. It is like right of passage, so to speak.
 
The first step, which is disarmament, we can say, recorded some level of success, because some militants surrendered their arms and pledged not to get involved again.
 
The first four years of the programme witnessed some successes, because there was massive training of some of the ex-agitators at home and abroad.
 
The issue is whether those persons, who had been trained, have been re-absorbed into society. What changes did these persons attain, because the essence of education is to provide change, and that is where the programme has failed.
 
First and foremost, you give N65,000 to people after training. From practical experience, I discovered that these guys don’t value the money, and they have no reason to value the money, because it is a take away for nothing; it’s some kind of allowance that is not built on anything. So, they place less value on it and see themselves as unemployed. 
 
I spoke to a few of them and told them the N65,000 is almost equivalent to what is earned by a graduate in the public/civil service, who goes to work 9a.m. to 5p.m. unlike them that stay at home and get the money at the end of the month. Some of them said they thought those people (graduates) earn about N300,000.
 
The greater part of what needed to be done, which is to fine-tune the psychology of these people to understand that there is dignity in labour, was left out. There should have been places where these people are re-integrated into society and the economy expanded, so that, as they are coming in, whatever they have learnt is put to use or practice.   
 
It is not a matter of government providing all the jobs; that is not possible, but government can provide enabling environment, aggregate them into cooperatives and get a place they can practice what they have learnt and designate certain jobs from companies to be given to them and before you know it, they will have become employers of labour, instead of giving individuals starter packages, etc.
 
In-between, the management of the amnesty programme has been a major problem. If all the monies meant for it had actually gone into the programme, we would have seen a lot of difference. But you hear of billions in funds and equipment being looted.
 
Be that as it may, it does not warrant scrapping. The beauty of the programme is that for so many persons that were carrying arms, it has been able to identify them and made them to surrender those arms. Now, government should do the needful. 
 
It is a systemic failure that has caused all of these. So, the solution is to look at the system and correct whatever needs to be corrected.
 
Before, you could have ‘one leader’ with over 700 persons in his payroll. He collects the N65,000 on their behalf and pays them peanuts. It was a circle of poverty and marginalisation. The so-called leader enriched himself, while the system and the boys suffered and at the least temptation, the boys are back to what they should have come out from.
 
These are some of the reforms the present administration of the programme, led by the Interim Coordinator, Col. Milland Dikio, is undertaking to ensure that they have direct contact with the beneficiaries by moving from one place to the other. 
 
In those days, the beneficiaries were required to go to Abuja to collect the money, but this time around, Dikio goes to the villages in the affected states to meet with the people physically and interact with them.
 
That is why while many people say the amnesty leadership is doing well, some other persons are calling for the scrapping of the programme, because he has also successfully blocked their sources of corruptly enriching themselves and they are shouting very loud that the programme should be scrapped.
 
It is not that the problems are not there, but at least there is some level of civility in the management of the programme and things are much better than they used to be.

Why did it take so long to reform or sanitise the programme, after all, it is Niger Delta people that have always headed PAP. Why are they shortchanging them?
We will not take the blame, because we did not elect or appoint the persons that managed the programme. These people were appointed by Abuja (the Federal Government) and so their allegiance was to Abuja and not the Niger Delta people.
 
You will be surprised that there are people feeding very fat from this agency, as with the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC). The NDDC’s major contracts are not handled by people from the Niger Delta region, but by people from outside. It is the same way that over 80 per cent of the oil blocs are awarded or allocated to people from outside the region. 
 
They say, ‘oh, your people are heading,’ but we know that these people are appointed in such a manner that they must play along with Abuja; their loyalty is to the person that brought them. 
 
For somebody studying or working abroad, he is told, ‘o boy come, my friend is in the Villa, bring your CV,’ and the next day he is appointed to the board, even without knowing or being to his village. What do you expect from such a person?
 
So, when you say our people, what contribution or input did the Niger Delta people make in their appointment? Were they appointed for us or for those who appointed them? Most of the appointments are for them and not for us, and majority of the heavy contracts go to them (the appointers). 

Do you think the signing of the amended Electoral Law by President Muhammadu Buhari will save the country from electoral malpractices?
Nigeria is not bereft of good laws and policies. There is nothing new, as far as I am concerned. All what are there have been said in different forms, maybe the good thing now is having them as electoral laws.
 
Going forward is the issue of implementation. The question to ask is: Has this government been faithful to even its own agreements? If we go by what has happened in the past with other promises and laws, are they ready to keep to their own side of the bargain? 
 
For me, I am not celebrating anything, because I think that the fundamental issue has not been addressed, that issue is restructuring. Until the country is restructured, if you take an angel on loan from God to come and govern Nigeria under the present dispensation and structure, things will not work out.
 
I thought that rather than rolling out laws and policies, we should have a confab or if possible implement the report of the 2014 confab and streamline things, so that whoever that comes would be working with a good structure. 

 
The 1999 Constitution has not helped us in any way. That is why the Constitution, as it concerns local government creation, has given a section of the country an advantage in number, so that anything the North feels uncomfortable with coming from the South will be dead on arrival.
 
Look at the Petroleum Industry Act (PIA) and others, you can see that our people are in very acute minority and most of them are very vulnerable, because they owe their return tickets, positions and relevance to Abuja and the North.

Even that PIA appears to be in limbo. Do you see any hope that it will be fully implemented, especially given what happened about subsidy removal?
For me, the only interest in the PIA was that when they said regulate the oil industry, it was so that there will be firmer grip on the oil companies as to what comes to them and all that. That is just it; it is not about the host communities. They are not interested in what happens to host communities. 
 
So the people, who were pushing for the PIA were never interested in how it improves the host communities, but how it can guarantee their own equity share. I don’t see the PIA getting implemented any day soon.

Has the Niger Delta people given up on what comes to host communities?
No! That is why the advocacy is on. Things are going in phases. For now, there seems to be some level of silence, because the minister said he was holding town hall meetings with the people, assuring them that things will happen. They are just giving him time. At some point, there will be a complete evaluation of what has gone in and what is coming out, and we will see the reactions then.