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‘FG committed to cleaning up Ogoni, Niger-Delta’

By KELVIN EBIRI
04 June 2016   |   2:55 am
I think it’s important to look at the backdrop. First of all it was a campaign promise he made before coming into office. I think you know that it took some time before the cabinet actually came into place.
Mrs. Amina Mohammed,

Mrs. Amina Mohammed,

Minister of Environment Mrs. Amina Mohammed, after the flag-off of the Ogoni clean-up yesterday spoke with journalists in Port Harcourt on federal government’s commitment to clean-up the Ogoni and Niger Delta environment. KELVIN EBIRI who was there, reports

Why has it taken President Buhari up to one year to flag-off this controversial, delayed project?
I think it’s important to look at the backdrop. First of all it was a campaign promise he made before coming into office. I think you know that it took some time before the cabinet actually came into place. Even at that, there were various processes that looked at what had happened before, and where we had stopped so we could know where to continue from. I think it’s important that one looks at what had happened in the past so you learn lessons on what not to do in the future and plan for success. We came into office in November and very quickly attended the climate change conference that lasted two weeks. So at the end of that conference, coming back in December, one of the first things we did was come straight to Ogoni land to see what this is about because it was one of Mr President’s campaign promises. A lot happened since then including reaching out to the UNEP who had done the report, asking them to come and review it; looking at the processes that had taken place in the last government and then actually visiting the area to see what in fact needed to be done. This year has been all about getting the stakeholders back on board. There has been a lot of mistrust, and we have been making this promise for decades, and I think that this government is about going to where the problem is and not everybody trooping to Abuja to make their complains. So we have spent a lot of time here: engaging with people, work with their expectations: what has gone wrong in the past, how do we get people back on board, etc? This is not a prescription by the federal government. It’s a collaborative effort to try to get the Niger-Delta cleaned, and to start from Ogoni land.

Why did the President choose the fish pond of Numuu Tekuru village as the flag-off spot where he commissioned a project 27 years ago?
We didn’t choose the site because the President had an instance to be there to commission another project so many years ago. It is a coincidence that we found out when we went to look at two, three sites, that there is one. It’s actually the best site. It shows the creeks and the damage done to the mangrove, and to the water-ways. It shows how a livelihood has been killed off by oil pollution. It was also accessible; you have to look at all sorts of factors when you are choosing a site. So I don’t think that the premise of choosing a site was the person going there before, but I do believe that the coincidence has served us well because it does show you that some years ago, when things were so prosperous, we could commission livelihood from fish farming. It reminds us that we didn’t have to go down there with security like you saw we had to do today.  The difference is clear, and I think opportunity comes once again for us to right the wrong of the past and make it clear that the investments in the Niger-Delta, starting with Ogoni land, should restore the ecosystem as it should be.

Apart from restoring the Ogoni environment, what else can an ordinary Ogoni man benefit from the clean-up exercise?
I think that it is a very big benefit to know that you can now drink and eat and breathe cleaner air than you were doing in the past; things that you and I take for granted are not things that can be taken for granted in Ogoni land. I think the second thing is that once we keep the Niger-Delta and Ogoni land clean, that’s about giving alternatives to what has happened now and giving a future to young people, especially women, and young men. So we will be looking at the livelihoods. We will be looking at that whole scenario when we talk about the diversification of the economy beyond oil. What do we gain in the Niger-Delta by doing that? There is so much to be done. We can have industrial parks, we can look at fishing, we can look at so many other parts of the ecosystem that can profit, not just everyone in the country because revenue goes into one pot but actually profits the lives of people in there.

So what definite programmes have been planned for the post clean-up?
The first set of programmes is to actually look at the emergency response because in many of these polluted areas, people can’t drink the water. The ground they till for agriculture is poisoned. The toxicity in water and plant and the food we eat, that’s the first thing that we will have to deal with. We said where people are living, remove from the sites that are really toxic and then deal with the water issue.  So, these are some of the first things that will happen. The second is really providing a baseline to understand where we should start. This is a programme that’s going to take 20 – 25 years, so where do we begin the clean up, it’s really important. You just can’t land in one part of the creek and say you are starting to clean. You have to clean where there would be a definite return in that clean up to livelihood. So if you look today at the demonstration site, we thought we could do with the fish ponds that are dead. We said if we revive that, then we have revived fishing opportunity for young people. The other immediate programmes are that we want centre of excellence; the UNEP report promised to that and a laboratory, so, things can be done within us. We can train the expertise; we can do that within the Niger-Delta. So we will be looking to where we position the child, the centre of excellence and where we position the soil labs so that we will begin to do some of the technical work of how to make it sustainable in Bodo. We can clean up what is already there, but in future as some of these accidents happen, some of the third party oil spills that we are seeing, we can deal with them.  The third is that a lot of training has to be done for the work. We want people in the Niger-Delta to benefit from the clean up, and the clean up will happen in different ways in different places; water, soil etcetera. So the training programme for young people will take place, giving them skill sets that they can benefit from those contracts that come to clean up the Niger-Delta.

It is estimated that about $1billion is earmarked for the clean-up.  Is the fund with the federal government or Shell?
Well, the $1billion is a commitment that SPDC (Shell Petroleum Development Company) has made to providing it. So it is with them. What we have done now is to set up governance structures so that we first of all agree on the kind of programme that will take place, and there is a board of trustees that will make sure that those resources for Ogoni land are for use for those recommendations the UNEP Report had done openly and transparently. Those two boards and councils will be constituted after the flag-off, and then all will see how those resources will be used. We hope that we will have a funds manager take care of this money because $1billion is not going to be enough. When we get the $1billion we need to start the job, but we also need to use that to leverage on the funding, from the budget, from other donors, from other opportunities around. You will see that the structure of the council also includes key stakeholders, ministry of Niger-Delta, NDDC (Niger-Delta Development Commission). These are all key stakeholders in the Niger-Delta who are already investing and spending money. So we want better coordination and coherence, and not duplicating but actually adding value to each other’s investment.

What parameters would the Ministry be setting to measure the milestones in the clean-up?
One of the things we observed when we came in was absence of any clear framework for monitoring and evaluation. It is not good for government to set the measurement alone. There must be independent measurement frameworks because Government is always measuring its successes. We have to have independent feedbacks. What we are proposing is involving civil society and experts in framing those measurements and indicators to have the scorecard. That is one of the things the committee would have to design. So the tools we use to frame the indicators will not be designed by government but by those in the outside who will hold us to account when we say this is the target we are setting for the cleanup. To measure and say whether it has been done or not should come from the end-users, those that are going to be impacted by it. There was no such mechanism in the former arrangement.

The clean-up is a huge project that may take long, how will you get all groups to support and participate because the Ogoni issue should transcend politics?
Politics is warped now. It is supposed to be response to your people and their constituency on their challenges. It has changed. We derailed. What politicians say they are doing for their people is far different from what they want today. We have to get back to the issues and reinforce the voice of the people over what they want and what the so-called those representing them get for them. That is why in any place where there is true representation, you find stability and investments going on there. So, it is in doing (it) that we can change how politics is done. We also have to look at how governance is done at the local levels, and institutions that help them to function, not just in Abuja. It is going to take some time, but what we can hope to do is get back on track and lay a solid foundation in he next three years. After that, who we leave behind will determine if the people will find a system where people will demand for a good thing because we did a good thing. If Amina Mohammed leaves and all this crumbles, it would have been a failure. President Buhari has got integrity and experience and we have got experience. We are just pulling all of that together. We do not have all the answers, but if we put the matter on the table and we get the key stakeholders together, it will amaze you where the solution will come from.

What is your message to the Niger Delta and the Ogoni?
There is light at the end of the tunnel. Specifically as we have a president that is delivering on a promise. This is a collective responsibility and we want to get the job done. It cannot be done by me alone or by Mr President alone. All hands must be on deck.