Dokubo: Niger Delta needs to take good advantage of opportunities we are given
The Amnesty Office has been saddled with task of making peace with aggrieved youths in the Niger Delta, through vocational and academic engagements. In this encounter with Prof. Charles Quaker Dokubo, Special Adviser to the President and Coordinator of the Amnesty Programme, he reveals why the Ijaw have more beneficiaries in the programme, his strategies to change the narratives, funding challenges, and why the region must be active in national politics. He spoke to IGHO AKEREGHA, Abuja Bureau Chief.
• Why Ijaw Ex-Militants Dominate Amnesty Programme
You have been in office for about one year and four months, what are the challenges and successes so far?
I came into this office with a mindset that I will like to make a difference to the programme. After reading about the programme and going through the various ideas that have been developed by those who were in-charge before me, I said I will make a difference. The first thing I did was to set up a committee to look into the progress of Amnesty, what they have done right and where they went wrong. I didn’t want to castigate or investigate anybody, I just wanted to do my own thing because my position has always been that they did it their own way and I want to do it my own way and I believe my own way would be better than all what they’ve done.
I also think there were a lot of time wasted in razzmataz and all those things. I promised to look at the programme and to know where it will greatly impact on the lives of the Niger Delta people. Thank God, I came in during the period of re-integration where they were nursing post-conflict societies back to health, providing post-conflict peace building and other associated relief to communities that have been torn apart by conflict.
My plan was on how we could reintegrate these people and to ensure that if we nurse them back to society, they would not relapse again to conflict they are accustomed to. That was why I decided to put all efforts into the reintegration. But it was not an easy task in the sense that most of the structures that have been set up for integration like vocational trainings were not completed. They were at different stages of completion when I took office. But for me, I decided to start with that one in Kaiama. I went to Kaiama, met people and did my first empowerment programme there. This is because of the symbolic nature of the Kaiama declaration and for me to see those who were there when it all happened so that I could buy them in on what I intend doing.
From there, I moved on with the roadmap of the programme and I saw that Agadagba was abandoned. I couldn’t stand aside to ignore that place where a lot of money had been spent and expenditures incurred in contract award to people. My strategy is to monitor the first 15 per cent paid out for any contract, you do it to a particular level, meeting a particular milestone and then, we would come and look at it. If you have expended that amount of money for more than 15 per cent, it would mean you have the capacity to uphold the contract. There are some places where monies were paid 90 per cent and the work was not even completed. I have to justify expending and also finishing because it is for the Niger Delta people.
I am not looking at personalities. I try to depersonalise and depoliticize issues so that any development plan could have a direct impact on the people. That is why I held on to Agadagba. Agadagaba is where we have levels of people in vocational training, so that they would be absorbed into the oil and gas industry that is a prime industry in our region. I completed that project with the best of instrumentations and engineers from abroad who did everything.
I was always asking myself that how come that all these years with a lot of money expended in the programme there is nothing to show for it, apart from the over-dependency by our people on the N65, 000 monthly stipend. That, in as much as it is necessary does not advance our people’s development. That was why I took the part of completing the structure that was left uncompleted so that our people could go into trainings in required and targeted areas.
You know that there are people who have been in the programme before who have worked with the office and who believe that with the way I was going, it will stop them from getting the money they always had. But you know, coming from an environment like mine, I didn’t understand that there are vested interests whose source of livelihood was collecting money without providing solutions. And coming from my background, I defy all those logic and I try to do the right thing. That is why you are seeing all those clamour and disagreement.
The belief is that Niger Delta is only for one set of people but my appointment defied that in the sense that it showed that wherever you come from in the Niger Delta, you can attain this high office and do the right thing for the people. But the sense of entitlement that pervades the thinking of our people were such that it was a battle to be fought and won. I tried my best to deal with that issue of entitlement. My appointment has not even been accepted by a certain part of the Niger Delta and it is also a challenge because everything you do would be given different colouration because they believe that you don’t belong.
For instance, I don’t think anyone is more Niger Deltan than myself but when the President visited Yenagoa, the only thing some people demanded was for their son be appointed as the Special Adviser to the President on Niger Delta and that shows the level of exclusion politics. Even though I am Ijaw, they believe that if you are not from Bayelsa where you can control this office, you can never be a Niger Deltan. For me, it is a challenge but I was able to face it headlong. It is either you do it my way or you go to the highway and that is why all these issues of blackmail and petitions are coming. I don’t mind petitions, but if you do that, you should also give reasons based on facts and examples.
From what you are saying, you are experiencing opposition from within; to what extent does that impact your work?
From the position that I have taken from the beginning that I will do a good job here, whatever the opposition, I will try to buy them in and convince them for the betterment of the whole of Niger Delta people. And also to remove that sense of entitlement, that anybody from the Niger Delta area could be in charge of this programme.
There is controversy regarding the projects you did in Kaiama, which was later vandalised and became a subject of investigation. What is the update?
The update is that investigation would soon be concluded on that matter. What actually happened was, I was in Port Harcourt, where we wanted to hold a meeting with some people in the Niger Delta to start the Kaiama vocational training center. We sent letters of invitation to a lot of people to grace the occasion because since that place was built, they have been using it as a warehouse. Any empowerment programme you want to do in any part of the Niger Delta, you go there and pick materials to give to those to be empowered. But to me, right from the period I was appointed, I questioned the rationale behind the siting of that project in Kaiama.
They said kaiama was where Isaac Adaka Boro was born, so there must be a project. But I have a different view. For instance, we have airports in this country named after people who were not even born in those places. For me, the siting of that project from the beginning was planned to fail. Kaiama is secluded from the entire Bayelsa State. We were getting prepared to go to Kaiama and launch the project. All my staff was already in Port Harcourt, ready for the last lap of our journey to Kaiama. Then a day before that, we received an alarm that people were vandalising the place, and I called my Chief Security Officer to go there with troops to see what was happening. The troops were there a day before I got there. On arrival, the people I saw at the front of the gate were more than 5,000, carting things away and they are from Kaiama and its environs. When I got into the place after security clearance, I addressed them that no person in his right state of mind would destroy what belongs to the people. I told them they don’t have to destroy what is for them. Almost everything was destroyed including toilet seats, which were removed. I have never seen that type of wanton destruction ignited by people against themselves.
Why was it done a day before your event?
I don’t want to make guesses, but there was story at that time that President Buhari was coming to visit Bayelsa. For me, I believe that it was a political plan by the opposition to mar the visit of the President and to bring the integrity of this Office to question. Why didn’t they destroy the place when the person they believe was their son was running this place? They believe that someone is now here to block where they get money. We are trying to do things in the right way so it could benefit everyone not individuals. Most of the people who come to my office talk about individuals; only few people talk about the issues of the Niger Delta people. That is disturbing. There was also a complaint then from our people that their stipend was not paid.
When I came into this office, because of the crisis that followed my appointment, the account of this Office was blocked for more than two months. I was running this Office from the goodwill of people who are our friends. But when they released money, those people whose stipends were not paid for two months, I paid everything at once so that we could clear the backlog. To me, the most important expenditure of this Office is that you must pay stipend and school fees.
The people investigating the incident have given us a preliminary report, but I think before the end of this week, they will give us the full report. I don’t want to jump the gun to say something that would be prejudicial. When the report comes out, we will have a press conference and I will deliver it to the National Security Adviser, and the Inspector General of Police, because I know that people would be arrested.
It may be taking too long, but I am not the one doing the investigation. The right authority is doing it. Whatever it is, Nigerians will see what really happened in Kaiama.
Instead of paying stipend, what else does this Office do to change the Niger Delta narrative?
The programme is geared towards that but there are challenges on that path. There is this entrenched sense of sitting at home and being given N65, 000. I don’t want to say how it sounds to other Nigerians because the mentality of ‘we own the oil’ is always there. For me, every Niger Delta person who wants to be educated should be educated. People have been sent offshore and onshore for education, they are in vocational training schools and have been empowered so that they can carry on with their lives. I think the most important thing that I have decided to do is that all these structures that have been left at different levels of completion will be completed and that Niger Delta could be a place where people would be trained in all facets of life and they will go out there and earn money. Slow but surely, we will get there.
There are other states in the Niger Delta who have accused the Ijaw people of monopolising the amnesty programme to benefit more Ijaw thereby shutting others out. How true is this?
The people saying that do not understand the nature of the Amnesty Programme. Those of them who were at the forefront of the fight and those who accepted amnesty at that time were the initial beneficiaries of the programme. And that is why they have an advantage. They were at the forefront of the fight. At that time, when the Federal Government declared the amnesty programme, many of them were scared; they did not come for documentation. It was those who documented themselves that are part of the amnesty programme. And my Office does not have the right to include or exclude anybody. Being a member of the amnesty programme depends on presidential proclamation and budgetary expansion, which are all beyond my power. So when people say all sort of things, it means they do not understand the nature of the programme. I have met the Deputy Governor of Ondo state that they carried out a statewide programme of disarming militants. Yes, they could have done that but until the President proclaims them, I cannot include them in the program. They are part and parcel of the Niger Delta. It is not a point of exclusion or inclusion.
What will happen if people who are still carrying arms in the Niger Delta decide to surrender them and key into the amnesty programme, would they be absorbed?
That is beyond me. I have received a letter from the Cross River state Governor that we should allow their people into the training and they will pay the stipends. If you are bringing new people into the programme, you should know that it will affect the budget of the programme. I even promised the Ondo people that we could bring some of them into the training to benefit if they could pay them the stipend.
What is the future of program in the next one year?
The programme will be so streamlined that it would give room for more training and it would be training by institutions so that those who are trained would be certificated. We will develop the trainings in such a way that when they are done, they would make no claim to amnesty again because they have been empowered. It could be a huge task for the region that have been so used to depending on stipends. I have seen incidents where some of them reject jobs of N50, 000 because the stipends being paid to them for just sitting at home is N65, 000. They do not think that they could be promoted on the job depending on their performances where they would earn more. If you look at all parts of the federation, there is no region that has many development agencies like the Niger Delta. If all these agencies can work in concert to do a roadmap for the Niger Delta, things will be better off. If we don’t do that, we might have nothing to show for it in future.
The activities of International Oil Companies in the Niger Delta have been stable for some time now; don’t they have a role to play in the amnesty programme?
We are trying to draw them in because if we are creating an environment that is stable enough for them to carry out their activities, then it is more than just a corporate social responsibility for them to also key into the programme. We are adopting the policy of moral suasion that they should look at it in those terms. It all depends on the people around you and how you feel their pulse. If the people start to see the little bit of benefit you can be to them, I think the oil companies will continue to stay there and do their business. The Federal government is bent on maintaining and stabilising the Niger Delta. They carried out these projects because the Niger Delta people have for a long time been ignored and now the government is paying a lot of attention to the region. I believe that if this programme is well structured and carried out the way I want to do it, a time will come that stipends will take the back seat and training would be available for everyone in the Niger Delta.
What will you say is your biggest disappointment?
I think I will say it is a challenge, not disappointment and it is about the way our people see this office. This office is supposed to provide guidelines on how the Niger Delta should be. We have sent some of them abroad to get education but what I am saying is if you can train our people and give them skills, there are a lot of jobs they could get. For better results, I have set up a job placement unit in my office, working with international organisations and local ones so that those who have been trained could fit into the demand of industries so that we can make arrangement with these companies to take them in. It is important that those who have been empowered by the programme also exit the programme. I don’t think it is advancement for someone to still be collecting stipends after being empowered. That is not good enough. We are not lazy people and can do things every other Nigerian do. We need to be on equal terms with other Nigerians.
How would you resolve the perception of people in the region who believe that with or without the amnesty programme, they are entitled to some form of social security?
If you look at other countries around the world where they do have oil, it doesn’t mean that people do not go to work. What we can do is to see how our people will get the required skills and training to fit into some of these companies operating in the Niger Delta. When our people have these skills, the companies would give them preference because they are from the Niger Delta. The states in the Niger Delta should handle the issue of social welfare. The states are one of the pivotal areas where development can also start. Let the state play their role while the amnesty office also do theirs. In fact, the states should even support the amnesty program in certain areas so that people could be given the best of trainings.
What is the relationship between your office and the Ministry of Niger Delta, which also has the mandate to address development gaps in the region?
The last time I was with the Minister of Niger Delta, I told him we needed to start working together. If anybody thinks that he has a kingdom of his own without liaising with others then we will have a situation of duplication or doing things at cross purposes. I think he was happy when I brought up the issue. So once the system stabilises, that is the next step we will take. The NDDC, Ministry of Niger Delta and Amnesty Office have their roles to play. I believe that a good relationship between the three will bring out a positive result.
Some say there is funding challenges to implement the amnesty mandate. What is the true situation?
We only draw a budget here and government has the right to approve it. They have always given us whatever they approved. We might say that it is not enough but this government has done everything we gave them to do. And amnesty has been given priority by the government. People are just blaming the federal government but the fault is on the people who have not used the opportunities we have been given. We need to be people centered and shun looking at individuals. If we move above how to deal with the people in the Niger Delta by addressing their needs, the region would be better off.
When will this programme come to an end?
Government decides when it is going to end. I did not put myself here. Government will tell me what they want to do and at that time, who am I to question government’s decision?
There are fresh threats to peace across the country and the Niger Delta is also affected. Do you think this will pose a challenge to your work?
What I will tell you is that, wherever there is conflict and effort is made at resolving that conflict, factions would emerge because they would want to be noticed in the table of decision-making. The government understands that but I think they are capable of handling the threats. Any country where there is a conflict and you are trying to resolve it, there would always be factions. Groups spring up everyday with different names and I deal with those things in this Office. The strategic vision is that we want peace in our place so that we can go home and rest.
Will you revisit or review the kaiama project after the investigation?
It would be reviewed but it would never be a warehouse again because even now the structure could be defective. Let the structure be for training as it was designed from the beginning for those who can go there and get trained. The vocational training center in Bomadi is also coming up soon. In the next few months we will launch it. This government has given succor and provided resources for the Niger Delta agencies. We must put that in mind. It is not out to deceive the Niger Delta people. I want people in the region to look at the benefit of being part of the central government. We can also be at the core and center of politics in Nigeria. We must play our politics right and do the needful so that we are not marginalised. If the Niger Delta people could have that focus, we will all go to our home happy.