This Day (Lagos)

Nigeria: Mixed Reactions Trail S'court Judgment On 76 Oil Wells

Photo: Africa Undisguised
Oil rig in Nigeria

After years of legal wrangling, the Supreme Court in a landmark ruling Tuesday reinforced Cross River State's status as a non-littoral state, declaring therefore, that it was not entitled to 76 offshore oil wells, as they were no longer part of the state's maritime territory.

Cross River has been in court against its neighbour, Akwa Ibom State for four years over the 76 oil wells which were excised from its territory after the Bakassi Peninsula was ceded to Cameroun and thus robbed it of its status as a littoral state.

Reacting to the judgment, Akwa Ibom State Governor, Godswill Akpabio, while commending the judges for refusing to bow to pressure, said that he was ready for peace with Cross River because of the common history which both states share.

He, however, said Cross River State would have to apologise for spreading lies and propaganda, and for deliberately filling newspapers with stories that were capable of impugning the integrity of the Supreme Court justices and officials of the National Boundary Commission.

His counterpart in Cross River, Governor Liyel Imoke, on the other hand, appealed to the indigenes of the state to remain peaceful, but dismissed the judgment as "merely a temporary triumph of falsehood."

A full panel of the court comprising seven justices headed by the outgoing Chief Justice Nigeria (CJN), Justice Dahiru Musdapher, held that the 76 oil wells were rightly attributed to Akwa Ibom State by the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMFAC) inter-agencies meeting.

But before dismissing the Cross River case, the court brushed aside an application filed by the state last week asking it not to deliver the judgment.

In the lead judgment written by Justice Olufunlola Adekeye, the court held that the agreement which initially allowed Cross River State to have the 76 oil wells had been frustrated by the handing over of the Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroun, following the ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2002.

The court held that the 13 per cent derivation revenue from the 76 oil wells between Akwa Ibom and Cross River States must continue to be attributed to the state on whose maritime territory they were found to be located by the relevant government agencies.

According to Justice Adekeye, Cross River State no longer has any maritime boundary as it was landlocked.

She held that the plaintiff not being a littoral state and not having a maritime boundary or abutting the sea, the 76 oil wells which lie offshore and within a maritime territory, which were the subject matter of the suit, could not be attributed to it.

She said: "The plaintiff has no maritime territory since the cessation of Bakassi Peninsula and the Cross River estuary which used to be part of the state prior to August 2008.

"The present position of the plaintiff cannot be blamed on any government agency, particularly the National Boundary Commission and the RMAFC. The two statutory bodies must perform their statutory duties based on facts and realities to compile the indices for the payment of the derivation revenues to entitled states."

Adekeye ruled that the agreement upon which Cross River based its claim for entitlement to the oil wells had been discharged by frustration, that is, the handover of the Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroun.

She said that the court could not close its eyes to the existing situation and declare that the plaintiff should continue to enjoy the benefits and privileges of a littoral state when it was no longer one by subsequent legal changes.

"This court cannot because of the influx of refugees from Bakassi into Cross River State give a legislative judgment. The government of Nigeria has a means of providing for the social needs of the people of Cross River State faced with the social problems thrust on the state due to the cessation of Bakassi peninsula to the Cameroun," she added.

Adekeye advised the government of Cross River State to explore the avenue of getting the Federal Government to provide for the social needs of the people of the state.

Speaking with journalists at the Governor's Lodge in Abuja, Akpabio described the judgment as "justice for Akwa Ibom and Cross River States, and indeed Nigeria," and expressed the belief that it would strengthen the bond of friendship between the two sister states.

Going down memory lane, Akpabio recalled that before 2005, the oil wells had belonged to Akwa Ibom State and said it was based on the assumption that Cross River State shall access the sea through the administration of Western Bakassi, which the Nigerian government had negotiated with Cameroun.

According to Akpabio, "The issue of the 76 oil wells started in 2005 with a letter from the National Boundary Commission, where the president said that because he was negotiating to have Western Bakassi in Nigeria, the oil wells could be credited to Cross River State, and we had no objection to that because Cross River State is our sister state.

"The issue is that in 2008, Bakassi together with Western Bakassi was finally handed over to Cameroun. After that unfortunate incident, Nigeria without our prompting did the right thing through the National Boundary Commission and the Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Allocation Commission when the oil wells were returned to Akwa Ibom State, where they rightly belonged," he said.

Akpabio added that he had explained to the leadership of Cross River State the futility of going to court as the state not being a littoral state could not have had oil wells in the sea.

He promised to continue to work towards the continued peaceful existence between the two sister states but admonished peddlers of falsehood from within and outside Cross River State to tender an unreserved apology to the Federal Government agencies and their officials whose integrity they had tried to impugn.

Lead counsel to Akwa Ibom State, Mr. Bayo Ojo, hailed the judgment of the Supreme Court, describing it as good for the country.

He maintained that the fact of Cross River State not having a littoral status was a matter established by law and all known international conventions. He commended the Supreme Court for being just and upright.

Reacting to the judgment, Imoke called for calm and reminded the indigenes of Cross River that yesterday's ruling marked another watershed in their struggle for justice in Nigeria and the state's "burning desire to be treated as equal members of this great union, deserving of fairness and equality with our brothers across the country."

He said that as a wronged but law-abiding people, Cross River had hoped for justice that would restore its belief in the timeless saying by the iconic American civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr that 'the arm of the moral universe still bends towards justice'.

"But that was not to be. Nor is it over yet, dear Cross Riverians. With today's Supreme Court judgment, our hope has just been differed. We shall take solace in the legal maxim that 'justice can only be delayed and not denied'," he said.

He reminded the people of Cross River that four years ago when a miscarriage of justice robbed the state of 76 oil wells and handed them over to neighbouring Akwa Ibom State, the people did what they had always been known for.

"We proffered peace over violence. We maintained our peace and dignity even in the face of what could easily have provoked unprecedented violence and reprisals.

"We hoped for justice from the highest court in the land. But our hope was dashed. My dear brothers and sisters, our spirit will never be broken.

"Today, I beseech you to maintain the peace once again. We shall not abandon our peace-loving nature simply because of this temporary setback to our march for justice and fairness," he added.

He described the judgment as merely a temporary triumph of falsehood, adding that he has confidence in the ultimate victory of "good over evil".

He went on to remind indigenes of Cross River that the loss of the oil wells was not the end of life. "It is not a death sentence. Someone can steal your property but they can never steal your soul nor your dignity.

"We remain unshaken in faith that without the oil wells, the journey to expanded prosperity for our citizens will continue with even greater vigour. The Cross River State economy is still one of the fastest growing in the country.

"Cross River State is blessed with so much human and natural resources that the loss of oil revenue cannot stop our march to self-renewal and concrete physical development," he said.

Back in Cross River and Akwa Ibom States, the ruling inflicted pain on one state, just as it brought immense joy to the other. Thus, while the people of Cross River were in shock, the people of Akwa Ibom were in an exultant state and embarked on merry making Tuesday.

The atmosphere in Calabar, the Cross River State capital, was sombre as soon as the news of the judgment hit the city. Many, who felt disappointed, hurriedly closed from work and went home, feeling a great sense of loss after the verdict of the court.

Deputy National Secretary of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), Ofem Okoi Obono-obla, said he was not surprised by the ruling as the apex court could not have ruled otherwise, stressing that Cross River State ceased to be a littoral state once the ICJ adjudged that Bakassi peninsula belonged to Cameroun.

"We lost it in 2002 when the ICJ, in its judgment, held that Bakassi belongs to Cameroun. Without Bakassi, Cross River State cannot be regarded as a littoral state. The elite of the state were too busy pandering to Donald Duke then. The reality has just dawned on us now.

"A state like Cross River State should not bother with owning oil wells. Japan has no oil. Singapore has no natural resources but became an advanced industrialised country within 40 years under the visionary leadership of Lee Kwan Yu. The state is immensely blessed with abundant natural resources.

"The Obudu Mountain Resort can be developed into a leading tourist destination in Africa. The Obudu Mountain Resort is also ideal for cattle and dairy farming," he said

Some respondents from Cross River, however, said the state government should be blamed for the loss of the oil wells, as it did not do its home work ahead of time.

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