7 November 2012

Nigeria: Needless Bickering Over Oil Wells

Photo: Daily Trust
President Goodluck Jonathan.


The on-going war of words between Rivers and Bayelsa states is threatening to get out of hand, injecting bad blood among neighbours. President Jonathan has called on the communities in both states to stop the media war that has ensued in order for tempers to cool. There appears to be no let-up in the mutual antagonism, however.

This is unfolding just as the federal government is yet to resolve similar acrimony between Anambra and Kogi on one hand and between Cross River and Akwa Ibom states on the other hand on oil blocs located in or adjacent to their jurisdiction.

The current dispute between Rivers and Bayelsa state is all about the ownership of five oil wells (the Soku oil wells ) located at Kula, Soku, Ehem-Sarama, Idama and Abose communities of Rivers state, but which the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission ( RMAFC ) declared belong to Bayelsa state, 'for now', in line with the December 2000 report of the Presidential Committee on the Verification of oil wells, and the Supreme Court judgment of July 10, 2012. The apex court had ruled that "until the National Boundary Commission concludes its exercise of delineation of the disputed boundary to finality, it would be futile and premature to determine the boundary of the two states in present circumstance", and directed that proceeds accruing from the oil wells be paid into an escrow account, pending the resolution of the boundary dispute.

The five oil wells in contention currently produce 300,000 barrels daily, yielding several billions of naira in derivation. However, what has rekindled the dispute was the recent allegation by Rivers state governor, Rotimi Amaechi that the Federal Government last month violated the Court's order by releasing N17bn from proceeds of Soku Gas plant in Akuku-Toru LGA of Rivers state to Bayelsa state. Amaechi's statement was followed by series of protests last week by monarchs and elders of Rivers State's Kalabari community, who stormed Abuja to express their anger directly to President Jonathan who they accused of taking sides with his home state in the matter. The Kalabari occupy three local governments of Akuku-Toru, Asari-Toru and Degema. The community leaders traced the origins of the dispute to the period when Jonathan was deputy governor of Bayelsa state. The Presidency and Bayesla state government have rejected insinuations that Jonathan was behind the dispute. Governor Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa State asserted that the oil wells do not belong to Rivers state, stressing that, "Bayelsa was only trying to reclaim" what he said belong to it in line with the 11th edition of the administrative map of Nigeria, published in 2000.

This is indeed a delicate matter that demands equally delicate handling. If the NBC has not determined the ownership of the oil wells in line with the Court's ruling, it is clearly premature for Bayelsa to stake claims to them.

If it is true that the president approved transfer of money to Bayelsa State from the Court-sanctioned escrow account, the legality of such a procedure would appear to be problematic, and Rivers State was right to challenge it. But it should have gone to court to challenge Jonathan's action. Beyond that however, an amicable interim resolution to the problem is essential before it snowballs to something else. The NBC should hasten the delineation of the borders between the states as a long-term solution.

Littoral status of states, it needs re-emphasis, cannot be determined merely by the wishes of politicians. History have shown how nations threatened war over such matters, not just for trying to claim oil resources, as in the Sudan/South Sudan imbroglio but even in situations where such lands are uninhibited (as in the case of China and Japan fighting for the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands); or where no known natural resources exist (as in the fight between Ethiopia and Eretria over barren strip of border fields). Luckily in the current instances it is constituent units of a country that are involved. It is therefore the duty of the Federal government to help in the speady resolution of the problem without getting sucked into it. The president needs also to demonstrate even-handedness and leadership in encouraging both states to reach a reasonable-and legally sound-settlement.

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