interviewBy Kola Niyi Eke
Delta State is one the states adversely affected by the recent flood disasters across Nigeria. In this interview with Kola Niyi-Eke, Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan describes the efforts and measures his administration has taken to help flood victims. He also calls for more focused approach to the issue of environmental preservation in order to avoid such occurences in future.
How has the government been able to contain the flood disaster?
Briefly, relocating the flood victims took us a lot of time and money. Although, there was money from the Nigeria Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), we had to quickly act before any disaster occurred instead of lamenting. So, what we did was to set up a committee. Before them, I started the initial assessment of the areas which enabled me to get an overview of the situation. As soon as we finished with assessment, we had to evacuate people that were affected from their various communities. Evacuating them was not easy; I had to talk to them that we will open camps to offer them as temporary accommodation from the rage of nature, but some of them were reluctant to come to the camp. Some of them were hanging on tress to survive and some on the roof tops. In fact, some of them occupied Benin-Asaba-Onitsha expressway. This was very touchy because they were looking hopeless. Hence, the first thing we thought of was that we should provide them shelter, food, water, blankets, mattresses, medics and other necessary things they would need to survive. The schools we renovated were meant for our children to go back to schools, but now, they are being used for another thing because we used schools mostly as our camps.
Some of the displaced people do not have any job to do, hence no money to cater for their other needs; what are you doing in this direction?
Of course, it is something we are going to be very serious with because it affects so many local government areas. It affected 14 local governments in total. Meanwhile, managing the entire camp was not easy because it requires me personally to take charge. Initially, people underrated the situation but immediately they realised it was something serious, the support they gave was very massive. We have received support from everywhere on food, clothes and other necessary things and some have started coming to give psychological support (which is very important) to the displaced people. Now, back to the question you asked that, what are we doing for the victims? First of all, we have to fumigate those affected communities. And don't forget that, as water comes, so it brings animals like snakes and insects. So, we started the fumigation of those places without delay. Also, as assessment was going on, I called on the academic community, the Vice-Chancellor of Delta State University, to stop academic activities. They also gave us advice on various areas that concern housing, agriculture, empowerment and the affected areas in the school which we called out the Technical Committee and Committee on Implementation because of the fund from government. And I can say to you that we have not touched a dime from it because I want to use it to assist the displaced persons when they are going back to their various homes or when they have gone back home. Based on my own layman assessment, these are places that the displaced people cannot go back to because it is very dangerous. So, those assessments are going on, on how to help them to go back to where they want to go back to. We have to embark on building of houses for them. And as they depart the camp, we are considering giving them something little like N5,000 or N10,000 just for them to start a business. I'm happy that the Federal Government is also intervening in the area o agriculture, so we all work together for good of the displaced people.
What lesson has the government learnt from this; and how are you trying to equip your environmental or emergency department to prevent or contain any such future occurrences?
What has happened to them is unexpected, so they must be in bad psychological state. It is our responsibility to try and make them understand that we will do our best. And what we are offering you is not maximum comfort; it is the minimum that you can get. And there is no way we can do beyond what we are doing now. I visited those places to make sure they are well taken care of. And that has also helped me in managing the situation. We met two to three times in a week - all the leaders of various camps; we meet for four or five hours for them to give report on what is going on in each camp. Apart from the general report I get to any of the camps, I try and address them because when you look at their faces whenever they see me, it is like God has come: this is the man that will solve all our problems and it has become a big burden on me. Just imagine thousands of people depending on me. It is a very pathetic situation. Sometimes, to address them, I had to stand on top of a pick-up van so that I can see their faces and it was quite an experience for me because I was moved to tears as I saw the body language of Deltans whose only hope of survival is on what I will do for them as governor. I've seen many terrible things in life and politics, but it was nothing to compare to the issue of flooding.
On what lesson I've learnt, I think one of the big lessons I learnt was that we need to take issue of our environment and climate change more serious. As a state government and one of the governors in the forefront, we are really sensitizing people on the effect of climate change, but unfortunately, I must say, on environmental issues, the nation has failed us. Not only in Nigeria, it is all over the world. They have failed us. There is environmental summit every year or two years where they try to sign one document or the other, but none has been able to agree on how to tackle the environmental challenges. It is until the world comes together to say this is what to do about environment and control each country's pollution that we could experience reduction in the effect of climate change. If the world did not agree on how to work together on it, we will continue to experience this because a lot of climate change issues are manmade over the years.
On what we have done so far, even before this money came, there are two things; one is having an assessment of the level of the environmental damage that the flood has caused; second is to try to see how we can deal with the damage. And don't forget the damage includes pollution, extensive damage to farms and I can say categorically today that, in Nigeria, the only internationally acceptable statistics is the one done by NEMA. We cannot just present any statics to the international body. So, what we have done is to see how we can first of all have our statistics acceptable. We have partnered with United Nations on one of their programmes on the climate change effects. They are in the process of coming to evaluate the level of damage on Deltans. It is a year study and we would now move to the next stage on how to restructure. In terms of preparation for disaster, I will say we prepare better in the state. We want to deal with the issue of displaced persons (give them shelter); we want to deal with the issue of technical support; we want to deal with the issue of psychological support. We are prepared on all fronts, especially on medical facilities. We are using one of the camps to install medical needs. However, I have told my officials that everything we are doing should be properly documented. At the end of the day, we would come out with strategy for managing flood disaster in the future.
What is the next step after the flood?
What has happened is a pathetic situation and what we are trying to do is how we can assist them minimally. There is no way we can give them the best. We will keep them in camp as long as possible. There is no way I will ask them to leave the camp because they do not have money. Again, these are human beings, but as the water subsides, we will try and prepare their communities for them to go back, but the communities that are no more liveable, we will find shelter for them. There is an area you probably did not pick up. The initial plan was shelter; we are more concerned about shelter, and they are moving to other needs. That is the challenge in the camps as reported in our last meeting. I also have to work out on strategy to deal with it.
So far, how much has the Delta State government spent on the situation?
I wish I knew the exact amount. I cannot tell you off-hand now. As my brother over there said: it is not what we budgeted for, but what kept us was that we had budget for disaster. What we do is that we do oversight on minor disasters and we get support of material things from people, like food and all that. Philanthropists and public spirited organisations have come to our aid by bringing relief materials but I do not want to collect money from anybody; I allow them to buy things with their money and bring to us. Even the N500 million, we kept it till when we were ready, but I know, on a daily basis, we spend N2.2 to N2.5 million on all the camps. What I did was that some areas that I see that the flood might stay longer, I try to remove them from classrooms so that the classrooms will be available for students' tuse.
As a medical doctor, will you say your profession prepared you for this?
Yes! Being a medical doctor actually prepared me for emergencies like this. Though I have seen several emergencies in my professional career, I have never seen such a calamity happening to people. The large number of those who are affected in a way affects me too as human who has feelings.
How do you intend to protect the oil facilities despite threats?
For the issue of the summit journalists have always referred to, the problem was that there have been a lot of reports and what the people of the Niger Delta are saying is that all those reports should be collated and a visible agenda set, such that whatever is to be done in the Niger Delta, when to do it, who to do it and when to do it, and how to do it are adequately tackled. That is what the people of the Niger Delta are saying. It is not as if they do not want a summit. We will continue to talk to one another. There has to be a continuous dialogue. As a state governor, I believe that once this kind of dialogue goes on, we will be able to work out a roadmap for the Niger Delta region. But for us as a state government, we believe that the issue of political inclusion and economic development, which we are doing, are the two key factors that will bring peace to the Niger Delta. Economic development will involve infrastructure Development, Human Capital Development and these will also attract investors to the area. So that is the strategy and the way we are going. On the MEND threat, it is unfortunate because over the years we have tried to put up structures that will ensure that we have peace and security, and facilities, especially the oil facilities. If any group is trying to destroy such facilities, that will be very, very unfortunate, and we want to appeal that such threats are not necessary.
In Delta State, we have our youths who have been helping us to maintain peace and security. I am reaching out to them and also alerting the Joint Task Force (JTF), which is the military task force overseeing the security of that area. I am also reassuring the people of Delta State generally to provide adequate security, especially for the workers and oil facilities.
What is this 'Delta Beyond Oil' all about?
Delta State and this government have made tremendous investments for which generations' yet unborn will have a legacy. We have taken deliberate steps to remove our focus from dependence on oil revenue to non-oil sources with the Delta Beyond Oil philosophy.
This Delta Beyond Oil dream has led to the building of massive critical infrastructure to attract huge investments to the state. Today, we are happy to say that Delta State is and will be the ultimate investment destination. These investments will no doubt create huge employment opportunities but will definitely not provide social amenities such free healthcare or free education to Deltans. So as good as these dreams may seem to be, there still exists a gap, if in doing all this we do not make a consciencious decision to sustain and guarantee this dream.
To guarantee and sustain this Delta Beyond Oil Project, and for this to have all-round positive impact in the society, government must begin to think ahead of ways by which they will tap into these huge potential by sustaining an upward trend in the internally generated revenue (IGR) to enable government provide the much needed social services.
It is the desire to fill this gap that has led the state government to be proactive; being proactive simply means we should begin to think 20-40yrs ahead and build those critical infrastructure that will support the Delta Beyond Oil philosophy and sustain a continuous growth in the state's IGR.