Following the resurgence of attacks on oil installations in the Niger Delta, former chairman of the presidential Niger Delta Technical Committee, Ledum Mitee, told KELVIN EBIRI in Port Harcourt that Nigeria cannot afford another conflagration in the Niger Delta, as this would put the economy on bended knees due to dwindling oil revenue. He said the report of his committee still offers credible solution to the Niger Delta problems.
Are you concerned about the renewed attacks on oil facilities in Niger Delta?
Of course, I am. Every well-meaning person should be concerned about a development such as this. At this time of dwindling oil prices, anything that that damages oil facilities is condemnable because it has its adverse effect on not just the country's economy, but also the environment. But beyond this, it portends disquiet in the region. I have always maintained that what seems like several things sustain peace in that region.
In my view, that peace has been sustained by the profound web of patronage through what you call the amnesty payment, outright bribery and appeasement by the international oil companies, service contractors, the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and all of that. Again, what I call outright sabotage of the whole economy of small and medium scale illegal refineries. These are some of the things that have been giving the semblance of peace in the Niger Delta. And so, when something threatens that, it should call for concern.
Could this attacks be linked to the EFCC case against Mr. Government Tompolo and NIMASA?
It is not for me to judge at this stage. Tompolo has addressed that and I have also read his own denial that he is not part of it. I am only giving an interpretation of what is happening. In my view, it is not a resuscitation of what we had in the past, but an indication of how fragile the peace in the Niger Delta is. It only points to an indication of what might happen, if the situation in the Niger Delta is not properly handled. That seems to me more important. And I think we need to be really careful how we handle issues in the Niger Delta. I have made the point consistently and that is the way government should go.
Tompolo has blamed his ordeal on politics. Could this whole brewing crisis be political?
There are certain things I expect government to do and there are certain basic situations we must be sensitive to. We must be sensitive to the political situation in this part of the world. I think we must be aware there is a Niger Delta that is visibly in control of the governors of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and a federal government that is controlled by the All Progressives Congress (APC). So, there is need to be circumspect in dealing with the Niger Delta. I think what the President should try to do is to encourage sensible opposition, as opposed to irresponsible opposition by his party in the Niger Delta.
What I mean is that the APC should adopt a sensible strategy, which shouldn't be wholesale undermining of the governments in the region, because if that is done, things could snowball out of control. The nearest thing that comes to mind now is, if you compare the Lagos State under Olusegun Obasanjo and Bola Tinubu or Rivers State under Goodluck Jonathan and Rivers State in the later years. These were situations of no love lost between the centre and Rivers State. Such a scenario won't help matters in the Niger Delta, so the federal government must be sensitive.
In doing this, there are a whole lot of things the federal government must do. I think if there is an outright undermining of the governments in this area, consciously or unconsciously, the government in the Niger Delta might start reading this to mean the federal government is acting the script of some people, who are also from the Niger Delta, but who they perceive as bitter political rivals. This might make the governments to retreat into some cocoon and that might consciously or unconsciously bring about a siege mentality coming to play.
What is your view on Federal government's warning that it won't fold its arms while oil facilities are being attacked?
The Federal Government must always be sensitive to what the Niger Delta situation is. Warnings do not solve a problem. While no one condones what is happening, I reckon that the dwindling oil prices should make government sensitive to this matter. In dealing with the issue, care must be taken that we do not repeat what happened in the past, when communities were punished because of the activities of a few persons. You cannot, in the course of pursuing a rat, burn down the whole house. Because you are going to make more enemies, if you do that.
What happened then was whole communities were raided because some criminals operated within them. Once you do that, the communities would say these people are not after the bad guys, but are after us because of where we come from. Such action arouses sympathy for the activities of those who ordinarily should be treated as criminals, especially when the communities know that those engaged in the criminal activities are friends with the operatives of the joint task force or the government for instant and all that. Their thinking would be that if tomorrow these parties disagree, their communities would be raided. So they believe this is a crime against the community.
And you now have a situation, where instead of the community being an ally, it has become antagonistic and even protective of the criminals. This is not a war, where you say enemies are here; so let's clear the whole place. Should we, because of the activities of Boko Haram clear all the communities that surround Sambisa forest? That does not make sense in a country like Nigeria. And that is why you have to engage the communities. Fish out the bad guys from the good ones. There should be dialogue or soft power, as opposed to the hard power usually used so that you don't turn the Niger Delta into another battleground, which Nigerians cannot afford now.
But those behind the vandalisation of strategic national assets should be held liable for their actions?
They should be made to face the consequences of their action. But you don't because of them raid the whole community. If the whole of B-Dere has some 100 people, who are engaged in some form of criminal activities, would you go and drop bomb in that town? That is the point I am making. It would lead to disastrous consequences. You and I know that in the days of militancy, some fishing communities were attacked. Most times you don't even get these bad guys, as they run away while innocent people are killed.
What is your assessment of the amnesty programme so far?
I have raised the issue that amnesty or militancy is not the problem of the Niger Delta. The problem of the Niger Delta had always been there. In my view, what we call militancy was an extreme expression of anger about the neglect of the region. And what seems to have happened through the appeasement of ex-militants is that there is this perception that the Niger Delta has been settled.
What I would advocate for now is that there should be a painstaking study of the amnesty programme, as it is, which should involve tracking the beneficiaries. Who are they? Where are they now? What are they doing? How engaged are they with their respective communities and therefore, what kind of multiplier effects are being created economically? What challenges do they face, if any? By answering these questions, the study should be able to recommend where to place the amnesty programme today.
I am one of those that do not believe that focusing so much on payment of money to ex-militants is the answer to the problem. Aside the fact that you create a culture of people earning money without working, you sort of create role models that other people would look up to.
Isn't the patronage of ex-militants being used to blackmail government?
Because of the situation in the Niger Delta, one government after the other feel they should do some patronage and pay this money to them. The oil companies also feel they have to pay money to them' so much so that they are now being held hostage and blackmailed. Even the NDDC is undergoing the same fate. Every day you pass by the NDDC office in Port Harcourt, you see a huge number of youths hanging around to see whether something would drop. But these are not only Niger Delta youths. There are several other people who are angry, but are not using that means to achieve their own end.
At this point, we must not do something that would unwittingly encourage that kind of behaviour. But unfortunately, that appears to be what is happening. And the Niger Delta Technical Committee's recommendation of amnesty was not simply in the manner government dealt with it. I fear we might even see worst things ahead, unless we deal with issues in more sustainable order. It is just an outcome of this attitude of appeasement of the most violent segment of society.
Why the fear that the situation might get worse?
It is obvious. This is not a sustainable process at all. You cannot continue to get peace just by appeasement. Because once you do, there is no end to it. It is like it's turning to a blackmail. If this continues, some people will say 'so these people are getting something by doing this, I also should get to that level to enjoy that patronage.'
We must also look at the type of politics in this part of the world, where politicians annex groups available to them. You will see that there are ex-militants who are in the political divide and who are being harvested by politicians of the major political parties. With this, there is bound to be an escalation of the situation and you don't require rocket science to tell you that this portends no good for Niger Delta peace.
What we are seeing now is just an indication of how things could get worse. This is why some of us expressed concern about the reported raid on some ex-militant leaders by the army.
What is your view on dwindling oil revenue with regards to the prevailing patronage culture?
That is why I think the President needs to dialogue with some leaders of the region and look at the ways in which they can make the people realise their responsibility towards peace in the area. They should, at the same time, look at what can be done to steer the region in the right direction. It might involve amending the NDDC Act, the Petroleum Industry Bill and some of this patronage thing. Clearly, we cannot pretend that the game is still the same way, when the price of oil is going down, which means the level of patronage will also be down.
I sympathise and empathise with the federal government to the extent that the global fall in oil price is not caused by it. But how you respond is what makes the difference. Right now, oil is about $27 per barrel and the prediction is that it might fall to $20. How do you deal with that kind of situation in a country like this?
Are you worried about Federal Government's failure to implement the report of the Technical Committee on the Niger Delta which you chaired?
My disappointment with the last government is that it appears it did not even read the report of that technical committee. And when you realise that President Jonathan, as the Vice President, actually inaugurated that technical committee under the late President Umaru Yar'Adua, it gives cause for concern. During Jonathan's presidency, I did not see much effort made to look at that report, which gives me a lot of concern. I think that document still offers credible solution to the problems of the Niger Delta.
Do you think the NDDC and the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs are doing enough to tackle underdevelopment in the region?
The NDDC and Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs are not the only ones to solve the problems. Without prejudice to what has happened, I believe that anybody who has read our report will see that we allotted responsibilities to the NDDC, Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, Local Government, State and Federal Governments, as well as faith based organisations. Everybody, including the international community has a role to play in the recommendations. None of the stakeholders has performed its role. That report is lost within the system. I am not sure those in authority have had time to read it after submission.
What immediate steps can be taken by the federal government to douse temper in the Niger Delta?
The Federal Government should pick up the technical committee report and read it. It should dialogue with the region's leaders, including their governors to determine the things we need to change and how to move forward. We need to be realistic about this because things are not the same as it was in the past.
With the raging Boko Haram conflict, pro-Biafra agitation, dwindling oil price and the attacks in the Niger Delta, isn't it imperative for the Federal Government to implement the just concluded national conference report urgently?
I think there are many good things in that report. One of the things that I see in this part of the world is that once a new government comes, it is like everything of the past is consigned to the dustbin, especially when you have what in business they refer to as hostile takeover. There are certain things in the national conference report that are quite germane. If you read the recommendations on anti- corruption, you will see that there are some recommendations that we could use to help in our fight against corruption.
And I think it is not the best to throw away everything. Just because the previous government that is now in opposition conducted it does not deduct from the value of that report. All the recommendations might not be acceptable, but there are some profound ones that will help a country like ours, especially in our current situation.
Has the current government shown any resolve to tackle the problem of the Niger Delta?
It is difficult to say at this moment. First, its budget has not come out. But let me say that in my own little experience, any time you want to make such drastic change in government, it is the first six months that you do those things because you are still having honeymoon with the people.
In Nigeria, government is usually run during the first two years, the remaining two years is for politics. The good thing about this government is that it did not spend the first year in the tribunal to get its legitimacy declared and all that. The time it took to set up the cabinet and other issues do not inspire a lot of conference in some people though. Having said that, I think that part of the honeymoon is still on. I think it is when their first budget comes that people should begin to ask: what is it that you put in for Niger Delta Ministry? Is the East West Road going to be funded? How is NDDC going to get its money?
Those are the things people are going to look in judging if the government is showing commitment to the Niger Delta as a region or not. It is something that we should not focus on because oil will still be the dominant source of revenue for the country. Irrespective of other challenges, government cannot afford to neglect the Niger Delta in whatever it does.
What is the consequence of the continued neglect of the Niger Delta?
A sense of injustice will snowball into what we saw in the past and this time, it will be worse than the past. Let no one deceive any person that the amnesty saw the surrendering of arms and ammunition. Discerning people know that that is not the case. I am one of those who actually think that the real questions are not being asked. These include: Who is a militant? How much arms and ammunition do militants actually possess?
I think with the level we are and the current global oil price, another conflagration in the Niger Delta will bring our economy to its knees and we cannot afford that. So, every person must make some commitment to ensure that does not happen.