Vincent Obia writes that there is need to approach the raging controversy over the Anambra basin oil wells sensibly and urgently to avoid opening up yet another front in the country’s debilitating oil war
States under Nigeria’s current federalism are for the most part cash-strapped and hungry for every available avenue for extra cash, particularly from easy sources like oil. This much is clear. What is not clear is whether or not this hunger for funds is out of concern for the welfare of the greater majority in the various states. Wittingly or unwittingly, the allure of effortless wealth has turned oil, which mother nature purposes to be a major source of progress, into a major purveyor of bloody conflict. Since the Second Republic when economic activities in which Nigeria has comparative advantage were abandoned for the free-flowing oil revenues, the country has seen a merry-go-round of oil wars and oil-related repressions. This whirl of debilitating wind is blowing in the direction of Anambra and Enugu states in the South-east and Kogi State in the North-central. Fanned by an oil find by Orient Petroleum Resources, an indigenous oil firm, there are fears that the wind of disagreement, if not properly handled, might turn into a whirlwind of trouble that could sweep up communities in the three states.
President Goodluck Jonathan had on August 30, during a visit to Anambra State, launched some oil facilities belonging to Orient at Otu-Aguleri, in Anambra East Local Government Area. He had also on the same occasion declared Anambra as the 10th oil producing state in Nigeria.
But the governments of Kogi and Enugu states have taken exception to the president’s declaration, claiming that some of the oil wells under the Orient’s oil field are located in their territories.
“I don’t see how one can explain the statement,” said Kogi State Deputy Governor Yomi Awoniyi, who had represented the state governor, Idris Wada at the August 30 event in Anambra. “The oil well is in Anambra River Basin, which is a very large expanse of land, with an overlay of several states on that basin and even that basin has been divided into several OPL. Orient has 915 and 916.
“One of the wells is in Kogi, while other wells are in Anambra and Enugu states.”
Kogi State claims that one of the oil wells, which currently feeds the Orient Refinery in Anambra State, is on Odeke land in Ibaji Local Government Area of Kogi State. Chairman of Uzo Uwani Local Government Area of Enugu State, Cornel Onwubuya, was also quoted as saying, “Since the creation of Enugu and Kogi states in 1991, the deposit of oil and gas in our inland basin has been a subject of dispute among the three states and the matter has been before the NBC (National Boundary Commission) and Surveyor-General of the Federation.”
The Anambra State government insists the premises of Orient and the oil wells belonging to it are in Otu-Aguleri, saying it has invested billions of naira in the oil project while the states claiming the oil wells as “an afterthought” have invested virtually nothing.
Orient admits that the bulk of the oil wells are in Anambra territory, while the Anambra basin straddles various states. While the company claims that the dispute over the wells has been settled, some groups in Kogi State are disputing the claim.
While disagreements like this one are normal in any free society, it is abnormal that in Nigeria such quarrels are hardly resolved until they degenerate into bloody communal conflicts. In the face of the current disputation over the Orient’s oil wells, NBC has yet to pronounce on where the wells are located. Neither has the Surveyor-General of the Federation spoken up, at least, to put all doubts and confusion to rest.
Communities around the Anambra basin have a history of bloody disputes, a regrettable throwback to the unclear boundary demarcations that date back to the 1920s. In 1994, there was a scene of carnage in Aguleri and Abaji in Anambra and Kogi states, respectively, following fighting between the communities. The late 1990s also saw a prolonged war between the Aguleri and Umuleri people of Anambra State. Many fear adding oil to the existing tendencies has the dangerous potential of setting off another full-blown conflagration in the area.
Another abnormality here, however, is that the current struggle is hardly about the wellbeing of ordinary Nigerians in the disputed areas. It is about the elite and their hunger for effortless income. It is about benefits from the 13 per cent derivation fund – when the areas begin to contribute to the Federation Account. Those on the margins of society are almost always forgotten until there is something to exploit from them.
But the feuding states have painted pictures of concern for the people. The Kogi State deputy governor said the state administration had to get involved “as a government concerned about the welfare of the people.” A rough recitation of history should, however, tell communities hosting the disputed oil facilities of the fate that awaits them if they fail to apply wisdom in the handling of the current issues. There is certainly nothing to cheer in the precedent that has been set by the Nigerian state and the oil multinationals in communities where they operate.
Oil was discovered in commercial quantity at Oloibiri, Bayelsa State, in 1956. But the discovery that should translate to wealth and development for the people soon became a source of misery and sorrow. While the oil from the community made billionaires in distant lands and built cities hundreds of kilometres away, Oloibiri land and its people were left desolate and despoiled. Besides this unfortunate fate, most oil producing communities in the Niger Delta have also been reduced to theatres of fratricidal conflict, largely instigated by external forces in the service of a criminal alliance between the state and multinational capital meant to keep the people permanently divided and easy to manipulate.
The current oil activities in the Anambra basin may not offer the natives anything different except they reject the temptation to fight and kill one another and remain permanently disunited. Rather than being drawn into fratricidal confrontations, locals in the affected areas of the various states would do themselves the world of good if they unite and adopt a peaceful and legitimate approach in the demand for their entitlements from the oil company, the state and the federal governments.
But there also are other reasons why the current tension over oil wells in the Anambra basin goes beyond the margins of good taste. There is no state in Nigeria that is not well endowed in natural resources. Ironically, the state governors have shown little interest in the demand for a change of the current exploratory laws that effectively subordinate, rather than coordinate, the federating units. Such advocacy has tended to be viewed as the natural lot of the Niger Delta states. Had the governors, some of who are now threatening fire and brimstone over a few oil wells with yet doubtful prospects, invested half that zeal in advocacy for real rights to exploit their resources and run their territories, Nigeria would not have been in the present mess of being made up of states that are largely unviable.
The governors and, indeed, the political class never have their eyes on the big picture. They relish in minor details that offer momentary benefits. As experience has shown, the answer to the current cash-crunch and resource tension in the land is a return to the original foundation of true federalism on which Nigeria was built. This would ensure that no state would have its resources expropriated for the benefit of other states. For now, however, NBC, the National Assembly, and the federal government must urgently wade in to resolve the arguments regarding the Anambra basin oil wells to avoid any ugly degeneration.