The dispute between Rivers and Bayelsa States over the Soku and Elem-Sangama oil wells may not end any time soon as governments of both states, despite interventions even from the presidency, have maintained their grounds, report Ernest Chinwo and Segun James
Indeed, when the people of Kalabari Kingdom in Rivers state and their cousins- the people of Nembe kingdom in Bayelsa, started flexing muscles over the ownership of an oil field located in the border area of both states, discerning watchers of the politics of the Niger Delta region knew that they must be playing someone else's script.
As brothers within the same geopolitical zone, the governments and people of both Rivers and Bayelsa States have had a somewhat enviable relationship over the years. They have shared the same sentiments on many national issues borne out of age-long affinity. With such understanding, they had lived peacefully as neighbours, especially since 1996 when Bayelsa was excised out of Rivers. However, the relationship went sour recently following the dispute over the ownership of oil wells.
But what could have triggered such bitterness to the extent that both governments have started beating the drums of war? The answer, of course, lies in the proposed decision of the Federal Government to probe the boundary dispute between the states that is fuelling the disagreement over the ownership of the disputed oil wells.
The Soku oil field is located in the border region of both states. While the community named Soku is in Rivers state, the Soku flow station where all crude from the field is processed is located in Oluasiri, a Nembe community in Bayelsa state. So, who owns the oil and who should the revenue accruing from the field go to? This was the bone of contention that has pitted the states against each other before the issue boiled into the open.
Before the old Rivers State was divided into two, the people of Nembe and Kalabari had cause to go to the courts to determine the ownership of the Soku oil field. But the military could not solve the problem. With the return of democracy, the people once again called for a proper delineation of the borders. This prompted the Chief Olusegun Obasanjo government to set up a boundary commission to look into the case. Deputy governors of both states were co-opted into the committee that was set up to determine the borders as well as who got what.
Today, the then Deputy governor of Bayelsa State, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, is now the president, hence the conclusion of the Rivers State government that the president may have vested interest in the ownership of the oil field.
Following the refusal of the government to find political solution to the issue, the people took the case to the courts where it was decided in favour of Oluosiri (Nembe). This decision of the court made Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) to start paying the revenue from the disputed oil wells to Bayelsa State since 2007. Since then, the Rivers State government has been seething with anger over the decision before the fresh face-off.
And because the controversy has been a mixture of politics and facts, the president, however, came out and advised the governors of the two states, Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers, and Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa to put a stop to the media war because it could impede an amicable resolution of the issue. The president, who conveyed his message in a statement by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Dr Reuben Abati, also advised elders and leaders of the host community involved in the oil dispute to cease media hostilities. He said the escalation in the media war would not help in any way.
According to the president who has also denied any involvement in the issue as being insinuated in certain quarters, the media campaign was not only unbecoming, it was unnecessary and unhelpful to the reconciliation process.
“The Presidency has noted with concern the rather unbecoming, unnecessary and unhelpful media war between the Bayelsa and Rivers State Governments over the rightful ownership of some oil wells. The presidency believes that this media war which appears to be escalating with each passing day can only hinder and negate efforts already initiated by President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan to achieve an amicable resolution of the dispute in the best interest of the affected communities, the two states and the nation.
“President Jonathan therefore requests the governors of both states to facilitate and help to create the right atmosphere for the successful conclusion of the peace process by ordering an immediate stoppage of all acrimonious public comments against each other over the dispute.
“Having already had very useful discussions with the Rivers State Governor and Kalabari elders over the weekend, President Jonathan intends to take the process forward at another scheduled meeting at 11 am at the Presidential Villa on Friday, November 9, 2012 with the governors of the two states, leaders of the affected communities and all concerned stakeholders. President Jonathan consequently urges the two governors and leaders of the affected communities to ensure that no further spiteful or inciting comments are made against each other to pollute the right atmosphere for constructive dialogue and brotherly reconciliation which he is striving to promote for the amicable resolution of the dispute,” the statement read in part.
But the Bayelsa government has insisted that there are many oil fields and wells belonging to the people of the state which were named after communities in present day Rivers State, he therefore asked: does that mean that it belongs to the communities so named?
According to the government in a statement by the commissioner for information, Mr. Marks Fefegha, “this oversight did not matter then because both people belonged to the same state.”
But the creation of new states, he said, has brought up the anomaly with Rivers using the name to claim what does not belong to it.
The Soku field which Bayelsa now chooses to call Oluasirioilwell/field, Fefegha said, gave rise to the Iduoli field now named after another community in Ahoada in Rivers State.
The governor has also accused his Rivers State counterpart of not telling his people the truth as far as the issue is concerned. He described as baseless, claims by the Rivers State government, adding that it was calculated to mislead the country and instigate crises. Dickson said Amaechi was only trying to ridicule the office and person of President Jonathan by bringing his office to a problem that was based on greed.
But Amaechi has insisted there was an attempt by the Bayelsa State government and some agencies of the Federal Government to re-write the boundary between the two states with a view to claiming the oil wells that belong to Rivers state.He said the stand of Rivers State government is that Bayelsa should leave the oil wells of Soku and Elem-Sangama communities in Rivers State for Rivers people as those communities have been part of Kalabari Kingdom in Rivers State even before the creation of Bayelsa State.
According to him, Rivers and Bayelsa states have never had issues with boundaries as because they were well known to all. He noted that since the creation of Bayelsa State, there has been no law or agreement ceding any part of Kalabari communities or Rivers State to Bayelsa State, adding also that the communities had been part of Degema Division and not of Brass Division that later metamorphosed to Bayelsa State.
He added also that all the administrative maps of Nigeria had shown that the communities were part of Rivers until the 11th edition which showed the area as part of Bayelsa State.
“We will not allow attempts by the Bayelsa State government to collect our oil wells; I have read what the Bayelsa State governor said. That the 11th edition of the (administrative) map (of Nigeria) gave them the oil wells. When? They didn’t talk about the 1st edition to the 10th edition, they chose to avoid that, and went to the 11th edition, but the question they should answer is why avoiding the previous editions?” Amaechi asked.
Amaechi explained that the Federal Government had admitted in court to correct the mistakes in the 11th edition, saying that the court documents were filed by their lawyers who admitted the mistakes contained in the 11th edition of the administrative map.
“But the Federal Government came to court and said, 'oh we made a mistake in the 11th edition, we will correct it'. They should correct it. The documents were filed by their lawyers, not our lawyers. All we want is for the Federal Government to go back to the 10th edition and correct everything.
“Bayelsa State was created so many years ago, there has been no law ceding that part of Kalabari kingdom to Bayelsa State. Now when did it suddenly change? It changed in 2006, but I don’t want to join issues. All what we are saying is that they should look from the 1st to the 10th edition (of the administrative map) and not an imaginary 11th edition. It won’t work; it will certainly not work, no matter how they try to intimidate the agencies of the Federal Government we will continue to go to court and let our people know that the agencies of the Federal Government are being intimidated, that is what we are saying,” he said.
Amaechi therefore urged his people to stand behind his administration to ensure that justice, equity and fair play are achieved over the sudden claims by the Bayelsa State Government.
“All we want is for Rivers people to stand by us. Soku community has been in Rivers State long before Bayelsa State was created. Elem- Sangama is not a ward in Bayelsa State, but they said they don’t want territory, they want derivation; how can that work? Does oil come from the air? He has already answered the question for us, but we must struggle to get back our oil wells,” Amaechi said.
He said that apart from the Soku oilfields which have been at the centre of the dispute between Rivers and Bayelsa States; another 46 oil well of the state had been given to Abia State, adding that Bayelsa had started another move to claim additional 71 oil wells belonging to Rivers.
“I feel worried. As I talk today, they have taken 46 oil wells and given to Abia. If you look at the quarrel between Rivers and Bayelsa, it is not even the issue for which we went to court that is the problem. The one we went to court is still outstanding. Bayelsa government wrote for another 71 oil wells and they are asking for Abonema town as boundary,” he said.
While restraining from making certain utterances by his position as chairman of the governors’ forum, he said the people of the state would fight for what rightly belongs to them.
“Everybody knew the boundary between Degema and Brass. Was it in dispute? The answer is no. Okay, they said they made a mistake when we went to court and the court said they should go back to correct the mistake. Instead of correcting the mistake, Bayelsa governor wrote surreptitiously asking for more oil wells. I didn’t know. It was Kalabari people that told me. Truly that Monday, they held a meeting to move our boundary further to the River by Abonema town. So you took 46 to Abia, you took Soku (everybody knows that Soku is part of Kalabari) to Bayelsa. Then you want to take another 71. I am leaving Rivers people to determine their future. As a people, as a state, we have one common destiny and we must fight for our rights.”
He said Rivers state, which used to be the number one oil producing state has been reduced to around third place following the ceding of its oil wells to neighbouring states in the Niger Delta region. He also said he would not rule out a concerted plan in some quarters to emasculate Rivers State over his rumoured interest in contesting for the position of vice-president in 2015.
“Is it really that they are frustrating me? 2015, I have no plan. I am worried, believe me. I ask the question, ‘are there people who are planning to undo me?’ I hear in the North, there are vehicles all over with my picture and that of Sule Lamido. Sule Lamido has called me and said who are these people doing this to us? And once people see this, they panic. I have no ambition, am exhausted; can’t you see the exhaustion in me? 2015, people are panicking; Governor Amaechi is doing this, am dong absolutely nothing. I have never attended any meeting about 2015, there is no 2015, what we have now is 2012, that is what we have now and am focusing on 2012.
“So if it is because of 2015 they are taking my oil wells, they should please leave my oil wells alone. It belongs to Rivers people and the future of Rivers people should not be determined on 2015. Because the rumour is everywhere, there is an attempt to emasculate the Rivers people. If every day you go to court, people would be wondering, this man is too stubborn, why is he going to court? You have to go to court because we were the first in Nigeria, we were producing the highest, they have cut off all our oil wells; we are now second or third.”
The state has also lent its backing to the protest by Kalabari people, stating that the people have the right to protest the ceding of parts of their kingdom to Bayelsa. It said there is a gang up by federal agencies to cede part of the state to Bayelsa State and also deny it of its revenue.
It also said the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) had paid N17 billion belonging to it to Bayelsa State.
Rivers State Deputy Governor, Mr. Tele Ikuru, who received chiefs and people of Kalabari Kingdom when they marched through streets of Port Harcourt in protest against alleged boundary adjustment by the National Boundary Commission which had transferred five of their communities to Bayelsa, said the situation had become worrisome.
“Let me also, as chairman of the State Boundary Commission; quickly add that the issue of Soku has been a very worrying issue to Rivers State Government. As a matter of fact, Soku has from time immemorial been known to be part of Rivers State. Suddenly, one day, we woke up and we were told that Soku does not belong to Rivers State anymore.
“We all decided that if we have dispute over the territory, let’s put the money accruing from there into an escrow account. We woke up one day again and the whole money in the escrow account has been given to one party, Bayelsa state. As a matter of fact, as I speak to you now, N17 billion rightfully accruing to Rivers State has been paid to Bayelsa State.
“Incidentally, we have tried all we can, we have met with all the necessary agencies and everywhere we have been seemed blocked. We eventually went to court but even the court seemed to be tied also. We are at a crossroads now. And the point we are now is for us as a state to humbly appeal to the National Assembly to join in this matter and see that justice is done, because it is not fair that money accruing to a particular state is being paid to another.
“So, we call on the national Assembly to step into this matter and see the justice and injustice that is being done, because all federal agencies have refused, one way or the other, to assist us in any way. I am speaking as chairman of the Boundary commission in Rivers State. So, we join voice with the Kalabari people, to call on the National Assembly to wade into matter so that we know what the truth is.”
Earlier the Amayanabo of Abonema and Chairman of Akukutoru Council of Traditional Rulers, Disreal Bob-Manuel, said the people would never accept the balkanisation of Kalabari Kingdom and would pursue the issue to the last. He said the people had adopted peaceful means to seek redress but warned that they did not know how much longer they would be able to hold the people.
Later at a press conference, Bob-Manuel noted that Kalabari is an ancient kingdom with its stools dating back to the 14th century and stressed that they would never allow any part of the kingdom to be subjected to another authority. “Our people want to be together. We do not want to be divided. We do not want to be dragged into any conflict because we are peace-loving,” he said.
Another representative of the people, Chief Emmanuel Awoyesuku-Jack, recalled that at its creation, the boundary between Bayelsa and Rivers State was Santa Barbara River. He noted that some officials of government had connived to shift the boundary to St Bartholomew River, transferring parts of the kingdom to Bayelsa because of its rich oil resources.
He explained that when the 11th Administrative map on Nigeria was released, Rivers State protested and the director general of the National Boundary Commission (NBC) and the surveyor general admitted that it was an error that would be corrected in subsequent maps. He said rather than correct the error; the 12th Administrative map had shifted the boundary further into Kalabari kingdom.
“All we are asking for is for the NBC to correct the 11th edition and return the boundary to the Santa Barbara River. We are calling the attention of the whole world to the injustices of balkanising Kalabari land and stealing, in broad day light of our resources,’ he said.
A member of the legal team of Rivers State on the issue, Mr. Ibim Dokubo, accused the President of masterminding the alteration. He said the boundary dispute started when Jonathan was deputy governor and was in charge of the state’s boundary commission. He also alleged that Jonathan is now using his office as President to achieve what he had set out to do as deputy governor.
“It is too late in the day for us to be excised into Bayelsa. If they do so, it will be resisted,” he said.
Although, the development is still at a mild stage, observers have however called on concerned authorities, particularly the president to be mindful of the dangers that such development portends for both states and the nation. Those who have expressed worry on the issue are already citing the genesis of the Jos crisis which has defied every solution possible. Observers believe that the Jos crisis was spurred by a development of this manner and because authorities were unmindful of the implications of their action, it has remained a nightmare to the entire nation.
It is as a result of this that observers have asked the leadership, including those of National Assembly not to take the dispute with levity or consider it a non-issue. They argued that there is the need to tame it as early as possible before tension rise beyond normal and the nation begins to witness another bloodletting all because some people are shortsighted to see the picture of the gloom posed by what may appear an indiscretion of the authorities.