Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Usani Usani Uguru has been passionate about the plight of the region, even before his appointment by President Muhammadu Buhari. In this interview, he spoke on development issues in the region and the circumstances leading to the recent upsurge in militancy. Adams Abonu brings the excerpts:
You have been on the job for an upward of seven months now, how would you describe your experience?
Well, it has been quite an experience but we are adept to the needs of the position. Remember that some of us have been in the struggle to have government impact on the people for more than twenty six years now and this makes it possible to come to the job with knowledge of what is required for delivery.
In terms of application of skills and knowledge, the experience has been quite fulfilling but we are not there yet. It is an unfolding experience that allows for additional learning on the job. The administration is giving us leverage to succeed and I believe the experience would be worth the while.
Have there been specific areas of challenges?
Every job comes with challenges, though the challenges of our assignment revolve around human attitude. Each person applies himself on the basis of this perception and understanding of a situation and this are the challenges. Because some people tend to be stereotyped in their perceptions and this affects their action; they tend to believe, erroneously, that there cannot be new grounds to be broken.
The combined effect of the misconstrued perception and short-sighted understanding of government’s policies and plans constitute a stumbling block to our assignment but we understand the circumstances. The other challenges which are physical in nature are general. The circumstances of our being as a government remain very peculiar. This is a government struggling to tap water from desert sand and these tend to challenge government’s noble intentions. But every challenge is surmountable and we have a government with a leader, who is determined to meet these challenges.
Would you say the Niger Delta region has a sense of belonging in President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration and how has your office mobilised the people to key into the promises of the administration?
I will start from the latest by referring to the recent town hall meetings we had in parts of the Niger Delta region. You will notice that there was a bit of an uproar at our meeting in Uyo (Akwa Ibom State) because of an unfortunate incident that eventuality emanated from political connotation of what was going on. Several people in the Niger Delta have not come to terms with the fact that when we talk of change and people accept it – it means there was something we needed to change from. Change is a movement to another direction.
A lot of the silent majority of the people of the Niger Delta and Nigerians in general quite agree with what we are doing and they form an integral part of this movement to a better direction. Despite the fact that people appreciate that things are tough, there is hope. But getting the entire people of the Niger Delta, whose majority of the opinion moulders have taken quite an unfortunate position in assessing this administration demands tact and virtues.
One of the issues observed at the town hall meetings was insinuations being made that the South-south, or by extension the Niger Delta region is being deliberately short-circuited in the advantages of government and this is not correct. The most unfortunate aspect of it is that they want to blame it on the president out of sheer mischief. A rational assessment would be that this is a president that has done just a year in office and we had a South-south president for six years.
Any assessment should be juxtaposed with these indices before we conclude who has unfairly marginalised who. Meanwhile, an administration that has from the region, two of the service chiefs (with Police IG Solomon Arase retiring), Head of Service of the Federation, ministers of strategic ministries including petroleum, transport, budget and national planning and others, would one still suggest that such administration has any intents on marginalising anybody? The political connotations often given to things are just a mirage meant to blackmail. A majority of the people in the region has a good sense of belonging with this government and our plans are on course.
Mobilising the people of the region is what the administration intends to achieve through demonstrating sincere intents by development strides. We have the rail projects to connect the people of the region with the rest of Nigeria; we have the coastal road projects, and we are doing all that is required to improve the lots of the people of Nigeria.
Even without capital budgetary releases, projects targeted at the people are already going on. In the last two months, we have given out starter soft-credits for 130 persons to start their agro businesses and many more of such are in the pipeline. Mobilisation is to be achieved by performance and not through brigandage that is rife in our political terrain.
There has been a resurgence of militancy recently in the Niger Delta, how do you situate this development?
The militancy situation confirms the fact that I am saying it is a mindset, because the issues of militancy today cannot be positioned on the genuine agitations of the people of the Niger Delta. Assuming there is any genuine agitation in this direction and this also includes damaging the very environment and destroying the land, where the people grow their crops to live. The militancy is spoiling the very environment that should be used for profitable economic engagement. How do you engage government by violence which in my view is protesting a political system that does not favour criminality?
What effort is the government making in meeting the demands of the militants, who have expressed readiness for dialogue?
We are a responsible government that would keep to any agreement reached on realistic grounds. Except some elements in the region accept that we are hurting ourselves and how persuaded we are to allow development to take place in our land. It is upon this realisation that the sustenance of any agreement could be achieved.
President Buhari recently launched the cleanup of Ogoniland in accordance with UNEP Report, is there adequate political commitment to this project?
The positive index of that project was the reception that was given to it by the people themselves as this has been their long term agitation. Therefore, the Ogoni people are conscious of what they used to have in a normal environment and what they now have by economic losses and the impact in health and social sectors.
What is going to happen is to once again restore the natural habitat so the people could practice agriculture which is the primary occupation of the people. This is where government is most committed and the Ogoni people are expecting improved economic fortunes because they will now produce agriculturally in all facets. Again, the rate of pollution and its consequences can now be controlled and the people could access underground water.
How has your ministry ensured that International Oil Companies (IOCs) meet environmental standards in the region and attend to the immediate needs of their host communities?
When you look at our mandate at the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, one of the objectives is complementing the IOCs to achieve certain social and economic goals for the region. Recently, we had a meeting with Chevron and others. In doing this, there is an ongoing process, a trust fund for the region, which also engages the oil companies. We also have the obligation to ensure that the oil companies live up to their social responsibilities.
Let’s also bear in mind that some of the recent negative developments in the region also have their consequences in the present economic situation. For example, if AGIP or Chevron is no longer producing as much as a result of bombings of their installations, then there is a limit to which you can put pressure on them.
The amnesty programme of the federal government is expected to wind down in 2018, how is your ministry looking at managing the post-Amnesty era for the region?
The amnesty programme was occasioned by the militancy in the region which has always been on except that the intensities differ. While the amnesty programme takes care of the militants, the Ministry of Niger Delta takes care of the non-militants because there is nothing to suggest that except you become militant you do not deserve government attention.
What we are doing is to engage the youths by taking care of the winding down of the programme so that people will have the right attitude and space to be accommodated. We are partnering development organisations and the federal Ministry of Youths and Sports for wide scale training and engagement. We have up to four centres to carry out vocational trainings and give the right equipping for self-development of individuals.
There is needed synergy with the Niger Delta Development Commission and your ministry to better the lots of the people. Tell us what specific areas in this direction you are working at?
There are areas of synergy between us and NDDC. One of those areas is the review of development plans and actions. Anything we do as a ministry, we engage or involve the NDDC at the policy level. Apart from mainstreaming development, we also have a responsibility of policy coordination among all intervening agencies.
Where do you see the Niger Delta region in the next three years of President Buhari’s administration?
In terms of development attempts, very far, in terms of government policy and infrastructure distribution, it is uncertain. This is because for policy to be implemented and infrastructure developed, there must be space to do that and insecurity limits such space. But I can assure Nigerians and particularly the people of Niger Delta that the development of the region is a crucial priority for us as a government and President Buhari is most committed to this direction.
An administration that has from the region, two of the service chiefs (with Police IG Solomon Arase retiring), Head of Service of the Federation, ministers of strategic ministries including petroleum, transport, budget and national planning and others, would one still suggest that such administration has any intents on marginalising anybody? The political connotations often given to things are just a mirage meant to blackmail. A majority of the people in the region has a good sense of belonging with this government and our plans are on course