When on February 13 the acting president, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, visited Rivers State as part of his tour of the Niger Delta, the apex sociocultural association of the Etche people, Ogbakor Etche, saw an opportunity to bring the people’s marginalisation and development dilemma to the attention of the federal government. They wanted the country to hear the story of the area first-hand from the people.
For a stunningly long time, Etche has been one of the most underdeveloped areas of Rivers State. It is also among the least remembered in the Niger Delta development equation, despite being one of the most productive parts of the region.
Ironically, Etche people were the first to announce the plight of the Niger Delta, their ruthless exploitation, ecological catastrophe, and horrible development deficit, to the world. And they paid dearly for daring to take up the gauntlet.
In 1990, just before the agitation by the Niger Delta peoples for a fairer share of the region’s oil resources got up steam, Etche suffered one of the cruellest acts of killing and destruction by an alliance of a rentier state and international capital the world had ever known. More than 50 residents of Umuechem were killed between October 30 and November 1, 1990 by men of the Nigeria Police Mobile Force, who also injured 20 persons and destroyed nearly 500 houses. The natives were being punished for daring to stand up against the exploitative and destructive activities of Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria in the community and demand socio-economic amenities.
Those killed by the police using gun and grenade fire included a Second Class Chief and Paramount Ruler of Igboh Agwuruasa clan, His Highness, Eze A. A. Ordu, and his three children. A police corporal also died in the incident.
It was the first of such incidents of destruction by the Nigerian state in the Niger Delta.
The Rivers State government set a judicial commission of inquiry into the Umuechem killings, headed by Justice Opubo Inko-Tariah (rtd). But that effort almost ended up rubbing salt in the people’s wound. The people always knew their disadvantaged place under Nigeria’s pseudo-federal system without anyone having to rub it in. But the judicial inquest appeared to do just that.
Though, the government white paper on the commission’s report recommended compensatory payments to victims of the police brutality and the community, it made the people of Umuechem and Etche, generally, feel even worse, when it stated, “The community should be educated to know and appreciate that whatever amenities the company may provide are purely on the basis of good public relations and charity which cannot be forced out or compelled.”
The commission also recommended that such “Enlightenment campaign should be launched not only at Umuechem, but also at all oil producing areas, and in fact, in the whole state, to avoid misgivings that many people nurse against the oil exploration companies.”
It was the Umuechem killings that ultimately gave the Niger Delta struggle its momentum. But the Umuechem issue has remained unresolved 27 year after. Many aspects of the compensatory package recommended in the report of the judicial inquiry, even though low and contemptible, have yet to be fully implemented. And the issues have continued to be compounded by mounting underdevelopment.
So when Osinbajo came to Rivers State on February 13, Ogbakor Etche seized the opportunity to ramp up demand for action on Umuechem and the wider development issues among the Etche ethnic nationality. The group sought to present an address during the town hall meeting involving the vice president and the government and people of the state at Government House, Port Harcourt, but it was not allowed.
Determined to make its case, Ogbakor Etche followed up the February 13 effort with another attempt to meet the vice president the next day. It paid off. Ogbakor Etche formally presented its address and souvenir to the vice president on February 14 at Aztec Arcum Event Centre, Ken Saro-Wiwa Road, Port Harcourt. It was at a forum for members of Osinbajo’s All Progressives Congress in the state and other Niger Delta stakeholders, who could not make their presentations at Government House.
The association raised the fundamental concerns of the Etche people in the address.
Besides the unresolved Umuechem issue, Etche people are concerned about the lingering boundary dispute between Umuakali community in Etche and Owaza in Okwa West Local Government Area of Abia State, which has continued to deny the people revenue accruing from oil production in the area. They are worried by the lack of infrastructural facilities in the area. And they are bothered by the lack of recognition for their sons and daughters in appointments into federal parastatals, especially the oil-related ones. This is despite the crucial economic contributions of Etche to Rivers State and Nigeria.
Ogbakor Etche, therefore, demands the construction of a gas turbine in Etche to boost power supply to the area and enhance economic activities, considering the vast oil and gas resources in the area. It wants the federal government to establish agro-based industries in Etche.
On Umuechem, the group demands the payment of full reparation to the community, “re-planning of the entire community, and a realistic upward review to the tune of N20 billion for compensation arising from the Umuechem massacre.”
Ogbakor Etche also wants the building of a federal medical centre in Umuechem to boost health care for the people as part of the remediation measures following the physical, environmental, and psychological onslaught on the community. It demands the appointment of Etche indigenes into the boards of federal parastatals, particularly the oil-based ones, such as the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation and the Niger Delta Development Commission.
The group wants a proper demarcation of the boundary between the oil producing communities of Umuakali in Rivers State and Owaza in Abia State, to avoid communal disputes and grant the people peaceful access to their oil resources. It wants the establishment of a federal university of agriculture in Etche and payment of N100 billion compensation to Etche people for the hazardous effects of 59 years of gas flaring and other oil related activities.
It demands that the amnesty programme by the federal government should “be revalidated and made more embracing,” while the Petroleum Industry Bill before the National Assembly should be accorded “the importance that it deserves” by being passed and accented to promptly.
Ogbakor Etche is hoping that Osinbajo, who is leading the federal government’s new peace initiative in the Niger Delta, would drive a new era of attention to Etche, a vast marginalised, yet most productive, part of Rivers State.
The Etche ethnic nationality is made up of two local government areas, namely Etche and Omuma, with headquarters in Okehi and Eberi, respectively. It has six clans, one federal constituency, three House of Assembly seats, and a population of 3.5 million.
Etche is a major food basket in Nigeria, producing more than a third of the staple food of garri consumed in the South-south and South-east. With a largely rural farming population, it is a major producer of cassava, plantain, yam, palm oil, and rubber, as well as fruits, such as orange, guava, grape, and pineapple.
A massive area of land in Etche has been acquired by the Rivers State government for oil palm production, with plantations at Ozuzu, Isu, Ogida, and Egbu. Another 5, 000 hectares has been acquired by the state for rubber plantations at Odagwa, Abara, and Umuoye. Though, the rubber processing plant at Umuanyagu/Okomoko has remained dilapidated for over nine years.
Oil was discovered in commercial quantity at Umuechem in 1958, making it the first place for such discovery in Rivers State, and the second in Nigeria after Oloibiri in Bayelsa State.
It is in Etche that the world-famous and much sought-after Bonny Light crude is produced.
Besides Umuechem, oil is produced in the following Etche communities, Abara, Akpoku, Osu, Orwu, Egwi, Okoroagu, Umuebulu, Ikwerrengwo, Chokota, Imeh, Odagwa, Umuokwaj, Edegelem, Akwuobor, Mba, Umuakali, Amarji, and Umuolilo. With about 250 oil wells, the communities fall under the following oil fields, Obigbo North, Agbada II, Umuechem/Otamiri, Nkali, Imo River I, and Imo River II.
Other oil facilities include flow stations at Obigbo North, Agbada II, Umuechem, and Imo River II; natural gas plant, and associated gas gathering plant. Etche is said to be the third largest oil producing area of Rivers State.
But nearly six decades of oil production has had little or no effect on the social, economic and political development of the people. It has, in fact, retarded their development through pollution of farmlands and instigation of destructive communal conflicts.
Besides, no Etche man or woman has ever held a managerial or board position in any oil sector paratatal of the federal government.
Ogbakor Etche says in the past 59 years, “The federal government and the oil producing companies have continued to behave in ways that seem to suggest that Etche nation is not a part of the Niger Delta, in particular, and Nigeria, in general, in terms of recognition.”
But Osinbajo has promised a new vision and commitment to the resolution of the issues in the Niger Delta. He said in Port Harcourt, “It is now clear the Niger Delta needs a new vision. There is no doubt at all that a new vision is required for the Niger Delta. But not only new vision, but a fresh commitment, a renewed spirit by all stakeholders, including the states, federal agencies and the oil bearing communities.
“The federal government is committed in going into a partnership with the oil producing states, local governments and the private sector as well as civil society organisations for the rapid development of these communities.”
The people of Etche have presented their request to the vice president, in the hope of getting a fairer deal. They would hope for greater recognition under the new federal government vision for the Niger Delta. As the secretary-general of Ogbakor Etche, Deacon Eleazar Kas-Nwogu, put it, “Etche thinks Nigeria must ensure equity and fair play, which, incidentally, Governor Nyesom Wike has tried to make his hallmark.”