The oil communities of Abia got a golden opportunity when they came face to face with Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo at a town hall meeting. Emmanuel Ugwu witnessed and captured the no-holds-barred interactions as the stakeholders poured out their grievances and got comforting assurances
It took long in coming but at last the federal government has deemed it fit to come down to Abia State and get first hand information on the plight of the communities where oil is produced in the state. On March 24, 2017 it was the turn of Abia to host the Vice-President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, who led a team of federal government officials to Umuahia for a town hall meeting with the oil producing areas. The Abia edition of the town hall meeting was part of the ongoing engagement with the Niger Delta states that have become the goose that lays Nigeria’s golden egg. The longing of the oil bearing communities of Abia to have the ears of the federal authorities was aptly captured by the traditional ruler of Ipu West autonomous community, Eze Young Ogbonna. “We can now heave a sigh of relief because the federal government that owns the oil is here with us,” the monarch declared before he made his presentation at the town hall meeting. Abia is ranked among the oil producing states because of the presence of oil in Owaza, Uzuaku, Umuorie, Umuahala, Igiriukwu, Etitiama, Ipu and Isimanu, Isimiri, communities, all in Ukwa West Local Government, popularly known as Asa land.
The Vice-President was all ears and he listened to the various presentations made by the oil communities. He was also taking notes digitally with his tablet. Other members of the federal team that accompanied the VP to listen to Abia’s oil communities included the Minister of Niger Delta, Pastor Uguru Usani Uguru, Minister of Industry, Trade and investment, Dr. Okechukwu Enelama and the Minister of State for Petroleum, Dr. Ibe Kachikwu. Brig. Gen Paul Boro, who doubles as the Presidential Adviser on Niger Delta and Coordinator of the Amnesty Programme, was also part of the team. The event was well attended as the International Conference Centre, Umuahia, was filled to the brim with stakeholders from the oil producing areas of Abia and officials of the state government, including Governor Okezie Ikpeazu. Everybody was eager to talk but six groups made presentations through their respective spokespersons.
Former Senate president, Senator Adolph Wabara kicked off the presentations. He spoke on behalf of Abia State Elders Council, urging the VP “to listen attentively to our requests”. He told the federal team that even though Abia is oil producing state it has not been enjoying the commensurate benefits in terms of development hence the need for the federal government to give Abia a deep sense of belonging. “Our governor has been trying but we want the centre to come and assist him,” he pleaded, adding, “we love inclusiveness and we want to be part of that inclusiveness.” It was when other groups started making their presentations that the stark realities of the deprivations of the Abia oil communities came tumbling down. Spokesman of the Asa Youth Congress (AYC), Chinabiyi Nwogu noted that despite that large amount of crude oil continues to be produced in Asa the area is “still wallowing in poverty and underdevelopment while oil producing areas in other states are fast developing.” He listed a number of demands which he said the youths want the federal government to meet to improve the living condition in the oil communities of Abia State. These demands include appointment of Asa indigene into NDDC board, job opportunities in federal ministries, department and agencies (MDAs), training of youths in skills acquisition, return of contractors to complete abandoned road projects. “The situation we are in is very painful; we have no roads, we can’t take our farm produce to the market. We are impoverished,” the youth leader lamented.
After the youths, the women of Ukwa under the aegis of Ukwa Women Association (UWA) took their turn. Their spokesperson, Mrs. Comfort Site stated that 90 per cent of women in Asaland are farmers and the activities of the oil companies have adversely affected women. According to her oil and gas pollution has diminished food production in the area as farm lands have been rendered unproductive while houses have been destroyed through the exploitation of oil. She told the Vice-President that Asa women need financial assistance and farm inputs to improve their economic well-being, adding that good drinking water and electricity were needed urgently by the people. In its presentation the Asa Development Association (ADA) did not spare anybody it perceived to have through action or inaction contributed to the misery in the oil bearing areas of Abia. Dr. Onwubiko Dike, who spoke for ADA, accused the NDDC of awarding contracts in non-Asa communities, adding that the projects executed by the agency in Asa were characterised by abandonment and poor execution. He also alleged that Ukwa West was excluded from the scholarship scheme of NDDC as the slots meant for Abia were awarded to people from non-oil producing areas. To redress this injustice he demanded that subsequent scholarship awards meant for Abia should be reserved for the people from oil producing areas beginning from this year till 2021.
On the part of the federal government, Dike said that there has been no cause for comfort for the people of Asa as the government at the centre has largely ignored their plight even though Asa was the second place oil was struck shortly after it was discovered in Oloibiri, Rivers State in 1956. He noted that “the only federal presence in Asa is police and army”, adding that the Nigerian army has continued to occupy Asa High School, which he described as the premier school in the oil producing area. The Asa Development Association spokesman said that his people strongly feel that the time has come for the federal government to show positive presence in Asa by establishing a federal university in the area, preferably a Federal University of Technology as well as modular refinery. He also reminded the federal government of a number of oil wells located in Asa but being credited to Oyigbo in Rivers State. He called for an end to this economic manipulation. “We want to reap the benefits of this natural resource in our land,” he said.
The civil society organisations (CSOs) have been actively involved in the agitation for a better deal for the oil communities of Abia hence they were availed of the opportunity to make their presentations before the Vice-President. They were represented by Chief Don Ubani, the executive director of Centre for Equity and Eradication of Rural Poverty (CEERP). Giving a historical perspective on the journey of Asa land in oil production, Ubani said that it was in 1957 that the black gold was discovered in the area, barely a year after Oloibiri pioneered oil production in Nigeria. “While oil has since dried up in Oloibiri, many more oil wells have been discovered and remain functional in Owaza, Uzuaku, Umuorie, Umuahala and Isimanu communities of Asa,” he said. But the CSO spokesman was quick to point out that “59 years of oil exploitation in Asa land has instead of bringing development and succour to the people of Asa land (Ukwa West), brought environmental degradation and devastation of our agricultural potential and chances.” He said that it was very clear that the people of the oil producing area of Asa “have nothing to show” for all the decades of oil production in their area. Ubani therefore called on the federal government to declare “a state of emergency in Asa land with emphasis on development and employment.” Ubani echoed the call for federal tertiary institution in Asa, arguing that Asa High School was better suited to serve as academic institution instead of army camp. “The people of Asa want their school back. If the federal government is sympathetic to our plight, Asa High School could serve as a university instead of its abrupt confiscation as an army camp,” he said.
Eze Young Ogbonna touched a raw nerve when he spoke on behalf of the traditional rulers of Ukwa West. He alleged that Abia State has “never benefitted” from the amnesty programme of the federal government, adding that this neglect was breeding mistrust in the oil communities as youths often harboured the feelings that the royal fathers were not representing their interests. The royal father of Ipu West autonomous community said that when the federal government and oil companies failed to give the youths of the oil communities a sense of belonging the young men and women would turn round and pour their frustrations on the royal fathers whom they accuse of “blocking their development.” Nonetheless Eze Young pointed out that despite their frustrations the youths have been restrained from engaging in militancy hence the oil communities of Abia State have always been peaceful and the production of Brent crude at Awaza has been consistent since 1957. But the traditional ruler noted that it appeared that the federal authorities have been taking the peaceful conduct of Asa youths for granted as they are not factored into intervention programmes. He therefore suggested that the federal government should set up a reward system to compensate oil communities that are peaceful. “If amnesty is designed for militants a better policy should be designed to appreciate peaceful people,” he stated.
There were loud hisses, sighs and grunts among the audience when the former NDDC commissioner, Sam Nwogu reeled out statistics to show that Abia has been utterly forgotten in the intervention programmes. According to him, of the over 200 pilots and 1,000 underwater welders trained under the empowerment aspect of the amnesty programme no Abia indigene was among the beneficiaries “just because we are not carrying arms.” He said that even when they applied for inclusion of their youths in both amnesty training programmes and NDDC scholarship they were ignored while the 133 KVA electricity project at Obehie has been long abandoned. Apparently recalling his own frustrations as Abia’s representative on the NDDC board, Nwogu suggested the post of NDDC commissioner should not be on part time basis as it prevents them from being part of decision making in the allocation of development projects and beneficiaries of empowerment programmes. He emphasised that if commissioners were made to act as rubber stamps after decisions had been taken it would make it impossible for them to give their states quality representation because “no input, no impact”. Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, who represents Abia South where the oil communities are located, said that the capital city of Umuahia should not have served as the venue of the town hall meeting. He reasoned that the Vice President would have been in a better position “to see things for himself” if the meeting had taken place in the oil producing areas. Abaribe noted that it was crystal clear that the summation of all the demands being made by the people was that they need tertiary education, infrastructure and employment opportunities in the oil bearing areas. He alluded to the fact that there had been raging undercurrents of anger and frustration among the youths of Asa land. “The youths believe in us hence any time they wanted to rise up we’ll calm them down and they will obey because of the trust they have in us,” he said. The Abia South Senator stated that the youths needed to be trained in “marketable skills” that could be useful in the oil industry.
The issue of Abia’s exclusion from the amnesty programme was a big issue which every speaker mentioned in their presentations. Governor Ikpeazu harped on it and even amplified it to the hearing of Vice-President Osinbajo and his federal team that “no single citizen of Abia is benefiting from the amnesty programme. He called for an enquiry into the “fake” Abia names that were being bandied about as beneficiaries as none of them could be identified. The Abia chief executive said that there was no doubt that “the federal government is owing us 300 slots in the amnesty programme,” adding that the would-be beneficiaries must be trained overseas like their counterparts from other Niger Delta states. Even though militancy was largely carried out in the creeks, Ikpeazu explained that thousands of Abia youths were actively involved having gone to the hotbed of the militant agitation to fight for a common cause of better deal for the oil producing areas. He recalled that during the amnesty period a young man from Abia surrendered over 1,000 AK 47 rifles yet he was not accommodated in the amnesty programme. “He took to kidnapping,” the governor said in a sad note. It was obvious that Ikpeazu was referring to the notorious kidnapping kingpin popularly known as Osisikankwu, who held Abia hostage between 2009 and 2010 before troops came in and brought an end to the evil reign of criminal elements.
With the avalanche of outcry over the perceived marginalisation of Abia in the amnesty programme the coordinator of the programme, Brig. Gen. Paul Boro (rtd) the man in charge was apparently embarrassed and sought to correct the impression. But he ended up stoking more controversy when he insisted that 237 Abians had benefitted from the amnesty programme. Boro brandished a sheet of paper which supposedly contained the names of “Abia beneficiaries.” But even at that nobody was convinced as it appeared that they were phantom Abians on the list of beneficiaries. As the controversy raged the member representing Ukwa East/Ukwa West federal constituency, Hon Uzoma Abonta challenged the amnesty programme coordinator to prove the veracity of his claims, insisting that the 237 persons on Boro’s list “are not Abians.” Boro was made to abandon his speech as tempers rose. However, there were soothing balms and assurances from Uguru, Enelama, Kachikwu and Osinbajo.
“The deprivation that people suffer is not new,” the VP said, adding that there was no doubt that the people of oil producing communities have only heard of oil wells but have not benefited from what comes from it. “We have to change the situation (neglect of oil communities). We’ll focus on how the majority of the people will see the benefits of oil wealth,” Osinbajo said. There were indeed firm assurances from Osinbajo that Abia was in for a new deal of inclusiveness as, according to the Vice-President, the federal government has adopted a new way of doing business with oil communities and would “focus on how the majority of the people will see the benefit of oil wealth.” As he left Abia with a chieftaincy title of Enyioha Abia (friend of all Abia people) conferred on him by the Abia State Council of Ndi Eze, there was high expectations that the Vice-President has opened a new vista of beneficial engagement with Abia.