The consensus is that the federal government and oil companies should take the blame for the sordid state of the Niger Delta. But the coordinator of the Pan-Niger Delta Youth Leadership Forum, Richard Akinaka disagrees. He spoke with Ahamefula Ogbu. Excerpts:
What does the Pan-Niger Delta Youths Leadership Forum stand for and while is it protesting?
You can call it a socio-political group for young, responsible and vibrant youth leaders across the Niger Delta to take responsibility for what happens in the region. Often times, we have come to realise that as a people, we have laid too much of the blame of the problems of the Niger Delta on the federal government without necessarily looking back at ourselves and identifying those core areas we have failed our region . The bottom-line is that Nigeria is just a union of convenience, I don’t see it as a country where everybody wants to be part of but anytime you find yourself in an unfair unionism like this, you take the best opportunities. As a people, have we not had opportunities? We’ve had opportunities; but have we managed these opportunities well to the development of our region? No. So as a people we had our inaugural meeting in Calabar and we found out that the greatest problem of the Niger Delta is the Niger Deltan themselves. Our leaders have failed us and this is not just a Niger Delta problem, this could be a Nigerian problem, it could be the problem of the north east, north central or the problem of the South-west but we are trying to take direct responsibility of our own problem , confronting every leadership that has failed us and making sure that we put up structures that will prevent such from happening in the future because you ask yourself, every day you wake up blaming the federal government, blame the Nigerian state for not treating us well but the opportunities we have had, have we used them well? No. Local government administration has failed, state governors have failed. Today you can go to Bayelsa and you can’t point out one project since democracy came that Bayelsa can look up to, no.
What of intervention agencies created specifically for the region?
Regional intervention agencies like the NDDC and the Ministry of Niger Delta were created for the region have failed and when you look deep into those things, perhaps some people will say that Amnesty has failed too. When you look at these things you will understand that we need to take responsibility in appraising ourselves how well we have done with resources that came to our region? Of course you have heard some IOCs coming out to say they have given so so amount to the NDDC but do we have commensurate result on ground to show that those monies have come to the region? No. So are we still going to blame the federal government? Blame your own people who have managed these resources poorly and until we do that, we cannot have the moral standing to face outsiders and say you have not treated us well. For instance we are agitating for political space and development in Niger Delta, eventually, as God will have it, we had our own brother as President of this country for six years. Before he became president, the late president granted amnesty to agitators who were in the creeks fighting for the betterment of the region and in solving that problem, he set up structures to address these fundamental developmental issues, environmental issues. You are aware of the Ministry of Niger Delta that was solely created to address infrastructural deficit issues in Niger Delta as part of the amnesty programme. The Environment Ministry was tasked to address the environmental issues, look into the Ogoni cleanup and the entire Niger Delta clean up; you look at the Ministry of Petroleum was tasked by the minister with membership from the Ijaw, the Niger Delta to participate, to make sure that the oil and gas industry accommodates the people which eventually led to the PIB Bill that has struggled all this while. We have the DDR sub-committee that was directly responsible for the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of the people that were in the creeks fighting. As God would have it, death took this president and our own brother came on board and every other aspect that would have complemented the growth of the Niger Delta was abandoned by our own brother’s government. The only amnesty programme that people know as amnesty is one subcommittee which is DDR aspect which is the only aspect still working now. Every other thing that the president (Yar’Adua) put in place to make sure these things do not happen in the nearby future was abandoned by our own brother with our own people in government, so who are you going to blame, are you going to blame the man from the north for not treating your region well? Capital no. So right now what we are out to do is to appraise ourselves, look deep into areas we have done ourselves disservice and correct those things and move on. That is the essence of this group. Even the concession of refineries which is headed by a man from the Niger Delta, Ibe Kachikwu but he is doing that without consideration for the region.
What grouse does your group have with the concession of the refineries that have not been working well?
The crux of the matter is to hold leadership accountable. If you look at the way Kachikwu is failing on two key areas, you will agree with me. When this renewed agitation came, he started a direct negotiation process with the groups, but when you are fostering or advancing such peace moves, you must be careful not to set precedence that people are being recognised for destroying national assets , for damaging oil facilities. There were the likes of Ateke, Boylof, Africa, Ogunbos who still have capacity but because the government of the day was just coming on and had not found its footing, there was need for the general Niger Delta people to give it time to come out with overall package the government had for the region, started destroying pipelines for their own selfish interests. As a minister, he started talking to the people; it wasn’t bad talking to the people to stop what they were doing but you did that at the expense of those who decided to keep the peace in different locations by making them look as if they were not important. That could have made them say oh, because we are keeping the peace that is why they think that we are not important. The minister failed to talk to those who are stakeholders in the region on their own rights. If some of these people say okay let this happen, it will happen within 24 hours. Some of them have greater strength than the so called Avengers that were destroying the pipelines . He is even patronising them.
Are you saying there are faces now behind the Avengers attacks?
So if they are not known how did they secure the ceasefire? They are known, do you talk with spirits? How was Kachikwu able to secure the ceasefire?
Back to the concession of the refineries, what are your grouses?
The same mistake he is making; these refineries are not working we know, and we know that government does not do well in business and that privatisation is key. If you want to privatise, you must consider the interest of the people, especially those that have suffered the environmental impact of these refineries. I will take you to Okrika and show you the waste water that runs through the densely populated Okochiri from the refinery with horrible chemical odour. Someone has given birth to a deformed baby with six legs there. I will show you the exposed pipelines and you have no consideration for them and shut the door to other people who have capacity to participate in the project by giving it to some privileged people. Are they your private properties that you are dishing out to people you wish? If you are going to privatise, you make it open, advertise and people will participate and those who win will get it. Before you do that, you must set up the right framework. The land for those refineries were given to government on overriding public interest, now you want to concession it to private companies that will make profit out of them why not call the owners of the land and give them the absolute right to negotiate?
But the land is already acquired by government…
Yes, acquired in overriding public interest, now they are going to private people to be managed.
Are there Niger Delta people with resources and capacity to run the refineries well?
The minister said just over a billion dollars was required to turn around those refineries. There are people in the Niger Delta that can raise that though no one keeps that type of money but these are investment opportunities. How much did it take Femi Otedola to turn AP to Forte Oil? Go and look at the history of the takeover of those assets, they were government assets that were given to these people at abysmal and unimaginable rates, today they are billionaires being celebrated by Forbes and the rest of them. Do you think people in the Niger Delta don’t have the technical knowhow to secure loans or get counterparts from abroad to manage them and give money back to government?
But the government is negotiating with Nigerian Delta on granting them modular refineries licences, is that not good enough?
We have had this problem of product shortage. This country is large to an extent that most times you experience scarcity of products. Let me tell you, 80 per cent of the products we use in this country are refined by our brothers in the Niger Delta crudely, unguidedly and when the Acting President carried our a fact finding for himself on what actually goes on in the Niger Delta, he realised this and the JTF can attest to this. The diesel they use in Aso Rock I am convinced is refined by our brothers because most of these people who took subsidy, you will see the vessels in the shores of the Niger Delta taking these products from these boys after it has been refined and they will come and claim subsidy for importation. There is already an ugly situation, the environment is being messed up on daily basis; so what we expect is that just as Lagos State turned area boys to LASTMA and provided a framework, using a bad situation to create a good framework, why can’t we through the DPR create a regulatory platform, using bad situation to provide jobs for our people and make sure that there is direct labour and help the economy?
But that is the plan of the government…
Didn’t you hear what Kachikwu said? That the government is pedaling down on it, perhaps that is why they are concessioning the refineries, that the Niger Delta people don’t have the technical know-how , the capacity and that he does not want to destroy the environment the more. The environment is already damaged. We have put in proposals, people have even submitted technical drawings seeking for this licence and he came out to say it was not going to work, talking from both sides of his mouth. When we took up this issue of concessioning of the refineries, he said they were going to do private bidding process and we asked him to make it open after the protest we had in Port Harcourt. We have organised series of protests, the next is going to be in Warri next month. They said they have not concessioned the refinery to anybody and that they are no longer doing it but that is not true. We are saying do it according to the law, let the one that wins take it but don’t shut out anyone and infact people from the Niger Delta should be given the first offer of refusal.
Recently Niger Delta Youths asked for return of oil blocks held by northerners following a quit order on Igbo by Arewa Youths Coalition , why such demand?
I listened to the Arewa speech and for me it was one of the most brilliant speech I have heard from a group in northern Nigeria the reason being that when something is not working, you identify clearly that it is not working out. There is no permanent situation in life, so you change. There is nothing in life except God that doesn’t change. The agitation for separation is growing louder daily. What I heard them say is that Nigeria can stay as a name but let us have fiscal federalism where everybody is an independent structure contributing to the center.
They asked Igbo to leave; that to me is like a threat and security agencies should handle that. Even if you are not a citizen of the same country and you have right to reside, you have that right to stay in that part of the world. If Nigeria separates today the Igbo should still have the right to live in the northern part of the country if they want but I listened to it carefully and it was a brilliant thing but the threat aspect of it doesn’t go down well with me and nobody has monopoly of violence and that is why the group in the Niger Delta came out to say okay if they are threatening people like this, they should leave our oil. It doesn’t take anything for anybody to create that kind of problem especially in the Niger Delta that would affect the whole of this country. I like their position except the threat and government should take responsibility and do the needful. That threat they made is more grievous than what Nnamdi Kanu did that cost him years in incarceration. Government must show cause that some people have made a statement capable of disintegrating this country.
Are you for restructuring or for separation?
Nigeria has come to stay as an entity so I am totally in support of fiscal federalism. It has practised it before and that was when development thrived because it created competition and each region wanted to excel.
Our leaders have failed us and this is not just a Niger Delta problem, this could be a Nigerian problem, it could be the problem of the north east, north central or the problem of the South-west but we are trying to take direct responsibility for our own problem , confronting every leadership that has failed us and making sure that we put up structures that will prevent such from happening in the future