Endless Dispute over Soku Oil Fields

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Wike and Dickson

While the people of Rivers State are still in jubilation mood over the judgment of the Federal High Court returning the Soku oil fields to the state, the National Boundary Commission and Bayelsa State government are kicking against it, writes Davidson Iriekpen

The last has not been heard on the dispute between the Rivers State and Bayelsa State governments over the Soku oil fields as the National Boundary Commission (NBC) has expressed its readiness to appeal last Monday’s judgment of the Federal High Court in Abuja, which ordered the return of the oil field to its rightful owner, Rivers State.

Justice Inyang Ekwo had ordered the return of the oil fields from Bayelsa State to Rivers State. Delivering judgment in a suit instituted by the Rivers State, the judge ordered the NBC to effect the transfer by rectifying the error in its 11th Edition of the Administrative Map of Nigeria, which designated San Bartholomew River, instead of River Santa Barbara, as the boundary between the two states. According to the judge, the error, which was said to have surfaced in the 11th Edition of Administrative Map produced by the NBC in 2002, has negatively impacted the oil revenues accruable to Rivers State from the Federation Account due to the loss of the Soku oil fields.

He, therefore, ordered the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) and the Accountant General of the Federation to start acting on the new map in computing the additional oil revenues accruable to Rivers State following its regaining of the oil fields.

Citing the judgment of the Supreme Court, Justice Ekwo said the NBC had in its letter dated July 3, 2002, replying Rivers State government’s protest admitted its mistake and promised to rectify it in the 12th edition of the administrative map, but never did. He said the failure of the NBC to rectify the mistake as promised made the Rivers State government, through its Attorney-General, to file a suit against the Attorney General of Bayelsa State and the Attorney General of the Federation before the Supreme Court in 2009.

But responding to the judgment, the NBC acting Director General, Mr. Adamu Adaji, faulted the judgment, adding that it was the duty of the Office of the Surveyor General of the Federation to produce the administrative map. He said the commission was not the producer of the Administrative Map of Nigeria as erroneously insinuated in some quarters.

The NBC boss said though the surveyor general had produced the provisional copy of the much-awaited 12th edition of the map, “because of certain discrepancies, they decided to withhold the final publication.” He also accused the court of usurping the functions of the boundary commission by defining the boundary in its ruling, when it had not been finalised by the commission. He added that such a function was an exclusive mandate of the commission.

The Soku oil fields dispute started when the Rivers State government noticed an error in the delineation of the inter-state boundary in the 11th Edition of the Administrative Map of Nigeria prepared by the NBC and the office of the Surveyor-General of the Federation in 1999.

In the map, rather than maintain Santa Barbara River as the boundary between the Kalabari in Rivers State and Nembe in Bayelsa State as all previous delineations and all historical records, the 11th edition administrative map had shifted the boundary west of this rivers to San Bartholomew River.

Going by the contentious map, it meant that some ancient Kalabari communities and settlements along with about 41 oil wells located within the Soku oil fields in Rivers State suddenly become part of the Nembe clan in Bayelsa State.

Irked by this development, then Governor Peter Odili, petitioned the director general of the NBC and Vice President Atiku Abubakar, through who a letter dated July 3, 2002, the director general of NBC acknowledged the error and apologised. In the letter, the NBC DG stated, “I have discussed this issue with the Surveyor General of the Federation and wish to state as follows: That the NBC has taken note of the state’s observation on the inadvertent misrepresentation of the Bayelsa/Rivers interstate boundary on the San Bartholomew River as shown on the map.”

The director-general also said: “I am to assure your Excellency that your observations have been noted and necessary corrections shall be reflected on the 12th edition of the map currently under production. I am to assure you that the boundary line as reflected in the said edition of the map shall in no way have bearings on the current efforts.”

When the correction was not made, in 2009, Governor Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi instituted Suit N0 SC/106/2009 between its Attorney General vs. Attorney General of Bayelsa State & Others at the Supreme Court. The apex court in its ruling held that it would be appropriate to await the final delineation of the boundary by the NBC. It said it could not and would not decide the boundary based on the erroneous 11th edition Administrative Map the Bayelsa State Governor was relying on and using as his basis to claim Bayelsa ownership of the Soku oil wells; but that it will await the final delineation to be heralded by the promised 12th edition of the map.

The court consequently ordered that revenues from the disputed Soku wells should be fixed in an escrow account to await the resolution of the boundary dispute.

In the ruling, the apex court held: ‘It is on account of the foregoing and because of the technical nature of the dispute and the claims of the parties that the court finds that the NBC as an authority vested with authorities and expertise, know-how in dealing with this matter, should have, once and for all, conducted an exhaustive exercise of delineating the disputed boundary, hence the long awaited 12th edition of the Administrative Map when completed soonest would have been of tremendous assistance in settling the lingering dispute.

“In the light of the observations I have clearly expressed above, I do not feel comfortable to grant the declarations sought until the NBC concludes its exercise of delineation of disputed boundary to finality. It will be futile and premature to determine the boundary of the two parties in the present circumstance.’’

That was, indeed, the position of things until Amaechi alerted the state and the nation about a clandestine disbursement of N17 billion from the Supreme Court-ordered escrow account from the disputed oil wells to Bayelsa State by the federal government under the then President Goodluck Jonathan.

Even as the Bayelsa State government initially denied receiving such money, it continued to lay claim to the disputed oil wells, insisting that they fall within its Oluasiri oil field in Nembe. For instance, it claimed that the oil wells were not in Rivers State, adding that Soku was merely a name adopted by Shell Petroleum Development Corporation (SPDC), being its nearest operational base at the time and the tag did not necessarily reflect the location of the oil wells.

This fact, noted the state government, had been attested to by NBC as well as a committee headed by Maj-Gen. A. B. Mamman (rtd), set up in October 2000 by former President Olusegun Obasanjo.

But the Rivers State government accused the Bayelsa government of distorting facts about the Soku oil wells. It said the neighbouring state conveniently left out the fact that from colonial times up till the 10th edition of the Administrative Map of Nigeria, the boundaries between the Kalabari communities in Rivers State and the neighbouring Nembe communities of Bayelsa State have been clearly delineated, with the boundary clearly marked as the Santa Barbara River.

It added: “The 11th Edition of the Administrative Map, prepared by the national boundary commission and the federal surveyor general’s office in 1999, but published in 2000, strangely shifted the boundaries between Rivers and Bayelsa States from the initial boundary between Kalabari and Nembe, west of the Santa Barbara River, to San Bartholomew River, contrary to the delineation by all preceding administrative maps of Nigeria and all historical records.”

With the error in the 11th Edition of the Administrative Map never corrected, on August 22, 2019, Governor Nyesom Wike through his Attorney General, instituted a fresh suit at the Federal High Court in Abuja solely against the NBC seeking an order of mandamus compelling it to correct its error.

Granting the plaintiff’s prayers in his judgment delivered, Justice Ekwo held that “The continued failure and/or refusal of the defendant (NBC) to rectify its admitted mistake in the 11th Edition of the Administrative Map of Nigeria since 2002, which erroneously showed San Bartholomew instead of River Santa Barbara as the interstate boundary between the plaintiff state and Bayelsa State, constitutes a breach of its statutory duty and a flagrant disobedience to the order of the Supreme Court contained in its judgment delivered on July 10, 2012 in suit with number SC.106/2009.”

It made an order of mandamus and mandatory injunction compelling the defendant (NBC) to rectify forthwith in the 12th edition of the Administrative Map of Nigeria, the erroneous interstate boundary between Rivers State and Bayelsa State as contained in the extant 11th Edition of the Administrative Map of Nigeria.

The court also made an order deeming the administrative boundary between Rivers and Bayelsa States to be River Santa Barbara in accordance with the admission of the defendant (NBC) as per its letter of July 3, 2002 and the definitive order of the Supreme Court entered and made on July 7, 2012. It also declared that “The continued reliance on the said defective 11th edition of the Administrative Map of Nigeria by other government agencies, statutory bodies, especially the RMAFC and the Accountant General of the Federation in computation of the revenue accruable to the plaintiff from the Federation Account has resulted in the continued unjust/unfair denial of allocation of derivation funds/money accruing from the Soku Oil Fields/Wells situated within the Rivers State to the detriment of the plaintiff.”

Responding to the verdict, counsel to the Rivers State Government, L.E. Nwosu (SAN), described it as a victory for the rule of law. He said the declarative judgment would check any resort to self-help over the injustice.

On his part, Wike said the state government would continue to fight and defend the interest of the state in order to promote the welfare of her people. He added that the Soku oil wells/fields belonged to the Rivers State before they were illegally appropriated by the federal government for Bayelsa State.

He said, “The judgment is very proper. Everybody knows that it is wrong that the federal government collected our oil wells and ceded same to Bayelsa State. So, we took the right step by going to court.

“We sued the NBC. By interpreting the Supreme Court judgment that for now, since you’re unable to demarcate the boundary, then let the oil wells be in Rivers State, where it used to be, pending when the National Boundary Commission is ready to implement the Supreme Court judgment. We are happy for what happened today. We don’t believe in fighting; we only believe in following due process.”

But the Bayelsa State government flayed the verdict, saying it would not stand assuring that it would be upturned. The state Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Andrew Arthur, said the application by the Rivers State government was cunningly hidden from the state government, adding he only got to know about it on the judgment day.

He said although he would restrain from making further comments until he received a copy of the judgment, he added Rivers State had brought similar applications on about four occasions but lost all.

The commissioner urged the people to remain calm since the government would challenge the order of the court at the appeal.

He said: “Don’t forget that we were not party to the said action that was brought by the Rivers State. We were not even aware of the pendency of the action up to the stage of this morning.

“I had to call the governor to intimate the governor of the fact that there was a judgment. I have not seen the hard copy of the judgment apart from what I read from papers. I can’t be making a comment on the basis of what is written in papers. But I will be in Abuja and I can assure you that Bayelsa State will have a robust defence by way of an appeal as an interested party. It is quite unfortunate. Rivers State had brought similar applications on about four occasions before the Federal High Court.

“Bayelsans should remain calm. We understand that this government is almost at its terminal point, but we still owe a duty to protect the interest of Bayelsa State and the government will not shelve that responsibility at this stage.”