Judicial Intervention in Soku Oilfields Dispute

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Two weeks after a Federal High Court in Abuja ordered the return of Soku oil fields to Rivers State, the judgment has further heightened the tension between the state and its neighbouring Bayelsa State. Davidson Iriekpen and Ernest Chinwo write

The recent judgment of the Federal High Court, Abuja, ordering the return of Soku oil fields to Rivers State has reignited the cold war between Rivers and Bayelsa States, with Governors Nyesom Wike and Seriake Dickson spending the better part of last week to trade tackles.

The court, presided over by Justice Inyang Ekwo while delivering judgment in a suit instituted by the Rivers State, 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 field.

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 field.

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.

The Soku oil field 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 field in Rivers State suddenly became part of the Nembe clan in Bayelsa State.
Irked by this development, then Governor Peter Odili petitioned the chairman 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.”

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 and 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 be 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.
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 that 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 Beyelsa 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 10thedition of the Administrative map of Nigeria, the boundaries between the Kalabari communities in Rivers State and the neighbouring Nembe communities of Bayelsa State had always been clearly delineated, with the boundary clearly marked as the Santa Barbara River.

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, 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 therefore made an order of mandamus and mandatory injunction compelling the 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.

Since the judgment was delivered, the Bayelsa State Government has not find it funny. Dickson flayed the verdict, saying it would not stand and would be upturned at the Court of Appeal, alleging that the judgment was surreptitiously obtained by the Rivers government.
While the reaction of the Bayelsa State Government was understandable, what many observers could not understand was the reaction of the NBC, which expressed its readiness to appeal the verdict.

Its 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.

Observers believed that what Adaji did not disclose is where NBC has been since its Director General, in a letter dated July 3, 2002, responding to Odili’s protest, acknowledged the error in 11thEdition of the Administrative Map and apologised with a promise to correct it.
They also wondered that if the commission were an efficient and responsive agency of government, why did it not urgently act on the order of the Supreme Court since 2012? They equally challenged the agency to show proof of what it has done since the apex court verdict in 2012 to resolve the dispute.

…The Intrigues, the Politics
It’s no longer news that the Federal High Court sitting in Abuja on Monday, December 16, has declared that Rivers State owns the disputed Soku Oil Wells/Fields located in Akuku-Toru Local Government Area of Rivers State.
In the judgment in suit number FHC/ABJ/CS/984/19, the Attorney-General of Rivers State versus National Boundary Commission (NBC), Justice Inyang Ekwo of the Federal High Court declared that after examining all the documents from relevant Government agencies and facts before the court, the Soku Oil Wells/fields belong to Rivers State.

Understandably, the judgment was celebrated in Rivers State. Indeed, it was a vindication of the stance of Rivers State Government since the release of the 11th Administrative Map. Minister of Transportation, Chibuike Amaechi, when he was governor, screamed to high heavens that it was a rape on the state.

He accused Jonathan of masterminding the action of the NBC with the connivance of Governor Nyesom Wike, who was then a serving minister of state for education. While Amaechi politicked with the situation, nothing concrete appeared to be done legally to reclaim the oil well and fields. The revenue accruing from the fields still eluded the state.
That remained the situation until Wike went to court to protest against the continued refusal of the NBC to correct the mistake it had admitted to concerning the 11th Edition of the Administrative Map and challenge the failure of the (RMAFC) to remit revenue accruing therefrom to Rivers State.

Thus the judgment of the Federal High Court was celebrated as a vindication of the position of the state. The Soku Council of Chiefs applauded the court judgment and pledged their loyalty to Rivers State Government for protecting the interest of the people.

Addressing journalists in Port Harcourt, Chairman of Soku Council of Chiefs, Chief Telema Imoh, said: “We the Council of Chief, Elders, community development committee (CDC), Youth, Women and entire people of Soku Community in Kalabari-Ijaw ethnic nationality in Akuku-Toru Local Government Area of Rivers State do hereby express our immense thanks to God almighty for life on the victory surrounding the disputes of Soku land, Oil Wells/Field and associated rights.

“We thank the executive governor of Rivers State, His Excellency Chief, Barr. Nyesom Ezenwo Wike (CON, GSSRS, POS (JP) for his doggedness, in securing the return of the illegally ceded Soku Oil Wells/Field to Rivers State. We appreciate and identify with his developmental strides in the State.”
Chairman of Akuku-Toru Local Government Area, Roland Sekibo, also thanked the State Governor for his support for the Soku people and the entire Kalabari Kingdom.

Member Representing Akuku-Toru/Asari-Toru Federal Constituency, Rt Hon Boma Goodhead, also lauded Wike for taking up the issue of Soku Oil Wells/fields and ensuring that the people get Justice.
She said the relevant authorities should ensure that the funds that have accrued to Soku Community and Rivers State are credited to their accounts.

Wike also used the celebration to raise issues concerning what he termed the nocturnal visits to the Kalabari area of the state by the Bayelsa State Governor, Seriake Dickson, in his bid to claim the area and the oil wells and fields.
While Wike protested the visit of the Bayelsa State Governor to areas of Rivers State without the knowledge of the State Governor in line with protocol standards, he also threatened to withdraw the state recognition of the Amayanabo of Kalabari for not consulting with or reporting the visit to the state government.

While some interested parties in Kalabari land fumed at what they saw as a desecration of their traditional institution, Dickson upbraided Wike for daring to question his right to visit Kalabari, a part of the larger Ijaw nation.

Dickson accused the Rivers governor of manipulation and unwarranted hostility against him and the people of Bayelsa.
Speaking during a media chat at the Government House in Yenagoa, Dickson stressed that Wike was merely using the disputed oil wells between the two sister states to create disunity and to cover up the deliberate underdevelopment of Rivers Ijaw communities by pretending to be their champion.

The obviously furious Bayelsa governor said as a Nigerian and a bona fide Ijaw son, he and indeed any past or future governor of the state reserved every right to travel anywhere without being questioned by anybody.

Dickson argued that he was not interested in claiming ownership of Soku, a community in Rivers, but added that he was convinced that the disputed oil wells are located in Oluasiri, Nembe local government area of Bayelsa State.
He accused Wike of ‘reckless expansionist agenda’, which he argued had led him to start needless wars with all the neighbouring states of Imo, Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa and more to come to the detriment of the unity of the Niger Delta and the South-south, which is so critical to the zone at this time.

Dickson said judging from Wike’s needless antagonism to him and Bayelsans over the years and his recent unprovoked outburst concerning an area with a very volatile history, it remains an issue of grave concern to Bayelsans and indeed the Rivers people that their governor lacks the capacity to appreciate the grave implications of his intemperate outbursts and actions.

He also referred to the Supreme Court decision on the issue that directed the National Boundary Commission to carry out a fresh delineation and demarcation exercise in the affected area.
Dickson wondered why Wike was afraid of the boundary commission doing its job and reminded the governor how the Rivers delegation led by its deputy governor at the time, Mr. Tele Ikuru, pulled out of the exercise in 2013.

Alleging that Wike was interested in dividing the Ijaw people and driving a wedge in the long-held smooth relationship between the two states, Dickson urged the people of Rivers to rein in their governor before he does more damage.
Speaking on his visit in April to the Amayanabo, Dickson explained that he met the foremost traditional ruler to condole with the people on the killing of Ijaw sons and daughters of the area during Wike’s own gubernatorial election.

Also, while acknowledging that he failed to extend diplomatic courtesies as demanded by protocols, Dickson said the lines of communication between him and Wike had been docile for years because of disagreements.
“I want to make it clear as governor of this state, either me or any other person who will be governor, we don’t need Wike’s permission to visit our traditional rulers and elders in Port Harcourt or any part of Rivers State.

“Since he doesn’t understand courtesy and is not prepared to show courtesy, then that courtesy will not be extended to him. Bayelsa is not an annex of Rivers State that he can intimidate at will.” Accusng the Rivers State governor of interfering with the politics of Bayelsa, he said, “Wike should stop interfering with the politics of Bayelsa State, you all know what he did in the PDP primaries and the roles he played supporting the APC in their federal takeover of our state, there are so many things he has been doing that I keep quiet about.

“Wike should learn to respect his colleagues for whom he has shown scant regards not just for me, and Bayelsa. He is having oil wars with every state around him: with Imo and Akwa Ibom states. What is wrong with him?”
Reacting, however, Wike described Dickson as suffering from self-inflicted frustration.

Addressing journalists in Port Harcourt, Wike said it was wrong for his Bayelsa State counterpart to be discussing legal matters on the pages of newspapers and on television, when the courts are open for him to appeal against the Federal High Court judgment if he was not satisfied.

Wike described the allegations made against him by his Bayelsa counterpart as the baseless ranting of a frustrated politician, who is yet to come to terms with his losses.
“Judgment has been given. The best the Bayelsa State Governor can do is to go on appeal. You cannot heap your frustration on us. We have nobody to carry guns, so the best place to go is the court,” Wike stated.
Wike said he was elected by Rivers people to protect their interests and that there was nothing personal in the fight for Soku Oil Wells.

“I am protecting what belongs to Rivers State Ijaw. The Outgoing Bayelsa State Governor is the one trying to cause disharmony by attempting to collect what belongs to the Ijaw in Rivers State.
“I read Governor Dickson’s outburst on almost all national dailies today. I also watched it on television last night. As a governor, there are some levels you cannot descend to.

“It is unfortunate that frustration can lead to a lot of things. God will never allow me to get to that level. I understand the frustration; it was self-inflicted. Nobody inflicted the frustration on him.”
Wike also said while Rivers State is a major construction site, the Bayelsa State Governor has failed his people by failing to utilise their resources judiciously, adding that for a small state like Bayelsa, it was wrong for Dickson to expend N70 billion on an uncompleted airport, when Bayelsa State lacks good roads and basic infrastructure.
The Rivers governor also said there was no oil wars between Rivers State and Imo/Akwa Ibom States as claimed by the Bayelsa State Governor, but that he went to Court against Imo State to challenge the attempt to take what belongs to Rivers State.

He also noted that he went to court against Akwa Ibom State because of illegal deductions of funds from Rivers State by the agencies of the Federal Government. He however said he still enjoys a good working relationship with the governors of Imo and Akwa Ibom States as the differences were basically on official matters.

However, the disagreement between both governors obviously went beyond the oil wells to their activities as members of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and their actions during the last governorship elections in Bayelsa State.
Wike said the outgoing Bayelsa State Governor was never committed to the PDP, all through the elections.

On why the PDP lost Bayelsa State, Wike said, “Dickson planned for PDP to fail elections and he is now crying federal might. He assumed the role of God. Nobody could tell him anything. During his second term election, people resisted the Army. But this time, they left him alone.

“You cannot accord Former President Goodluck Jonathan respect. Simply because Rivers State honoured Jonathan, Dickson became angry. Dickson concluded plans to join the APC. Timipre Silva and Heineken Lokpobiri blocked him. He knew I have strength; he would have consulted me.

“Dickson colluded with these people, so that EFCC will not arrest him when he leaves Government. If you like, carry any level of propaganda, I will protect the interest of Rivers State.”
But worried by the development, the PDP has set up a team to reconcile the two governors. While Wike rejected the peace overtures, the party said it was bent on bringing peace between the duo and mandated Delta State Governor, Senator Ifeanyi Okowa, to wade into the dispute.

How this dispute will end is yet to be determined. But what is obvious is that the relations between the sister states is at its lowest ebb, at least officially. And the earlier the issues are resolved, the better for the people, who still relate as brothers and sisters.