Whose Oil is It, Anyway?

ENGAGEMENTS: With Chidi Amuta
ENGAGEMENTS with Chidi Amuta, e-mail: chidi.amuta@gmail.com


Former President Olusegun Obasanjo and Chief E.K Clark are unrepentant but useful fossils. Both suffer a common affliction: they like to hear their own voices. In their constant refrains on major national issues, they never tire of tormenting us with ancient interpretations of the country we all know. Both men share a common expired conception of Nigeria. While citizens see a good country rendered unhappy for individual fulfillment by a succession of gang rulers, these men see an amalgamation of clashing regions, tribes, factions and zones. In their worldview, each region is the home of specific resources with which they come to the national arena to negotiate political supremacy with other regions and factions. For them and their acolytes, exclusive regional and sectional resource ownership seems to be a common currency of political exchange.

Their most recent encounter is on the matter of who really owns Nigeria’s strategic oil and gas resources. Obasanjo angered Clark by repeating the worn out line that the oil and gas resources located in the Niger Delta belong primarily to the federal government as the constitution states. Predictably, an enraged Clark rose in defense of his region, countering the Ota farmer with a more assertive ownership claim on these resources by his Niger Delta kith and kin. Between the constitutional state and the patrimonial heritage state, a line is drawn. Clark needs to enter this battle most energetically; otherwise his residual political relevance will evaporate.

Not to be left out of this familiar regional scramble for ownership of national wealth and resources, spokesman of the Northern Elders Forum, Mr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed joined issues with both men. Let us have some ‘Federal Character’! Mr. Baba-Ahmed entered the adolescent contention that all the food eaten by Nigerians is produced in and belongs to the North. In his curious logic, Nigeria needs to show gratitude to the custodians of the nation’s food basket. Furthermore, Baba-Ahmed contends that the whole of Abuja belongs to the North which has magnanimously yielded it to the Federal government as part of its benevolent endowment to the idea of Nigeria. He then laments how most of the Abuja real estate space now belongs to ‘Southerners’.

In this politics of regional resource compartmentalization and ownership tussles, political leaders have found a convenient berthing foothold for their many combats. In the process, they have deepened our divisions and widened our misconceptions. Politicians have a right to mine fault lines in an effort to advance their interests. But to proceed therefrom to reduce the nation to a collection of extractive colonies is intellectual fraud. It is also an insult to ordinary Nigerians who seek no more than a respectable country they can call home. To this extent, Obasanjo, Clark and Ahmed are political dinosaurs from the ancestral depths of a better forgotten version of Nigeria. Their level of discourse cannot advance democratic debate. Their relapse into an ancient political discourse of regional ownership and supremacist muscle flexing cannot lead us to a free and truly democratic Nigeria. It has nothing to do with the right of Nigerians as individual citizens to produce and distribute goods and service throughout a national common market driven by supply and demand across the nation space.

These positions demonstrate once again the lingering attachment of Nigeria’s political leaders to a partition template. The nation becomes a collection of extractive enclaves, territories and extractive colonies, fenced off from each other by walls of political protectionism and even hate. We are held together by a political elite who have made it their life business to remind us of the resources each region is bringing to the national sharing table. Political contest among the rival elite becomes first a vicious contest over control of these resources through control of federal power. Justice and fairness in the nation is now defined in terms of which faction is getting the most benefits from its hegemonic control of power and resources. Political discourse and language becomes a clashing rhetoric of “my region is more important than yours”! “See, we have oil and you don’t! We have cattle and you don’t!. We sell spare parts and pharmaceuticals and you don’t! We just found gold in my backyard; where is yours?” etc

The international dollar price of whatever lies beneath your soil or grows in your backyard becomes a measure of your region’s political importance in the national order of precedence. Unconsciously, our politics has become a perennial contest over which region or zone hosts or brings the most strategic resources to the national equation.

This is how oil and gas were alienated from resources for the improvement of people’s lives into objects of vicious political football. Communities in oil bearing areas have been weaponized against an unjust state and its military presence. Whole communities have been razed in these vicious encounters. Thousands of innocent lives have been lost. Livelihoods have been erased. Limited undeclared wars have been fought just as whole armed movements have risen with militias armed with frightening weapons of war. These have been recognized as permanent features of our armed landscape. The category ‘militant’ has emerged as a distinct class of citizens who have earned the right to be heard by their ability to aim and shoot agents of the state and other innocent citizens. “I shoot, therefore, I am” has emerged as the defining dictum of this new dangerous type of Nigerian citizen.

Elsewhere, the politics of resource nationalism has produced another unfortunate version of the Nigerian citizen. In an attempt to elevate cattle into a strategic national resource with a political meaning, the armed herdsman and his variants of bandit, insurgent and terrorist has shaken Nigeria’s sense of security to its core. Violent trouble making has graduated into an occupation and lucrative business. The gunman (known and unknown) has come into the fore as a fact of daily life, redefining reality as we have come to know it. The elevation of senseless blood letting and violence into creeds of social existence is one of the clearest markers of the ascendancy of the type of resource politics that Mr. Muhammadu Buhari has authored. The daily news as a casualty headcount is the journalistic legacy of this season of anomie. In the process, the already hard to shock Nigerians have become inured to blood letting and a daily industrial scale loss of human lives. The rest of the world gets shocked each time they feel that too many Nigerians have died in one day. An entire school population can be carted off by transactional zealots and sectarian slave dealers in one night only for government secueity to arrive half a day later in ‘hot pursuit’.

Obasanjo’s position is a rehash of the standard old constitutionalist argument. It simply states that by the various constitutional provisions, all mineral resources that lie under the surface of the earth belong to the federal government. The individual only has rights to property on the surface of the earth. If the state finds oil under your farmland or hut, too bad. You have to move your miserable belongings as well as the gravesites of your ancestors and the shrines that make your life meaningful. Compensation will be paid you!

The federal government collects all the oil, gas and royalties in addition to those on other minerals under the earth. In turn, it redistributes all such national revenue to the various tiers of government in line with the applicable revenue allocation formula. Implicit in this arrangement are certain standard assumptions that go along with the classic theories of national sovereignty and the social contract between the citizen and the Leviathan. The barrage of obligations and responsibilities are familiar. Government has the responsibility to protect lives, to protect people from the environmental impacts of mineral prospecting and extraction, to provide means of livelihood for those who may be adversely affected by mineral extraction and prospection etc.

Underlying these basic assumptions is an abstract supposition that government is bound to be just to all citizens in the provision of essential amenities; that it will protect all citizens from the possible environmental and occupational hazards of mineral exploitation and extraction. Add all the other fancy rhetorical guarantees that define the obligations of the nation state to its citizens.

Over time, these assumptions have turned out utopian and deceptive. People in oil and gas communities have gotten poorer, pushed to the precarious edges of the existential precipice. They live in a supposedly rich country but mostly as spectators of the train of modernization and development in centres far away from the brackish backwaters of nasty resource exploitation. The political power brokers have in the past been embarrassed by the failure of this constitutional absolutism. They have tended to amend the rules. The revenue allocation formula has been tinkered with several times. Oil and gas producing states have been allowed an additional 13% revenue share. Intervention agencies like OMPADEC and NDDC have been quickly established. We have even established a separate Ministry of the Niger Delta to focus attention on the direct needs of the Niger Delta region.

The net effect of these arrangements and interventions has been to funnel a huge quantum of resources and cash to the region. Regrettably, very little has changed in he lives and circumstances of the people. The mood of restiveness and agitation has persisted, hence the venom in the Obasanjo/Clark exchange. The politics of resource agitation has become even more weaponised and fiery.

One offshoot of the political jostling for oil and gas resource control is the rise of the community as an active stakeholder. Both politicians and governments in power have of late come to accommodate community leaders as convenient middlemen in engagements with the people. In advancement of this angle, a coterie of community leaders consisting of chiefs, kings, dodgy intellectuals and diverse business men of no particular nomenclature has risen. The umbrella of ‘community leaders’ has been expanded to embrace all those who cannot fit comfortably as partisan political actors, militants or rights activists find shelter as community leaders. It is the collective of communities rather than the states in which they live that are asserting the strongest ownership stake of oil and gas resources. The federal state is therefore compelled by the grassroots origins of the resource control agitation to recognize and deal with community leaders as legitimate stakeholders.

This situation poses the legal burden of establishing the legal status of communities in the property rights relationship between the federal government and individual owners of the land underneath which oil and gas exploitation takes place. We must quickly concede that the community makes cultural sense mostly in understanding the national identity of indigenous peoples. In many parts of the country, land still belongs to communities without prejudice to the provisions of the Land Use Decree and other relevant laws of the state. Therefore, the community may have a residual cultural right to press its claims on behalf of its members when ancestral land is threatened.

But in a strict definition of citizenship in a constitutional democracy, the community hardly exists as a legal entity. In the context of the democratic bond between the citizen and the state, the community has tangential relevance. The social contract that binds every Nigerian citizen to the federal Leviathan is the essence of the Nigerian nation state. Neither ethnic group, region, zone nor community has a place in that social contract. Traditional rulers may have a cosmetic constitutional role but they must leave their communities outside the gates of power. Therefore, fairness, equity and justice in the context of the Nigerian nation state can only be defined and measured in terms of how well the state treats each citizen.

Strictly speaking, communities have no bloc voting rights at election time. The community has no international passport, drivers license, biometric identification or voters card. Only individual citizens meet these requirements. To that extent, therefore, the oil that is under a man’s hut or farmland should belong to him as an individual with the state collecting taxes from both the land owner and the oil and gas prospecting company in proportions that may be stipulated by law and recognized by the constitution. Therefore, the persistence of injustice in the mineral producing areas especially oil and gas in the Niger Delta is the result of the failure of the state to recognize and respect individual property rights as the basis of resource appropriation.

It is individual citizens whose farmlands are blighted and whose fishing ponds are polluted by oil spillage. It is they who suffer avoidable diseases as a consequence. It is they who end up in abject penury while the community leaders and political elite live in opulence from oil royalty compensatory funds and intervention agency contract scams. A community’s rivers may be poisoned; its farmlands may be rendered unproductive while its marine ecosystem may be wiped out. But it is at the individual level that the pain of loss and the anguish of deprivation are felt most. It is individuals who vote at elections, whose heads are counted at census and who are enumerated for compensation by oil companies. It is they whose children will not go to school or come home as heroes with wealth or positions.

Ordinarily, then, the reluctance to recognise the individual’s property rights remains the bane of our politics of resource appropriation especially as it concerns oil and gas resources. But there is a way out. The effective partnership ought to be between first, the individuals whose property rights are infringed on by the extractive processes of oil and gas exploitation. Second would be the federal government which provides sovereign protection, guarantees and ambience for everything in the Nigerian space. The third strategic partner would be the oil companies that provides the technology and capital for the realization of the resources. In this relationship, the primary beneficiary ought to be the individual land owner. The oil and gas companies should pay royalties to the property owner while the federal government should in turn levy appropriate taxes on the individual property owners on their mineral incomes. For instance, a federal mineral tax of say 60% on individuals on whose property oil and gas are produced would be nearly fair in ensuring a reasonable degree of fairness and equity to those who bear the brunt of oil and gas exploitation. A net income of 40% of oil and gas royalties that goes directly to individual land owners should ensure some equity. The same formula should apply to other minerals. It would matter less to individual land owners in these areas what the federal, state, local governments and their numerous racket agencies do with their 60% revenue.

Most importantly, a shift of emphasis to individual rights in designating our national wealth will rid our politics of the blackmail of regionalism. Politicians can at least get off resources that accrue to individual labour or natural endowments. This will shift the focus of our discourse to issues rather than regional entitlements. Politicians should find serious national issues to wage their fights over and get their fangs off the resources that belong to individual Nigerian citizens.