Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Militant Governors of The Niger Delta

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Militant Governors Of The Niger Delta

By Reuben Abati

Perhaps the biggest blow that has been dealt the Yar'Adua administration's Niger Delta agenda is the rebellion of the Governors of the South-South on the questions of amnesty, the siting of a proposed University of Petroleum in Kaduna, and the Petroleum Industry Bill. The general perception that the Federal Government was working closely with the Governors of the region to ensure peace and development, and that at the highest level, there was a certain degree of consensus on what needs to be done has been exposed for what it is: a myth. Indeed, the seeming friendly relationship between Abuja and the South South Governors was bound to collapse as the Federal Government was obsessed with symbolic gestures rather than concrete action.

Under Obasanjo, the differences between the states and the centre became obvious early with some of the South South Governors (Obong Attah, notably) disagreeing publicly with the President on fiscal federalism and the rights of littoral states. With South South Governors now sounding like the militants in the creeks, giving conditions and issuing threats, President Yar'Adua's inability to manage his Niger Delta programme well and secure local ownership among the Governors is well-advertised. There should be heartaches in Abuja. Well, self-inflicted. And the militants must be laughing.

By their action, the Governors have activated a fresh wave of Niger Delta patriotism and militancy with Delta State Students giving the Federal Government a seven-day ultimatum and the Joint Revolutionary Council, an umbrella body of Niger Delta militants, threatening, like the Governors, to opt out of the amnesty programme. Many critics had concluded before now that the amnesty programme as proposed was bound to fail. The current challenge from the South-South further strengthens the position that the Federal Government needs to show greater commitment on the Niger Delta question. More than 48 hours later, however, it is surprising that the Federal Government is still dragging its feet and has failed to respond intelligently to the protests in a manner that will reassure the people of the Niger Delta. Waiting till situations get out of hand is typical government attitude and a source of many problems. It is deplorable.

President Yar'Adua says the Governors of the Niger Delta should take their grievances to the National Assembly. But he needs not consult a Medium for him to realise that an advisable line of action is to suspend all actions relating to the proposed siting of a University of Petroleum in Kaduna, and announce same publicly. Even if Kaduna is the best place in the country for the proposed university, no one has tried to provide a credible explanation. Rather, the Petroleum Minister says it is a fait accompli and that the Petroleum Training Institute in Warri will continue to provide lower cadre personnel for the oil industry. This provocative response has been cited as one of the reasons for the rebellion of the Governors. The Niger Delta is the oil-bearing region of Nigeria and the centre of oil exploration activities with the associated consequences. There isn't a single oil well in Kaduna. So why should a Petroleum Institute be good enough for the Niger Delta while Kaduna deserves a Petroleum University? Should the proposed university need to conduct any research within its scope of activity, its students and academics would be required to travel hundreds of kilometres down South before they can see an oil rig for example. No one can blame the people of the Niger Delta for protesting that this is unjust and unfair. But the President says "the issue needs not draw so much emotion, as nothing could change the place of the Niger Delta as the hub of the oil and gas industry."

It is precisely this kind of talk and attitude that triggered the Niger Delta protest, indeed the protest over the minority question, addressed by the Willinks Commission, but which inaction and poor leadership have kept contentious since the 1950s. Minority-majority relations in Nigeria have followed a pattern of dominance and injustice resulting in protests by the minority and a clamour for a re-negotiation of the union. The tension is aggravated by the sheer arrogance of majority power centres and the brazenness with which they seek to impose their will under every possible circumstance. In the case of the Niger Delta, one strand of the argument has been that the push for local content in the extractive industry must also be interpreted in terms of the ownership of resources and the distribution of opportunities.

Niger Delta activists condemn the prevalent situation whereby oil companies site their headquarters outside the region and most key positions and privileges are taken by other Nigerians, including service contracts, while Niger Deltans are offered "crumbs", with the offensive rationale that "they don't have capable people." Ostensibly, a central objective of the proposed univesrity would be the building of local capacity for the petroleum industry. Why should the people of Kaduna state and other states in that region be the ones to produce higher-level manpower for the petroleum industry, and this is the foreseeable result in the light of such factors as quota system and catchment area? Not too many students from the Niger Delta area stand an easy chance of gaining admission into a Petroleum University in Kaduna. The response from the Niger Delta Governors is consistent with the people's age-long protest.

The other question to ask is: why set up a Petroleum University? Strengthening the Petroleum Training Institute in Warri would have been adequate, not even upgrading it. What is the logic in establishing another Federal university when existing ones are grossly underfunded and the teachers and other university staff are so unhappy they have been on strike for a month. There are Departments of Petroleum Engineering, Geology, Physics etc in existing universities which are crying for infrastructure. Equipping those ones and providing scholarship opportunities at home and abroad for young Nigerians interested in petroleum studies would have been enough. But if a Petroleum University must then be established, the proper place for it is somewhere in the Niger Delta, definitely not Kaduna. The point is not lost on the people of the Niger Delta, for example, that the portfolio of Minister of Petroleum Resources is usually held by non-Niger Deltans.

At the moment, the Minister of Petroleum Resources is a Northerner; the Group Managing Director of the NNPC is also from the North. Majority of the key senior positions in the oil and gas industry are held by expatriates and other Nigerians. There is a Niger Deltan as Minister of State for Petroleum. When the President reshuffled his cabinet, he didn't deem it ncessary to upgrade him to the substantive position of Minister. There is a Ministry of the Niger Delta manned by a Niger Deltan, a moderate who will not rock the boat, and the Ministry, despite all admonitions to the contrary, has been reduced to just another bureaucracy, within months of its creation.

The Federal Government lays itself open to charges that it lacks the political will to adress the concerns of the people of the Niger Delta or by extension the widespread Nigerian demand for federalism, equity and a reshaping of Nigeria's constitutional politics. It is worse that Kaduna, the chosen location of the proposed University for Petroleum Studies is the home state of the current Minister of Petroleum, Dr. Rilwan Lukwan. This alone is enough to infuriate many Nigerians. After a fashion, every man who finds himself in the corridors of power thinks that part of his mandate is to personalise the office and its programmes. If there is a road to be constructed, he starts with the road in front of his house, or the road to his village. If there is a university to be established, the chosen location is routinely the Governor's village, and so every Governor tries this same old trick. When Segun Oni tried it in Ekiti, it boomeranged when the people of Ikere-Ekiti insisted that the University of Education belonged rightly to their town. One former Minister reportedly removed the generating set at the National Stadium in Lagos to his village! And so, between the Minister of Petroleum and the Ministry of Education, the former's state is the best place for a Petroleum University? It is insensitive.

Proposed reforms in the oil and gas industry have been slow in coming, the National Assembly in particular has not been effective in enacting the expected radical legislations that will address the issues of rights, ownership and standards in Nigeria's oil industry. The legislation on gas flaring was passed only recently by the Senate, pushing the deadline to 2010. There is no guarantee that the law will be enforced. The Petroleum Industry Bill in particular has been a source of disquiet in the industry. The Governors of the South South refer to it as "a slap in the face of the local communities". There are in fact three versions of the Bill. What the Governors are kicking against is the plan to deny states and communities of the Niger Delta per centage royalty payments on extractive resources in their area. Nobody knows which of the three versions will be passed into law. The protest by the Governors is very clever. Faced with a constantly mutating piece of legislation, it is better to speak up before the wrong Bill is passed into law. But in this regard, there are also other extant provisions in need of urgent review/repeal, both in relation to petroleum and to the fiscal relationship among the constituent states and units of the Federation.

The Petroleum Industry Bill is to replace all extant oil and gas sector laws, or result in a realignment of some of those laws (Petroleum Act, Petroleum Products Pricing and Regulatory Authority Act, Oil Pipelines Act, Associated Gas Reinjection Act, Petroleum Equalisation Fund Act, Petroleum Technology Development Fund Act, Petroleum Profits Tax Act/Amendments etc. Given its importance, the Bill deserves the partisan interest of not just the Governors but all the people of the Niger Delta and we may add-all Nigerians. The message of the Governors on this bill is directed to the Federal Government, but it is something that members of the National Assembly should also note. Instructively, the Bill is scheduled to come up for debate on Monday/Tuesday at the Senate. But we may ask: how much effort has been put into lobbying the National Assembly, before now, by the concerned states, and their representatives to ensure that their voice is heard? Is the Governors' loud cry to be taken as a sign of frustration or desperation?

The Governors argued further that the Federal Government has not articulated any post-amnesty plan for the Niger Delta. In this regard, they were again speaking for the people and the militants. If the militants lay down their arms, what follows? The question is apposite but it is political. Why, all of a sudden, have these same Governors who have consistently lapped up every Federal Government initiative on the Niger Delta become so radical and people-oriented? Could this be a show of Niger Delta-ness with an eye on 2011? Or a genuine return to home and issues on the key questions of injustice and marginalisation? Whatever it is, President Yar'Adua needs not be told that his amnesty plan has already been ambushed and "kidnapped". He has to come up with new stories and plans and more convincing statements and quickly too: let him start by making a clearer and more responsive statement on the issues that have been raised by the now "militant" Governors.

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