BY LAJU ARENYEKA
Since the late 1950s when crude oil was first discovered in Nigeria, it has become the core of the nation’s economy. Attention has shifted from agriculture and other natural resources, to the liquid gold that has become both a blessing, and a curse for the country. In this interview, Hon. Nkem Uzoma Abonta who represents Ukwa East/West Federal Constituency of Abia State in the House of Representatives, calls for the speedy passage of the Petroleum Industry Bill, PIB into law, less dependence on oil revenue, and the fact that Nigeria does not need eighteen more states.
What do you think about the decision at the just concluded National Conference to create eighteen more states?
I don’t think it is something Nigeria should dabble into, you would agree with me that most states depend on purely allocation to survive; their internal revenue is nothing to write home about. Once there is late allocation from the government salaries cannot even be paid. Therefore, creating more states would be creating more problems.
The problem with Nigeria is not additional states. However, there should be creation of additional states for a balance in the geo-political zones. But creating 18 more states in Nigeria would amount to balkanizing, duplicating and factionalizing our problems and persons.
Every local government now wants to be a state. Is it sustainable? Would it be viable? Is it realistic? It shouldn’t be done on land mass; it should be done on productivity. What can they produce? Would they be able to sustain themselves? I mean states should not be equated to churches where anybody would come out and proclaim to be a bishop or general overseer and start a church, no. There must be in-dices and parameters that must regulate and guide how states are created. You would say America got over 50 states.
That’s true. But look at their size and creativity. Look at Chicago for instance, or Texas, can you compare them with any state in Nigeria? Very few states in Nigeria can live up to expectations in terms of productivity. Some states in Nigeria Are highly industrialized. If you bring in eighteen states plus thirty-six states, it will be very difficult to manage. Once oil dries up, can these states survive? The answer is no. I do not know the wisdom in creating more states, but I see wisdom in balancing the geo political zones with each one having equal number of states.
You’ve argued time and time again that revenue allocation in Nigeria is more political than economical. What do you mean by that?
I still agree that revenue allocation in Nigeria is more political than economical. It is not done alongside economic values and indices. What are the determining factors for revenue allocation? One, we have the number of local governments. Some states have more local governments than some others but they don’t have a large population. Compare Lagos with Kano or Sokoto or Kebbi. These states don’t have population as large as Lagos. Look at Rivers state or Bayelsa, see how much oil they produce. Yet when it is time for revenue allocation, Kano will go with a greater portion even though they don’t produce oil. If you want to build a Federal road for example, you should be able to convince people on the number and type of vehicles that ply the road, and why it is necessary that it is built with Federal money. But most things are done politically. There must be some parameters than can empirically be proved economically. Our reasons in Nigeria are based on political consideration rather than the reality of issues.
What is your take on privatization especially as regards the power sector?
I would dare to praise Jonathan for privatizing sectors such as PHCN. But I am afraid that the Nigerian factor has caught up with it. The jingles and the excitement are all gone. Those who invested in the sector are also regretting, or so I hear. We haven’t seen much change; even though it’s something we ought to have done over night. But I think we do not have the capacity to manage our power problem, therefore it was necessary to hand it over to the private sector. But we must be able to monitor. We should also seek ways to revive the power sector. Mr. President did that based on pure motives, he had good intentions. But political considerations are catching up with them. The best thing we can do in that sector is to allow private persons come into it. Again, states that are competent should be allowed to produce and generate power. Laws should be amended to make provision for that. Rivers and Akwa Ibom state for example have geared into generating, but they cannot distribute, because of the laws. I think that we must study what other people did in other climes and improve our own. I’ll also subscribe that if it means that they are given tax holidays, and a time frame of one or two years to revive the sector that should be done. Without power, we cannot do anything. Except we get the power sector right, Nigeria will be stuck in a vicious cycle which will not do us any good. Rather than having seventeen point agenda, we can have just one point agenda and achieve it. Today, we know (President)Obasanjo, with the GSM revolution. Even in my village, I can book my flight, browse the internet, do whatever it is I want to do on my phone because of Obasanjo. So we can forgive all his other ills because of that. Just fulfill one agenda and we will judge you based on that.
Another development from the Confab is the zoning of Presidential candidates. What do you think about this?
I agree with Zoning, but zoning should have a human face. I would like to know who I am voting for in my geo political zone or state. We know that in Nigeria there are major tribes: Igbos, Yorubas and Hausas. How will the minority tribes fit in? I also agree that it must rotate, so one group does not dominate the other. We all own Nigeria. I also agree on a single tenure because two years into office, a governor or president is devoting the remaining two years to his re-election campaign, and noting gets achieved. If you’re doing your six years straight and leave, you can focus better on your work. It is a welcome development, until a time when people will have enough to occupy them. In America, you have seasoned administrators who are looking for ways to make life better for the people. But in Nigeria, the easiest way to make money is to dabble into politics. Governors sometimes tend to feel like small gods. I am in total agreement that it should rotate. But we must define the rotation very well so that we do not sacrifice integrity, experience, intellectualism for mediocrity.
Ever since its inception, your name has been synonymous with the Petroleum Industry Bill, PIB. The current draft of the Bill has now been at the National Assembly for two years. Are you in agreement with the petroleum Minister’s position that the bill should be split to ensure its speedy passage, or do you side with PENGASSON’s position that it should not be split?
I want to agree with PENGASSON. There is no need to balkanize the PIB. Whosoever is against PIB is against Nigeria. PIB is as important as our national budget. We have seen there is a lot of fraud in the oil and gas sector. PIB will resolve all these issues. I make bold to say that I will be disillusioned in seventh assembly if they do not pass the PIB. When you go to places like Ogoni, deep down Bayelsa, Akwa-Ibom you’ll see the need for the bill to be passed. It’s about controlling extractive industries. PIB is the only thing that will deregularize the oil sector and once the sector is deregulated, it will be free for all. I make bold to ask my colleagues in the national assembly including myself: why are we keeping PIB? We worked on it severally; some say that there are too many different versions of the people. But we are law regulators. Why don’t we prepare a standard version of the bill? After all, we have been doing laws, changing executive bills, we have private members’ bills. So why is seventh assembly delaying this bill?. I am asking this question to David Mark and Aminu Tambuwal; why is PIB being kept? I have great respect for them. I believe in Tambuwal, I know his administrative and intellectual capacity, I know his capacity. Mr. Speaker, why is PIB being kept? Senate President, what is holding PIB? Like I said earlier, political reasons guide our decisions rather than economic reasons. Why are we fighting the petroleum minister every day? Do you know that oil communities are mere spectators and not partakers in the oil business? They are mere spectators. The people who suffer from oil exploration are just spectators. How many people from the south-south are independent marketers? How many import fuel? Who do the oil blocks belong to? Eighty-five percent of oil blocs are owned by a particular section of the country.
Do you think that it is those people holding the PIB?
I’m beginning to wonder. So many people who have oil blocs have never seen an oil well. They do not know the colour of crude oil. Anything that will make the communities to be partakers and not spectators, I will stand for. I want to beg the national assembly to do this; so that discrimination will stop, and we can truly feel like one nation.
You represent the Ukwa East/West Federal Constituency of Abia State in the House of Representatives, what have you been able to do for the community during your time in office?
My community is a rural community, Ukwa East. It is an oil bearing community. When I resumed office, I concentrated on ensuring that we have good road networks. We have more than 300 km of roads, they can now boast of electricity, even though it’s not yet steady. There is also water supply. I’ve been able to bring political development to them; to let them know their rights. We have also trained more than 500 youths in skill acquisition. We established Graceland medical foundation to help people get access to proper health care. We provide vehicles for the doctors to come around and consult often at no charge. The doctors also emphasize on preventive medicine, educating people on how to manage diabetes, hypertension, arthritis etc. we also have widows outreaches, competitions for youths engaged in sports. We are also hoping for Government’s presence. I may not be angel in my constituency, but I’m not the devil.
According to reports, there are at least 20 people from Ukwa/Ngwa interested in running Abia state in 2015. With the PDP zoning its candidacy to Abia south, what are your thoughts on the 2015 gubernatorial elections?
For fairness, equity and fair play, the governorship candidates should not just come from Abia south, but Ukwa-Ngwa. Our governor in his magnanimity and fairness, has pronounced that the candidate will come from Abia south. That you have nearly 20 persons vying for the post goes to show that the zone should produce. Abia North, produced a governor for eight years-Governor Orji Uzor Kalu. Central produced Gov. T.O Orji. Abia south should produce the next governor. Any competent, tried and true candidate from Abia south should come out.