By Jimoh Babatunde
Benson Bube Omadeli, the Olaja-Orori of Ugborodo, traditional ruler and spiritual head of Ugborodo Island in Escravos, host community to Chevron Nigeria Limited in Delta State, is definitely not a happy man. During a visit recently, he lamented the devastating condition of life in his community.
In this interview, he says conspiracy against Ugborodo is a blend of government, corporate and individual.
How would you describe your meeting with the investors from South Africa? Has a deal been sealed to make Ugborodo a tourist attraction in the years to come?
So far no deal has been sealed, but our discussions with the investors have reached an advanced stage and we are quite optimistic that if we are able to provide some of the things they have requested, the project may kick off very soon.
What’s this project all about?
It’s a tourist centre that will be located in the island of Ugborodo. The massive seaview in my community is a rare sight to behold. Some tourists from South Africa that visited us earlier this year mentioned to us a special group that have interests in developing beach_front tourism. They promised to bring them to us and, true to their words, they did. I believe where oil has failed us, tourism may just come to the rescue.
Talking about oil, one should have thought that your community can pull enough resources to improve business and social conditions of your people.
That is the impression many people have. But the reality on the ground is painfully embarrassing. You need to come and see for yourself. Well over forty years after oil was discovered in Ugborodo, my people live in polluted land and air.
To us, the discovery of oil has become a curse. There have been ongoing plans for Ugborodo new town development, but till this very moment, that project has not taken off. At present, the community is under threat of oil spillage, and we are yet to determine, given the full scale nature of the spillage, its ultimate impact on our people.
Could the oil be spewing from Chevron pipes?
Well, we have approached them. But it seems the spillage is from NNPC pipes. We are disgusted with the delay from NNPC to give urgent attention to this issue. If an urgent repair cannot be carried out on the pipe, at least we expect they should stop pumping oil at this time. We have commissioned the services of an independent environmentalist to investigate the level of damage that has been done to our land.
As we speak, our already dehumanized people are further endangered. Fishing which is our major livelihood is greatly endangered. As we await the report of the environmentalist, we are getting ready for a serious showdown with all the parties connected to this spillage.
The impression often created is that host communities to oil companies are never really satisfied with the largesse they receive from oil companies, even when the efforts of the companies are mainly on the basis of socio_corporate responsibility?
You need to come and see things yourself. There is no denying the fact that, as part of Chevron’s corporate responsibility, they have provided electricity and water for Ugborodo, but I think as the host community, the Federal Government and Chevron have taken us for granted.
As I speak, Ugborodo is yet to experience any meaningful development and so many of our youths are unemployed. Even contracts that could be given to indigenes to handle are given to foreign companies.
Can you substantiate that because the Nigerian content policy seems to have taken care of that?
I think the Nigerian Content Bill is not being implemented through and through. Why under such a regime, for instance, should a foreign company handle catering services for Chevron? There are lots of qualified local organizations even among our people that could handle catering projects. But, as I speak, Chevron brought in an American Company to handle their catering services. This is just one of the many ways our indigenes are shortchanged.
What then has been the role of the trust that is supposed to liaise between your community and Chevron to address many of these problems?
You are correct, but members of the trust have also not been able to meet the expectations of the people they represent. Their role has been lopsided and, as a leader and spiritual head of Ugborodo, I have the moral duty to ensure that every indigene is not left behind. Today, members of the trust are the big Chevron contractors, while the indigenes are marginalized.
They take care of their interest first before the community. In fact, the community is downplayed in the scheme of things.
The impression we get is that so many of your indigenes have been empowered with contracts.
That is the impression everywhere. I won’t be surprised to hear that well over 300 indigenes of Ugborodo have been empowered with contracts. But I challenge them to publish the list. You will be shocked that only a fraction of the people of Ugborodo, probably the privileged members of the trust, have benefitted.
Are you saying you have never received a contract at all?
I once got a contract that was embarrassingly ridiculous for my status. The Egharaja himself has not been properly catered for as well. We have got to the point now that if we do not fight for the development of Ugborodo through the empowerment of its indigenes, the future generation will not forgive us for our foolishness.
Why has the new town project failed to kick off?
That is the conspiracy I have been talking about. Sometime ago, I heard Chevron made available about six or eight million dollars for this project. But we’ve heard nothing about it. What I heard from some quarters is that the money has been kept in an escrow account. For how long will the money be kept? Why should it be kept in the first instance? I am determined to ensure that continuous underdevelopment of Ugborodo ceases in my lifetime.
What difference can you make after forty years of oil in Ugborodo?
As the leader and spiritual head of Ugborodo, I have come to realize that we as indigenes have paid lip service to the devastation in Ugborodo. I want to take the issues beyond mere discussions and contract settlements. It is high time we secured practical solutions to the problems of our ancestral land. I will engage all interest parties constructively and ensure that in my lifetime Ugborodo enjoys rapid socio-economic development.