By OCHEREOME NNANNA
Oliver Okeregwu is an indigene of Umueke, Omuma in Etche Local Government Area of Rivers State. A construction expert, he shares his thoughts on the best approach to tackle the development of the Niger Delta. He also offers a perspective on the best method the president can assemble a performing cabinet.
What was it like growing up in the Niger Delta, a neglected oil-producing environment?
It was an experience that was better lived than imagined. Everyday, you see the oil companies loading their equipment and workers and driving them across your village, dropping the oil workers and equipment. You see a lot of expatriates and non-expatriates coming and going and you begin to wonder what these people are doing here.
The following morning, you go to fetch water for your daily needs and you find that the whole place has been polluted as a result of oil spill during the night, either because of negligence or maybe the pipes conveying oil products got burst. And as a result, the crops that were planted will start withering away. The family is put in a dilemma and there is no one to run to for assistance. This was the kind of scenario that most of us grew up with in the Niger Delta.
Was this the situation that led the youths to take to armed struggle eventually?
When you talk about arms, arms in what sense? Who gave them the arms? Armed struggle is a costly venture. As someone who comes from that area, I can confidently assert that the people never took up arms against constituted authority. What happened was that the people who knew the value of the oil were ready to circumvent the authorities to take this oil illegally. The common people never knew the value of the oil.
It was those who discovered it that decided to exploit it illegally at all cost who brought in illegal arms and started deploying unemployed youths to do their bidding. Agitation for your rights is a different thing from armed struggle. When Ken Saro-Wiwa agitated for the rights of the Ogoni people and the Niger Delta, was it done through the use of firearms?
As a construction professional, what do you think is the viable approach to develop the Niger Delta, especially in terms of infrastructure?
My own recipe is straightforward. The Federal Government has done so much by establishing the Ministry of the Niger Delta and we thank the entire nation for supporting the cause for the establishment of that ministry. One thing is to establish the ministry and another thing is to support it to achieve the desired result.
Until that ministry is moved down to one of the states of the Niger Delta, the dream that led to its establishment will remain a mirage. A lot of master-plans have been drawn up, but I tell you that what needs to be done cannot be done from Abuja. I want to give an example of what happened sometime last week. I am referring to a story I saw in one of the national dailies. The paper reported that the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, while addressing journalists, said that the East – West Road spanning from Akwa Ibom to Warri was over forty eight per cent completed.
They also quoted him as saying that by 2012 the road will be fully completed and ready for use. I asked myself whether the paper reported exactly what the minister said. If it reported exactly what the minister said, then the minister was not giving the correct report of the true situation of things along that stretch of the road. I have taken the pains to do a private technical study of the project and I will give you a copy of the data we compiled if you like. The report covered from Akwa Ibom to Warri in Delta State.
As a construction expert, we surmised that if this is the programme of work, the equipment available and the cash flow, what will be the result? I can tell you right here that going by what we have today on ground, the East – West road is not likely to be completed before 2015. 2012 is not realistic. I am talking with facts and figures and as a professional in the industry. We did not undertake this study for personal gains but because of our patriotism and our desire for the Niger Delta people to have a new lease of life.
The Niger Delta is one of the prominent wetlands in the world. There are similar terrains, like the Nile Delta in Egypt, Venezuela has its own, so does Brazil. Even the US has her own. Which model of development would you recommend for the Niger Delta based on what these countries have deployed to conquer the challenges of their wetland terrains?
I keep going back to the Florida example. I have not been to Venezuela, but I am talking about what I saw in America. I saw construction activities there, around Florida, Orlando and so on. I found that they used the same system.
In most cases, the materials for the job, such as laterite, are usually not available in the wetland areas. You have to get them from another area where there is rock. I will advocate the system of employing pre-cast units. You cast virtually all the units of work in your yard and bring them to site for installation. That is one. Two, I found out in Florida that they no longer use concrete beams to build bridges. They now use steel. With steel you can fabricate the whole thing in the yard and bring them to site to install, even when it is raining. Because of the peculiarity of the terrain, I will advise that every payment meant for construction activities in the Niger Delta are made towards the tail end of the rainy season, so that by the dry season, you are fully at site working.
What do you think needs to be done to sustain the current stability in the Niger Delta to ensure developmental activities are no longer disturbed as we saw during the crisis, which forced many construction companies to flee the region?
I will still say again that our people never carried arms against any oil company or against any government or constituted authority. What happened was that people got to know their rights. When people know their rights it is a different ball game.
I want to give you a scenario. If someone decides to give scholarship to someone from my village and that chap finishes at the university level, studies engineering in the petroleum industry or even outside the petroleum industry, he returns to the village and is wandering within the same community without being engaged in a useful job commensurate with what he read, what do you expect the person to do? One, he has been educated to know his right. Two, he has not been given what his due. He may consider organising an uprising as the next viable line of action.
The Petroleum Industry Bill, which is expected to be signed into law soon, is something that many people are eagerly waiting to see the light of day. In what ways do you think the Act will change things in the Niger Delta?
The PIB is shrouded in secrecy. Until it is passed into law and we see it as an open public document, we cannot say to what extent it will benefit the people. I would rather hold on. What we read or hear are individual opinions, which may not be the opinion of government which will make it become law. When they pass it into law, we can sit down and study it and react to it. The government needs to organise seminars and workshops both at the regional and national levels, bring stakeholders together and explain to them what this law will do to change their lives. The law should not be made an elitist affair. The people have to be carried along and their views have to be accommodated.
Do you believe that the governors of the Niger Delta states have done justice to the 13 per cent derivation and other oil revenues they collected in the past twelve years? Could they have done better?
Whatever the governors of the region have done with the funds- whether they have used it well or not – is not a peculiar trait of the Niger Delta. It is a trait of the Nigerian nation as we know it today. The bottom line, to me, is that whenever anybody is put in a position of responsibility, he should put God first, fear God and let God be the centrepiece of decision-making. After all, we will all account to God when we are through with our lives’ assignments.
Are you satisfied with the post-amnesty programme?
In the past, the Niger Delta people bore the consequences of sustaining this nation in silence. When they started agitating for their rights, at first, the authorities were hostile. But, now, we are beginning to receive some attention. Apart from the 13 per cent derivation (which we hope will be increased), the post-amnesty programmes are part of the new ways the country is responding to the demands of the people of the Niger Delta. There is an expression in Yoruba: ise ana. When somebody does you a good turn you must show gratitude to encourage him to do more. “If I thank him for this small one he has done, he will do a bigger one”.
For now, I would like the Niger Delta people to say “ise ana” to the Nigerian nation for waking up to what is due to us. Nigeria has given us much. In the last presidential election, the entire nation rose up and unanimously elected a son of the Niger Delta, Dr Goodluck Jonathan, as the president, commander-in-chief of the armed forces. It is an honour we hold with great gratit
ude. It is an encouraging beginning. I know that with time we will get the rest of what is due to us.
Now that the general elections have come and gone and the president is set to form his government, what policy direction will you like to see as we enter the fully-fledge Jonathan dispensation?
I will like the president, as someone from the Niger Delta, to give Nigeria the best leadership ever witnessed in the history of our country. If I had the ears of the president, I would advocate earnestly that he adopts the American model in the appointment of ministers and ministers of state. In the past, some ministers have been nominated and, when they got to the Senate for screening, they disgraced themselves by their inability to know the barest things that a normal citizen should know about Nigeria and the way things should be done better. I will not like, this time around, for the new president of Nigeria and president of Niger Delta extraction to have that shortcoming.
The American model entails that when a president wants to appoint a minister of works (for instance) from an area, he will ask for up to ten nominees from there. Because he knows he is going to put infrastructural development as a top priority of his government, he will conduct an extensive search for the best materials. He could make it like a mock exam by inviting them to hear from them on the ideas they have to offer. He might not even create the impression that he is interviewing them for the post of minister.
I know our president is an academician, a research-oriented person and politician. With such interactions and putting people through such acid tests, he will be in a position to say: “I can work with so-so person. He can deliver my vision for the Nigerian nation”. It will not be like the old approach of employing people you don’t know their capacity to deliver simply because they were nominated by politicians. This time around, we must go for the best, and the person does not necessarily have to come from a bourgeois family. As he said: I had no shoes. We must begin to build a nation where anyone can be president of this country just like him, putting emphasis on merit and competence instead of pleasing sacred cows or families that have been producing ministers for decades. My prayer for him and for Nigeria is that may God use him to give Nigeria the best.