•As sand dredgers, dealers clash
By Nwabueze Okonkwo, ONITSHA
The clouds are gathering and the storms threatening as what started as a minor dispute between two hitherto friendly unions trying to eke out a living by dredging and selling sand at the bank of the River Niger, may soon snowball into a major crisis that could cripple economic and social activities in the commercial city of Onitsha and Asaba, the Delta State capital.
The two unions – Dredgers Owners Association Anambra State, DOAAS and River Niger Sand Dealers Multipurpose Cooperative Society Limited, RNSDMPCSL, Asaba, Delta State, were said to be working together as one family, until April, this year when they fell apart.
The way things are , it seems that only the timely intervention of appropriate government agencies such as the Federal Ministry of Mines and Steel Development, the Ministry of Solid Minerals and the National Inland Waterways Authority, NIWA or even a court of competent jurisdiction can salvage the situation.
How the crisis started: The disagreement between the two unions allegedly started in April when RNSDMPCSL led by Chief Augustine Nwachukwu invited DOAAS members to a meeting to discuss the way forward. At the said meeting, Chief Nwachukwu allegedly told them to register with the Cooperative Society which currently has a quarrying license from the Federal Ministry of Mines and Steel Development.
Vanguard Features, VF, learned that at the end of the meeting, things went awry as members of DOAAS not only refused to register with Nwachukwu’s Cooperative Society on the ground that they are independent dredgers, but also stopped paying RNSDMPCSL N200 levy per tipper of sand. They allegedly discovered that Nwachukwu was not an official or a representative of the Federal Ministry of Mines. Nwachukwu was alleged to have initially paraded himself to them as an official of the Ministry whom they should be paying N200 per trip of tipper of sand for onward remittance to the coffers of the Ministry of Mines.
DOAAS claimed that it was based on this discovery that its members decided to stop paying the levy. The union insisted that it would be better for its members to pay directly to the Ministry instead of going through an intermediary. The union took a step further by writing directly to the Minister of Mines, asking him to recognise its members to do their dredging business without hindrance from anybody.
DOAAS dredging sand illegally
This step taken by the leadership of DOAAS did not go down well with Nwachukwu and his Cooperative Society. He was alleged to have petitioned officials of the Ministry in Asaba Zone to the effect that DOAAS members were dredging sand at the bank of the Niger without an approved license.
In the report, Nwachukwu was alleged to have informed the Ministry that he had over time been protecting DOAAS with his own license, but since they have refused to pay him the accrued revenue from which he would service the license at the Ministry, he has decided to disown them.
Clampdown on DOAAS members: VF gathered that officials of the Ministry in Asaba immediately swung into action and alerted officers and men of the Nigerian Navy at the Naval Outpost, Onitsha about the illegality of DOAAS operations at the waterways. Based on this report, the Naval officers invited DOAAS and demanded to see their dredging license. When the union could not produce any, they (Navy) impounded their boats and other dredging equipment and took them to the Naval Base where they were seized, pending the time they would produce the license.
Meanwhile, the Commander of the Onitsha Naval Outpost, Navy Captain Mike Oamen warned those who have no operational license from the relevant Ministries and regulatory agencies to steer clear of any form of mining or dredging activities along the River Niger waterways.
Oamen who spoke to newsmen against the backdrop of an allegation by DOAAS that the Naval officers were compromised by Chief Nwachukwu’s RNSDMPCSL, hence the alleged crude manner in which they ( Naval men) clamped down on them, maintained that only those who have operational license from the regulatory authorities like the Ministry of Mines and NIWA, would be permitted to dredge sand at the bank of the River Niger.
Apparently confirming the seizure of some boats and dredging equipment belonging to some members of DOAAS for allegedly operating without license, Oamen insisted that the Nigerian Navy acted because it is legally empowered to stop all illegal activities on Nigeria’s waterways and not because of an alleged bribery of his members.
He explained that officials of the Ministry of Mines were the ones that alerted his office about illegal dredging going on along the waterways. “Illegality must stop. There is so much impunity on our waterways. How can you condone a situation where DOAAS members are dredging sand and yet they don’t have license from the Ministry of Mines, neither do they have landing permit from NIWA,” he retorted.
Allegations of extortion
Describing the allegations of bribery and extortion as false and frivolous, Navy Captain Oamen insisted that their action was simply because they investigated an information from the Ministry of Mines and discovered that DOAAS members were actually carrying out dredging activities without license.
A top official of the Ministry of Mines in Asaba who preferred anonymity, told newsmen on phone that the office actually petitioned the Naval Base about ongoing illegal dredging of sand at the river bank.
The official added that DOAAS is at liberty to negotiate with Nwachukwu’s RNSDMCSL or any other licensed miner or dredger that could give them protective cover to carry out dredging activities on the waterways. Alternatively, he said they should apply and wait for their application to be processed and approved and license issued to them.
Reacting to these claims, DOAAS alleged that the Navy conspired with Nwachuwku to throw them out of business. The union leader said they are still waiting for the Minister of Mines to invite both parties to a meeting to resolve the issues at stake.
Chairman of DOAAS, Gilbert Udemadu who spoke to newsmen said that those dredging sand at the bank of the River Niger have over the years, been paying N200 per trip of sand to Nwachukwu whom he described as the owner of a one-man Cooperative Society, with the belief that he is an official of the Ministry of Mines and that the money was going into government coffers.
Udemadu noted that trouble started few months ago when Nwachukwu summoned members of the union to a meeting where he told them to pay N200,000 each as a registration fee to join the Cooperative Society.
He alleged that it was at that stage that the union discovered that Nwachukwu was neither an official of the Ministry nor their appointed representative hence they (DOAAS) members refused to pay the N200,000 levy he imposed on them. They also decided to stop paying him the N200 levy per trip of tipper of sand since it had become obvious to them that the money was not going into government treasury but usually ended up in his private pocket.
He admitted that they stopped paying Nwachukwu and instead wrote to the Ministry officials to come forward and collect the money from them directly. He claimed that the Minister of Mines was highly elated by their decision to start paying directly into the government coffers and has informed them of his intention to invite them to a meeting very soon.
While still waiting for the Minister’s invitation, he alleged that Nwachukwu who was making up to N448,000 daily, became uncomfortable and hired armed thugs from Asaba. He alleged that his members were attacked by the thugs on September 18, 2014.
Release of seized boats
During the attack, the thugs were said to have carted away batteries, water pumps, kick starters, towing boats with engines, many litres of fuel and even sank a towing boat belonging to DOAAS.
The union leader claimed that they reported the matter to the National Inland Waterways Authority, NIWA, through the Marine Police in Onitsha. Nwachukwu was allegedly asked to release the seized boats to the union but he has failed to comply with the directive.
In their petition to the Minister, dated April 4, 2014, DOAAS stated their reason for stoppage of further payments to Nwachukwu.
Reacting to these allegations, Nwachukwu maintained that DOAAS is owing him a huge amount of money which accumulated from the token they were paying him to dredge with his own license.
“For the purposes of clarity, we are not responsible for the seizure of DOAAS equipment by the Navy. The truth of the matter is that DOAAS members left the Anambra side of the River Niger and came to the Delta side and were dredging sand illegally from an area being operated through direct excavation during dry season and the area in question belongs to the Association of Tippers and Quarry Owners Nigeria with Quarry Lease No. 1432,” he said.
Position of RNSDMCSL: Nwachukwu contended that several efforts were made to stop the illegal activities of these bodies but to no avail until the association was left with no option than to make an official report to the Federal Ministry of Mines in Delta State. “I believe the Ministry in turn, wrote to the Navy for assistance and we are in court because DOAAS members are operating illegally. That is what we want the court to look into. Some of DOAAS members indicated interest to join our Cooperative Society and had even made part payment of their registration fee to that effect before this ugly situation emanated,” he explained.
On the alleged use of thugs to attack DOAAS members on September 18, 2014 and conspiracy with the Navy to extort them, Nwachukwu declared: “We did not attack anybody and we were not invited by any police formation. I did not give the Navy any money, neither did I write a petition to the Navy. Please, you can verify from the Naval men. If actually we are in court as they rightly said, are they supposed to be operating and with which license are they operating?
“The Cooperative Society Limited, RNSDMPCSL, is not owned by me, rather I am just the Chairman. As they alleged, I was advising them to go and acquire a virgin land for their dredging activities and leave our own land alone because the area they are encroaching upon is already occupied by our Cooperative Society, as authorized by the Ministry of Mines. I am even surprised that even at this moment, they are still perpetrating their illegality on our area of coverage in the River Niger,” he said.
An executive member of the Cooperative Society, Comrade Iyke Obidinma noted that the Society had existed for over eight years now, while DOAAS came into being only in January, 2014.