By owei Lakemfa
OVER the years, the recurrent themes at gatherings of the Ijaw (Ezon) people include marginalisation despite producing most of the oil that sustains the country’s economy. They are about environmental pollution, deprivation rather than derivation and resource control.
While such themes are not totally misplaced, they mainly end up as lamentations. In the not too distant past, the refrain from the Niger Delta included songs of lamentation and the staccato of gunfire. However, it was a different scenario when the Ijaw Professionals Association, IPA, held a seminar on August 20, 2017 with the theme “Social Inclusion, A Strategy for Peaceful Co-Existence”. Yes, the normal themes featured, but they did as challenges to be creatively overcome using amongst other weapons, the intellect and creativity.
The IPA President, Elaye Otrofaniowei acknowledged that: “The Niger Delta Region and the Ijaw Nation is today not only one of the most volatile regions in the world, it is also one of the most polluted places on the face of the earth. It is a complex irony of, in the midst of so much wealth, poverty leads the way.”
He however pointed out that it is not all lamentation as the Ijaws at great cost have recorded some measure of success producing at various times the Chiefs of Army, Navy, Air and Defence Staff, the National Security Adviser, Ministers and Permanent Secretaries of key Ministries, getting Bayelsa State, the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, and the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs created as well as producing the Vice President and the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
The IPA while acknowledging the sad reality that “Port Harcourt, Warri and other formerly thriving Ijaw cities of Burutu, Forcados, Bomadi, Oloibiri and Brass are now shadows of their old self” insisted that the questions Ijaws should find answers to are: “Why is our Region still progressively backward? Why have we lost all the gains? How can we recover these? How do we sustain growth and development of our people?”
The association is clear on the way forward: “If the Ijaw Nation is ever to succeed in Nigeria, social, political and economic inclusion must be at the heart of any structure or else, co-existence will always be challenged.” But it was emphatic that “While militancy and agitations have brought to the forefront the many challenges facing our homeland and people, we all must agree that this course of action alone CAN never be a permanent solution”.
The IPA is also clear about the need for Ijaws to work interdependently with other groups in the country. It argues that: “Today, what defines the socio-political space is interdependence; that no matter how good Monologue is, it cannot replace Dialogue”.
Brigadier General Paul Boroh (Rtd) the Special Adviser to the President on Niger Delta agreed with the IPA that interdependence with others is vital and that four key challenges the Ijaws need to work at are how to achieve inclusion, protect their environment, sustain peace in their Region and ensure sustainable development.
Mr. Biriyai Dambo, SAN, said there was no social inclusion in the making and subsequent reviews of the Nigerian Constitution adding: “If you are excluded at the point of law making, you are unlikely to be included at the social level”. The Ijaws he said should learn from other groups: “The West has infrastructure with IGR (Internally Generated Revenue) that may not make them need oil. The East has turned itself into an industrial hub. But the Niger Delta has nothing…If your oil is not selling, what will you do with refineries?”
Dr. Austin Tam-George, former Rivers State Commissioner for Information set the Conference firmly on the path of achievable goals and the future. He said “ICT is the oil of the future” that there cannot be restructuring without the restructuring of the thought process.
The Ijaws he said have to re-examine the policy on education so that it can be adapted to their needs, and that drones in the Region can be developed to assist in agriculture, and to monitor vandalism and projects.
Honourable Ebikekeme Ere pointed out that the Nigerian state does not know how much crude oil is pumped or how much leaves the country. He said people are dying in the Region due to diseases like cancer induced by gas flaring and oil exploitation.
Ere is convinced oil wealth may soon vanish as the major car companies in the world may in the next twenty years flood the roads with vehicles that do not use fuel. He urged Ijaws to turn to ICT that is practical, straight forward and rely on internal solutions. He cited the challenge of birds eating rice planted in the Region and how he overcame that challenge on his farm by using drone which produces sound while flying around, causing the birds to disperse.
Former Transport Minister, Admiral Festus Bikepere Porbeni (Rtd) said the Ijaws are almost left out of the scheme of things and that people who invested in the Region might be regretting as houses are empty in many parts.
The Conference advised Ijaws to look inwards for solutions; not to use the internet just for idle chats but also for learning and business. It then declared: “The most sustainable empowerment, is self-empowerment”.
The path the IPA wants to take the Ijaws can be gleaned from that of Lagos State which carried out some restructuring in the country using what Lagos lawyer, Mr. Babatunde Ogala, characterized as “the instrumentality of the law, legislature and intellect to take its destiny in its hands and assert its rights.”
In his article on “Restructuring Nigeria” Ogala recalled that Lagos State challenged the Federal Government at the Supreme Court and won a dozen cases. These included the right to control all its waterways, all lands in the state including those on the shores, physical planning, collection of Wharf Landing fees and income from adverts on federal highways and roads in the state.
On resource control, he said when Lagos which generates 55 percent of the VAT in the country saw that it got little allocation from it after it is shared, it introduced its own consumption tax.
The result of these efforts he said, is that: “Lagos State has a monthly Internally Generated Revenue Income of well over 30 billion Naira . Over six times more than what it gets from the federal allocation that some others are crying over as their sole source of revenue.” Ogala’s advise is: “Let all states put on their thinking caps and use the law, legislature , judiciary, intellectual power to achieve the control of their destinies and resources and not by beating drums of war and secession. “. I agree with the IPA and Ogala.