By Egufe Yafugborhi
Delta State Commissioner for Oil and Gas, Mofe Pirah, in this interview, speaks on the exit of Shell from the state, the whole gamut of threats to oil and other investments and the change Shell, the communities and government must embrace to build mutual confidence as Shell ponders return to grow more investments in the state.
You were once a strong voice in the defence of Niger Delta rights, particularly in your native Itsekiri. But your critics say that strong voice seems to have been lost following your incursion into politics and particularly your appointment as Oil & Gas Commissioner in Delta. Have you become voiceless?
I am working for government rights now. Before I came into government, say from 2011, I was working for the people. My responsibility then was to protect their rights and, to the best of my knowledge, I did that conscientiously. When you work with government, you are shouldered with the responsibility to do those things you have sworn on oath to do.
I can’t stand before government and be shouting out my inputs in public. I can only advice, without the communities being aware most times, through memos, through consultations, discussions, correspondences, sharing of my ideas to the governor and other units of authority. I don’t need to discuss contributions in public domain.
How challenging has it been transiting from speaking for the people to working for government?
When I was Chairman, Itsekiri Regional Development Council, IRDC, I took decisions on the discretional format I adopted to tackle issues. But now, I first write to government. Government vets and decides what to do. As an individual, to a large extent, I am not totally happy with the way things are, but I am satisfied because government is a continuum; and a system too.
You came into government at a time of dwindling revenues and sundry challenges. On top of that are the resonant agitations for secession, restructuring, militancy, self-determination and all of that. Where do you stand?
I didn’t really come into government at the time of paucity of funds. In 2011, oil price was at comfortable level. There was money. Government was doing so much. But because PDP lost power at the centre, what some parts of the country were benefiting during PDP government, they no longer benefit. Look at the Igbo people, under PDP, they had Secretary to the Government, Deputy Senate President, Deputy Speaker of the House of Reps, they had a service chief in the military which they thought was a lifetime denial.
They also had projects. The 2nd Niger Bridge was on course. They lost all the positions under the current government and that’s what all the agitation today is about. Secondly, I do a lot of work, a lot of stakeholders’ engagement. I have realized that the International Oil Companies, IOCs, and marginal field operators, especially the Nigerian Petroleum Development Company, NPDC, don’t see the host state governments as part owners because they report to the federal government and their matters are purely on the Exclusive List. That is an issue for concern.
And because oil price has dropped drastically, allocations to our state have also dropped with the attendant effect on our responsibilities – not being able to pay huge wage bill and execute capital projects. We cannot continue to live from hand to mouth, going to Abuja to beg for allocations. That has given rise to a new thinking, let us revisit the Exclusive List and devolve power. My take on restructuring is that the federal government should give room for dialogue. There is no running away from restructuring.
The clamour to negotiate our unity recently turned violent in the South-East. Should things degenerate to that level?
In my view, nobody or ethnic nationality wants to leave Nigeria.
So why is the clamour degenerating to the point of violence?
The point is this, if Lagos contributes up to 47% of the total VAT generated across the country, it means they should get a commensurate share of the revenue. If we cannot get total restructuring, can we at least have devolution of power? That is the crux of the matter. If we cannot have true federalism, can we devolve power such that the federating units have 50% of their resources? If we have oil and gas, can we have 50% of whatever volume is taken from our state? That’s the way the people want to go. The Igbo don’t want to go away.
They have 180million Nigerians they are selling their products to. If they go away, there will be a lot of restrictions to reach this huge market. The question before us is, are they marginalised? Why do you think an Igbo cannot be President? It is like putting five persons in one room and one is telling another that you are a second class person. That is what fuels their unease as Nigerians.
What is the way out?
There is need for the National Assembly to revisit devolution of power. The APC has been moving round the country, sampling opinions on restructuring. That is doing the right thing in bad faith. Let the federal government get the nation’s leaders together. Let the National Assembly take a look at the report of the 2014 Confab. Let us leave our sentiments and look at it dispassionately. Let’s not hold tight to the regional sentiment that ‘I hold the power, I must cling to it’. If we don’t do the right thing, these agitations will continue.
What is your assessment of the Delta State administration in which you serve?
Notwithstanding that I am part of the government, I commend Governor Okowa. There is virtually no fund, but the government has been able to bring investors into nearly all parts of Delta. There is a power project in Sapele; the ground breaking will take place shortly.
There is a 450MW power project that Agip and Saipem are putting in Okpai. We are going to create a gas hub in the state. The Local Content Board came to us with investors who want to build a spare parts’ facility in Kwale. There is Asaba Capital City development project on going. You have the wealth creation programme of the state government. It is so unfortunate that people from this side (Delta South) are not keen partakers. The programme has trained and empowered a lot of youths.
The longest road the administration is embarking on is Ogulagha-Yokri-Sokubolo, 18km, in Burutu LGA. In my own place, Ogidigben, the governor has awarded a 3km project. The governor is doing his best in the face of paucity of funds. At the height of pipeline vandalisation before government intervened, allocation fell to N4billion monthly for a state that used to have N15billion, N17billion. Now we are restoring peace and the allocation is going up. We need to sustain the peace so that the governor can do more ahead of second term.
As the foundation Chairman of the Chevron funded Itsekiri Regional Development Council, IRDC, you exited the office and left behind rancour over alleged mismanagement of the body. There is, in fact, the freezing of over N2.5billion of the IRDC under the leadership which succeeded yours. What’s the problem with the IRDC?
One of my regrets is handing over IRDC power to a group I belonged to at that time. I had put IRDC, before leaving, on solid footing. If my successors had followed the blueprint we had, IRDC would have been a top platform for the Itsekiri to discuss their development with government and partners from across the world.
When you say you regret handling to the group, what do you mean?
I didn’t know I was doing the wrong thing, but I allowed sentiment to becloud my sense of judgement. I had to steer clear of the IRDC issues from the day I left office till now that the entire structure has crumbled. To go forward with the IRDC is to dissolve the body. Then the Olu with each of the community leaders will have to do reconciliation, in frank, open talk.
What is it that has not been done well that warranted your call for the dissolution of the IRDC?
If you say there are twelve disciples running Itsekiri aground and you decide to pick two or three of the twelve to be your key personnel, you have taken sides. Itsekiri have respect for their monarch. Our kingdom has existed for over 500 years and we have respect for our institutions. I can’t go to the Olu to say certain things, but I can write to the Olu to say this is what we have observed, and we think he should go this way.
Is the intention to install some persons for the titles part of the things we are talking about?
It was not my intention to speak on this matter in the media. Because you have asked directly, I would give only a hint. We heard of this long time ago and some of us wrote to parties concerned to express why our father, Ogiame Ikenwoli, should not confer these sensitive titles on the anticipated persons. I still hold that position. On the position of the Ologbotsere, the candidate in question came to me privately and I explained the reason I disapprove. A week later, I put same in black and white and conveyed to him by courier. I didn’t stop there. I did a letter to our father, giving reasons why he should not do it now.
Is your reservation on the timing or the choice of nominee?
The Itsekiri value their Prime Minister (Ologbotsere) just as they value the Olu. I am from the lineage but of maternal leaning. The occupant of that office must not be a young mind who is partisan.If the Olu and the Ologbotsere family see reasons with what we are saying, we will list qualified Itsekiri, five, six, seven, for the title from the Ologbotsere family. But in narrowing it to a group within the family in Sapele, I Mofe Pirah say no. And you already know I speak the minds of the majority who disapprove of unpopular choices.
Shell is reinvesting in Delta State after divesting her stakes in many assets half a decade ago. As Oil and Gas Commissioner, how gainful would be engagements against prevailing threats to investments and anger against the company’s alleged insensitivity to c
I am going to work day and night with our governor who is passionate about a safe investment environment in Delta. We started the work on getting Shell to return since last year, engaging the communities to see why hooliganism, violence, bunkering, kidnapping and blockage of oil operations should stop forthwith. We have tremendous results already.
As we speak, Heritage, operators of OML30, largest OML in Delta, are in Ughelli, in Warri, recruiting people. Work is on-going. They want to revive the entire field, move from 30, 000, 40, 000bpd to 100, 000, 120, 000, 200, 000bpd. I am what I am today because I grew up in an oil community. I participated in oil and gas activities and benefitted. Everybody shares in the blame on why Shell left. We had weak leaders in the communities.
If Shell left Sapele West with assets producing 30,000bpd, they should go back there and see the significant increase Seplat has gained in turning around those same assets to what they are producing currently. Shell should find out Seplat’s exemplary relationship with the communities and that is what Heritage is emulating and they would get the right results. That is why the governor has engaged the management of Shell, to say ‘you guys must come back’.
We might not achieve the totality of Shell coming back in one breathe, but one amicable way of making fast progress is to ensure that the Shell staff in Ogulagha, in Escravos and in all our areas must come to live among us in Delta. That way, they can do shopping at Shoprite at the Delta Mall, do leisure and other businesses in Delta to improve our economy. The Warri they are giving bad name to is not true, and we will prove that.
Many people are impressed with the confidence Governor Okowa reposed in you when you were reappointed as Commissioner for Oil and Gas. Are you going to also settle for an appointive office in 2019 or you will rather consider elective office?
Maybe I didn’t perform well in school, and they asked me to repeat. That’s one way of looking at my long tenure as Oil and Gas Commissioner. But government who appointed and the people who I serve are the better judges to assess my stewardship. That said I have key leaders in our party, the PDP. I have leaders in my Itsekiri nation who are in the party.
If they deem it fit that I run for elective office, I will hear from them, but we also have internal wrangling as a people. If we have a way to sit and resolve the issue, the better for us on who leads in what capacity. On a personal note, I have served and proven myself. I know I am qualified and have the capacity to be elected to serve. 2019, to me, is however still a long walk. Primaries would probably not come before late 2018 or early 2019. We have time to see how things go.