By Soni Daniel, Northern Region
EditorIn his first major interview after being elected National Chairman of the Pan Niger Delta Elders Forum, PANDEF, former Military Governor of Akwa Ibom State and former Commander of the Presidential Air Fleet, Air Commodore Idongesit Nkanga, Rtd, speaks on what could bring about lasting peace to Nigeria’s oil-producing region and equally stabilize the foundation for the country’s peace, growth and development in general.
With your recent election and the acceptance of your post as the National Chairman of PANDEF, ir appears that PANDEF has not only come to stay but has also emerged as the voice of the Niger Delta. So, what do you have to offer as the leader of the region and group?
My first priority is to see that we change the narrative of the Niger Delta to enable the people to see the problems of the Niger Delta the way they are and and explore how we can overcome them. I don’t think there is any short cut to the problems we are talking about.
To start with, it is that same bad terrain full of environmental problems that is also the terrain that is bringing prosperity to the nation. For that reason, we must not look at only the prosperity alone and neglect the sufferings of the people. We need to address the problems just as we are prospering from the prosperity of the region. Additionally, we must find new ways to look for peace in the area because without peace you cannot have development. But above all, let us also note that without bringing justice to the Niger Delta, the attainment of peace might just be an elusive item.
And so, we are taking a holistic view of the situation in the Niger Delta: peace, justice, equity and fair play for all so as to enjoy the oil wealth that the region provides for all Nigerians. There has been a lot of injustice from the time top Niger Delta leaders were killed. I’m talking about Isaac Adaka Boro, Ken Saro-Wiwa, the destruction of Odi and Gbaramatu communities. A lot of blood has been spilled already and we must look for new ways to achieve peace in the Niger Delta. That is why we must constantly dialogue and that is what informed the birth of PANDEF so that we can come together and address the challenges of the region and its people in relation to the whole country.
That was why when we met the President on the 1st of November 2016, we handed over the 16-point Agenda to him and as a matter of fact it was acknowledge even by the Vice President that this would be the working paper because it touches on all the areas of agitations of the Niger Delta region.
We also requested the President that there should be continuous dialogue between us and the federal government. Regrettably, that has not been happening frequently. But no matter how you look at it, we need regular dialogue because that solves so many problems.
Interestingly, a lot of the things captured in the 16- point agenda, which we presented to the federal government do not require money to be spent by the government but mere political goodwill to get them off the ground and achieve permanent peace. I can say that once the government starts doing some of the things on the agenda, it will show that it has goodwill and commitment to the Niger Delta and the people will believe that it is serious, ready and willing to care for them. That automatically will bring about the much needed peace.
Don’t forget that before we met with Mr. President, there had been a spike in militancy and oil production had dropped from about 2.2 million barrels per day to between 700,000 to 800,000 barrels per day. But through our intervention, the young men who were in the creeks sheathed their swords and saw that at least somebody was talking to them.
In fact, at a point according to the Minister of Petroleum Resources, oil production rose up to about 2.35 million barrels per day and this translates to N33 billion a day at the rate of N350 to a Dollar. If the country gets that huge amount daily from the Niger Delta, there is absolute need to show goodwill and address the challenges facing the people residing in the area where this wealth is coming from.
So what the present executive will try to do is look at these areas, engage in continuous dialogue with the government to see how they will implement the 16-point agenda which is very dear to our people and which also takes into consideration the desires of the other zones on the issue of restructuring, which is the most important issue of the moment.
Given the cacophony of voices on restructuring across the different regions in the country, what type of restructuring do you advocate for the Niger Delta and Nigeria as a whole?
The restructuring that we are talking about is all inclusive, giving benefits to the north, the south and everywhere. There are three pillars of the restructuring; the first of it is fiscal federalism, which is what the Niger Delta is clamouring for as part of the larger restructuring of Nigeria.
Nigeria came as a union of ethnic nationalities and in the first republic it was very clear, in fact in 1954 late chief Obafemi Awolowo said Nigeria could only survive through federalism. The first republic operated to a good extent with fiscal federalism in that 50 percent of what was obtainable in any area of the country went to those three regions; of the remaining 50 percent, 30 percent went to the distribution pool to the three regions while the 20 percent was left for the development of the federal capital which was Lagos at that time and people were happy.
And that was why western Nigeria was able to provide free education, build the first television station in West Africa and all those great things that they did because of the money that came from cocoa.
In the north, we had groundnuts pyramids; we had cotton and that was why textile industries grew rapidly in that area of the country. It was when the military came in 1966 that they suspended that, took up the unitary system and one person now sits at the centre like father Christmas and just keeps sharing whatever he wants. This system breeds injustice because there was a time it was 3% for the oil-producing states and then they raised it to the present 13% derivation but that is not the issue.
What we are saying is that the government should put in place a sharing formula that allows people to use whatever is found in their area to develop such areas as was the case in the first republic. It started with 50% and it was supposed to go higher but we never did that. Later, we came back to this “Feeding Bottle Federalism” which allows one person to just be at the centre and give out whatever he likes to the states irrespective of what they contribute to the national economy. In 2016 for instance, Akwa Ibom State had the least allocation in capital budget and we could not understand why a state that is producing over 40% of the national revenue will receive the least capital allocation. We could not understand the criteria used for that allocation. Akwa Ibom got N1.96 billion, the whole of the South-South received N35 billion, South East was given N28.5 billion, while Kano State got N30 billion. We could not understand why that was so and it was basically repeated in 2017. So this is not the right thing to do. But what we want is fiscal federalism, which is the first pillar of restructuring.
The second pillar is true federalism. It is in true federalism that we have devolution of powers. There are over 64 issues on the Exclusive List of the federal government and we believe that this is too unwieldy. In the first republic it was not like that.
In the first republic Nigeria had four envoys in the United Kingdom, each of the regions and the federal government had an envoy. Each of the regions had its own coat of arms and flag. These things we are demanding today in order to save Nigeria from collapse are not new. They are doable today.
It was because of the hierarchy of the military’s command and control that brought so much power to the centre and that is why it is like a rat race where everybody wants to go to the centre to get something for their areas. If that system is removed, people will stay back and develop their areas.
There is no state in this country that does not have something to develop. Since there was oil everybody went into oil so there was no competition. People should see the states competing so that the economy would be better but that has not happened because there is no true federalism, the second pillar of restructuring.
The third pillar of restructuring is the restructuring of the federating units. We can now decide whether we want to run regions or states or local governments but the federal government should relate with only one federating unit: you cannot be relating to local government here, relating to states here. It does not make any sense. And for those who believe that they have not created more states for them that is where their own joy would come from.
But things are going wrong in this country today and that is why you have “Operation Python Dance” in the South East, “Operation Crocodile Tears” in the South-South and “Operation Cat Race” in the North as if we are under a siege. It tells you clearly there is something fundamentally wrong with the system we are running and that something must be done to change it. It also means that if you don’t dialogue these things won’t just go away. There is absolute need for restructuring and that has to be done urgently to reduce the frictions and tension in the land and pave the way for rapid development across the country.
We are not talking about the kind of restructuring that was done during the military era where they simply created some states on the basis of federating units and adjusted their boundaries. We are talking about fiscal federalism and true federalism before any other thing is done.
Your own idea of restructuring appears to be all embracing. Do you think this holistic proposal on restructuring is acceptable to the majority of Nigerians?
Yes I can vouch for it. Right now, all the states in the Niger Delta have accepted it just as their counterparts in the South East, South West and the Middle Belt.
As a matter of fact, I can now say authoritatively that even some of the states of the North West would be happy to accept what we are advocating because certainly they would like to see a return of the Groundnut pyramid and cotton and textile mills. What we are advocating is for the general growth and development of Nigeria. It is our belief that once the oil we are talking about dries up and agriculture becomes the mainstay of the economy, everyone would be talking about fiscal federalism and it must be done now.
What is the attitude of the governors of the Niger Delta towards PANDEF?
In general terms, they are very supportive of what we are doing and I can say that most of them are solidly behind us. They like what we are doing and they believe that with more dialogue and interactions, the challenges facing the area would be resolved.
There appears to be relative peace in the Niger Delta since PANDEF took over as the voice of the region. Could this be as a result of the series of dialogue between PANDEF and the Presidency in recent times?
Well I would want to think so and I would want to hope that is the reason but on our own as PANDEF we have gone round. About two weeks ago, I was in Warri, Delta State and we used that opportunity to preach the gospel of peace to the people there. We told the youths there that we must find new ways of having peace in the region. The problem is, we can break pipelines there is no problem with that but if you do, the environmental problem is enormous and it is on the people.
Two, if you want more things to be done in your area and the only place the federal government can get money is from the oil in your area, if you break the pipelines they will now have excuse to say why they cannot do it. So we must find new ways and PANDEF is in between them. But we have also made it clear to the federal government that they should not take the peaceful disposition of the Niger Delta as weakness but that they should take concrete steps to do the things they have promised the region and its people so as to douse the tension in the area and pave the way for oil production and proper development of the place. The government should take advantage of our intervention to address the challenges of the Niger Delta because they cannot be talking directly with the militants, who would not even listen to them. Our position is that as long as the face-off between the youths and the government continues, Nigeria will suffer since it depends largely on oil from the area.
It is to be noted that it was when the boys stopped the bombings of pipelines that Nigeria was able to produce enough oil, make more money and get out of recession.
One must recognize these efforts because we stay in-between and we say young men please, we have seen other countries where they produce oil and we have seen the sufferings arising from oil production in the Niger Delta. As bad as it is, please, don’t destroy the facilities and devastate your environment. If you go to Texas and California in the United States of America, they are among the richest states in the world as a result of oil being produced in those places. But the reverse is the case in the Niger Delta. They don’t get the best deal from the oil firms and the environment is destroyed as a result of oil production activities.
The first time I saw Kwashiorkor after the civil war was in Bayelsa State. It is not supposed to be. If you go there and other oil producing states of the Niger Delta to see the negative effects of oil production on the environment and the people, one would be tempted to weep.
Look at Ogoni, the story is the same. Yes, they say Ogoni clean up has been flagged off but we are unsure where they will get N30 billion in 30 years to finish up the work in spite of several promises.
There is also the gas flare in these areas and people are going blind. They have given many deadlines for us to stop gas flaring but instead the oil companies are paying penalty for gas flaring and when the money comes they share it to every state of the federation. This is unfair and unjust. Your brother is going blind and you are sharing that money. Your roof is leaking because of the acid rain and nobody is listening to the cries of our people.
Look at Port Harcourt, if you park your car outside and when you go back and touch it your hands become black and you cannot walk in a room bare footed; everything is black. That is the same air that people are breathing. So when you look at all these and that is why I am praying so hard that Nigeria sees the need for justice because if you continue to treat the people like this and they say well, let them carry the money and go, will it profit the country? This is the point that we are making: show justice so that everybody would be happy at the end of the day. Nobody is asking to be given preference over others.
But the government can argue rightly that it has done so much for the Niger Delta by paying the nine states of the region the 13 percent Derivation, establishing the NDDC to plan and execute key projects for the region and establishing a special ministry to coordinate the development of the Niger Delta.
Well we have and as a matter of fact one of the items of the 16-point agenda that we gave to the Mr President was about NDDC and the strengthening of the Niger Delta ministry also. It is one thing to say you have set up the commission and another to properly fund it to deliver on its mandate.
Number two, the NDDC should not be run like one of those ministries with bureaucracy. The people who run the place and those who get the huge contracts are not all Niger Delta people. Most of the contractors simply abandon the jobs now littering the region.
As at 2016, I heard that NDDC owed about 800 billion. As at today, the amount it is owing its contractors is said to have hit N1 trillion. We need a Marshall plan for the development of the Niger Delta.
Again, the federal government needs to clearly define what the NDDC should do to fast track the development of the Niger Delta because sometimes it appears as if it does not have a proper direction. Why do I say so? Some times, NDDC will be distributing toilet papers, refuse bins, buses, desks and chairs as if it has no definite direction and you cannot blame the Niger Delta people for that. It is the federal government that set it up. The federal government should give them proper direction, funding and proper monitoring to be able to carry out real projects that can stand the test of time and save the people. But it is an area we need to look into.
Why does PANDEF not think of drawing a blueprint for the development of the Niger Delta for the government to implement?
To the best of my knowledge blueprints have been put down over and over again for the NDDC. I have attended meetings not from PANDEF though, meetings from Niger Delta ministry and a few others that we have seen blueprints put together. Why they did not follow it or it was not accepted I don’t know.
But let me assure that we will do anything that is necessary to improve the region.
We have noted the points and we will at the appropriate time look at what has already been submitted and what we need to add in order to fast track the transformation of the Niger Delta.
Can we bring to the Niger Delta the template used in transforming the two Texas and California in the U.S, which you cited as having the best in terms of serving as oil-bearing states in that country?
I don’t see why we cannot but again note that what obtains in the U.S is not a stand-alone thing. United States is operating true federalism while Nigeria is operating unitary system under the guise of federalism. The budget of California alone is far more than the budget of not just Nigeria but that of Africa.
It is about the 5th or 6th largest economy in the world and they have control of what they are doing. That independence is there but it is not here.
So by the time we are serious and honest enough to have fiscal federalism, true federalism, NDDC will not even be the issue again. It may not even be in existence then because it is now the states of the Niger Delta that will know what the problem is and how they can solve them with their own resources.
They can decide to form a commission voluntarily put together by the Niger Delta people or the South-South states can come together and decide on how to develop the area as opposed to the current situation where the federal government does everything whether comfortable or not to the people.
What has been the response of the Niger Delta youths to your emergence as the National chairman of PANDEF?
Very positive and I am very pleased with that and I thank them for the cooperation because all these things, ranging from militancy to pipeline destruction, are not being done by old men but by young people. If we fail to carry the youths along, then, we have not started.
Within our executive we do have a youth leader, a deputy youth leader and all that and from the briefing they gave me they are already in the process of getting all the youths of the region together so that they can form one body and speak with one voice because that has also been a major problem.
The Niger Delta is a microcosm of the entire Nigeria; when you want to do something they will say is that Ijaw, Urhobo, Ibibio, Efik and and so on. We also have many languages in the area but luckily for us we now have a voice and that voice is PANDEF and everybody is beginning to zero into it.
Then if you have a problem, the problem that happens to an Itsekiri person is also happening to an Ijaw person, it is happening to an Urhobo person, Ibibio, Annang and Bini people etc. It also means that the environmental problems may not exactly be the same but they are there in all the states of the Niger Delta. Like in Cross River State the problem of Bakassi is there and the people are suffering. This must be addressed.
Finally, the environmental problems that we have in the Niger Delta must be taken seriously and this can best be tackled through restructuring, which has now hit a crescendo. The issue is not just politically expedient but equally morally compelling.