The Nigerian political system is characterised by lack of mass participation, a mainly unaccountable leadership, violent elections lacking in credibility, and political parties that parade programmes without the input of those they want to govern.
The Ijaws who populate the riverine landscape from Rivers through Bayelsa to Delta states and spanning Akwa Ibom, Edo and Ondo states, are attempting to reverse this trend by building across party lines, a consensus around a Pan-Ijaw agreement: “The Ijaw Charter” and a Code of Ethics, Leadership and Governance, CELG.
The attempt is to make government, irrespective of the party in power, accountable to the people, elections credible and violence-free, and the people, sovereign over all authorities. It is an attempt to attain what the country, in parts and as a collective, has failed to achieve in decades of civil rule.
They took the first steps at a conference in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State on May 22 attended by a cross-section of people, including former President Goodluck Jonathan.
A coalition of Ijaw groups: the Ijaw Elders Forum, Lagos; the Ijaw Professionals Association, IPA; the G24 Embasara Foundation; the Ijaw Women Connect Worldwide and the Ijaw Nation Forum, INF, had collectively taken the initiative to produce the documents which were presented to the conference for endorsement. They got aspirants running for the November 16, 2019, Bayelsa gubernatorial elections, who were present, to buy into the documents and resolved that all aspirants, and later, candidates in the elections, would be required to accept the basic principles enunciated in the documents.
The Ijaws argued that they have made tremendous sacrifices and contributions to the sustenance of the country and is the source of over 50 per cent of total oil and gas production which sustains the economy. But that despite this, they have been subjected to arbitrary and systemic split into regions, states and local government areas which are skewed against their interests.
They declared that they want to exercise their inherent and inalienable rights to self-determination, preservation of their cultural identity and continued existence in their homeland “as guaranteed by law, territorially defined on the eastern flank by Eastern Obolo and Ibeno and on the western flank by the Toru-Ebe clans of Apoi, Arogbo, Egbema Furupagha, Gbaran, Okomu and Olodiama in the present Niger- Delta Region”.
They also want to organise themselves “as an autonomous and contiguous geopolitical entity”.
They are demanding “the sincere practice of federalism as a system of governance, whereby the ownership, control and management of natural resources vest inalienably in the communities through federating units of the polity and also entails the appropriate devolution of powers to the federating units”.
They want to “ensure the application and entrenchment of the best principles and practice of good, accountable, transparent and participatory governance (including traditional governance) at national, subnational and community levels in order to engender peace, security, social inclusion and justice, sustainable economic growth and development.”
Their desire is: “To secure from Nigeria and other responsible actors (both local and international) the maximum and urgent reparation for an adequate remediation of the gross environmental and ecological devastation of Ijaw territory, principally through the continued reckless exploitation and exploration of oil and gas on the one hand, including several decades of continuous gas flaring, and on the other hand the criminal neglect of the Ijaw people.”
Also, they want: “ To pursue the educational and technological advancement of Ijaw people with all purposefulness.”
The Ijaw Code of Ethics, Leadership and Governance encompasses the values and qualities for leadership envisaged for the people, including minimum governance standards, continuity of policies, programmes and projects beyond specific governments, citizens’ right to know and freedom of information, opportunity cost and value for money, alignment with global benchmarks and best practices, minimising the cost of governance and optimising public resources.
It also contains what they referred to as qualitative and mass education, participatory governance culture, leadership behaviour, civic norms and personal example, awareness building and leadership development.
Bayelsa State Deputy Governor, Gboribiogha John Jonah, a retired Rear Admiral who represented Governor Seriake Dickson, talked about his experience in governance. “When some of us retired, we decided to return home because we felt the need to give back and provide services for our people,” he said. He added that all he wanted was to be a local government councillor, but was called to higher duties as deputy governor.
Reeling out the achievements of the Dickson administration, he said one of the major decisions was to dedicate a percentage of the internally generated revenue to the feeding of children in schools. The state government, he said, has been propagating the restructuring of the country and would settle for nothing less.
Former President Jonathan told the conference that if Bayelsa State is to develop, there must be peace, including in the political process.
He added: “People must go beyond power for the sake of power. As long as you are in a position to influence a person, then you are a leader. You don’t need to be a governor to be a leader.”
Dr Jonathan told the gubernatorial aspirants: “If God wants you to be governor, you will be, it is not by the number of guns you carry.”
He said what is most important for any leader is the legacy he leaves behind, adding that once the gubernatorial candidates emerge, they must come before the people and pledge that they will not indulge in violence. The immediate past President also advised Ijaw leaders to invest in education, adding that well- educated youths can make a good living outside the state or region.
Dr Austin Tam-George, former Rivers State Commissioner for Information who delivered the keynote address suggested a transformation-type leadership with a broad vision.
He advocated that the country should assemble the best possible team and that even if particular parts of the country are favoured for certain appointments, they should be picked from amongst the best in those areas. He advised leaders to be conscious of the fact that there is life before office and there shall be life after office.
Mr Denzil Amagbe Kentebe, former Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Content Management Development Board, NCMDB, spoke in favour of the ideals of the Charter as did gubernatorial aspirant, Dr Franklin Erepamo Osaisai, an energy scientist and former Director-General and Chief Executive Officer of the Nigeria Atomic Energy Commission.
Another aspirant, Ndutimi Alaibe, a former Managing Director of the Niger-Delta Development Commission, NDDC, spoke the minds of many when he said: “Our people must not be killed because they want to elect leaders of their choice by exercising their constitutional rights.” The documents are to be presented in June to the Ijaw National Congress, INC, a conference for final endorsement.