Right of reply
By Paulinus Nsirim
Our attention has been drawn to an article titled: “Gov Wike and the Soot Scandal” published by Dr Ugoji Egbujo in his ‘Frank and Fair’ column, of the Vanguard Newspaper, January 22, 2022. Considering the obvious fact that this writer has attracted considerable opprobrium for his sometimes illogical offerings in the public space, we will resist the temptations to join issues with the snide and provocative innuendos in this obviously pervasive rant and go straight to the point.
The brazen idiocy reeking all over the write-up, particularly trivialising the gallant and courageous efforts of Governor Nyesom Wike to frontally confront a deadly health hazard, at the time and in the manner he did, sadly casts Egbujo in the mould of an unrepentant fault-finder whose proclivity for mind-bending flippancy, often fly in the face of all good sense and action, particularly in his simplistic epistle to undermine the critical fight against soot in Rivers State.
It is completely false and misleading to even suggest that Governor Wike has acted as though he only became aware of the soot menace just recently. A timeline of the Rivers State Government’s action against the soot will reveal that the phenomenon which became noticeable around late 2016 and early 2017, had received considerable attention.
On February 8, 2017, the Rivers State Government set up a technical committee to look into the soot issue. The committee was mandated to investigate and resolve the environmental challenge. On February 11, 2017, some companies that were suspected to have contributed to the soot menace were sealed up.
The affected companies were: Chinese Govt Company, CGC, Aluu; HSH Engineering Company, Aluu; and AUC Asphalt Company, Aluu. A memo was sent to all companies that engaged in activities that pollute the air, warning them to desist, or face prosecution. On March 10, 2017, Governor Wike interfaced with men of the Nigerian Military, cautioning them against their crude mode of destruction of these petroleum products and the adverse effects on the environment.
On March 19, 2018, #StopTheSoot campaign volunteers, worried by the increased prevalence of soot that year, embarked on a second peaceful march, after the 2016 parade, to Government House, Port Harcourt, where they were informed of the state government’s efforts in the fight. The Federal Government was also urged to take more concerted action on gas flaring.
Federal Government-controlled security forces were equally chided for their compromising role in the illegally refined petroleum products business. Just immediately after his second inauguration on May 29, 2019, Governor Wike, on June 3, 2019, inaugurated a committee on the implementation of the report on soot which was carried out by the Rivers State Investigative committee set up earlier.
Governor Wike has also, at several widely reported occasions, called out the heads of security agencies in the state, over their involvement in aiding and abetting the illegal operations of unregistered local refineries and their by-product referred to in the Niger Delta as kpo-fire, noting that he has very minimal influence over the nations’ security apparatus.
Governor Wike in a special interview with Channels Television made the following statement: “We should separate politics from governance. This issue of the environmental challenge posed by the black soot requires the direct intervention of the Federal Government. We are working with all major stakeholders to address this challenge. We are working with international oil companies to provide needed solutions. The Federal Government should as a matter of urgency, intervene because the solution is within her purview.”
Governor Wike, also speaking on the black soot matter, in his new year 2022 message, stated categorically that: “As a State Government, we have drawn the attention of the Federal Government to this problem and requested for its intervention to stop the activities of illegal bunkering and artisanal crude oil refiners, which have been identified as the main sources of the soot pandemic.
Unfortunately, the Federal Government has remained inexplicably silent over our request and even complicit to a large extent with the security agencies actively aiding, encouraging and protecting the artisanal refiners to continue with their harmful activities unabated.”
To fully comprehend and appreciate the enormity of the situation which confronts Rivers people with the continued operations of these illegal refineries unchecked, and which has now driven the Rivers governor to engage in this frontal, hands-on radical action to tackle the soot menace, one must necessarily reflect on the timeless Igbo adage invoked by the great Nigerian writer, the late Professor Chinua Achebe, in the famous novel, Things Fall Apart which says that “a man who does not know where the rain began to beat him, cannot say where he dried in his body”.
It is a well-known fact that the illegal refining business is a multi-billion naira industry. It is something that is not hidden. Niger Delta analysts and civil society organisations have also opined that a lot of influential political and military leaders, referred to as ‘cabals’ or ‘cartels’, are all involved in this business, and so it has become quite difficult to put a halt to it.
The result of this illegal occupation in Rivers State and on Rivers people is the black soot and while efforts to tackle this health hazard, especially on the part of the Federal Government, may have been cosmetic and tokenist, especially following the 2016 and 2018 #StopTheSoot protests in Port Harcourt and other parts of Rivers State and Niger Delta, the emergence of COVID-19 and the concerted agenda to control and manage the pandemic, the war against soot has even achieved a greater urgency now.
As a result of the protracted air pollution crisis, caused by the black soot and exacerbated by the Omicron and Delta variants said to swiftly aggravate and accelerate respiratory failure, the need for the kind of practical action which Governor Wike embarked on into the forests of Ibaa and Ugbodo, in Emohua and Ikwerre local government areas respectively, achieves tremendous pragmatic relevance.
But more significant to the Rivers governor’s courageous trip into the heart of the jungle where the operational hub of these illegal refineries throb with nefarious activity is the glaring fact that since the Federal Government and its security agencies have either deliberately or otherwise, failed woefully to rein in those behind illegal oil bunkering and artisanal crude oil refiners, whose illegal operation has become the number one health hazard in the state, this action was a clear signal that the dithering of the Federal Government would no longer be overlooked.
A report by the World Health Organisation states that outdoor air pollution causes 4.2 million deaths each year across the world. Additionally, 99 per cent of the global population is exposed to a high level of air pollution which puts them at risk for heart disease, stroke, cancer, and other life-threatening medical conditions. Black soot, in particular, can be linked to a wide range of severe health effects, including acute bronchitis (an inflammation that causes coughing) and an aggravated breathing situation for asthma patients.
Governor Wike recognised this in his impassioned directives to the Rivers State Police Commissioner, CP Friday Eboka, at one of the sites of the illegal refineries, to ensure that the sponsors and operators of these operations, some of who had already been declared wanted by the state government, are brought to book, no matter how highly placed they are.
As at January 13, 2022, when Governor Wike was in Ikwerre and Emuoha LGAs to assess the illegal refineries bases, the total number of COVID-19 cases in Nigeria, was on a steep increase according to figures from the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, NCDC.
It is common knowledge that Section 44(3) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended); the Land Use Act and Petroleum Act, vest the exclusive control, ownership, and management of oil and gas and petroleum in the Federal Government and not to the state or local government where the mineral resources are situated (Exclusive List). However, these refineries are private and illegal.
There are about seven private refineries licenced by the DPR to operate in Nigeria and these ones operating in Ibaa and Ogbodo, as well as several other communities across Rivers State, are not among those licenced to operate. Governor Wike is very conversant with the law and he understands the Constitution perfectly.
In the last five years of this soot menace, the Rivers State Government has set up an investigation committee to ascertain the root cause of the soot, imposed sanctions on some companies, engaged and confronted security agencies on their approach, met with international organisations to raise awareness, gone on national television to call out the Federal Government’s ambivalence, set up a technical committee on implementation and continued calling on the Federal Government to live up to its responsibilities.
Interestingly, now that the State Government has decided to practically stop these illegal refiners endangering the lives of Rivers people, with this extraordinary frontal approach, the movie is actually beginning to yield positive results with the drastic reduction of the soot, as confirmed by those who live in Rivers State and complemented, to a large extent, by the compliance, by security agencies so far.
The recent revelations about security agencies aiding this illegal refinery and the brazen confrontation the Chairman of Obio/Akpor LGA and his men faced with Nigeria Civil Defence Corps, NCDC, at Ogbogoro community speak volumes. Yet sarcastic naysayers, in the ilk of Egbujo, are still bellyaching with some suggestive overtones, that Governor Wike is being dramatically proactive in the fight against soot.
It is rather sad and unfortunate that political opportunists and hack writers, whose stock-in-trade is to blindly criticise every genuine intention of Governor Wike, would also now politicize and trivialize with puerile logic like the offerings of Dr. Ugoji Egbujo, a matter that involves life and death and the health of the people.
Governor Wike has never failed to stand on the side of the people since he assumed office in 2015 and his ‘war’ against illegal refineries is just another manifestation of a leader who not only leads from the front but will always put his people first and step on toes to ensure that the people come first, no matter whose ox is gored. This fight against soot has no political nor ethnic undertone, it is a fight to save the life of everyone living in Rivers State; we all need to support it.
Nsirim is the Commissioner for Information and Communications, Rivers State