May 19, 2024

Itsekiri marginalised despite contributions to Nigeria’s oil wealth  — Edema

Itsekiri marginalised despite contributions to Nigeria’s oil wealth  — Edema

•Urges Tinubu to end ‘oppression’ of Iwere people

By Dickson Omobola

Mr Collins Edema is anenvironmentalist and a community leader in Warri Kingdom. In this interview, he speaks on what he calls the marginalisation of the Itsekiri people.

He also appeals to President Bola Tinubu to find permanent solutions to the problems in the kingdom. Excerpts: 

How would you describe marginalisation of the Itsekiri people?

I would describe marginalisation of the Itsekiri people as a double tragedy. Double in the sense that there is a general marginalisation of the Niger Delta people at the centre. Because Nigeria is basically controlled by the three major ethnic groups, none of those ethnic groups  is from the Niger Delta. In the case of the Itsekiri, after being marginalised at the centre, we face another form of marginalisation from our hostile neighbours in the Niger Delta. In Itsekiri land, oil was discovered in 1963 at the Okan field. Okan means one in Itsekiri. It was so named because that was the first oil field to be discovered by Gulf Oil Company, now Chevron Nigeria Limited. Chevron acquired it from Gulf Company. Since the discovery, oil has been discovered in different fields in Itsekiri land or Warri Kingdom.

Today, Warri Kingdom is under the Olu of Warri, His Majesty Ogiame Atuwatse III. Itsekiri land stretches from Ologbo in Edo State to Ugbege that shares a boundary with Ondo State and Ugborodo in the Escravos river in Warri South West. This land is over 1,500 square miles. It will interest you to know that the Itsekiri nation, even with all the arms struggle in the Niger Delta, has been relatively peaceful. We have never taken up arms against the Federal Government. That may also be a factor why we are the most marginalised tribe in Nigeria irrespective of the fact that we produce approximately 33 per cent of the country’s oil as a single ethnic nationality. We have one language and one king. We have Okan fields, we have Meji, Meta, Meren and so forth.

We have facilities like the Shell Gas Plant in Otumara. We have Shell Flow Station in Ogidigben, we have the Chevron Tank Farm in Ugborodo, we have the EGTL Gas Plant where they process natural gas to LPG, GTL Diesel, GTL Naphtha and the like. But with all these, we are being marginalised, especially since the return of democracy. Every successive government wants votes, and since the Itsekiri people do not have the physical numbers to give ‘bloc votes’, we are being overlooked in terms of development, employment and giving attention to our polluted environment. Our environment is one of the most polluted in the Niger Delta because there has never been any form of environmental remediation. Since the discovery of crude oil on our land, we face pollution from the exploration of crude oil, the gas flare, venting and the Warri Refinery. It will also interest you to know that the Warri Refinery is just one kilometre from where Warri Kingdom starts, which is the royal cemetery. The Royal Cemetery is a national heritage site. The Warri Kingdom started from Ijala by Ginuwa in 1480 AD. It is just behind the refinery and Ginuwa was buried there. For over 500 years, other subsequent kings had been buried there with a tree planted in their honour. Since 1979, the refinery has been polluting this place. What do we get in return? We don’t have protection from the federal government or the state government. In fact, the Warri crisis unfortunately made it worse. The crisis lasted from 1996 to 2003. Our neighbours who our forefathers gave land to occupy turned against us, took up arms against us, took some of our lands by force, renamed them, burnt down our homes and killed several Itsekiri people. They almost changed our identity. Today, we have problems in our hands because even when contracts are to be awarded, these same neighbours who have taken over some parts of our land by force and by the blood of our people are saying that the lands belong to them. Unfortunately, the Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited, NNPCL, subsidiaries and its joint venture, JV, partners are covertly or overtly supporting them because the only thing they are interested in is that crude oil should flow freely. They don’t want the flow of crude oil to be disrupted. And because of that, they give them what they are supposed to give us. For instance, the pipeline surveillance contract. You really cannot compare pipeline surveillance in Delta State with other states in the Niger Delta. There was no inter-ethnic war in Rivers State. There was no inter-ethnic war in Bayelsa. There was none in Cross River, Akwa Ibom, Imo or Ondo. In Delta, there have been issues of land grabbing, violently killing of people who own their ancestral homeland and sacking them.

Pipeline surveillance

When pipeline surveillance is to be awarded, the federal government should be very careful not to use pipeline surveillance contracts to be seen by the Itsekiri people as a reward to people who have taken over our land. Why have I said this? The pipeline in OML 40 is about 36 kilometres of pipeline to Otumara. It starts from Opuama. Opuama is an Ijaw community in Egbema. Out of 36 kilometres, Opuama has just about three kilometres of the entire stretch of pipelines. When I say we own the land, I want to make specific references. For instance, in the whole Delta river to offshore, you will find out that either Itsekiri have its own oil fields exclusively or those that are not solely owned by us are shared with few Ijaw, like OML 40. The Ijaw have three kilometres while Itsekiri have 33KM. 
The Trans-Forcados-Pipeline, TFP, is majorly in Omadino land. Though the line is old and material integrity of the pipeline is questionable, Ocean Marine Services, OMS, has done extremely well for the period it has been handling the TFP considering the challenges of the age of the facility and the terrain. It will interest you to know that OMS with uncommon doggedness and camaraderie single handedly increased oil output in Delta State and shot Delta to the number one oil producing State in Nigeria since 2019. All the communities along the TFP including Batan, Odidi, Kantu have been benefiting immensely from OMS services.

You will not find any Ijaw oil fields in Warri North, Warri South West or Warri South that are solely owned by the Ijaw. There is no oil field that is solely owned by the Ijaw in Warri Federal Constituency. However, these fields that even the Ijaw are claiming ownership of have been adjudicated upon to the Supreme Court and even the Privy Council in London. The facts are there. The judgements are there. Since the advent of democracy, the federal government and the state government are more concerned about where they will get votes in the next election. They forget that it is actually us that provides the finance where this election takes place. Without our money, elections will not be financed in Nigeria. The oil in Itsekiri land is more than what they have in Bahrain,  India, United Kingdom, Uzbekistan and others. Chevron alone takes around 35 million dollars from Itsekiri land everyday based on current market price of crude, diesel and gas among others. If you add others, Itsekiri gives Nigeria probably over 50 million dollars daily. What do we get in return? The reward of our hostile neighbours being rewarded by successive governments and the NNPCL while we are being overlooked.

Why are you against your neighbours guiding pipelines in Itsekiri land?

Normally,  I am not against guiding pipelines in Itsekiri land by our neighbours, but I am against awarding a pipeline being guided by an Itsekiri owned business to an Ijaw owned business because we are supposed to be brothers, but sadly we don’t seem to live as one. This can truncate the fragile peace in the area.

It is also stated in the Petroleum Industry Act, PIA, that if there is shortage of production due to damage of facilities in any area, the money they are supposed to pay that area will be deducted as a result of the leakage.

To say that we (the Itsekiri) should manage the pipelines in Itsekiri land or Warri Kingdom cannot be overemphasised, especially knowing that this area, because of land and oil, has been bedeviled by inter-ethnic crises over the years. Why was there Warri crisis? It was because some people wanted to take over our land and inheritance. It is a rich land. By taking over the land, they will take over our oil wells, thereby taking over our production quantum in Delta State and Nigeria. With that, they will earn more political power and earn more revenue from government. Now, how can you say someone who killed my brother, my mother and burnt some people to death should be allowed to guide pipelines in the same areas that they once invaded? It will look like you are giving them unhindered access into our homeland with arms. One way they have handled the pipeline surveillance in other people’s area over the past three years is by subletting it to the indigenes so that the people from a particular place are actually responsible for guiding their own pipeline. That is currently going on, but terminating the contract of an Itsekiri man and awarding it to our neighbour is something that should not be imagined.

What are your thoughts on the interventionist agencies in the Niger Delta?

Unfortunately, the federal government has made the amnesty office an Ijaw office or an Ijaw agency. They have made it look like an agency to reward a particular ethnic group for either taking up arms against the federal government or taking up arms to kill the Itsekiri people. In a constitutional state like Nigeria, this is quite sad. With all sense of responsibility, I would like to define our own kind of democracy in Nigeria as ‘the tyranny of the majority against the minority.’ Democracy is supposed to be a ‘government of the people by the people and for the people’, but unfortunately, the kind of democracy we see in Nigeria is the tyranny of the majority against the minority. What brought about the Presidential Amnesty Programme, PAP? An agency like that should be used to integrate and reconcile the entire Niger Delta. PAP  should help in reconciliation rather than promote the superiority of a particular ethnic group against others.
It is also the same at the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC. The nomination for appointment does not come from the people, although there is a policy that says how this appointment should be done. When it is the turn of the minority, like the Itsekiri, the majority oppress us and take up our position. Right now, an Itsekiri man is supposed to be the chairman or the managing director of the NDDC, but we are not. Why? Because the federal government sees the NDDC as a political tool rather than as a tool for development. That is the irony. The only place you may look at with two sides of the face is Delta State Oil Producing Areas Development Commission, DESOPADEC. In a way, even when they don’t give us what is supposed to be ours from the 13 per cent derivation, the sharing formula still makes it look like if you produce the highest, you will have a higher allocation. However, in terms of management of the board, it is skewed in favour of those who can give government a high vote. It is not done in the way it is supposed to be.

Appeal to President Bola Tinubu

We are hoping that President Tinubu will hear us, the voice of the Itsekiri people crying and begging for help. There is no functional healthcare centre in our homelands on the river, and there is no potable drinking water. If a pregnant woman is in labour, it will take her at least three hours to get to where healthcare facilities are. From pregnancy to delivery, there is no guarantee of antenatal. Infant mortality rate is high. There is a high rate of environmental pollution. People inhale BTEX, Benzene, Toluene, EthylBenzene, Xylene gasses and trace metals from oil exploration. It is known worldwide that in such places, people are susceptible to kidney failure, respiratory problems among others. Nobody is doing anything, nobody is saying anything. The federal government collects gas flaring penalties from the IOCs, yet it doesn’t compensate the host community. The NNPCL has the NNPC Foundation, but it has not raised a block in Itsekiri land since its inception. Yet, I have seen the foundation build hospitals in the North and other parts of the country. I will appeal to the federal government to give special consideration to the Itsekiri people. Our lands in the Escravos area are being washed into the river. They need to recover our land, the land that Chevron, through its exploration, has washed into the sea for the past 60 years. We are like an endangered species, so I want to beg the federal government to give special consideration and urgency to our land by providing shoreline protection, building of hospitals and schools and access roads from Warri to Ugborodo and Ogheye. With all these in place, life can be easy for our people.