Comrade Ebilade Ekerefe is the National Spokesman of the Umbrella body of Ijaw Youths worldwide under the aegis of the Ijaw Youths Council (IYC). In this chat with newsmen, Ekerefe throw more light on the angst of the Niger Delta leaders against President Buhari, the aborted South-South stakeholders meeting in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, the issue of the new agitation for resources control, restructuring and the controversy over the allege misuse of the 13 per cent derivation by the Governors of the region.
At the moment, there seems to be friction between the leaders of the Niger Delta region and the Federal Government. How do you see this and the rising threat to the existing peace in the region?.
Well, it has been there time in memorial despite the fact that you are seeing seeming peace. That existing peace is artificial and the peace is not born out of genuineness. And that is why we have always believed that for the federal government to win the hearts of the people of the Niger Delta, they should adhere to the views of our people they should look into our demands, and address them accordingly. And of course, our issues have been true federalism. Our issues have been a situation where the country can be restructured. And we believe that if that is done, the state government will have more powers to control their resources and contribute to the centre. So, these are the things that breeds the agitations that you currently witnessed. And like I said, whether you fail to address this today, tomorrow it will state us in the face as a country.
So I think that the president has a responsibility to write his name Gold and in the annals of history by quickly calling for a national dialogue where every region will be adequately represented so that we can renegotiate this country. Because with the way things are going, nothing seems to be working.
For me, the aborted meeting in Port Harcourt was not just an embarrassment to the region, but it is very provocative especially at a time when there are renewed agitations as a result of this #Endsars protest. And our region is following up the development in the country. So why we did not participate fully in the #Endsars protest, we have always reinstated that the #Endsars protest to us is a metaphor for a restructured Nigeria. Because, if the country is restructured, most of all these incidences that breeds these protests will be a thing of the past.
So, that is the major concern and if the Niger Delta people have opened their doors for the federal government to come in and discuss with the people in other to deepen the discussions and come up with a practical resolutions on how we can move the country forward. Then I think it is a step in the right direction that people must continue to talk. You must know why the people are agitating. As far as we are concerned, the last time I checked, we still sustains the economy of this country. And we are a critical stakeholders in the affairs of the Nigeria as a nation. If the delegation from the Presidency, headed by the Chief of Staff to the President, Prof. Gambari Ibrahim could go to other regions and have meetings with those geopolitical zone. And those meetings, were successful ,then why is that a meeting that was fixed , was deliberately cancelled by the federal government .
So the people are very angry, not just the youths if it is a meeting that had to do with youth sector, it would have been a different thing. The Traditional rulers, opinion leaders, clergy men, who cut across the South-South geopolitical Zone converged in Port Harcourt. And for the first time in the history of the South-South geopolitical zone, after a very long while, the six governors that made up the BRACE commission were all in attendance. None of them, were represented by their deputies or representatives from government. It shows you the seriousness of the matter and the exigencies of the time.
It is very sad that that meeting was aborted. We believe that if the federal government is serious with the issues affecting the region, then they should as a matter of urgency apologize to the region and quickly reconvene a meeting where the people can discuss.
At the last meeting of the IYC, Ijaw Youths noted with joy the reported Gold mining and sale by the Zanfara Govt. And the Ijaw Youths called for control of natural resources. Have you shifted grounds?
Why would we shift grounds? And we have not shifted grounds. What we are saying is that as far as the Zamfara state desire to sell their gold ous of selling their gold to the federal government through the central bank, the people of Niger Delta are interested that our oil and gas resources should also be controlled by our people and we commend what the Zamfara state government is doing because that is exactly what we want.
That is what true federalism is all about. The people must control their resources. Zamfara doesn’t have oil, so we don’t expect Zamfafa to control their oil resources. What they have in Zamfara, is gold. Unfortunately, we are in a country where they have used obnoxious laws to regulate everything. As far as we are concerned, Zanfara is controlling their own Natural Mineral resources. And the people of the Niger delta wants to also control their own Natural resources given to us by God. That is exactly what we want. So discussions like this will give everyone a platform where everybody will know what they are bringing to the table.
You cannot use oil and gas that is coming from our region to sustain the economy of this country, and our place is under-developed and there is environmental degradation still going on. The Federal government promised us that they are going to clean up Ogoni land and up till this moment, it has still not been done. So the people are asking questions.
We are in a country where, instead of allowing us the locals who are familiar with the terrains to secure the oil and gas facilities within this region, they have rather placed it in the hands if the Nigerian Military. And instead of looking for people who are going against the law, they will invade communities, vandalize this communities, and render our people homeless.
A lot of our people who are direct victims of military brutality and invasion are still living as IDPs . They can no longer go back to their various communities and resettle. These are challenges the people of this region are facing .And I think that there is no better time to discuss this issue than now. Why are they avoiding the discussions? How can you tell me that discussions that have to do with the stability of oil and gas resources will be jettisoned by the delegation of the federal government?.
But many Niger Deltans have also queried the use of the 13 per cent derivation by the State Governors. Are you comfortable with the quality of leadership with this improper management of funds?
Well, for me that is a very technical issue. For us, we are also not too comfortable with how the governors from the Niger delta region have managed the resources that has come out from the 13 per cent derivation. The issue of 13 per cent derivation have become a systemic issue. And while we are calling in the federal government to do the needful because we believe that the 13 per cent derivation is also not enough while we are calling on the federal government to increase the oil derivations. We are also calling on our state governors to have constant meetings with critical stakeholders in the region, let us begin to ask questions on why the 13 per cent derivation funds are not been used appropriately.
They need to tell our people the challenges they are being faced with so that all of us can be on the same page. In a situation where the federal government is telling us they have been meeting up with the payment of the 13 per cent derivation fund and at the same time, they are telling us the money is not even coming regularly. Then it becomes a thing of concern.
So, this issue still boils down to the devolution of powers that we are talking about. We believe that if the powers are being devolved there will be more resources to the state government. Not just the governors of the Niger delta but also other regions. They will have more resources to cater for the developmental challenges of their people.
Don’t forget that people keep talking about 13 per cent derivation funds and they should also put into consideration the developmental challenges of this region. Of course, the amount of money you can use to construct a one kilometer of road in the north cannot be compared to the amount you can use to construct a road in the Niger delta. So, these are some of the challenges that we are grabbling with. But we believe that the governors, with previous ones, have also not done enough. If the federal government is saying that they want to remove the 13 per cent derivation fund and pay directly to the oil producing communities, I think that should be in good faith. But we also suspicious that this is being considered because we are going into another round of elections. Why didn’t they bring up this issue from the beginning? Today, the entire Niger delta governors are made of the same political party and I don’t want to believe that it is politics that us trying to play out here.
Would the quick passage of the PIB Bill into law solve some of these contentious issues?
We have agitated for the quick passage into law of the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB). The PIB bill is very critical to the socio-economic development of this region. So what the federal government should be talking, as far as we are concerned, is how they can take steps to pass that bill into law. If you pass that bill into law, it will automatically address most of all these challenges and agitations the people of the regional are been faced with.
So it goes beyond removing the 13 per cent derivation from the hands of the governors. If you put it in the hands of the oil producing communities, who is going to say what kind of regulatory mechanism that would be put in place? Who is going to regulate this resources? So what about the communities that are not oil producing that are passing through the after effects of these oil exploration activities? So what would be their benefits?. So, that is the more reason why there is a need for very stakeholder to sit down and have this conversation.
If we don’t discuss as a people with the federal government. That means as people, we would not know what they are doing is in the best interest of our people. We are also very worried because I was privileged to be at the aborted south- south stakeholders meeting and we had already presented a position paper. We were expecting the delegation from the federal government to tell us their strategic plans for this region but it is quite unfortunate that when it comes to the issues of the Niger delta region, it does not become a priority to this government as far as we are concerned.
Also our brothers, who are also ministers serving under this government showed that the interest of the region does not matter to them. But they know that the region’s interest should come first above their political interest. It was quite sad that the meeting that had to do with this region, we could not see any minister from this region. And people ask questions that they are not serving the federal government but that they are representing your state in the federal cabinet. And if something is going wrong here, they will also be affected. And so, we were not too pleased and comfortable that none of the Federal Ministers from the region showed up. Only the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Godswill Akpabio came when the meeting had already been cancelled. So I want out brothers and sisters who are in government to know that the interest of this region should come first above their personal political interest.
You saw what happened in the south west. When they had challenges, all their political leaders rallied round themselves to come up with a regional position. You saw what happened in the North, All the governors, ministers, critical stakeholders spoke in one direction. And i think that is the way to go.If we are so divided amongst ourselves, how will the federal government take us seriously?
If you are opportune to meet with President Buhari, what would be your message to him?
I will let him know that he needs to keep a legacy for the people. And that legacy is to restructure this country. That legacy is for every region to control their resources and pay taxes to the federal government. And that is what our agitation is all about. And until we achieve that, we will not shift grounds on this agitation.
We won’t shift grounds. We believe that there are challenges. In other parts of the country but as far as we are concerned, there are alternative means of funding the federal budget, The Niger delta where the oil and gas comes from still sustains the economy of this country. So this region, is too critical for any government to play with. My plea to the President, if I have an opportunity to meet with him, is that he should restructure this country so that everybody will have an equal stake in the economic activities of this country. I think that that is the way to go.
2023 is near, would this new agitation for the nucleus of the Ijaw Youths support during Presidential poll?
The Niger delta region, especially the Ijaw youth council, that is driving this agenda would want a presidential candidate that will make a commitment to the Niger delta people that if elected, as president of this country, he will practice true federalism that will reflect the resource control and so whether you agree or not, the politics of this country we are interested.
The survival of the Niger delta also lies to a leadership that will be responsive to our people. And so what is currently going on now is not farfetched. We are interested in the 2023 presidential elections, and we want a president that will be able to look at the Niger delta issues, with a view of addressing them as we make our demands.
We will be engaging with all the presidential aspirants especially with the two major political parties the APC and PDP of course, if there is an alternative platform fine as far as we are concerned now this are the two major political parties now. So we will want to interrogate them the candidate what he has for the people of this region. And so if we see someone who is so passionate like the way late Presidential Yar’dua showed us, we will support him. Late President Yar’dua was a northerner. A fine Northerner who believes in equality. He believed that the people of the Niger Delta have suffered so much despite the fact that we are the ones that lays the Golden egg. And he saw that, and gave us the Amnesty programme. And that skyrocketed the oil producing capacity which is now more than enough in sustaining the economy of this country.
So the question we are asking is that why have they not started the project of constructing the coastal roads that Yardua talked about. What about the East west road? It is still lying shallow and become a dead trap. But if you go to other regions, that is not the case. And so anytime our people have the opportunity to travel to the North, when they come back to see the things in the south south, they feel so agitated. They feel so angered that this is not supposed to happen. inspite of that, the entire eco- system has been destroyed by gas flaring, oil exploitation, the life expectancy rate of our people have been shortened to a level where if you live up to seventy-years in the Niger delta then you going yourself lucky. So the region is in a total mess so tell me why there won’t be youth restiveness. We have maintained peace for over a period now we expect the federal government, to take things affecting this region very seriously.
Look at what is happening in NDDC. They are playing politics with our development. Is it the same thing that is happening in the North East Development Commission? Any ministry or agency that is supposed to be solely beneficiary to the Niger delta region have become a national cake. It belongs to everybody. But what belongs to them does not belong to the entire country. Is that the way to go?. The other time a much respected leader from the north was alluding to the fact that the oil that was coming from the Niger delta belongs to them. Does he even know what a crude oil looks like? Does know the feel of polluted the people leave with due to gas flaring?. Our people who are predominately fishermen, can no longer do fishing anymore because the entire eco-system like I told you have been polluted. And we can’t continue like this we can’t. We honestly can’t continue like this.
And you heard a president who in his inaugural speech in 2015 the region who did not vote for him, will only get 5% that is exactly what we are getting it is the 5% so what concerns this region, doesn’t concern president Muhammadu Buhari. So we want a presidential candidate that will come to this region feel the pulse of the people negotiate with them, we will put a demand and he is going to make a commitment to our demands that is the only way we can support a presidential candidate.
Going forward, what do you think the Niger Delta Governors and Leaders should do?
First with all sincerity of purpose, I commend the south-south governors under the leadership of his Excellency Dr. ifeanyi Okowa who was able to put the entire South-South governors together to rub minds and arrive at a common position and I think that is a step, in the right direction.
Going forward, they should have this meetings regularly. Consultations amongst sister state stakeholders should be held regularly. The regional interest should be their top most priority. Right now, that is the only way to go. All our political leaders, whether you belong to Party A or party B, the regional interest should come first. The governors should now dust the BRACE commission report and begin its implementation because the report has already addressed all the socio economic challenges that the region will be faced with.
The BRACE commission report talks about agriculture. It talks about how the Niger delta states can be integrated with Railways. It talks about industrialization. It talks about how a student from Bayelsa, can pay equal amount of school fees with a student of Delta state. That is what it talks about. So, there should be continuous Synergy amongst the states. These meetings, like is said, should be periodic.
If they can maintain this tempo, I can assure you that what the youths and different ethnic nationalities are agitating for will be aggregated and it will be addressed by our political leaders. And we cannot work in isolation. We need our political leaders, elected office holders like governors from this region to work in synergy with what we are doing. Because whatever that affects any governor of the South-South region, also affects the ethnic nationality. So there should be that symbiotic working relationship amongst all of us and I can assure you that we will make progress.
Senator Ofeanyo Okowa had already set in motion possibilities in that direction and I believe that this will be sustained everybody. The nation is now going into regional politics. And thank God that all the South-South governors belong to one party. There is no room for excuses anymore. There should be no reason for excuses. They should now work together so that what we are demanding which had to do with true federalism, resource control , they can also take it to the federal government for its full implantation.