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Before he took up his present appointment as Information Commissioner in Bayelsa State, Mr. Oronto Douglas was a prominent environmental rights activist.
Before he took up his present appointment as Information Commissioner in Bayelsa State, Mr. Oronto Douglas was a prominent environmental rights activist. Currently, a delegate representing Bayelsa State at the National Political Reform Conference, Mr. Douglas wrote a minority report in his confab’s committee. Last Monday, he was a guest of Vanguard Editorial meeting, where he fielded questions on a wide range of issues bordering on resource control. Excerpts:
Do you think the CONFAB should just end the way it is, or where do you think we are going?
I am convinced that the CONFAB will lead to something good for Nigeria. How it will end is difficult to predict. But a lot has been achieved already, I will rather want to look at what has been achieved now before the end of the conference than what will be achieved after the conference. What has been achieved? For Nigerians, it was an opportunity that has presented itself for us to talk frankly and bring out those issues that were very difficult to talk about, issues that were sometimes talked about only in hush tones to a national and global audience because Nigerians were actually participating in the debate, courtesy of NTA, AIT and the numerous reporters that were in the conference.
So whatever you say was almost immediately and instantaneously beamed live to all Nigerians and those that are on the cable worldwide. So we are able to present our case to the world. And I think that is an achievement that under the military regime, we were not able to do. As a Niger Delta person, I think there was a major achievement we have achieved, and that is the court presenting us an opportunity to dramatize our fate, aspiration and our hopes and also to position our vision of Nigeria before the world. I think without the CONFAB, we wouldn’t have been able to present that to the world. I think that is an achievement, it is now left to those whose responsibility it is to take the right decision for the present and for posterity to do so at the moment.
There’s a third leg of achievement that the CONFAB has presented itself for people to reassess their position and re-examine whether the Nigerian project is workable or it is working, if it is not, what should we do about it? I believe that regardless of predictions that have been made about the collapse of the country, and coming at a time when the CONFAB was on, also presented an opportunity for us to really cross check whether it is possible for Nigeria to collapse in fifteen years as predicted by the US. We now know our problems and I think we are marching towards solving it, and solving it will mean that the decision flowing from the CONFAB has been implemented positively and in the line of justice.
How do we implement this decision without going through the National Assembly, do you think the National Assembly is likely to pass into law whatever the CONFAB comes out with?
Looking at the character of the National Assembly, it is not likely that decisions flowing from the CONFAB will be passed. I say so because when the dream about this CONFAB was put together, they came out not in support of it. They did not give the Presidency supports in terms of votes, they made comments about the legitimacy of the CONFAB itself and I think that unless a lot of political horse trading is allowed to be, I don’t see the National Assembly endorsing the resolutions coming out of the conference.
There is also hope that there’s going to be some light in the dark tunnel of this indifference to the CONFAB. Remember that it was about the same period that there was an attempt to impeach the President, and that attempt seemed to have been punctured by some political moves from the Presidency.
If that is an indication of an harmonious relationship between the legislative arm of our government and the Presidency, then there is hope that the decisions, if submitted to the President and the President gives it to them in that spirit, they may want to take a step and say okay, let’s take those issues and resolve it. I think there’s a more urgent issue that will persuade the National Assembly to do something. For six years of our democracy, they’ve been trying to review the 1999 constitution. That effort has not seen the light of the day. And I think the wisdom has to be applied, they should seek present initiative and say well taken what we have done in terms of review of the 1999 constitution as a house, let us take what has also been submitted together and then pass some sort of document so that it goes into history that we did something for our country. I think that is the way to go if wisdom is to prevail. But you cannot really predict the Senate and the House of Representative in the present climate.
On alliance between South-South and North, and South-South and Middle-Belt
Let me take the first part of your question. The alliance between the South-South and the North is an alliance we were bound to make. By 1959, we read in the books that chief Okilo of the Niger Delta Congress, won an election into the then parliament and eventually emerged to be the parliamentary secretary of Tafawa Balewa, this was in the 1959 election. And I remember looking into the archives and the BBC at that time said that by virtue of that victory and alliance between the Niger Delta Congress and the Northern People Congress, the bridge has been built. That if not for that victory and alliance, what should have emerged at that election was the West voting for a different party, the East, South and North for different parties and it would have polarized the whole region. That bridge that was built from the South to the North ,was then maintained during the second republic. And the NPN then was able to create that bridge to the South once more. And I think that is what you are referring to as alliance.
I don’t know whether there was a formal alliance or an emergence of interest designed to keep this country together. And I think that togetherness has flown, once again from the South, may be because of their disadvantaged position of being the so-called minority and wanting to keep this country together to protect everyone. Maybe that vision is what pushed them. Because if you look at the statement made in the pre-independent constitutional arrangement, there were actually threats by the North to pull out at some point, the South West also threatened to pull out at some point, and then the East then practically wanted to pull out, because of injustices that were visited on people in that part of the world, the only group of people that have not accepted to pull out beyond the twelve days revolution of Isaac Adaka Boro was the South-South.
It has not been a coordinated region where political initiatives is designed to want to pull out. The South-South has always remained and still is insisting on a Nigeria based on equity, justice and fairness. So directly to your question, what has emerged is alliance of interest, wanting to keep this country together. That alliance has now been seriously tested and it’s been strained because of the way the North has presented itself as the enemy of the South-South, which is very unfortunate, they needn’t have done that. May be their political leaders are trying to protect an agenda. And I think in the next few days and weeks, it will become clear where we are heading.
The alliance between the Middle Belt and the South-South is too early for us to give a clear ideological and political interpretation, what has emerged is that if you take the Middle Belt as a whole, there are two blocks in the Middle Belt. You have the Middle Belt of Benue Plateau, populated by a lot of minorities with a Christian leaning, and the Middle Belt of the other side which is populated also by minorities but with a Mohammedan leaning. Some forces that seem to be emerging out of there is that there is a force moving towards South and another force moving towards North .
But the dominant force, the truth must be told, is the one moving towards North. That is why it has been difficult to present the Middle Belt position as one that is cohesive. So it will be difficult to say that an alliance has been merged, but you can say that a discussion towards an alliance has commenced. And because it is a political entity, and because it is risen by human beings, it will take time for that bonding to become perfected. But I think that the bonding needs to be encouraged, and encouraged beyond a Middle Belt, South-South, to South-South/North-West and a South-South North-East as Governor Alamieyeseigha will say that you cannot just align with the Middle Belt alone, you’ve got to look at the block around and align with them, I think that is the direction that we seem to be looking at.
Like you’ve just said that the conclusion of the CONFAB may not be accepted by the National Assembly, now considering the demand for 25% derivation, if the South-South is not granted, what option would you revert to?
There are clearly two options opened to us. Number one is to do nothing about it and just remain quiet. Meaning that maintain a status quo. You know the character of the Niger Delta people, that is an option they will not accept. The second option is to continue the peaceful and non-violent agitation that is anchored on intellectual resources, and on justice and equity. That I believe will continue, and it will become intensified. The danger in that second option is that once intensification starts, as human beings, we may not want to go for twenty five percent, or more still talking about the same thing.
Fringe elements may emerge to say that, this peaceful non-violent agitation is not helping us to protect our environment, it has not helped us to give free education to our people, it has not ensured that we have access to health, it has continued to allow militarization because of our continued advocacy on this issue and suppression of our people. Fringe elements may decide to go the other way, and that is dangerous, and I don’t believe the National Assembly, if they are patriotic and they have Nigeria at heart, will want to ignore the genuine agitation anchored on this non-violent agitation for justice, they will want to do something and they will do it quickly. Whether the decision they take will satisfy us is a different kettle of fish, because the agitation has an elastic band, until you take it to the very limit of justice, it will not stop. So we will continue to demand for justice until justice is done.
Now, resource control, whether you want to achieve it through legalism or legislative stamp or otherwise, i think the crucial thing is for Nigerians to understand what is resource control. There is a clear distinction between resource control and derivation. A lot of people may want to confuse the two. They are two different things entirely. I want to believe you are talking about resource control, not derivation. So I will take you on on resource control. For resource control, its about the life of the people. You see, if people depend on a thing for their lives and they have been staying there for hundreds of years, it will be wrong for any other company around to pollute it, because it will impend the lives of the people. The Ijaw, Isoko, Itsekiri, Urhobo and all the ethnic Nationalities in the Niger Delta have for five decades or more, depended on oil, which they’ve been denied. In the place of clean water and river full of fishes, we’ve had polluted waters and dead fishes. Now, you have taken away their means to survive.
They have access to those resources, but you have taken them away. You’ve not given them the resources coming from what you are taking to pollute the water, you have simply told them that they should move away and they are dying slowly. So we have to ensure that those resources be returned to them. If Nigeria wants to benefit from it, it is right to say let us go into some partnership with the community and the people, that if you belong to Nigeria and you have agreed to be part of this country, you cannot take all these oil wealth alone.
Can we go into some form of partnership. And we have opened those windows through varieties of recommendations. You can task us within for whatever value you want to task us, but it has to be within a democratic framework, you cannot plot a coup and then say I, General so and so have taken over power and therefore we are giving you 1.5% of whatever.... that will not be acceptable, we’ve had that before and for five decades or so, the decision as to who benefits from the oil was by military decree. We are saying no, you’ve got to allow us to determine and be part and parcel of the enjoyment of those resources. So it will come by way of direct participation in exploring and exploiting the resources.
Two, determining who comes to exploit the resources. Now, you can be given a license in Abuja, and that licence immediately translates to a decree that you can go and uproot houses and pollute land, and take away the oil, that’s what it amounts to. Nobody given a licence can just walk in and say can we discuss, there’s no discussion. An oil license is equal in effect to the military decree, backed by military action, to take away whatever land that you have and take the oil and return to Abuja. That is unjust, that is dispossession, that is denial, that is deprivation and it has to stop. We are saying the best way to go about it is to sit down and let us discuss. If I have a resource, can I have a percentage of it, or can I be an entire owner of that resource.
On derivation, if what comes from your land to the centre by way of tax is fifty percent, you are entitled to have a percentage of that back, that’s derivation. So the two issues are different. One has to do with survival, the other has to do with protecting the present and the future, one has to do with the dignity of the people that live there. That is on resource control. The other is purely what percentage do we get on what has been sent to the centre as a result of what comes out of my land. We are saying that the first one has nothing to do with a law. It has to do with justice and equity, is it right? If it is right, allow us to control our resources and then put the legal framework to come and take away some of those resources for the purpose of taxation and keeping the common union together.
What do you want to do to penetrate, lobby and convince members of the National Assembly on the outcome of what is happening now? Also what can you say about the Odi saga?
We don’t right now have a strategy for that, when tree falls on trees, you carry the topmost first before carrying the others But one thing I can assure you is that we will not be found wanting in taking the National Assembly up in terms of letting them do the right thing for Nigeria. Take note, what is right for Nigeria. We are saying we want to unleash the creative energies of Nigerians. So that we can create a commonwealth. So that we can ensure security for our people.
In fact, I can go on to say that the Niger Delta is very important to Nigeria, and Nigeria has been able to keep West Africa together all these decades. Whenever there is trouble in Sierra Leona or Liberia, it is the money from the Niger Delta that they use to solve the problems via ECOMOG and others peacekeeping units. So it will be very unfortunate if the National Assembly does not understand the security, economic and political situation of ignoring the crises of the Niger Delta people. I’m so confident that if the matter comes before them, they will take the right decision.
On Odi, I happen to be one of those who led the NGO there at that time. I was in the environmental movement, and we had to mobilize the international community, the national press and so on, to see what was happening. Two thousand, eight hundred and forty eight people, mostly women and children, were killed in Odi in 1999. The trauma that went with these operations, they are still suffering now. You don’t use a sledge hammer to kill a fly. In Europe and some parts of America, there are violent crimes, the US Army is not deployed to go and wipe out the community where the crime is being committed. They use a very civilized and a sensitive way to go after those recognized to be the criminals. I think the government should have employed a different method of identifying the perpetrators of the act of killing the policemen and bringing them to justice, that was not done.
Till date, nothing has been done by the federal government to dry the tears of Odi people. And it is important that justice must be done for Odi people and Bayelsa people in general. There is a case by the Odi people against the federal government that is on-going. They are demanding for fifty million Naira through the Olisa Agbakoba & co, a law firm in Lagos. We are sure that justice will be done for the Odi people, that is very important.
On true federalism
Basically, there are three issues that if resolved, every other issues will be resolved. One is the practice of true federalism of which fiscal federalism is a part. In dealing with resource control ,we are also dealing with true federalism because the success of the Niger Delta is the success of others who are also clamouring for true federalism. The second thing I think should be resolved is the issue of self determination. You put Nigeria on a map, it started with these tripod called North, East and West. If the tripod is examined, you will find that the East has never had justice done to them. Go to the number of states that came out of the then East and in the number of their aspiration for political ascendency, it took how many years for an Igbo man to become anything near the Chief of Army Staff since after the civil war? I think this matter should be looked into. We are saying that the Igbo man, Ibiobio, Ogoni and all others should have a shot at the Presidency. The reality of Nigeria is that Nigeria is not being governed on the basis of excellence. What ought to be is that no matter where your ethnic nationality, as President, you are to do justice for everybody, that is not what is happening, that is why everybody want to be there.
What are the important positions that the CONFAB has taken apart from resource control?
The conference has agreed that communities where resources are found will participate in the enjoyment of the resources. They also said that the environmental degradation, whether in the Lake Chad Basin or an erosion in the South-East and the South-South, deforestation in the West and the Middle Belt and all other sources of resources that are threatened will be protected. Nobody was opposed to the idea of creation of more states in the North and in the South, this is an indication that we are working towards equity and justice. Otherwise you will need a military coup to carve out a state from the South-East which no one will encourage now.
On return to regions Talking about the issue of zones, Nigeria has moved on. We started from zones, and if we are to go back to zones, we must have an agreement. As for the South-South, it has even surprised a lot of people that we can keep our cohesion. So it is very important that if we must go back to the zones, it must be by consensus, and the parameters must be very clear. The zonal arrangement will be very good for the South-West because they are very cohesive. The region is homogenous.
On America’s intelligence report on Nigeria.
My attitude to the American intelligence report is the same attitude of the governor of Bayelsa State. He said the report is a challenge to Nigerians and the whole of Africa because according to him, if anything goes wrong in Nigeria, it will affect the whole of Africa, and should not be taken for granted. I will however add that we must be very courteous in dismissing the report of this nature and also in examining where these reports are coming from. It is not a US government report, it is from an NGO. This is an NGO that is very influential, they have given similar intelligence reports to places just like this before, and it took place. So it is very important that we take the report serious and ensure that the predicted doom is not allowed to come to pass.
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