• Thu. Jun 20th, 2024

Dr. Omene on Niger Delta politics, amnesty…

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  • Dr. Omene on Niger Delta politics, amnesty…

Dr Wilson Omene Odafe got his Ph.D in Shipping at Cardiff University in 1985 and thereafter worked at the defunct National Maritime Authority in the late 1980s before his exit to practice in the private sector. He was a private consultant to former minister of transport Dr Kema Chikwe. He was instrumental to some significant changes in policy implementation at the NPA and NMA of that time: at NPA, especially the reduction in the number of tables from 64 to just 5 and the reduction in the period of cargo release by 3 days, all within the space of three months. At NMA, he advised the minister to suspend the former cargo allocation policy of the NMA which led to the death of many indigenous briefcase and genuine shipping lines; actions which he still vociferously defends. In this exclusive interview with DDH, he spoke on the way to restore NIMASA’s lost vision of increasing Nigerian participation in international and local shipping and the need for local operators to articulate political power in the pursuit of their rights to cargoes originating from Nigeria, especially the lifting of crude oil via the sales agreement of F.O.B. He also spoke on his own participation in party politics as the chairman of Ethiope West Local Government of Delta state since the last three years, how Nigerian politics and leadership can be improved, the amnesty programme of the federal government and the roots of youth restiveness, forming an NGO to facilitate jail terms for all traders who sell substandard goods, and a host of other issues. Nigerians who are livid with rage at the goings-on in Nigerian politics and socio-economic life will find that this is the kind of materials they want to read in print and also see put into action. Excerpts:

DDH: From your perception of where we are in Nigerian maritime industry today, what is the way forward for indigenous operators to forge ahead and participate meaningfully in the trade generated by Nigerian economy?

Dr. Omene: Basically, there is need to assess what the current situation is. What were we expecting in the maritime industry when we came up with the policy paper that set up the former National Maritime Authority (NMA), now NIMASA? What are the main functions of that body? The essence of establishing NIMASA is to improve the shipping bottoms of this country. That means we should be able to carry not less than 60% of what is being generated by our economy, either to or from. What you have to ask is, ‘what is the resultant effect since the establishment of this body to date in line with this major function?’ If you ask me, I will tell you we have moved fifty years back instead of forward. Why did I say that? I remember when NMA (now NIMASA) was being established, it inherited a maritime economy that could boast of 32 seagoing vessels and lots of domestic vessels. The question is today, how many seagoing vessels do we have? Among the seagoing vessels, we could boast of two big tankers, one owned by NNPC [Mt Tuma]. But today, how many of such big tankers do we have? Have we reduced to domestic movement of by-products that require between 2,000 and 10,000 dwt vessels? Of course, the answer is yes. So, looking at the records, you discover that today nothing has been done but rather they have deepened the problem of Nigerian maritime industry with the establishment of NIMASA. What they are now doing is going for things I would call the peripherals of maritime operations. Yes, it’s still important but we are talking of the core area of maritime that NIMASA was established to take care of. What are those peripherals: safety, maritime coastguard, IMO white list, name them. What do these lead you to? Why can’t we be more active in lifting a part of our own products? Go to India, China, even as little as war-torn Liberia, they are coming up again. This is the area I look at it from and now say, having x-rayed it, how do we now move ahead? To solve the problem NIMASA must re-direct its energies towards acquisition of vessels. Government can use the buy-and-lease-back policy using funds from the Ship Acquisition and Ship Building Fund or the Cabotage Vessel Financing Fund. The government should be physically involved in giving out this money to the shipyard in Nigeria to build for the operator.

DDH: Those would be cabotage vessels?

Dr. Omene: Yes, cabotage vessels. If it is sea-going vessels, the government can guarantee the shipyard the funds. Another thing NIMASA has failed to do is, up to this moment since Nigeria has been producing crude oil, not a single Nigerian has been privileged to break through the lifting of crude oil.

DDH: This longstanding problem of exclusion justifies the point you made that there may be a need for indigenous operator to get involved in the political processes of the country so as to better influence the flow of favorable policies for their operations. In your own case you went into partisan politics in your state. How can maritime operators intervene in the political process of the country to seek power to advance their goals in the sector?

Dr. Omene: For example, am a professional in maritime and I have delved into politics. I went down first of all to the grass roots and became the chairman of a local government, Ethiope West Local Government in Delta State. I did my best, I left my mark as a maritime expert in politics. That has exposed me to what goes on in this country, how issues are dealt with by government, and how things can be moved forward while in government. So, you are very correct that we can impart the benefit of our political association to our industry. For example, you now put somebody who is already there as a politician and a maritime man to go to NIMASA, Shippers Council or NPA. If you do that, he can know where to plug into the socket and unplug part of the socket. Right now there are so many members who are part of the Committees on Maritime in the National Assembly or State Assemblies who don’t even know jack about maritime. So they say am from so-so place, I must have a port built in my place. He doesn’t even know why there should be need for a port in his place or why there shouldn’t be any need for a port in his place. I heard on television recently that the National Assembly has approved the construction of a port in Edo State, for example. Now, give me one sound reason why there should be a port in Edo State? Where is the linkage? The fact that somebody probably showed interest to say that I must bring a port to my state while in the National Assembly or somewhere or in the Executive Council or while in the corridors of power, simply put, he gets such approval. But when he gets such approval, what are you doing to the industry, you are taking it backwards because the opportunity cost is so high. So, we must sit down and think what are the priority areas. For example, NPA now, it should be involved basically in navigational systems, how do we make our waters safe for vessels to come in and leave and maintaining the channels, installing new navigational aids. Coming to NIMASA, think of how you can implement your policies that will enhance the acquisition of more relevant vessels. The operators must get up and grab the opportunities that are there, to utilize the political class to bring it to bear on their interest which in the larger consideration is the interest of the nation. We must get into politics. Even abroad, they use lobbyists. [On crude oil lifting], we have a sales agreement as F.O.B, isn’t it? Which means we can lift, we are insured. It is now up to me to say, I don’t have the capacity to lift all, so [other] people can come in. The very minute you say you are effecting that F.O.B. policy, the very foreigners will come looking for you, a Nigerian operator, to go into partnership with you. As I speak to you, there are some South Koreans that want to go into partnership with a company that I know of in oil servicing. They will give you the boat to operate, just give us our leases because they know that the law doesn’t allow them anymore. But if you continue to allow the waiver insertions to remain in the law, then where are we going?

DDH: Now turning to your stint in politics, as a local government chairman, what did you do for your people?

Dr. Omene: When I was going to go in, I sat down and asked, what do these people need? What are the priorities? And that formed the basis of my manifesto. We have infrastructure development which was in total decay. What are they? Health centres, agriculture, etc. What I did was to bring in experts in those fields to give me a working paper which I now called Ethiope West Development Agenda which will cover both the short, medium and long-term strategy that I was going to apply. I asked the experts to determine by interacting with the grass roots at the ward level and prioritize their needs. I paid them well and they did a good job. If they were going to Ward 1, for example, they would go with the councilors of Ward 1 and hold a town hall meeting. They did this for the whole 20 wards.

DDH: What is the population?

Dr. Omene: We are about 200,000 people, voter strength about 87,000. On their needs, their first priority was health, second agriculture, third was security. But I moved the security to number 1 because without security, you cannot have health or agriculture. But, of course, they had transport and educational problems. All these were prioritized.

DDH: Under security, what was their problem?

Dr. Omene: You see, the insecurity that you and I know now is basically tied to unemployment. So, their talk of security is a request for peace and peaceful environment where you can go to work in the morning and come back, nobody molests you.

DDH: Are there industries in the local government?

Dr. Omene: Not quite but it is a local government that is blessed. I have actually rebranded the local government, I call it divine territory. Why did it rebrand it divine territory? We have a private university, Western Delta University. We have a polytechnic, Delta State Polytechnic, Otife. We have a College of Physical Education. We have a teaching hospital, Delta State University Teaching Hospital. We have an oil company called Pan Ocean based in Ethiope West. And we equally have the privilege of being close to Koko Port, which has been declared an Export Processing Zone. Why did I say privileged? Because Koko doesn’t have enough land. You see, if you don’t have enough land, the next place that it (development) will spill over when that place becomes [saturated] is where the land is adjoining, and Ethiope West is properly positioned. I have properly positioned Ethiope West now, waiting for that windfall from the EPZ. So this is why I rebranded it as a divine territory, endowed to move forward. So, if you are coming to invest in our area, you have good education: there is a university, there’s a polytechnic, there’s a college of physical education and there are modern secondary schools right now springing up that will service the university and the polytechnic. And if you are a white, they always feel that their problem is health in Nigeria, we have a teaching hospital.

DDH: How did you tackle the problem of militancy, isn’t it part of the security you are talking about?

Dr. Omene: Unemployment is just the cause. You see, if you come over to our area, you will weep ordinarily for the people of the Niger Delta, no matter how strong you are emotionally. You must break down. Now, a situation where unemployment is so high, and the source of livelihood that was originally there for them is gone.

DDH: What livelihood is that?

Dr. Omene: Fishing, agriculture. It’s gone. Even oil mining on the hinterland, the heat from the [gas] flaring, has burnt the whole of that area and only God knows the geological effect on the ground when they are drilling. They would know because am not an expert in it. And if you notice, they hardly carry out environmental impact assessment (EIA) before a lot of things are done. And if they do it, they just lift from what they had done [elsewhere]. You can imagine someone carrying out an EIA on some part of Niger Delta and is sitting in Lagos here doing the writeup. He brings the books and goes to the internet, and says what is EIA, defines EIA. Okay, how does it affect human beings? This is how it affects human beings. What is the nature of crops in the Niger Delta. He says rainforest and bla blab la. And he gives it, that’s your EIA. You know what I say to people and am still saying it, to solve the problem of youth restiveness in the Niger Delta, it is very easy. First, if am the president of this country, I will, as a matter of policy, move every headquarter of every oil company, including NNPC, from Abuja, from Lagos, where they are to where they have their operation. It has happened in this country before when NPA was moved to Abuja and they built a massive structure worth billions of Naira. And a very serious government of Chief Obasanjo, either because he is from the south west or not… We were party to those that agitated that it be returned to Lagos because it has no business being in Abuja. The same thing with NNPC. NNPC has no business being in Abuja. Chevron has no business being in Lagos. AGIP, all of them have no business being here. If they must be in Abuja, have a little liaison office. If you move that edifice of NNPC to any part of the Niger Delta, how many people do you think you will employ immediately. In the process of even constructing [the offices] at all, you have taken hundreds of thousands from the streets. This people [ex-militants) you say you are sending to South Africa, Israel and America for welding, for this and that, when they come back where are they going to go into? Who is going to give them the job when you are not allowing these people [oil companies] to be at the source of operation. If it has been done for NPA, why can it not be done for NNPC and the oil companies? Move them. Secondly, when you train someone, you must create an environment to receive his services. There is nothing wrong in the government deliberately creating new towns in the Niger Delta. And these new towns will be created through sand filling, reclamation. Just think about it: to dredge and create new towns in the Niger Delta, do you think that one person will still be in the streets of Niger Delta carrying guns? It will be difficult. And if you do, then everybody will have known that you are a criminal, not that you are agitating for anything, you are fighting for anything.

On Amnesty:
Dr. Omene: Now they say amnesty, amnesty… People say it’s a good thing. The idea of amnesty is good but the concept is wrong and on a faulty foundation. Why do I say that? What is the meaning of amnesty literally? That you have forgiven a criminal of all his offences, so he becomes a normal person now in society, and assumed not to have had any criminal record before. These militants, tell me their criminal records. You are not a criminal until you are adjudged to be a criminal by a law court. Where is the amnesty coming from? There is an adage in Africa, that if you pursue goat until it comes to a dead end where it cannot run anymore, it turns around and uses the little horn on his head as a weapon to fight you and defend itself. That is exactly what is happening in the Niger Delta. People have been pursued to the wall, no food any more, no agriculture any more, no access to agricultural farmland, no access to even the jobs being created by these oil companies. Rather the people getting the jobs come from other parts of this country. Am not saying that no non-Niger Deltans should work in the oil industry. But we are talking about positive discriminatory policy. It must be applied by government to say that people that come from this place must be given priority because there’s no more source of food for them. So, let us employ them, let them be there. Go and take the records of those who work in the oil companies and give me the percentage. Am not talking of cleaners but those who are in position to effectively affect the lives of those behind them, that is, management level. Tell me, if you have up to 10% as Niger Deltans, then I have to review my research. Then you are now telling me you have granted me amnesty. So, you have automatically declared me a criminal, you have condemned me. We should carve out another word for that programme.

DDH: But since we are now talking in arrears, retroactively so to say, what does it matter since the programme is well on its way?

Dr. Omene: That problem is still there. Do you know there are lots of them who have refused to sign that amnesty paper today? One of them has just been reported killed, [Mr.] Togo, by federal government [forces], because he was one of those who said I don’t know what you are talking about by amnesty because am not a criminal, I don’t accept that. So, let us call it a different name. I still want to implore the federal government to find an appropriate name for it. The programme should continue, am not against it. But they must find an appropriate name for it. There is going to be a serious danger like I mentioned long time ago with this name called amnesty. There are a lot of people from other regions who could come up with an uprising, knowing full well that, oh I have granted you [Niger Delta youths] amnesty, am paying you N65,000.00 per month each person while in training. And when you come out of training, this is what we would do, bla bla bla. Some regions could come out to say oh, ok, and today what is happening? We have the Boko Haram who say they don’t want western education. On the basis of that we are going to cause mayhem, and they are already doing that. And a smokescreen of what I suspected is now beginning to come out. Certain big men from their area are now saying, oh, let us not look at it from the angle of their demands, let us look at it from the angle of collective peace in this country, all of us must live together, and what? Grant these people amnesty. And when you say you won’t grant them they will say, oh, you are only favouring your Niger Deltans. You see? But if you didn’t call it amnesty but something like harmonious relationship by working together, it will now be looked upon as a favour or somebody you have been beating and you say, ok I won’t beat you again, just calm down. That is what should have been done and it is not too late to get that done. Let’s change that amnesty name because you are calling a nation, the Niger Deltans, a region of criminals. You have just created a taboo. Am not saying that some of them may not have criminal tendencies.

DDH: In your local government, for example, how were you able to chart the course of development?

Dr. Omene: In my local government, I was able to build several health centres and renovated or brought to standard the ones that were quickly abandoned. I would say almost everywhere was completely abandoned. Some no water, some no electricity, we had to provide all those things.

DDH: How did you provide water?

Dr. Omene: Of course, you sink boreholes for them, sometimes powered by generators, sometimes powered by solar. So that they can have clean water in all the health centres. And secondly too, I got to introduce a scheme whereby all pregnant women and children, five years and below, must have access to free medication in all our health centres. And why did I do that? The state government had that policy but with a fiat, only at state government hospitals. And my local government is a rural area. You don’t have state hospitals in the rural area and my people were suffering. They have to find transport to take them to the city, like Sapele or Oghara before they can get attended to. I said no. I cannot deprive my people because this part of their priorities, the first on their list of priorities. So, I now declared the free medical health care and I ran that until the minute I left. And how did I get that to happen? By ensuring that we procure drugs on a monthly basis. There must be replenishment. And once you are getting close to the re-order cycle, the computer tells you that you are short of this or that. The first thing I did was to computerize the whole of my operations in the local government, pay-point, everything.

DDH: How did you get money to run these things, because there is always the usual refrain of no money at the local government headquarters?

Dr. Omene: Yes, there is no fund but let me tell one good thing. In fact, it’s another area that I would like to go to: funding of local government. In my case, by the time you finish paying teachers’ salaries, because it is the sole responsibility of local governments in Delta State, some state governments, like River State, pay 100%; Bayelsa State, 70% by the state, 30% by local government. But in Delta State, we (local governments) pay 100%, apart from a little subvention like N274m that is shared, with no effect. Now, when you have little left after these salaries, maybe N5m monthly, N60m a year, and sometimes there will be a windfall. With this N5m monthly I go to the bank, borrow N50m and just use the money for projects that I can pick up now, while the N5m monthly goes as repayment of this loan to the bank. But if I decide to leave the N5m monthly without taking such loan, for example, it will go into petty expenses, peoples’ eyes will now be there. Some politicians’ eyes will even be there. “Eh, what is left? It’s too small now, there is nothing we can do with it, so let’s use it to pay allowances.” (General laughter). But if there is a first lien on it from the bank, then you have no money to pay allowances. So, you let your allowances pile up because let me tell you, the Schedule 4 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria clearly spells out what a local government is meant to do. That you must provide water, earth roads, if you have the capacity to build tarred roads, do so. Build markets, run motor parks and transportation system if you can, health care and some other services like environmental and even agriculture. But the money you now get, you find out that 90% to 95% goes for salaries and allowances. So, how are you going to carry out those functions in the Schedule 4 of the Constitution? It becomes impossible, except you have the sense to use such loans schemes for projects so that when one loan has been offset, you renew and build another one.

DDH: Is it true that state governments withhold monies meant for the local governments and give them whatever they like?

Dr. Omene: No, not in Delta state. Never. It’s the Delta State government that will give you but to say that the Delta State government deducts certain amount and gives you the balance, no, no, no. Delta State government doesn’t do that. During the period I became chairman, I never experienced such. There could be a little delay in release but that doesn’t mean when they are releasing it to you they will keep some, no. The only area where there is direct deduction is legal because it’s part and parcel of the local government law, probably you must pay 15% pension fund, 1% training fund to train the staff. Then you must pay 5% for traditional institutions like kings, chiefs, etc.

DDH: How much do kings get paid?

Dr. Omene: Well, it is from the 5% that they get paid. Like in my local government, for example, we have three clans, that means three kings and each month, on average, they share about N4.2m.

DDH: The kings now pay their chiefs?

Dr. Omene: They are supposed to pay their chiefs but nobody knows, some of them are too greedy to bother about their chiefs. (General laughter). And that caused some problems for me at some point. But what I was going to talk about, funding, the revenue allocation formula of this country must be looked into and readdressed with so much commitment to fund local governments properly. Why do I say that? Am no longer a chairman, so why should I be agitating for it if it is for selfish reasons. I will tell why through asking a question. In a state that has 25 local governments like Delta State, if you remove the 25 local governments that they don’t exist or you cede them to another state, do you still have a Delta State?

DDH: No, the 25 local governments make up Delta State.

Dr. Omene: Thank you. The 25 states make up Delta state, the 36 states plus FCT make up Nigeria. So, now if you fund the 774 local governments in Nigeria properly for them to take care of primary school education, agriculture, water, environment, healthcare, local security, what problem do you still have at the state level? 80% to 85% of the problems of the state government has been taken care of. Now, if you say you are the federal government and you have what you call the federal ministry of water resources, the man is in his office in Abuja and now says oh, there’s my friend who wants water in his village in Mosuga. Unknown to them there’s a local government chairman who has put water in my village but because I don’t go to the village, I just feel I want to help my people, and they pencil it down… It has happened severally while I was chairman. Projects are brought from Abuja. One funny one that happened, they said they had come to Ethiope West local government to renovate one health centre called so-so health care in so-so village. That village does not exist in Ethiope West. The contractor came from the north, he is a northerner. He was liaising with the regional PHC (primary health care) official of the federal government. The contractor reported there first with his drawings. I checked and by my last record, there was no village like that in Ethiope West. So, I now said, sorry, I won’t lie to you, there’s no such village, so I cannot show you any of such a health centre. But we have so many health centres that am still renovating, maybe I can show you one that is still pending. So, we showed him and he had to go back and change the name to that particular one and new bills of quantities had to be done. If that fund for a health centre, being provided by the federal government for a primary health care centre was originally added to the budget of local government, and the money released to it, the chairman would know which of his centres was of priority to be renovated now. That is for health. It is also the chairman of a local government that will determine the number of children that are due for primary school education. He should have the statistics more than the federal government, more than the state government. That is what I have done in my local government, I have all these statistics. So, by that when I am planning, my planning becomes very effective and coordinated. One contractor came and said my local government had paid the money for a health centre project years ago in 1998 or so, during the military era. That they took the money from the local government [account]. Since 1998, they came last year. The money had been locked up somewhere. Even me as local government chairman or people of my local government may not even have known that such money was somewhere. If they had taken the money and ran away with it, nobody would have known because those who were there and signed such documents have long gone. So, they came and said we had already paid, just give us land. I had to go and look for a place where I think there is more need for such services. They are roofing now. So, these are the things am trying to let you understand. Give this money to local governments, let local governments control more of the allocation. So that all you do at the federal and state level is to make sure the whole economy is integrated. In the local government, there are so many teachers. In my local government, a third of the gross allocation goes for teachers’ salaries, staff but Local Education Authority (LEA) while the local government staff take 60% of the allocation, that is, including politicians, councilors, chairmen, secretaries.

DDH: How can you adjust the system if not by retrenching some of them?

Dr. Omene: You see, if there is enough funds coming in, the chairman can create the enabling environment for people to go and self-employed, and retrench. Give farming incentives, training incentives, hardware incentives.

DDH: As a politician how do you assess the future of the country in view of the public dislike and distrust for political actors on account of corruption, jumbo pay of National Assembly members and unfulfilled dreams of the populace concerning the standards of living in the country and the pervading mass poverty?

Dr. Omene: The distaste and distrust are there because we do not have entrenched democratic values yet. When you find a politician trying to entrench democratic values, you will find him going down the ladder, because it doesn’t benefit the majority of the political class. The politicians are there in resentment that can be traced to that undemocratic value, for example, where I have to pay you money to get my vote. The second part is where we have forgotten completely what we call internal democracy in all the political parties in Nigeria. For us to entrench democratic values, they must practice internal democracy, whereby when you have chosen someone it should not be by selection but by democratic evolvement. Internal democracy will give that value to whoever emerges through such system because he knows he has to dance according to democratic values and to ensure that the manifesto that he said he said he was going to defend and implement, he does that to the letter. Violence is completely removed because I know I have to go and convince the electorate out there because I convinced my party people before I emerged.

DDH: What are your plans for the future after this stint as local government chairman?

Dr. Omene: My plan is to still be involved in politics for the interest of my people, and of course, am having a rethink to equally launch back into the industry so that the wealth of experience I have in politics can come to bear in terms of lobbying for the interest of the industry. One of the things I want to use is to try and register an NGO [non-governmental organization] which will project that democratic value I told you about. And am adding another to it, customers’ rights, whereby I buy anything I want a guarantee that is on a paper to be secured. If you can’t secure it, then don’t bring them in, don’t sell it. If you do, you go to jail. I want to ensure that people go to jail for selling products that are sub-standard and you can’t guarantee them because it is a big problem in this country.