As everyone in the industry in Lagos state knows, there has been a longstanding dispute between the Lagos State Ministry of Waterfront and some federal agencies like the Ministry of Mines and Steel Development (MMSD). In this interview with Engr Mayowa Omasebi, a highly placed official of the MMSD, DDH sought to find out the current state of affairs on the matters at stake. A lot of new details about the grab for turf by Lagos state government officials were released in this no-holds-barred encounter. He spoke to our man, Nehemiah Chinedu. Excerpts:
DDH: What is the latest development on the impasse between your ministry and the Lagos state government?
Engr Omasebi: I will not say that we have a problem with the Ministry of Waterfront in Lagos state. They too, are not saying that federal government does not have a right to issue mining licenses to miners. What we are saying is that even if they are to close down any mining site the ministry should be carried along especially if they are operators that we have licensed. Some of those things that they are laying claims on are environmental issues. For example, there was a publication in Punch newspaper of about two or three Mondays ago that they were talking about degradation, the effect of dredging on the ecosystem, flora and fauna on dredging site. You see, there is nowhere in the world that mining activity is taking place that you will not have environmental degradation and that is why operators/investors are asked to prepare environmental impact assessment (EIA) report before commencing their operation. To the best of my knowledge, Lagos state officials have, under pretence, given some people as consultants to prepare this EIA. Enormous amounts of money are being collected from these operators and yet, when they have submitted to that, you go back to the site and unlawfully close down their operation. Such illegality still taking place is surprising. You see, sand has the same status as oil. It is a mineral and it is in the exclusive list of the federal government. But because of overzealousness of some of these officials, perhaps, they misinform the Governor. But then no state has the right constitutionally to legislate over sand. Even if they are talking about environmental degradation, why have the oil producing states not come to say that they cannot produce oil because of the degradation? It is not possible; the only thing you can talk about is how you mitigate degradation. You can only minimize or take control measures and enforce those control measures. If you have enforcement like the government monitoring teams, there is, for example, a specific distance the dredgers should keep away from the shoreline so that they don’t dredge the shoreline. It is only when they contravene this regulations that you can penalize them for this. After getting approval from the federal government, after paying the Lagos State government and their business is closedown, then it becomes double or triple taxation against these operators. Even what they are paying to the federal government, the states are taking their share from it. Like the oil revenue. If you now impose charges on them, it is ridiculous. To say that an operator, for instance, should come and register a dredger with N10million is actually too much.
DDH: Does it mean they (dredge operators) don’t make up to that amount of money?
Engr Omasebi: You see, it is not about making up to that amount or not. I am not in the business but what is the intention, the motive behind the amount that you are charging them? Is it because they are making up to that amount of money that you are charging them? Don’t forget that it comes back on the consumer also. Remember the state government does not have control over mineral resources in that state. When this whole thing was happening, we were at the Commissioner of Police office. The reception from him was not too good.
DDH: In your own word, is he supporting the state government?
Engr Omasebi: He said it that what the state government is doing they are wrong but that the Governor claims to have an approval from the Presidency to care for the waterfront or to make use of the waterfront. The question is, look, if such approval exists, is it a written approval or a verbal approval from the Presidency? If it is a written approval, then you give it to us and we will be able to write. We are civil servants trained to write and respond to correspondences. We will be able to say to Mr President, sir, this approval that you have given to the Lagos state government to take charge of the waterfront and close down licensed mining sites because they want to make use of the waterfront contradicts section so and so of the constitution of Nigeria which Mr President swore to uphold. From there, we can have the law reviewed. This is why we have foreigners running away (instead of) to invest in the country because they are not sure of what will even happen to their businesses.
DDH: Laws and counter laws?
Engr Omasebi: That is it. If a federal law exists and a state is making law, any such law that goes contrary to the laws of the nation, is null and void to the degree of its inconsistency. A state cannot legislate on a property that is in the exclusive list of the federal government. It is not happening in other states. It is only in Lagos state and, that is the unfortunate thing about it.
DDH: What are you doing specifically to help those miners who have registered with you?
Engr Omasebi: Like I said, this is just a state office, the headquarters is at Abuja. We have written a letter to the Commissioner of Police and the Commissioner for Waterfront. There has been no response from them up till now. We even wrote the A.I.G (Assistant Inspector-General of Police), to the SSS, but up till now, no positive response has been got. We only hope that the federal government will be able to step into the matter and come to the rescue of these operators because we are aware that so many of them took loans from banks to start the operation and yet the loans are running with no operation. Imagine the state government selling the property of one of the operators. It is ludicrous. If we want to move the economy forward, we want to diversify our economy to the solid mineral sector, is that how to diversify it? If foreigners hear this, then they will run. The federal government has lost so much revenue since the inception of this Waterfront ministry, running into billions of Naira. Since the Commissioner Oniru came in, it has been one issue or the other, closing down today, closing down tomorrow. Virtually, in the whole of Lagos state now, no dredging company is working. The funniest part of it is that even the surface operators who are just excavating (sand) are asked to obtain permit from Waterfront. Does that still have anything to do with Waterfront (ministry?
DDH: From what you are saying, there is a conflict between the state laws and the federal law?
Engr Omasebi: It is not even a conflict because there should not suppose to be state law on mineral resources. The issue of conflict should not even arise at all. A law has been illegally enacted by Lagos state that is running concurrently with the federal law on a property that is supposed to be on the exclusive list of the federal government.
DDH: So there is a state law to that effect?
Engr Omasebi: Yes. A Lagos state law of Nigeria official gazette 1 st November 2004, a law to provide for the regulation and grant of permit to any person conducting sand dealing and dredging operation in Lagos state or connected purposes.
DDH: This is an act of the state assembly?
Engr Omasebi: Lagos State House of Assembly enacted the law on 20 th August 2004. As at then, the regulatory authority was supposed to be the Office of the Special Adviser to the Governor on Mineral Resources Development. We had issues with them. We were able to actually subdue their excesses then. Until the Waterfront ministry came up. Some of those functions are now done by Waterfront ministry.
DDH: In your view, do you find any limitation in the federal law guiding your operation?
Engr Omasebi: The federal law is so clear about this thing. The Mineral Act is clear about it, the Constitution of the country is clear about it. There is no limitation in there. It is only the overzealousness of some of these officials of the state government. I tried to bring it up in a meeting. There was this meeting we call Mineral Resources Environmental Compliance Committee as specified by the law which comprises Lagos state officials and officials of the Mines and Steel and I drew their attention to the functions of this committee. That look, some of these issues, they are supposed be the one recommending to the Minister or the Governor, or his commissioner, as the case may be, to some of these issues. It is not just for some official of the Waterfront to go now and report back to their commissioner that look, let us close down this site. They are seeing dredging as a threat. To professionals, dredging is actually an environmental clean up exercise also. When you have blocked drainages, you dredged them to create channels (channelization). The same things apply in this case. When your dredge is in the middle of the lagoon and not the shore line, you dredge, you pump out sand. Ok, look at they one that they are doing on the way toward Third Mainland Bridge, at an estate there. That is being done by Lagos state government. Now why has the bridge not collapsed? But I tell you if it was an individual that was attempting something like that, petition would have come that the Mines and Steel ministry has collected so much money without considering the impact of that dredging on the bottom-line. The fact is that there is nowhere in the world that you will do any mining practice that there will not be degradation to the land. The only thing you can now talk about is how to control or limit it. How do you enforce the control measures on the operators?
DDH: I believe that is the essence of environmental impact assessment?
Engr Omasebi: Yes, what the post mining plan? If any operator is able to spot out this, and still meet up with other requirements, then why should they be stopped from working? The fact is that dredging, we need it. Everyday, construction is going on in Lagos state. The Oniru family land, a larger proportion of it was reclaimed with sand by the Oniru family. Some of the Olumegbon land there, they are being reclaimed. So why is it now that they are clamoring for environmental impact?
DDH: Apart from the state government, is there any other conflict you have with other any other ministry or agency?
Engr Omasehbi: Before now, we had issues with Nigeria Inland Waterway Authority (NIWA). But that has been long resolved. The law has spelt out the functions of both agencies. Outside them, there is no other person. The major problem that mining has in Lagos state is the Lagos state government. Most of it you discover that because of their overzealousness or they want to seek to be relevant, they misinform the Governor.
DDH: Are there any future plans you have to solve this problem and to help the sand dredgers?
Engr Omasebi: Like I told you earlier, I am just in Lagos office here; the ministry as a whole, what I know is that there is supposed to be a memo to the Federal Executive Council, to the National Assembly, that will be deliberated upon but up till now, I have not really heard anything from Abuja.
DDH: Do you also work on Environmental Impact Assessment?
Engr Omasebi: The ministry here has an environmental department. We call them Mines Environmental Compliance department. They undertake environmental impact assessment (request) from operators; visit the site also to see what is happening at the site. The truth about the whole thing is that all the environmental impact assessment report that we have received so far in this office were written and reported by consultants given to these operators by Lagos state government officials.
DDH: Does it mean state government wants to frustrate your work?
Engr Omasebi: It is not about frustrating now. I wouldn’t look at it as frustrating. But most of what they are doing, such as going to sites with armed policemen or pollution monitoring team, and intimidating operators, in fact, there has been report of those operators being robbed. At times, some of them will tell you they were robbed even when they were arresting them by both the police and the officials. For a democratically-elected government, such is a wrong approach to addressing issues like this.
DDH: Does your Environmental compliance department have the powers to withdraw licenses from erring operators?
Engr Omasebi: There is what we call regular monitoring of these sites. It is a routine inspection to ensure that those stipulated guidelines are followed. Because you know, we are Nigerians. Some people will not follow (the guidelines) and that is why there is the compliance monitoring. There are sanctions that will be placed on such erring operators such as stopping their operations and definitely, they are the losers. But you will find out that in mining, the problems have always been there on the ground: The problem of artisanal and small-scale miners who just want to work here and go away to another site without minding the damage done to the environment. The principle that is applied worldwide now is called environmental sustainability, whereby you ensure that you are not working only for this present generation but also that future generation’s need is not compromised. What we need is constant awareness. When people are aware of the dangers involved, they will try to curb it.
DDH: Talking about awareness, what is your ministry doing to create this awareness?
Engr Omasebi: What we are doing is… Take, for instance, we have an environmental management committee. In each state of the federation we have environmental committee inaugurated by the federal government. The chairman of the committee is an eminent indigene from the state is closer to the people. The ministry is also making their own arrangements in order to create awareness. Note that a mining law was recently passed in 2007 to guide our ministry. This is known as the Mineral and Mining Act of 2007. Presently the government is working on mining regulation. While law states at a stretch what should be done, regulations state in detail what should be done. Regulation goes deep into the technicalities on how it ought to be operating.