Oil thieves plotting to scuttle pipeline surveillance contract

The President, Ijaw National Congress, Prof Benjamin Okaba, speaks to DANIEL AYANTOYE on the situation in the Niger Delta as result of oil spill, alleged exploitation by oil companies, crude oil theft and the oil discovery in the North, among other issues

Many people have argued that crude oil seems to be a curse rather than a blessing for Nigeria, given the devastating impact on the N’Delta and how it has made governments at all levels to be lazy, from the eyes of the Niger Delta people, do you think oil has been a blessing or a curse?

I won’t say oil is a curse but the misuse and mismanagement of oil resources. The oil itself is not a curse, rather it should be a blessing because it is a blessing elsewhere. What we are witnessing is happening because we have decided to cheat ourselves. The patriotic love is not there. Look at places like the Netherlands, go to the United Arab Emirates which are also oil producing. The Dutch in the Netherlands have transformed their environment as a result of what they get from oil. So, as a country we have not utilised our oil resources. In fact, when the Niger Delta Development Commission was first established, experts from Nigeria visited the Netherlands and we had Dutch people that came to the Niger-Delta and worked as engineers in some farms, but after some time because of lack of sustainability, they left and those farms are nowhere. We prefer getting things the easy way. Now, we depend on oil but it has negatively affected the people of the Niger Delta. Instead of benefitting us who are the major producers, it has been a major source of suffering, hopelessness and frustration in every ramification.

Why do you say it has negatively impacted the region?

If we start with the economy, the environment is so ravish, to the extent that indigenous sources of livelihood are no longer sustainable. You have heard of Ogoni, where farmlands are no longer productive. There is heavy devastation and the local economy has been disarticulated, the flora and fauna are gone. Communities that were known for exportation of fishes and other aquatic resources are now dependent on foreign sources because the entire environment is polluted. If you talk about the social components, the oil industry has brought in class differentials to a society that was known to be equal to a large extent. Oil company workers that live across these host communities now see 24 hours light on the other side and experience darkness wherever they are. They also see people living in affluence and they in abject poverty. So, there is a psychology of slavery in your own place. Talk about issues of marginalisation; the oil companies engage workers from outside. You will observe that in these companies, the managers and other people occupying top positions are outsiders while the people from the communities are casual workers. So the class differentials, the disparity is so naked. It has also affected education, because they injected this quick-money syndrome where a person who ordinarily should be in school, goes to work in oil fields and immediately you have what to live on. Most of the boys neglected educational pursuit because of these meagre opportunities that are available and mortgage their future in the process. Talk about health, the impact is monumental, you cannot estimate how many persons have died of respiratory diseases. Look at the report we got about two years ago in Port-Harcourt, a lot of heart-related diseases, skin disease and cancer of serious magnitude were discovered. In all, the Niger Delta produces the oil the country depends on for progress, but look at the region in terms of development. The only road, which they call East-West Road, but I will call it South-South Road, that links Calabar all through to Port Harcourt, Bayelsa and Warri, is in a terrible shape. The 2022 flood caused serious damage on that road. After the flood, the road was not even fixed. Most of the Niger-Delta communities are living below sea level, and when they open the Cameroon dam, in the next two weeks, most of our communities will be submerged in water. There is suffering of incomparable magnitude to the people of the region. To Nigeria, we can also say it is a curse. The Nigerian government has since the discovery of oil depended solely on oil to the extent that we now operate a feeding bottle economy, where at the end of the month, all the states go to Abuja, get their portion and go back to their states to wait for another 30 days. Other sectors of the economy are not encouraged because of our overdependence on oil which is propelled by foreign agencies and we know we are being cheated thoroughly. Now, where is agriculture? In the 1960s and 70s, agriculture was the mainstay of the economy. Nigeria, pre-independence era, had groundnut, rice and palm oil plantations in the Niger-Delta. Where are they now and what is their contribution to the GDP?

The oil companies often engage in Corporate Social Responsibility, do you mean these companies have not done much over the years?

If you listen to some of these narratives from afar, you will think they have done so much, but you need to come over. When you visit some of these communities, let them show what they have invested. The truth is that they have not done anything. Instead of impacting the community positively, they have inflicted serious injury on these communities. Some go by divide and rule. You know these companies are capitalist-oriented and they are after profit maximisation. They will tell you that they have invested several millions of naira but there is nothing to show. So much of the money is shared by individuals. Within the communities they have people, who instead of representing the communities are now the enemies of the communities. How much does a water project or school project cost? But when you come here, it’s an eyesore. They have not done anything and that is the truth, but they will tell you they have spent so much. Ask them what is the level of impact? What they are doing is to keep the people perpetually poor so that they can remain beggars and be at their mercy. When the communities become aware to some extent, why do they involve the military or the government instead of negotiating with the communities. What is the interest of the Nigerian state? It is only interested in the money that comes in. So, if there is a threat to the revenue that is accruing to the state, they will easily yield to the pressure from the oil companies and militarise the area.

You said some of the top management staff of these companies are from outside, but it has been said that the lack of relevant skills to meet the needs of the companies is the reason for such, how is that the fault of the companies?

How is it also the fault of the people? If I come from a village, will engineering drop on me as a villager? You have to invest in education, you have to train people and provide scholarships for them. You can see that it is a deliberate ploy to keep these people uninformed because they believe that the moment these people develop intellectually, they will begin to question the operations of the companies. Majority of the captains of industry from these areas are not from the Niger Delta, so there is always a tendency that, for instance if a Yoruba or Hausa man is the manager of a place and he is given the opportunity to recruit, he will bring his Yoruba brothers from Lagos who already have an advantage. That is why if you go to the oil companies, the top management staff are mainly people who are not from the region. The issue of the people not having the requisite skills and competence to work in oil companies as a reason is unfortunate because it is not the fault of the people. You should use a portion of the resources you are getting to help the people so that they can also grow.

Should it not be the responsibility of parents, rather than the companies, to ensure that children in the region get education?

Education is a social service and in the Nigerian constitution it is so clearly stated, at least basic education should be the responsibility of the government. How many parents in those riverine areas have what it takes to send their children to school? Is it not when parents are empowered that they can send their children to school? We are talking about people who don’t know how the next meal will come; people who are living next to death. They just want the children to be around them so that they can multiply the sources of labour. The parents, yes, if they have the money they will, but most of them don’t have. And the oil companies and the government are responsible for destroying the source of livelihood and sustenance of these families, and they should take the responsibility. These people were traders, fishermen and farmers who were doing well but the oil companies came to destroy all of that. They (oil companies) need to regenerate the environment and place these people back in a position where they won’t only earn a living but also have a sustainable life.

Does this mean that the anger of the people in line with what you said birthed the issue of crude oil theft, which is a menace that has refused to go?

There are different categories of oil theft. There is the immature class or group, which seeks only daily bread. That’s where a person goes to steal just a jerry can of oil for stomach infrastructure sake. The real oil theft is capitalist-oriented, capital intensive and a mafia collaboration between military and local and international agencies. The category may be perpetrated by the villagers or some young men but the real oil theft is not a business for poor people. To build a badge will cost not less than N5m. To hire a tanker, which is more than the size of three football fields, loaded with crude, leaving Nigeria for other countries along the coast, supervised by military officers who pass the ship through checkpoints, is not an affair for poor people in villages. This is what is called crude oil theft. What about the crude oil that leaves this country unaccounted for? Nigerian vessels were seen in faraway western Europe, unaccounted for; traced to Nigeria but traced to nobody. Is it a local man that did that? Stop blaming the locals, the cartel is in the Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited, military, navy and other agencies involved. If you go to the pipeline supervision area, you will see that they have what they call joint force units that are heavily armed watching over the theft. We have often asked, how many of these cartels involved in the oil theft have they arrested and prosecuted? All the ships carrying crude that were intercepted, have you heard of any prosecution in court, and why not?

But some people have argued that it’s impossible for outsiders to perpetrate this crime without the connivance of indigenes, what would you say to the involvement of indigenes in this menace?

Some of the pipelines are far from the communities; they are located at points where some of the community members would have difficulty getting to. Secondly, the crude oil thieves don’t just go there to vandalise pipelines, they come with heavy security, military and well-armed people and tanks. So, how would the community prevent such, is it with their cutlass and bicycles? If you have been there, it requires heavy technology to unscrew things. To even cut a pipeline is not something you use cutlass or motor saw, so the villagers don’t know anything at that level. In most cases, they don’t know what is going on, so you cannot blame them. Even if they know, they cannot stop them.

What do you think should be done to ensure that oil companies are committed to their host communities?

It’s only when we have a serious government that takes the people seriously, and is interested in the development and welfare of the people. The leadership of this country is not interested in what happens to the local people. Recently, there was subsidy removal and Nigerians were fighting hard to survive but the National Assembly resolved to buy some bullet proof cars, aside from other huge emoluments. That tells you how insensitive they can be. Why can’t they cut down their earnings? Minimum wage is N30,000 but National Assembly members earn millions. Just like a former Central Bank governor said that 90 per cent of the wealth of this country is in the hands of 10 per cent of the population. Unless we change this narrative, we will continue to have such a sad situation. The oil companies are taking advantage of the attitude of our people, and that is why what they do here are not the international best practices. There are things they freely do here they will not do elsewhere because the governments of those countries will sanction them. Look at the Petroleum Industry Act, to what extent does it favour the locals? In fact, the then minister said it was a bill put in place to create an enabling environment for oil production and not an enabling environment to develop our communities. That is why at the end of the day, only three per cent was given as palliatives to the communities. These are communities that bear the brunt of the multiple devastation from the oil sector activities. That is to show you the paucity of love they have for the people and that is why the oil companies are leveraging that attitude.

There was a report that alleged that some international oil companies were involved in crude oil theft in the Niger Delta, even though they denied the claim, what do you make of that report?

This is an environment we are all familiar with. The number of vessels carrying oil on a daily basis to foreign countries from our seaports, even through the Atlantic Ocean, are too numerous. These are not Nigerians. It is not about what one thinks but a reality. If all of these were properly managed, definitely Nigeria would have been better than this, but because we have had governments that were not serious but satisfied with what they had. A past Nigerian leader once said the problem of Nigeria is not money but how to spend it. So, for them whatever you are stealing is not their problem because they have enough. This is why we continue to experience under-development and it shows that our democracy is in trouble. If with over 50 years of independence, we still have issues with electricity, water and roads, it is very shameful.

Looking at the impact of theft, like loss of revenue and oil spill, which has caused severe damage to the region, how best do you think it can be tackled permanently and what should the President do differently?

There are so many reports already; let them be serious in the implementation of those reports. Non-state actors are even helping in security more than people who are paid with taxpayers’ funds. The Tantita Security Services and a few other group operations have led to substantial improvement in meeting the OPEC quota and we have also seen in recent times that those who are benefitting from the oil theft are clamouring that the contracts should be cancelled. If the government wants to stop oil theft, it is possible but do they have the political will? If Tinubu has Nigeria at heart, and is ready to fight this war, he knows they will fight him. Just like Buhari said, corruption fights back. He should be ready to wage that war against corruption. There are people that are willing to help him, but is he ready to support them?

Some people have wondered why the Navy could not curb this crime and it took the intervention of private security outfits to begin to reduce the crime, is there more to the issue than many people know?

How can the kingdom of darkness fight against itself? Witches cannot fight against themselves. They should investigate the cartel and they are known. There are people who sit in offices and write figures and make a lot of money. Oil theft is not just what you see on the field, there are people in offices who make millions of naira daily by just playing with production figures.

Do you think the military is indeed complicit, and is pipeline security beyond them?

It shouldn’t be beyond them if they want to do the right thing. The non-state actors are not as trained and sophisticated as the military. It’s just the commitment and love for the country.

The government created the NDDC and the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs exclusively for the region, in addition to the 13 per cent derivation for the states in the region, why have these interventions not solved the problems of the region?

The same issue of corruption, in terms of the modus operandi and in relation to the appointment of the leadership of the intervening agencies. Take the NDDC for instance, is it controlled by somebody from the region. It has been under sole administrators appointed by people who have no business with the Niger Delta development to service their interest and not the interest of the nation. Accountability is also in question. There are huge amounts involved, no doubt, but there is nothing to show for it and this is so because there is no proper management of the funds.

There are many people who argue that people of the region always tackle the Federal Government without asking questions from their state governors who receive billions monthly and do little with the money, why is that?

You are correct to a large extent. There are people who call for accountability but how many of them can stand out to sustain such calls. In the region, because of the poverty level, everybody is dependent on the government. In fact, in several states in the region, politics is the only viable business for youths, and to remain in politics, you must be a bootlicker or praise singer and you must be in the good books of the government. How can you be in government and at the same time criticise them? You only see some level of opposition when it is close to elections and after election those who did not win will find a way of getting themselves into government of the day and their mouths will be shut. This is hampering development. If you have a genuine cause, someone will tell you that if you don’t support the government you will suffer in the next four years, and we don’t have that kind of environment that will make someone develop independent of government’s support. There are no jobs, business and no companies available.

Many Niger Delta persons have blamed ‘Abuja’ for the failure of the NDDC to bring about ‘the desired change, coupled with the neglect of about 12,000 projects, who is to blame for the NDDC’s poor performance over the years?

It is a combination of factors, internal and external. External is as I said earlier, those who control the appointments have their interests to be protected and those interests are not for the people. Then, internal is in the sense that we have our brothers and sisters appointed into those positions, who also prefer to do the bidding of the persons who appointed them other than serving the people.

Some of the abandoned projects were awarded to people from the region, who have witnessed first-hand the plight of their kinsmen, including farmers and fishermen, how does that make you feel?

We feel very bad because we know most of these things. We have seen situations where a monkey bridge, something villagers can do, that a community can do if given N2m but N2bn was awarded for such a project; a plank bridge. We have toilets constructed at the waterside with planks awarded for so much money. There were roads awarded several years ago and the contractors were indigenes, sometimes in their own communities. I know of a place where a top ranking politician got a contract for erosion control in his community but the job was not done. The erosion has eaten deep into the community and the man is still walking across the street enjoying himself. Just as you have said, the people can only grumble, they cannot fight them because first and foremost, they have used economic weapon to impoverish and keep the masses under some level of slavery and heavy dependency so that every election they just approach you with N10,000 and buy your conscience, and after collecting it they go back into another four years of slavery.

Will you advise the President to go after such persons who either didn’t carry out the projects or did bad jobs by arresting and prosecuting them?

The expectation is that the body language should clearly show that he wants to stop corruption. These are known people. There was a time former President Muhammadu Buhari gave an order that anyone who abandoned any project should return, and we saw massive return to site. You might not arrest them but he should give them a specific period to return to site and complete all abandoned projects. However, those who fail after that should face prosecution.

Buhari awarded pipeline surveillance contract to Tompolo’s company, and recently the Coalition of Isoko Youth Groups and Ex-Agitators criticised Tinubu for not awarding them a contract for pipeline surveillance in the region, do you think awarding such contracts is the way to go for adequate security for our pipelines?

If you do a safety comparison of these pipelines before the contracts were awarded to Tompolo and now, the Tantita is not just about Tompolo, he has over 40,000 youths working for him, even among Isoko and Itsekiri people. It’s not about Ijaws alone. When you see people coming out to say, give it to us, it is because Tompolo is doing things differently and because he is doing the right thing. He has sabotaged the efforts of these criminals, so there is a gang-up. Just imagine Arewa Youths saying Tompolo should not be given the contract, what did they know about pipeline surveillance? These are people sponsored by some internal agencies who also feel that the Tantita is fighting the economic sabotage that they have inflicted on the country for so long.

What do you make of arguments that this could breed rivalry among groups and even lead to sabotage?

In a multi-dimensional society, you must expect rivalry and it is part of development. People must definitely contest, but let the competition be healthy.

A former governor in the Niger Delta, Obong Victor Attah, recently clamoured for a total resource control for the region, do you think that would ensure the development of the region, when the states could not do much with what they got over the years?

Victor Attah’s position is the position of Niger Deltans. Let us assume that we are not managing our resources well, who is managing it well for us now? Let it be in our hands and let us manage our resources ourselves and we pay tax. In that case, people will be more serious. It is not only in the Niger Delta; in every part of this country we have resources. Look at the gold in Zamfara State being mined by individuals, but if at the end of the day they say this is yours to manage as a state, the government will be more serious.

He also said the creation of different programmes like the Presidential Amnesty Programme, NDDC and Ministry of Niger Delta for the development of the region is causing confusion that makes it difficult to focus, do you think these initiatives should be merged?

They don’t need to be merged; there is no friction in the operational dynasty of these institutions. The amnesty is for persons that were into arm struggle, so as to find ways of rehabilitating them. What we have failed to do is that after training, these persons are still as good as they were, no job, and they still continue to rely on the government. The essence of the initiative was that after training them, they will then become employers of labour while some of them can be recruited into the military, and not just giving people N65,000 at the end of the month. The government needs to empower them beyond that N65,000 where they can be employers of labour.

What do you make of calls for the Amnesty Programme to be cancelled?

No, you can’t cancel it because some people are not doing the right thing. Instead, you should make them do the right thing.

The Ijaw Youth Council recently called on President Bola Tinubu not to allow the Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited seal the $3bn oil swap deal with the African Export-Import Bank, do you also oppose that move?

Yes, of course. What has happened to loans collected by Buhari which they said was for infrastructure? It is not a time to take loan and get us into loads of debt. Let us focus on what we have and manage it. Let us reduce expenditure, particularly at the national level and at least cut salaries and all earnings of politicians by 50 per cent. Do you know how far that will go in the development of this country?

Oil has been discovered in Gombe and a few northern states, and exploration is scheduled to start soon, how does the Niger Delta feel about this?

We are happy because we know that if other parts of this country have oil and they are made to go through what we are suffering, they will have a better understanding of what it means to be an oil producing region in a country like this. So, let it go round. Let all the states in this country produce oil, so that the suffering can spread. When we say there is environmental devastation, some people think we are comedians. When they see the impact, I think they will appreciate what we have been passing through for a long time.

Some believe it will strip the Niger Delta of that bragging right of being the bearer of the country’s main source of revenue. What do you think?

What good has that name given to us? You are the source and you are not benefitting anything. Instead, let other people be the source. We want to be the beneficiary and not just the suffering source.

During Buhari’s tenure, many regions advocated for restructuring to empower states or regions, do you think Tinubu should work towards making it a reality or it’s no longer important?

Of course, let Tinubu go back to the 2014 confab report and see how it can be implemented.

Floods affected some parts of the Niger Delta last year, leaving many in a sorry state, do you think governors have done well with the ecological fund they received from the Federal Government?

They have not because we are not seeing the impact. Many people don’t even know that the fund exists. Secondly, the managers of the funds should also carry out an audit of what the money was used for. Don’t just give money to people without monitoring how it was used.

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