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Comrade Sunny Ofehe is President/Founder of the Rotterdam-based Hope for Niger Delta Campaign (HNDC), which organized the recent Niger Delta Peace Consolidation Conference at The Hague, Netherlands.

The Delta State-born graduate of Industrial Chemistry from the University of Benin had migrated to The Netherlands in 1995 during the military junta of the late General Sani Abacha, following a crackdown on any form of social dissent to his dictatorial rule. Ten years later, according to him, his passion for a better Niger Delta led to the formation of the HNDC.

The organization, he said, has so far made concerted efforts to keep the socio-political cum environmental issues affecting the region on the front burner of international discourse.

He tells Sunday Sun the intrigues and challenges that dogged the organization of the conference among other issues in this interview conducted in Rotterdam.

Why did HNDC choose to hold a Niger Delta peace conference in the Netherlands when it could have been held in Nigeria?

There have been so many conferences and meetings in Nigeria on the Niger Delta either under government sponsorship or civil society groups, but the government has never implemented all the recommendations. For instance, the celebrated Niger Delta Technical Committee set up by the federal government, what has happened to the report? It has been dumped like many other reports in the past.

The strategy for hosting the conference in The Hague can be seen from two-pronged angles. Firstly, we wanted the conference to hold under the full glare of the international community, which we believe has a big role to play in supporting the Nigerian government to find solution to the crisis. Secondly, The Hague, with its history of 'justice,' is suitable for a conference with such objectives, considering the Nigerian government's amnesty gesture.

It also offered the ordinary Europeans the opportunity to meet first hand with stakeholders from the region. You saw the enthusiasm shown by the Dutch people and even their media to the happenings at the two-day conference. The Niger Delta became a topical issue among the people during this period and you must remember that sensitizing the Europeans on the true situation in the Niger Delta is one of the major objectives of the Hope for Niger Delta Campaign.

How long has HNDC been in existence and what were some of the challenges of organising the conference, considering that you are a Nigerian who migrated to the Netherlands?

HNDC was founded in 2005 and within this period we have achieved so much despite the odds. The Niger Delta in itself is a very sensitive topic and to have it discussed in The Netherlands, which is the home base of the oil giants, Shell, also comes with some challenges.

The challenges we faced in organizing this conference were mountainous. We tried to engage the Dutch government to participate but they pulled out at the last minute. The Dutch embassy refused visa for the ex-militants who wanted to participate. The unexpected arrival of President Umaru Yar'Adua to the country a day to the commencement of the conference stopped certain key participants from attending. These were people who already had air ticket and visa to attend. They cancelled their trips even with their hotel accommodation waiting for them. The Nigerian embassy in The Netherlands deliberately played an inhibiting role during our consultation prior to the conference.

I have never seen my being a Nigerian in The Netherlands a limiting factor to my process of engagement. I faced the challenges at the very beginning considering the fact that as a Nigerian in Europe we face profiling. The news you hear and see on television and the print media are about Nigerians being fraudulent, scammers and drug traffickers. In the midst of these vices that they know us for, you have me talking about being an activist who genuinely wants to see the Niger Delta region return to peace. There comes the credibility issue and that I have to prove. But today I get attention from all segments of the international community. And I must tell you that the average Dutch person is willing to support any genuine peace process.

Are you saying you did not get any form of support from the Dutch government, oil multinationals, particularly Shell, and the Nigerian embassy?

Like I just said, we didn't get the support of the Dutch government, oil multinational companies like Shell and even the Nigerian embassy. Someone from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs was there to observe the proceedings. Regardless, the relationship is still very cordial and we are exploring other avenues of collaboration and suggestions for the good of the Niger Delta.

Truly speaking, no oil multinational company was invited, including Shell. Chevron sent an observer to attend the conference from their office in London.

The Nigerian embassy was the first I spoke to through the ambassador about the conference but later I discovered that verbal commitment did not translate to practical commitment. I wouldn't want to go into the intrigues that played out from the role of the embassy as I discovered from a reliable source. Although the ambassador was not present, the embassy was represented. We have moved beyond this stage and like I said the conference was a success and we intend to follow up on this success and continually engage in discussions that could help us achieve the resolutions reached at the end of the two-day summit.

In what ways does the HNDC interface with Shell, whose headquarters is in the Netherlands, to comply with best practices and international standards in the Niger Delta?

We have tried from the very beginning to interface with Shell by inviting them to our meetings but they have always declined to attend. We do meet at major Niger Delta conferences and meetings. We will continue to work with interested people, including the oil giants, should the paradigm be open for such interactions.

On the issue of best practices and international standards in the Niger Delta, Amnesty International and Friends of the Earth Netherlands have been engaging Shell at the very highest level to conform to corporate social responsibility standards. As you already know, there is an ongoing lawsuit against Shell in The Hague sponsored by Friends of the Earth Netherlands on behalf of four Niger Delta farmers. Amnesty International also launched its reports on the Niger Delta and carried out a demonstration in front of the Shell headquarters to draw the attention of the company to its practices in the Niger Delta.

We work closely with these organizations to ensure adequate support in their Niger Delta activities.

But why does Shell or other multinationals spurn best practices in the Niger Delta when they cannot do the same in their home countries?

There are existing laws that facilitate best practices in the oil sector and as such if the oil multinational companies are not complying or adhering to these laws, then the Nigeria government should be blamed. The government has the right to make the oil giants conform to these laws and ensure best practices.

Contrary to what we see in Nigeria, the oil companies cannot operate those same standards in their home countries because there are regulatory bodies to check the practices of the companies and their mode of operation. The Nigerian government lacks the audacity and the impetus to muscle the oil companies to follow CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) practices and until they can summon this clout, we will continue to see the disrespect for the environment.

What role would you want the oil multinationals to play in the ongoing post-amnesty programme of the Nigerian government?

They should support community development initiatives that will provide better paying jobs to the jobless youths in the region. When you make the communities play a big role in job participation within the oil companies, you create a sense of ownership, which can provide security for the oil operations.

Apart from Dokubo-Asari, it was observed that other ex-militant leaders were not present at the conference. Were they contacted or invited and why didn't they attend?

The ex-militant leaders were contacted and invited and they all showed interest to attend the conference but unfortunately they were denied visa by the Dutch embassy. The Dutch Foreign Affairs Ministry has refused to disclose the reason behind the visa refusal. We were all disappointed and missed their participation. The Dutch people were very keen to meet with these people and know first hand why they decided to submit to the amnesty offered by the government. Their participation would have created a fair balance considering the fact that Dokubo-Asari has been vehemently against the amnesty.

Didn't their absence reduce the impact the conference would have had on the peace process in the region?

Definitely their absence deflated the conference momentum. How do you talk about peace without having the key components of the problem itself? The ex-militants are key stakeholders in any peace process and as such they were really missed in the conference. I spoke to Boyloaf afterwards to express my apology for the inconveniences they all went through because of my assurances to them that they will secure visa to attend the conference. I want to believe that maybe I didn't do my home work very well. I have been talking to the Dutch Foreign Ministry and hopefully I think we will get it right next time. I still commend the Dutch embassy when you consider the number of people that got visa to attend the conference.

Dokubo-Asari told the media in The Hague that he will not renounce armed struggle. Is that not a potent threat to the achievement of sustainable peace in the Niger Delta?

Everybody has the right to his own views and Dokubo-Asari expressed his views clearly. The process is ongoing and the reason for the meeting is to articulate all contrasting views. We are still talking with him to take a non-violent approach. It might not be easy but I strongly believe that with consistent pressure and sincerity on the part of the Nigeria government, we will be able to get the Dokubo-Asaris to believe in the process of peace via a peaceful means. Like Dr Chris Ekiyor said, the path to peace must be peaceful.

The Nigerian government is yet to implement the report of the Niger Delta Technical Committee, which it constituted, close to 18 months after it was submitted. With the conference's position on the report as the roadmap to sustainable development of the region, are you preparing to confront the government over its non-implementation?

We will not confront the government but rather engage the best approach that will make the government understand the reason for its implementation.

It is clear that the Niger Delta Technical Committee report holds the key to sustainable peace in the region. The amnesty was just a part of the many recommendations by the committee and as such a full implementation will sustain the desired peace. The Nigerian government is not insensitive to this and that will make engagement a bit easier than confrontation.

The conference also asked the international community to criminalise oil theft in the Niger Delta. How feasible is this recommendation?

This is very feasible considering the fact that with the success so far achieved by tackling the flow of cash by terrorists, we will be able to track the movement of illegal oil theft. The cartels involved in this trade are powerful and have the resources to inhibit any peace process. The modalities can be worked out by the international community and we will see the movement of only legitimate oil couriers on the international waters. We have recommended this in our resolution and we will appeal to the European Union to consider this and let all its member-states support the criminalization of stolen oil. If we can get the support of the EU, it will be easy to make the Americans to follow.

What is your take on the Yar'Adua saga and how has it affected Nigerians positively or negatively in the Netherlands?

I don't have any problem with (President Umaru) Yar'Adua but what I have consistently said is that if the President is incapacitated to rule as a result of ill-health, then he must hand over power to his deputy as clearly stated in the Nigerian Constitution. He can go on a medical vacation and give Goodluck Jonathan the power to act on his behalf until he is fully fit to rule again.

The scenario playing out now in Nigeria is a complete disgrace to our nascent democracy. We must reject in entirety the attempt by a few oligarchs to pilot our country into abeyance because of their greed. Nigerians in The Netherlands are following the unfolding scenario and I must say that we are all speaking in one voice on this very issue. Nigeria as a country belongs to us all and we must work for the harmony and unity of our great country.

Are you hopeful that with a Niger Deltan as Acting President a permanent solution can be found to the region's intractable problems?

I personally think that a Presidency headed by Yar'Adua is better positioned to achieve more on the Niger Delta than Dr Goodluck Jonathan's. We must be careful how we celebrate the current Acting President because he is from the Niger Delta. If he focuses so much on the Niger Delta, that might give his political opponents opportunity to say he is favouring a region more than the others. Imagine if Jonathan was the architect of the amnesty programme, what do you think his political opponents would be saying right now?

I still pray that Yar'Adua recovers quickly to continue with the amnesty programme, which he champions. It is good news that the Acting President is from the Niger Delta but this is just a moral victory for us all from the region. So, we should be careful how we celebrate Jonathan's presidency.