Ogoni Clean Up, Buhari and the Force of Example
It is not by force of arms but by force of example that you demonstrate the superiority of any ideology- Mikhail Gorbachev
I was very delighted when I read that President Buhari had directed that preparations for the clean-up of the polluted Ogoni land should commence. That decision is very both significant and politically strategic in many ways. First is that it is a clear sign that the President is conscious of his campaign promises and may be working – harder that we can yet see, to fulfil them. I recall clearly that in one of his campaign visits to Rivers State, the then Presidential Candidate of All Progressives Congress(APC) visited Bori, headquarters of Ogoniland land and promised that he will clean up the area if and when elected President. It is important to underscore here that the pains of environmental pollution and a looming ecological catastrophe are defining issues in the Niger Delta struggle –whatever that means. It is at the core of the Ogoni Bill of Rights of 1990 and later the Kaiama Declaration of 1998.
There is no better way to extend hands of fellowship to the people of the Niger Delta than this gesture of the President. I say this because the closest opportunity the Ogoni people had to get this level of attention was during the past regime. Alas, the former President who hails from the Niger Delta region could not do much- he admitted that much publicly. Rather he was veiled and deluded to the point that he felt that the political disagreement between him and the former governor of Rivers State meant that he will block every opportunity of any federal impact to the people of that state. Such public display of pettiness was one of the reasons why many projects that required federal-state interphase were stalled.
Some other projects like the East-West Road and the Port Harcourt-Owerri road where the state government spent millions of naira. Mr. Ameachi expected the state government will be refunded by the federal government but it did not happen- it was simply left as bad debt! It is public knowledge that the expected attention that should have been given to the Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) Project in Bonny was diverted to the one in Brass, Bayelsa State. What about the Port Harcourt International Airport that was abandoned and still remains uncompleted? It will take a while for anyone to fully appreciate the level of setback experienced by Rivers State because of the strands of sanctions that were imposed by those who were ‘fighting’ for the President. I wonder the wisdom in starving a whole state of deserved and relevant projects just because a President does not agree with the views of one individual- the governor. It is regrettable that former President Jonathan- and I wish I could avoid calling his name- could engage in such a costly political misadventure which cost him his position – and may hunt him throughout his peaceful retirement. It is now clear that in terms of political mileage, what ‘our brother’ lost, ‘a stranger’ has gained. Does that not vindicate people like former governor Amaechi and his stand in the last elections?
Another interesting dimension of that directive is that the President may just want to show himself as a politician that is responsive. Since he made the erroneous statement - or better still what some prefer to call a Freudian slip in Washington DC, about those who voted for him or did not, the President has been under fire of some sorts. I tried with limited success to explain because I was present at the event but few people gave me a chance. Now the Presidential effort in the Ogoni clean-up clearly confirms that he is willing to extend attention to people who did not necessarily give him votes. That is an important quick-win for the President and will potentially help neutralize the damage that might have resulted from his statement.
It is also gratifying to note that the President is willing to review the governance framework of the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project (HYPREP) and make available the initial counterpart funding of ten million dollars for the project to take off. However I wish to suggest a few things to him. The first thing is that there is now an opportunity to revert to the original recommendations of the UNEP Report for the establishment of the Ogoni Environmental Restoration Authority and a Centre of Excellence for Environmental Restoration . The whole idea of HYPREP was hastily put together unduly politicised by the former administration. There is no sense in allowing such an important agency to be domiciled under the same organisation causing pollution- the Ministry of Petroleum Resources. We cannot be talking about cleaning oil pollution here predominantly and expect such an agency to function effectively under the ministry is charge of the oil industry. That is a clear case of conflict of interest which will stand on the way of independence and effectiveness of such effort.
There are agencies like the Nigeria Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) that has the statutory role of cleaning oil spill in the whole country. My fear is that if proper insulation does not happen, there could be an overlap with the role of NOSDRA what we now know as HYPREP. It is therefore important that HYPREP- that is if it must remain as currently constituted, must be transferred to another Ministry- let’s say Ministry of Environment or that of the Niger Delta. It should be a lean agency not bogged down by bureaucracy- lest we go the way of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC).
In this season of probes, it may not be entirely a bad idea for government to ask questions about what those who managed the affairs of HYPREP in the past did with the funds already allocated to them. Did they award any contracts? If yes, then to who? I am aware that many of their staff are currently been owed salaries in that agency for some time now.
There is a point about the constitution of the Governing Council Board of Trustees, Project Management Team of the implementing agency - whatever the name turns out to be. By nature, I care less about those who will be chosen. But I am sure the Niger Delta has sufficient manpower to fill such positions as far such persons are qualified- and as the President will insist- have integrity. I will also add that there is a tiny recommendation in the UNEP Report that talks about skills development, providing employment and improving livelihoods for the communities in Ogoni. Again an agency that is expected to clean up Ogoni land must have its headquarters in Ogoni- not Abuja or Port Harcourt. I hope they will be considered so that the clean-up process can have a trickle-down effect on the citizenry. The clean-up of the Ogoni land in particular and the Niger Delta in general should be seen holistically with coordination among relevant agencies of both state and federal government. With an initial lifespan of ten years, with the right planning and collaboration, the clean-up period may be another opportunity to lay a background for sustainable development in the Niger Delta. For me I congratulate the President on this one and his slow and steady force of example.