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With corrupt Niger Delta leaders, forget resource control – Ofehe

By NBF News
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Founder/President of The Netherlands-based Hope for Niger Delta Campaign (HNDC), Comrade Sunny Ofehe, keeps the flame of the Niger Delta question aglow on a different pedestal. His is not like the violent agitation that gave rise to militancy or the noxious gas flared in the Niger Delta that lights up the environment but ironically destroys it.

Through his non-violent campaigns over the years, Delta State-born Ofehe has succeeded in attracting international attention to the environmental plight of communities in Nigeria's oil producing region.

Recently, working with an opposition party in the Dutch Parliament, the Industrial Chemistry graduate of the University of Benin, for the first time, got the parliament to invite Shell, which has its headquarters in The Netherlands, to defend its exploration activities in the Niger Delta. A public hearing has been scheduled for January 26 at The Hague.

Ahead the hearing, Ofehe alongside a female Dutch MP, Sharon Gesthuizen, visited the Niger Delta a few days before the last Christmas for an 'on-the-spot assessment' of oil exploration activities. But the visit almost turned into an embarrassment for the government as operatives of the overzealous security outfit policing the region, the military-backed Joint Task Force (JTF), detained them alongside the international chair of the Environmental Rights Action (ERA), Mr Nnimmo Bassey, for more than 12 hours in a community in Edo State. It took the intervention of the powers that be in Abuja before they regained their freedom.

Ofehe speaks on this encounter among other issues. Excerpts…

When and how was Hope for Niger Delta Campaign formed?

I arrived in The Netherlands precisely on November 27, 1995, that was exactly 17 days after the brutal hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the eight Ogoni martyrs. After living in the country for many years and finding out that despite Shell International being headquartered in The Hague, many people, including the media, didn't know much about the environmental problems in the Niger Delta with respect to Shell Nigeria oil operations in the region.

As an activist from the Niger Delta, who had experienced the hardship visited on the people as a result of environmental and human rights abuses arising from oil operations in the region and which had only benefited the Nigerian government and the oil giants, I felt the need to initiate a campaign to raise awareness in The Netherlands on the untold sufferings of the Niger Delta people.

Let me recall that after the 2003 elections in which greedy politicians freely spread weapons among youths to violently win the flawed elections, it was clear that the Niger Delta was heading towards another violent phase. This reinvigorated my resolve to begin a campaign within The Netherlands. I needed an official platform to carry out this campaign and decided that setting up a non-governmental organisation will help lend the voice that the region needs internationally. Hope for Niger Delta Campaign (HNDC) was eventually founded in 2005 with its headquarters in Rotterdam.

The organisation has since then grown from strength to strength, with much awareness already raised. We are not relenting as much effort is being made to expand the campaign to other European countries through more participation in the EU activities.

Being a Nigerian, what was the perception of the Dutch about you and the organization in the early days?

Personally, I felt if there must be awareness campaign on the Niger Delta issue, then it must come from someone from the region, who has also been impacted by the effects of oil exploitation. In underlining my commitment as an activist from the region, I decided to be the one to champion this cause. I made attempts to get more Diaspora involvement in this campaign but unfortunately not many of our people were interested.

Having interacted with the Dutch people at every level, I can tell you that the majority of them have a good heart and are not happy with the situation in the Niger Delta, particularly after the killing of the Ogoni 9. Realising this about the ordinary Dutch people gave me the momentum to feed them with information that could answer the many questions that bothers them about the role of Shell and the Nigerian government in the protracted quagmire that has engulfed the region since oil was first discovered in 1957. Really, at the beginning, as a Nigerian trying to spearhead this daunting task was not easy. I had to fight many stigmatised factors. The only story that got media attention in The Netherlands was always about how Nigerians were involved in the scam business (419) and bank-related frauds. Nigerians had been profiled to be dubious and criminals.

These factors affected the early stages of my campaign as many people saw it as being backed by fraudulent intensions. When I attend meetings, you are confronted with the issue of trust and most readily be prepared to be turned down. Whenever you raised any initiative, your background is quickly checked and when it is known that you are a Nigerian, you are quietly alienated.

But I was determined to prove that in as much as I will agree that few Nigerians are involved in vices inimical to the image of our country, there are still many decent and hardworking Nigerians all over the world. I never allowed the stigma to weigh me down and kept believing in the cause. I felt a sense of God's hand in the cause, because I was surprised at how all the obstacles were being outmanoeuvred.

I grew up knowing that no success is achieved without first overcoming the challenges and in this case the challenges were fighting the stigma of being a Nigerian.

My determination paid off after I was scrutinised by many and they all found out that my agitations were genuine and devoid of any unscrupulous and dubious tendencies. Today, I feel very satisfied looking back to those horrible beginnings and also using my campaign to prove to Nigerians that your genuine actions can help improve the already battered international image of our great country, Nigeria. Today, I see myself as not only fighting the Niger Delta cause in the most non-violent and peaceful way, but also helping to raise the standard of how Nigerians are being looked upon outside Africa.

Another aspect of the Niger Delta problem is the issue of resource control. How feasible is this, given the way the matter has been politicized?

I am a strong supporter of resource control but with a very simple condition that the leadership of the Niger Delta region must first free themselves from the entanglement of our current corrupt political leaders. The biggest corruption in the Nigeria today is taking place in the Niger Delta. We must realise that apart from the statutory federal allocation to all Nigerian states, the Niger Delta states also receive 13 per cent derivation from the proceeds of crude oil. But can we say that the Niger Delta states have seen more development since they started receiving more in terms of federal allocation?

The answer is a capital NO! Where is the money and what has been done so far? The budget of Rivers State alone is higher than that of many African countries. Is there anything in Rivers that you can see today that equates what it gets from the federal government? What about Bayelsa and even my own state, Delta? Is there any political leader today in any of the Niger Delta states that can stand out with transparent honesty and we can say he is corrupt- free? When names like the (Peter) Odilis, (James) Iboris, (Lucky) Igbinedions, (Diepreye) Alamieyeseighas and other past governors or federal ministers from the Niger Delta are mentioned, what readily comes to people's mind is corruption and greed.

I have been told by many people that we need an increase in derivation from the current 13 per cent to a minimum of 25 per cent. I am a proponent of this increase only on the basis of proper utilisation of the current 13 per cent otherwise we will be fighting for an increase that will only swell the pockets of the few current oligarchs.

We can only achieve and win the battle for resource control if we can prove to other parts of the country that we are ready for zero tolerance when it comes to corruption. It is election period now and I hope we can vote for the right candidates that will have the ordinary people at heart and rule with the fear of God, knowing that service to the people is service to God. Until then, the demand for resource control should not be our goal for now. The people of the Niger Delta are not ready yet until we flush ourselves of greedy political leaders in our midst.

Would absolute resource control end the crisis in the Niger Delta?

I don't think absolute resource control will end the crisis in the region because there is still so much complacency in the current agitation. This mainly has to do with ethnic cleavages. Already many smaller ethnic groups in the Niger Delta are complaining that the Ijaw have hijacked the struggle and are the only ethnic group benefiting from the crisis.

Let us assume we get total resource control today, what happens to distribution of these resources among the people? Can we have honest leadership that can help make the ordinary people feel the benefit? There must be government oversight and this cannot happen without a corrupt-free management, which the Niger Delta currently lacks.

Ironically, I don't even see the government ceding resource control to the Niger Delta. We must not forget that the black gold from this region is responsible for 95 per cent of the nation's foreign exchange earnings and the country's economy if fully dependent on the crude oil from this region. The way the Nigerian federation is structured and operated will make it virtually impossible to grant the region full autonomy to control the resources. All the major indigenous oil blocs are owned by powerful political figures from either the North or Southern part of the country. Do you see these people allowing their grip on the oil to slip? Many factors buoyed by greed will make resource control actualisation a mirage.

What about the issue of gas flaring, which is also a major problem in the region?

Millions of dollars are wasted every year by the oil companies from the burning of associated gases in the Niger Delta. The oil companies prefer to burn the gas because it is cheaper and economical for them. In Western countries, these are often used as domestic gas supplied to homes.

This flaring and venting process produces more greenhouse gas emission than any other single source in sub-Sahara Africa. The flaring of poisonous gas is responsible for the chronic health and environmental problems affecting the people of the Niger Delta. Ironically, there has been a ban on gas flare in Nigeria since the early 1980s but the oil companies have consistently shifted the end date since then and the government lacks the political will to enforce this ban. During my recent visit to the Niger Delta with a Dutch member of parliament, she told me that Shell took her to a project that is aimed at reducing gas flaring by as much as 70 per cent in the coming years.

I cannot however comment on this because Shell refused my presence in that visit for reasons that are still not very convincing. The current Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project is a good solution. The wasted gases can be channelled into production of energy, which the country currently lacks. What about helping the communities and urban areas with domestic gas burners and sending part of it for domestic cooking use? Because of the health consequences of gas flaring, it must end now.

I visited the Oben community in Edo State with the Dutch MP and I remember how she felt coming close to the heat from the flare. She asked, 'how long have they been flaring gas like this?' The youth leader of the community answered, 'since 1972' and she was shocked. The people of the community have lived with that flare for 38 years! Must we trade the health of our people for oil profit? Those benefitting from the oil don't even live anywhere close to feel the environmental impact and health consequences. Who is playing God here?

Who should be held responsible for the unending crisis in that region, the government, oil multinational companies or traditional rulers?

I always say that the blame and responsibility are a tripod – the Nigerian government, the oil multinationals and the local leaders, into which the traditional rulers fall. The oil companies cannot continue to mess up the environment without the support of the Nigerian government. Remember, they are in a joint venture agreement and the oil companies are the operators of this joint venture. When the oil companies continue to operate at their whims and caprices and the government lacks the political will to regulate and enforce the basic tenets that guide their operations, it then means they are Siamese twins collaborating to milk the environment at the expense of the health and livelihood of the people.

The local leaders have been torn apart by greed and corruption. The oil companies' practice of divide and rule, which tends to divide community leaders, has also heightened crisis in the region. This has been responsible for clashes among separated communities. Honesty and transparency among these three tiers will definitely reduce the causes of the crisis and become the home run for sustainable peace in the region.