Niger-Delta People Are Exploited And Their Environment Despoiled

Niger-Delta People Are Exploited And Their Environment Despoiled

For a while, Rivers State, which is one of Nigeria’s highest revenue generating States, had been in the news for the wrong reasons. There had been reports of many kidnappings of oil expatriates, political violence, and an embarrassing rift between the Executive and the Judiciary, which led to the unprecedented closure of courts for almost two years. But all that narrative is fast changing, with the present administration in the State. The new Attorney-General of the State, Mr. Emmanuel Chinwe Aguma, SAN spoke with Onikepo Braithwaite and Jude Igbanoi at the recently concluded NBA Annual General Conference in Lagos, on how the State has overcome its multifarious challenges. He also spoke on a wide range of issues bordering on corruption, despoliation of the environment, the PIB and the controversy surrounding the N13b found at the Osborne Towers, Ikoyi which the Rivers State Government laid claim to 

Honourable Attorney-General, how far have you gone with improving justice delivery in Rivers State, decongesting the prisons and so on? Since you assumed office, what would you say that your main achievements have been? What goals have you set to achieve during your term in office?

Prisons are an item on the Exclusive Legislative list. Prisons are run and administered, by the Federal Government. The Federal Government, is therefore, responsible for the building of Prisons to take into account current realities. Most prisons in Nigeria are very old. Most of the various prisons in Nigeria, were built by the Colonial Government. They were built at a time when our population was lower than it is today, and the incidence of crime very low. The inmate capacity of these prisons, is also very low. However, with increased urbanisation, crime has also grown. Custodial offences have also multiplied. So have serious crimes that require incarceration during trial. The result is that, our prison population has exploded.

The only way a State including Rivers State, can aid in prison decongestion, is through speedy adjudication of cases. Currently, Rivers State needs about 50 judges. It needs the approval of National Judicial Council (NJC) to fill this need. The NJC, does not to have the budgetary cover for Rivers State for 50 judges. Therefore, we make do with about 32, and these judges have cause lists that are long. What will a judge do when he has a daily cause-list of over 20 cases?

The whole system needs a total and complete overhaul. First, we must accept that the Federal Government, has too much on its plate. There is no reason, why the Federal Government should be responsible for the prisons. This is because most offences, are State offences. Therefore, the States should be responsible for remand institutions. Secondly, in terms of confirmation of appointments, to ensure checks and balances, NJC should play a role. Like who becomes Chief Judge and so on, but I think the States should be given the power to determine how many judges they want, and not tie it to Federal budgetary allocations. I am sure that Rivers State can afford to pay 50 judges, but because a component of the payment is coming from Federal allocation, it becomes a challenge. There is nothing any State can meaningfully do to decongest prisons without the full co-operation of the Federal Government, and some form of Constitutional amendment.

This brings us to the issue of Restructuring. Because from what you have said, the prisons are not under the control of the State Governments. What are your views on Restructuring, especially as Rivers State is one of the main revenue generating States of the Nation? What do you think about States having more control over their resources?

When they talk about restructuring, it means a lot. Let us take the Nigerian Constitution for example, as it is presently constituted. Yes, there are some institutional problems in the Constitution as it were. However, before we address these, we must accept that, if most of the provisions of the Constitution, and particularly, if Chapter 2 of the Constitution on the Fundamental Principles of State Policy is adhered to, I do not think people will be clamouring for restructuring. Rather, they will be talking about constitutional amendment.

We must examine our mode of governance, in order to direct it towards good governance. Once that is done, people would be satisfied, and they would not talk about restructuring. Secondly restructuring means different things to different Nigerians, depending on their persuasions. For instance, the IPOB person understands restructuring to mean Biafra. To that extent, I do not believe in restructuring, because I believe in the continued unity of Nigeria. Nigeria offers us a large market, and offers every Nigerian a wide opportunity for self-development. If we restructure along the lines of ‘everybody to your tent o Israel‘, creating small units and small countries, I am sure the present advantages and opportunities that we have as a country, will disappear. That which characterises us as Nigerians, will no longer be there. If their restructuring means breaking up Nigeria, I am against it. However, if restructuring means, devolution of powers from the centre to the States or federating units, I agree. There are several areas, which the Federal Government needs to devolve powers to the States. Look at the Exclusive Legislative List; there are 69 items. If you include the sub-items, it runs to over 100. That is ridiculous for a Federation. If you talk about restructuring in terms of fiscal federalism, whereby the States control their resources and make revenue contributions to the centre, I will agree, but the greatest restructuring I would support, is good governance. If we have good governance, many of the complaints we have will not be there. Because there will be accountability and conscience in the system, and a lot more people will be happy. Therefore, to me, the clamour for restructuring is just a reaction to bad governance. It is also a reaction to ‘it is my turn; it is our people’s turn’. There is nothing new about restructuring. The movement from three Regions, to four Regions, to 12 States, then 19 States and now 36 States, were all responses to different calls for restructuring. Now, some people are saying ‘let us go back to regional government’. All these administrative changes have not solved any problem. 

Rivers State, being one of the oil producing states of Nigeria, would certainly have a lot of matters arising between oil companies and host communities, for example, issues of pollution etc. What kinds of issues presently exist between the oil companies and the host communities? What laws and actions, have you put in place since you took office, to protect the interests of the host communities?

When you talk about oil, you are talking about the Federal Government. Item 39 on the Exclusive Legislative list, puts mines, minerals, geological surveys and natural gas on the Federal Government list. Therefore, Rivers State, cannot make any law to regulate the activities of the oil companies, and how they relate to the host communities. Besides, disputes arising from oil operations, have been clearly domiciled in the Federal High Court. Therefore, we have a government, that can do nothing about what is taking place in its territory. The only thing we can do is to talk through community development associations, to encourage good neighbourliness between the oil companies and the host communities. The oil companies always have the backing of the Federal Government. Each oil producing State receives a share of the meagre 13% derivation revenue. There is hardly anything the State Government can do. The only thing we can do, is to prevent the communities from resorting to violent agitation by dousing their anger. We cannot even make any law or regulation, pertaining to or connected with oil production regardless of the fact that our environment is adversely affected by oil production activities. 

Assuming that you had the powers that the Federal Government has over regulating the oil sector, what would you do?

Assuming I have such powers, the first thing I would do, is to put in place effective legislation that governs drilling. The oil majors, do not only work in Nigeria, they work in other places. They even work in their home countries. Look at the case of Shell and how much compensation they were forced to pay, when there was an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Look at how they handled it. It is because of the system, that they have in place there. We do not have anything here. Unfortunately, those who have the commanding structures of governance, are not the people that produce the oil. If they were the people who produce the oil, I am sure they would have out done something about the environmental despoliation.

The Federal Government, has been talking about the Ogoni. Go and ask the average Ogoni man. You will know that all the talk is a farce! The talk is nothing but a political gimmick. The Federal Government, does not even consult the Rivers State Government, about what they want to do in Ogoni land. The Federal Government actors, have politicised it. They are not even interested in working with the State Government to achieve the desired results. The truth of the matter is that, we are an exploited people. We are a despoiled people. We are a people whose environment has been completely ruined. I was on an helicopter flight with His Excellency, the Governor of Rivers State, to a place called Ngo in Andoni Local Government Area. We practically wept. On that day there was fire somewhere in the creeks, and when we flew over the site of the fire, what did we see? These boys who bunker, with small-improvised oil refineries, the Navy believes that the only way they can deal with that, is by blowing up the bunkers and destroying the refineries. That sends large volumes of black soot into the air. Now, we have no control over that, because we do not control the Navy. Blowing up the bunkering barges and the illicit refineries, also spills liquid oil into the creeks. From Port Harcourt to Ngo, we saw large areas of mangrove swamp, that have been completely destroyed, because you are trying to destroy the so-called local refineries. These places were totally burnt out. Apart from that, from Port Harcourt to Ngo, every single inch of the water has oil film on it.

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