Hon. Kenneth Ekweme is the Executive Chairman of the Oil Minerals Producing Areas Development Commission in Imo State. In this interview with EMEKA NWULU, the OMPADEC boss takes a critical look at the current crisis in the Niger Delta region, concluding that the neglect of the oilbearing communities by the government and the oil companies is the rationale behind the crisis in the oil-rich region. Excerpts:
There have been series of violent crises in the Niger Delta region which have claimed several lives. What do you think about this situation?
There is nothing more to talk about rather than to tell the oil prospecting companies and the government to go back to the drawing board and correct the mistakes as well as atrocities they have perpetrated against the oil-bearing communities in the Niger Delta region. That will certainly return peace to both the people and the oil companies. It is correct that there have been series of violence; it has gone out of hand. Therefore the government and the agencies involved must do something drastic to help the situation.
Before now, there was the Amnesty programme… (Cuts in)
Yes, but that is not what we are talking about. What we are saying is that amnesty or no amnesty, there should be social amenities for the people. Their communities must be developed. Give them what they want and send them abroad, if possible, to learn some skills, which will also be to the benefit of the country, rather than exploiting what belongs to them and still keep them suffering. If you go to the creeks, you will see that the fishes in the rivers are dying every day, the farmlands are no longer fertile and nothing is going on there and that it is the survival point for these communities.
But why is it that the Imo people have been complaining about the crisis?
No, don’t you read the dailies? Don’t you listen to the radio, watch television and it’s always in the news that violence has taken place in Cross River, Rivers, Edo, Delta and Bayelsa as well as other oil-producing states. Imo cannot be an exception.
What really is the cause of this violence?
Well, it is true that many things had happened in the past and it is basically because the oil companies operating in the region have failed to comply with the agreements reached with their host communities.
As a matter of fact, I’m from that zone, though I’m the Executive Chairman, Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission (OMPADEC). I have from time to time spoken on these same issues in the media about the ill-treatment and behaviours of the oil companies to my people.
It is quite unfair and unfortunate that these companies like Agip, Shell, Chevron, and Walter-Smith Petro operating the oil wells in these communities have neglected the people of the area.
For how long have these companies been operating in the area?
They came since 1957, exploring oil from the communities. It was Shell that first came before AGIP and Walter Smith Petroman, who had a General Memorandum of Understanding with the five existing communities to allow them operate freely so that they, too, in return, could give good roads, pipe borne water, electricity, cottage hospitals and construction of mega secondary schools and maintenance of the existing facilities like all primary and secondary school structures with accessible market centres for the host communities. But I’m surprised that since then till now, as I’m talking to you now, nothing had been done to that effect. They couldn’t fulfil their promises. This is the bone of contention concerning the crisis in the area.
These communities have many oil wells and are also predominantly farmers. But both the present and past governments that had existed in this state cannot boast of doing anything as developmental projects in the area and that is why the boys have all came out to say no to the oil companies, asking them to go and never to come back again until their roads are put in order, until electricity and water is provided.
But this crisis has recorded the killing of innocent persons who were indigenes of the communities. Why has this continued?
The death of over ten hefty young and skilful men and women, who have lost their lives in the course of this crisis, was as a result of coincidence and those who incidentally ran into the situation without knowing, because they were not attacked. It was a co-incidence. I want to tell the world that these communities are viable in economic, human and material resources and blessed with huge land mass that can boost agricultural inputs to feed the nation, but they are suffering.
These communities are facing tough times now and will survive only through the mercy of God. Can you believe me and accept the fact that the communities never experience any change in development till now and have no hope of tomorrow unless by God’s intervention?
What is the state government doing to ameliorate the situation and possibly alleviate poverty in those communities?
Government has a lot to do and the oil companies, too, have also a lot to do to alleviate the people’s suffering. Imo State introduced an agency, Imo State Oil Producing Areas Development Commission, during the government of PDP under Governor Achike Udenwa just to reach out to all these oil communities with development projects but as at today and as we are here talking, nothing has ever taken place and it is this that gave recognition of the Federal Government to the state as one of the nine oil-bearing states under the Niger Delta Development Commission but the agency has not recorded any project in the communities. Government feels less-concerned about their plight; now tell me why would the people not get angry and rise to demand their rights. Since the beginning of this crisis, the Imo State Government has failed to ask why people are dying, despite the fact that these same people voted them into power.
Would it not have been better for the people to make their demands through non-violent means and dialogue?
I believe that whichever way they make their grievances known to the public, it’s all about calling the attention of government and the oil companies operating in the communities. They should invite the people to learn about their plight. It is just what President Buhari is battling with the Avengers for today. And we, the stakeholders, are telling him not to address the issues with military might but through dialogue and now talking about how will it work, it is by calling on the youth and the oilbearing community leaders together to have a roundtable to find out the problems and what can be done to solve them. If not, all the efforts will come to nought. Government should act immediately along those terms discussed without delay to avoid a recurrence of those issues and crisis.
Are you saying that if these things are done the crisis will stop?
Yes, there must be relative peace and the boys will cooperate with the state and Federal governments because they must do something for a change to come by giving them what they are agitating for. It will solve the problem once and for all than neglecting them completely. It will stop the crisis. The youth of the communities saw their impoverished condition and rose against government and the oil companies’ neglect of the oilbearing communities regarding the provision of social amenities to them as host communities because they had failed to even fulfil the G.M.O.U reached between them and the oil companies.
Are you telling us that the communities have been deserted?
Yes, because of sporadic gunshots all over the place by the angry boys. We woke up one morning to the sound of gunshots and people began to run up and down. We were asking ourselves what was going on here. It happened that some group of people had surrounded the place. When we got to know what the issues were, we discovered that so many things had gone wrong. There were killings here and there, but to God be the glory, the situation is now a bit calm. Frankly speaking, we are appealing to government to prevail on the oil companies to fulfil their promises so that the communities will start to reap some benefits.
They have been cheating them for so long and for now, they are saying enough is enough and that they must protect their lands from destruction, rise for their rights, since the companies have failed to comply with the terms of the gentleman’s agreement reached with the five communities in the past.
Their demand is that they need aggressive development to change the life of every common man there. Before now, the speed at which they used to receive the agencies had reduced drastically. Because they discovered there is insincerity from the oil companies. They are insisting that the high sense of neglect, exploitation and exploration must stop.
Obviously, there are issues that need not to be stated, mostly issues that have to do with long stay of these oil companies and which have adversely affected people’s lives. The issues have to do with lands, the economic livewire of the people.
In a situation where result of high level of exploitation by the oil companies at the expense of the communities without development is highly staked, excavation has done a lot of harm to soil nutrients in the communities against the growing of food for the people and has depreciated the soil texture, resulting in poverty and natural disasters in the areas. There is need to improve people’s lives with regard to providing them social amenities like good road network, cottage hospital, market centres, education, skill acquisition and sundry empowerment programmes. If all these are done, it would help to end youth unrest in Nigeria. Government also contributes at least 70% to what all these communities are passing through today because these oil companies pay subventions and tax to the Federal, state and local governments in the areas where they operate as well as the leaders of the host communities, especially the traditional rulers in these areas. I advise Imo State and the Federal Government to address the yearnings of the people by ensuring that they bring about a fast development and execute projects in the affected communities of the Niger Delta region.