By Juliana Taiwo-Obalonye
Bassey Ewa-Henshaw, is from Cross River State in South South Nigeria. He was elected as senator in the 5th (2003–2007) National Assembly representing Cross River South Senatorial District, and was re-elected in April 2007 on the platform of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)
He served on many committees while at the Senate and was also the Chairman of the Board of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC).
In this interview, he spoke on the recent United Nations report that said the people of Bakassi were on the verge of being declared stateless among others.
You were among the Niger Delta delegation that visited the President recently, what was your take away from that meeting apart from the official angle in the media?
Well, the meeting was cordial and I could read the willingness of the president to dialogue. So, I think the only thing is for him to decide who he will send to represent him in the dialogue with leaders of the Niger Delta and look at the list of the items that has been put forward. I recognize the fact that some items put forward were denied and some youth groups were not properly represented. I will just say the leaders of the Niger Delta should just try and create more inclusive group and make sure that everybody is properly represented. And more so to ensure that all views and all desires are properly accommodated.
Since the meeting, there has been more incidences of bombing up of oil facilities; that means there is need for more urgency in starting this dialogue and trying to show some purpose in that direction, in things that will help build confidence and trust on all sides so that some level of progress can be made.
But why have we different groups coming to talk on the same issue even when we were made to believe that the Pan Niger Delta Group was an all inclusive platform that visited the president?
For me, the challenge is for the Niger Delta people themselves to understand that it is important for them to show a united front because that has been a major criticism or allegation of government trying to divide. If I am the government, I won’t want to speak to many different groups because you will not be able to make any progress. So, it is in the interest of the people of the Niger Delta to understand that it is imperative for them to come together and speak with one voice. And even if there have been omissions in terms of representation or in terms of articulations, the important thing should be to come back and identify those areas as a group and ensure that those omitted are included, those articulations are also included and continue to work as a single body. I think too many different groups going to the president and talking on the same issues send a very wrong and bad signal that the people are not serious and are not prepared for dialogue. It is important we recognize this and try to avoid it.
But what will you encourage the government to do right now?
The government itself should not encourage too many different groups; it is not in its best interest to do so. If there is one group that is big enough, it should encourage that group and encourage those outside that group to get into that group and let the group be inclusive of everybody. Dealing with two three different groups also sends a bad signal on the part of government. I have heard a lot of people say the government is trying to divide the people by meeting different groups. I don’t believe that is the intention. But to avoid that type of situation, everybody that wants to see the government should be encouraged to go to the larger forum and also encourage the forum to ensure all interests and all views are accommodated so that when government wants to speak, it will be speaking to one set of people representing all interests and so that if it makes progress, it will be seen as all inclusive.
Some of the Bakassi indigenes opted to go to Cameroon under the Green Tree Agreement; in fact, some of them led by their chief came to the interactive session former President Goodluck Jonathan had with Nigerians living in Cameroon during his visit?
First of all, the Green Tree Agreement was fundamentally flawed. And also even the judgement of the International Court of Justice was fundamentally flawed and I will give you reasons why. One, the judgement of the International Court of Justice was based on the 1914 Anglo-German Treaty. That treaty if you read the Memorandum of Prince Linchnowsky, who was the German ambassador to Britain between 1912 and 1914; the man who authored the treaty, Prince Linchnowsky, said the treaty was ready but was never signed. It is a non-existent treaty. They had talked about it, worked on it but it was never signed before the First World War broke out in 1914. So, the court judgement was based on a treaty that was never signed. That is the first point.
The second point is that, at the end of the Second World War, there was a Treaty of Versailles in which the Germans having been defeated were compelled to renounce all their rights in the territories, that came I think in 1918. So, first of all you said you no longer have rights over these territories and you gave a judgement that goes back before the treaty to say that place was given to the Germans, the Germans had ceded their rights under the Treaty of Versailles. So, the German rights have been ceded during the Second World War.
Thirdly, we are in the 21st century where people are supposed to be the ones determining their fate. When the Scottish decided they wanted to leave England they conducted a referendum, why were the people of Bakassi not given a chance to choose where they want to belong. In the 21st century based on a 1913 treaty, that was not signed to deprive the people the rights to their land, so how fair is that? What is the international community trying to say that we have two different standards? One for the people of Africa particularly the people of Bakassi and one for the Europeans.
Four, the United Nations Convention of Human Rights, I will like to quote it. The United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights in its preamble says: “This General Assembly proclaims this United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all people and nations to the end that every individual and every organ of society keeping this declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and dedication to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures national and international to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance both by people of member states themselves and among the people under territories and jurisdiction.
Members of United Nations by this declaration are under obligation to ensure that they do everything to respect the articles of the declaration. As it is, everyone has a right to a nationality and yet a representative of the UN is telling us and the world that the people of Bakassi are under threat of being nationless.
The place I read is Article 15(1). Article 15(2) says: No one shall arbitrarily be deprived of his nationality or denied the rights to change his nationality. What has happened to Bakassi? The people of Bakassi have been arbitrarily taken away from their land. Some of them wanted to go back to their land even though it’s been given away to the Cameroon but the Cameroonians themselves are maltreating them and that is why you find them saying that they don’t want to be under Cameroonian sovereignty; we are Nigerians, we want to remain Nigerians, our land belongs to us, our land was part of Nigeria, has been part of Nigeria and Nigeria is just watching them suffering in refugee camps.
Five, in 1961, there was a referendum in southern Cameroon for the people to decide where they want to belong, Cameroon or Nigeria. If you take a look at the result of that referendum, you will find that the people around the area called Bakassi all voted heavily to remain in Nigeria. Somebody in the British Foreign Office or with the British government simply decided that the result of the referendum should be taken globally and not by provinces or areas. So, the population in the French area presumes to overwhelm the people in the Bakassi area that decided to remain in Nigeria.
So, when you look at all of these issues, the only conclusion is that the people of Bakassi have been subjected to a fraudulent and unfortunate treatment to deprive them of their land, the rights for them to decide where they belong and the rights for them to settle freely. They cannot go fishing because as you must have read, the Cameroonians have been harassing them, seizing their fishing gear, beating them up, raping their women and all sorts of things. So, how can the people leave under these conditions and because they refuse to live under these conditions, the Nigerian government and the people of Nigeria, decide to watch them remain refugees in their own country.
Away from Bakassi, a lot of people have expressed misgivings about President Buhari’s style of governance and they believe his policies are responsible for the state Nigeria is in now which has seen a lot of job loss, companies shutting down etc. Do you agree?
Well, I don’t know if his policies are responsible for the state Nigeria is in now but President Buhari did not cause the recession. He came into office at a time oil prices plummeted and Nigeria was for all intent and purposes significantly dependent on oil sales. So, when you combine the classic drop of oil price from over $100 per barrel to more than 50 per cent, less than $50 per barrel and the drop in total production because of militancy in the Niger Delta region, it is completely beyond his control. So, I don’t blame him for it. But I think what a lot of people are looking at today, is what policy is he putting in place to try and ameliorate the situation.
In any recession, the only way to deal with it is investment in physical development, infrastructure but there is no money. So, the question is how do you generate revenue. Let me just back track a little bit, part of the problem why we lack the money is that the governors must accept responsibility for where Nigeria finds herself today. Because I remember clearly I was one of those that initiated the first bills urging my time in the Senate to talk about savings in the future, but the governors kept threatening the presidency, at a point they went to court up to the Supreme Court to challenge the need to save.
As for individuals, so it is with nations, if you do not save for the rainy day, when that rain comes you are going to be drenched. And this is where we are today. The governors refused to allow us save and they have to take responsibility for it; there is no two ways about it.
But having said that, I know a lot of people have argued about allowing the Naira to float, devaluing the Naira to attract investment for me is a difficult take. I understand the economic logic of allowing your currency to float if you are a manufacturing and an exporting country. But what does Nigeria export, how much do we manufacture that devaluing our Naira will make any difference? Also our revenue from oil accounts for about 90 to 95 percent of our foreign exchange earnings. So, how much will you devalue the Naira to have an impact where the export of other commodities is between five and 10 per cent. That is for me the worry. The major export which is oil is already denominated in dollars, so we are gaining nothing.
Devaluation is to encourage the export of other products that are Naira based and that unfortunately we only have five to 10 per cent. So, the impact of devaluation in terms of improving export is minimal, what it does is what we are all experiencing now, inflation. Everything goes up because you have to buy your food, clothing, everything in Naira. Even to travel if you have to pay in Naira, you are now paying double to three times, so people are suffering from inflation because of devaluation.
I think that government should try and look at going into public private partnership policy and pursue it more vigorously. Apart from the fact that we should try as much as possible and push for this dialogue with the Niger Delta so as to achieve maximum oil output and sales that will generate more income for us in the short term, public private partnership will require less investment from government and more participation by the private sector. So, the amount of money the government needs to put out will be reduced. And it can be done in so many areas, one in the travel airline industry.