The new National Chairman of Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF), Senator Emmanuel Ibok Essien, has decried what he termed the utter neglect of the Niger Delta. He told Saturday Sun that the Federal Government has been treating the South- South as a conquered people. But he warned, ‘we are not conquered.’
In an interview with VINCENT KALU, Essien, a member of the Board of Trustees of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) who represented Akwa Ibom North-West Senatorial District between 1999 and 2003 in the National Assembly, warned that only equity, justice and fair play could save Nigeria from destruction.
The country is passing through difficult times with insecurity ravaging everywhere in the North and South. What gave rise to all these?
In one sentence, it is bad governance. Bad governance is what is giving rise to crimes. When the youths are not engaged or you engage them during elections; you armed them for election purposes, and at the end of the day they are neglected; nobody cares for them. What will they do? You have already given them arms and ammunition, and with that they attack innocent citizens. Because they are also looking for their own livelihood, the arms become the means of their livelihood without considering the consequences of those crimes they are committing. This is the problem.
Take kidnapping for instance, when people found out that if you kidnap person, for instance and you will be paid ransom in millions; you find out that at the end of the day, people resort to kid- napping just to collect ransom. If the government had taken a clear stand on youth development in terms of education, in terms of human capital development, in terms of developing the proper infrastructure in the country, things wouldn’t have gone so bad. For example,if you do proper construction, you will engage a lot of people, and these people will be gainfully employed. As an engineer, each time, I’m doing a job at the site; you find out that some of those youths working there do as much as ten or 20 bags of cement in a day. They collect N500 per bag. If somebody does 20 bags a day, it is N10, 000. Those who do that kind of work become so tired in the evening and they have a hope for another N10, 000 tomorrow. All they need to do is probably take some pain relieving drugs and then go to sleep to prepare for tomorrow, but when there is no work, no opportunity you just find the youths roaming the streets. These are the problems and you can sum them up to bad governance.
How can we come out of this quagmire?
What we all need is good governance. That is a government that cares for the people; a government that develops infrastructure. If you are going to Aba from Ikot Ekpene, the road is so bad that the youths come out and block the road and collect money from every vehicle plying the road. But if the government has done the road, that wouldn’t be happening. It is the same thing on Calabar – Itu road. At every three or four kilometre, you find these youths blocking the road and claiming that they were the ones repairing the road. So you should give them money before you pass. The solution is good governance.
Can we say this ‘good governance’ you talked about has eluded Nigeria because APC that is in power blames PDP for not enthroning good governance for the 16 years it ruled? In the same vein, people are blaming the ruling party for poor governance. Who should Nigeria hold responsible?
If APC government found out that PDP wasn’t doing well and people voted for them on the premise that they were coming to do well, shouldn’t it be an encouragement for them to do well? The question is: Are they doing well and the answer is no. I’m not even talking as any party man now. The answer is no because you look at it from 2015 till now, the situation is get- ting very frustrating and worse by the day. Look at the prices of food items, the fuel. What can we write home about? Even before the pandemic, we went into recession in 2016. It is a very big problem for the country. All we need to do is to pray to God and vote a leadership that will be interested in this country. We need somebody with God to repair this country.
PANDEF, after its meeting last week, issued a communiqué, in which you asked the Federal Government to return the money seized from Ibori to Delta State. But during the Ibori trial, Delta government then said their money was not missing. How do you explain that?
The truth remains that everybody knows that Ibori was governor of Delta State. Before he became governor, he was not accused of taking or having that kind of money or things being seized from him and he was not a federal minister. He was governor of Delta, the chief accounting officer of the state. So, even if some people at that time felt that they wanted to protect their son, which was not necessary, but commonsense tells everybody that the money belongs to Delta and it should be returned to the state or at least if it is the Federal Government that should spend the money, they should spend it on projects in Delta State or in the Niger Delta Region at worst. They should not take that money after taking money from SUKUK to fund Ibadan- Lagos Express- way; the same thing on Abuja- Kano road and Second Niger Bridge and nothing is spent on Delta State. It is absolutely wrong.
You criticized the Federal Executive Council for the approval of the reconstruction of Abuja-Kaduna- Zaria- Kano road at an outrageous amount of N797 billion, saying roads in the South-South Region are abandoned. How do you mean?
Justice, equity and fairness is just what this country needs. If we from the South-South that is producing over 80 per cent of the resources of this country are neglected completely, then it is unfortunate. You cannot go from Aba to Calabar; you cannot go from Edo through Warri on East-West Road to Calabar, but you hear that N797 billion is to be spent on Abuja- Kaduna- Zaria-Kano Road, I weep for this country. The kind of injustice that is going on is not good for this country, it can destroy this nation. It is being done as if there is nobody in the region, as if we can do nothing. If we cannot do anything, God can do something; it is not right.
The Minister of Niger Delta said he is trying to take N15 billion as palliative for the East – West road. What is N15 billion on that road, when the Imo River Bridge was not completed? That money is not even enough for the bridge much less of doing any other section of the road. Again, the portion from Oron, Eket to Calabar, nothing has happened. It is over 15 years when this contract was awarded, it bleeds our hearts. You cannot go to Calabar from Aba; it is a death trap. The other day, nine people died on Calabar-Ikot Ekpene road when a tanker had an accident with some vehicles because of the bad road. We used to spend 45 minutes from Ikot Ekpene to Calabar in the late 80s and early 90s, but now we use six hours from Ikot Ekpene to Calabar if you are lucky to get to Calabar. On the first Sunday of this month, we had a church service in Calabar, and we used six hours to get to Calabar and to come back we used another six hours. We left 6am and got to Calabar 12 noon, had the service for about two hours and started coming back. Before I got to my house, it was about 9pm, and you are saying you want to spend N797 billion on Abuja- Kaduna- Zaria- Kano road. It is the height of injustice.
Why do you think the East-West Road is being abandoned, even as other roads are being done with loans and recovered Abacha loot?
They are looking at the Niger Delta people as a conquered people. But we are not a conquered people. We pray that they don’t look at us like that. For six years, nothing happened on that road. You find out that all the looted funds they recovered, they will say it is for Ibadan- Lagos road. Chinese loan, that same place. SUKUK bond, that same place. And there is nothing for the Niger Delta people, and yet over 80 per cent of the resources come from the region. We are not a conquered people.
With the neglect of the Niger Delta by the government, what should PANDEF under your leadership be doing?
We will engage all stakeholders in the Niger Delta and Nigeria and let them see reasons why they have to take a second look at the development of the Niger Delta. We will engage them in dialogue, I like peaceful negotiation, and so we will engage them in peaceful negotiations. PANDEF will do it under my leadership.
Afenifere, Ohanaeze, PANDEF, Middle Belt Forum and others have been talking about restructuring as the way forward for the nation’s development for years now, but the president doesn’t believe in it. What should be your next line of action?
My take is that engagement must continue and I’m happy that the leaders of Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) are subscribing to the re- structuring of the country. That was almost about the first time that such a statement came out from ACF. It means that all these socio-cultural organisations of elders and statesmen are com- ing together to look at the real problems because if there is problem and nobody looks at it to ad- dress it, it will explode and consume everybody. We don’t want it to happen in Nigeria. So, I believe that when we have a meeting of all these regions, we draw up our own proposal for the government and the government must listen to the people. I’m of the opinion since almost all the regions are accepting and seeing restructuring as the way forward for Nigeria, I believe that God will see us through.
Many are still confused over the meaning. Some ask whether it means going back to old regions, as we had in the First Republic. Others ask what the federating units should be and the issue of power devolution? What is your position on this?
The federating units should be the states, that is our proposal, and then the resources generated from each state will be proportionately shared as it was done in 1960 up to 1966. It will be properly structured in such a way that the central government is being funded appropriately by the state and each state will retain not less than 50 per cent of what it generates. It is a good thing because it will encourage every state to be productive. If you look at what happened pre 1966, before the coup and before the unitary government. In the North, you see the groundnuts pyramid and they produced adequate food, which sustained the region. Ahmadu Bello University was established from such funds. In the East, palm produce, raffia produce, rubber, timber, etc was what was used to fund the region, and it was used to build the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. There was no oil then. The same thing with the West, they built University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, and other things from Cocoa and other produce. Also, Mid West established the University of Benin. So, you can see that each region was doing something and the central government was also doing something. It will make each state very productive. This complete reliance on the federal government is making everybody idle and waiting for allocation from oil money at the end of every month to spend even on things that are unnecessary. Then you find corruption taking a centre stage in the country because people just want to eat without work- ing. That is the problem. So, I think devolution of power to the states, revenue allocation will make the state independent and then everybody will now contribute to the central government. That is what is happening to the federations in the world, except Nigeria.
Towards the build up to 2023 elections, some Northerners say that power remains in the North; Southerners vow that power must rotate to their region. The Southeast posits that if there is equity, justice and fair play, it should produce the president. What is your view on this issue?
Each party has its own constitution and it depends on what the constitution says. If the constitution of a party says that power should rotate between North and South, it should uphold the constitution. If it says, let’s look for the best wherever he may come from, so be it. It depends on the party. If APC says by its constitution, it should pick from the North again; they will do that. If PDP says they want to go to the South, they should follow that because it is in their constitution. The polity does not give room for independent candidate, if it did anybody from anywhere and with majority votes can win; it is good and fair.