Ben Okoro is the Moderator of Ijaw Nation Forum. He speaks on developmental challenges facing the Niger Delta region and need for the Federal Government to address the issues.
Ijaw Nation Forum was part of the groups that recently organised a peace workshop ahead of Bayelsa State governorship election scheduled for November 16. What inspired the initiative?
Primarily, it is to ensure that we have a violence-free election. We want to make sure that we effect a peaceful and credible election by making sure that no one loses a soul. We want to sensitise our people that we really need to put the past method of electing our leaders behind us. This time around, we will ensure that violence-prone candidate is not given a chance in this election.
And how has the response of the political class to this laudable initiative been?
There was a lot of effort on ground here in Yenagoa and also through different networks outside Yenagoa to reach out to the politicians. I can tell you that I actually made a call to Abuja to reach out to one of our frontline politicians to attend the programme. Those who didn’t show up must have their reasons for not attending the workshop. It could be that the notice was short. Our original objective was to reach out to the arrowheads and the aspirants until it became clear to me that technically there was no aspirant. There were a few of them who sent apologies that they won’t be able to make it.
Then, what is the hope that the message of peace you are trying to preach will reach them?
I believe that some of the guys that attended the event will carry the message to those ones who could not make it. And, of course, this cannot be the end of it. From the feedback we already got from some of the speakers, we still have work to do. But we will reach out to those individuals. We will communicate with them about the outcome of the workshop and other feedbacks they gave to us. It’s important we do that. We are also going to take the message to the lower strata of the society.
Do you think the current peace in the Niger Delta region is sustainable?
I think that we are getting to a burble point in the sustainability of peace in the Niger Delta region. You can see people threatening left right and centre. I am not saying those threats will happen, but the government must address some the challenges very quickly so that it doesn’t explode in our face. Right now, it is relatively peaceful. But the truth is that there are so many vices going on because of the level of hunger. Some of those vices are just like something waiting to explode. To really maintain and sustain the peace, government needs to quickly address the problem of unemployment. Idle hands can be used for anything. You know what happened in Port Harcourt with the problem of cultists. Gradually, those behaviours have filtered into the entire region. I am from Patani; the king’s mother and her sister were abducted for 27 days. It has never happened in my place like that before. If they don’t deal with unemployment, the issue of sustainability will not be there.
Would you say the region has fared well under this regime of President Muhammadu Buhari?
Quite honestly, I wouldn’t say the region has fared well under this administration. They have sustained some of the programmes and I must give them credit for that. At the beginning, there was controversy as to whether or not amnesty programme would be cancelled but they have sustained it along with some other programmes that are ongoing. But talking seriously, I really didn’t see the government tackling the serious issues in the region. Look at the Ogoni cleanup, it just started with so much rumbling. I think government is not doing enough.
Do you see restructuring as a solution to the mirage of problems facing the country?
Restructuring will be an answer, but it won’t solve all the problems. If it is done with fiscal federalism, it will go a long way. But there is no one single answer that will fix all the problems at once.
Would you also take the president seriously for his words to support true federalism?
Based on the observation in the last four years, I will be a little doubtful. Remember, a lot of work was done on the 2014 confab. But what was his answer? He said he was not going to look at it. From his antecedents, I am not very hopeful.
What are the issues you think the aspirants for this governorship election should put in the front burner?
The politicians need to win back the trust of the people they are governing. Like one of the youths who attended the programme spoke said, this thing can be different if the politicians can do what they are supposed to do. They should go to the grassroots and town halls and meet with the people at the grassroots directly and develop some relationship with them. They should engage with them and allow them to say the things that pinch them. We must emphasis the reason we must not lose anybody throughout the election period. If that happens, the things we are talking about will begin to show.
By and large, people have been talking about devolution of power to the local governments. Do you think there is adequate manpower at the local level to improve service delivery?
My honest answer is no. I support the agitation for devolution of power but the managers of local governments need to change certain things in the way they run the administration. They need to change their normal thinking. This will not just come by fiat or by law. There should be a programme to actually reorient them.