BY HARRISON AKAMULE
ATTAINING the dreamed Nigeria is everyone’s responsibility, irrespective of the person’s profession. Besides, most Nigerians dream big of their country, even though they are also quick to admit to the fact of their disappointment at the slow pace of growth and development of the Nigerian Project. What are the issues that dog the project and stall its attainment of its full potentials? Our correspondent, Harrison Akamule, in Sapele, Delta State, met Mr. Philip Gbasin, met with whom he had a chat on the state of the nation, Nigeria. The former Star Trust Investment Limited General Manager, former staff, Chevron Nigeria Limited, and now Executive Director, Project, Delta State Oil Producing Areas Development Commission (DESOPADEC), community relations expert and eminent journalist did not hesitate to critically look at the country and make daring comments on sundry issues, including true federalism and how it would help erode the perceived marginalization of certain critical segments of the stakeholders in the Nigerian project. His responses are presented in excerpts.
May we know you, Sir?
My name is Philip Gbasin, currently an Executive Director of Projects of the Delta State Oil Producing Areas Development Commission (DESOPADEC). I was a former staff of Chevron Nigeria Limited and worked as a community relations expert.
The President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari recently said the unity of Nigeria cannot be negotiated. What is your take on that comment, sir?
Mr. President has a right to his opinion, just like any other Nigerian. His opinion has a lot of weight because of the position he occupies. I believe that his fears are probably that Nigeria is going to break up. But if it is just about the unity of Nigeria, I want to say the unity of Nigeria can be negotiated, should be negotiated and the time for it is right now. Significantly, this is the first time in Nigeria, when, from every region, we are having vocal voices talking about restructuring this country. Another reason we should talk that about the unity of Nigeria is that, at independence, the present structure of Nigeria was negotiated.
What in your opinion makes negotiation that you are talking about so imperative?
Let me go back to some of the issues that emerged from some of the constitutional conferences. In 1954 or thereabout, it was recommended in one of the conferences that Nigeria should have independence in 1959 and then Henry Willinks, in a report, said some critical issues will not make independence in 1959 possible. These, among others, were issues raised by minorities, especially minorities of the Niger Delta. Among the vocal groups that took part in that conference was the Ijaw led by late Pa Dappa Biriye. They raised a fundamental issue that the Niger Delta terrain was a unique terrain with all the challenges that people in the East, West and North did not understand or found difficult to understand. That is why they made a serious case for development. They feared that the Westerners, Easterners, Northerners will not have the will power to develop the Niger Delta. Of course, that is what led to the recommendation for the establishment of the Niger Delta River Basin Development Authority. But, at independence, the government now established several River Basin Development Authorities which were well funded at the expense of the only one that emerged from the Constitutional Conference, that is, the Niger Delta River Basin Development Authority. Besides, the reason why the unity of Nigeria should be negotiated is that, while we have the Federal Ministry of Works that addresses basic infrastructural development in other parts of Nigeria, they rather set up development agencies for the Niger Delta and these developmental agencies are not even properly funded according to law but according to the discretion of the president of the day.
What is the recipe you would proffer for Nigeria’s unity at a negotiating table?
It amazes me when the government says they are trying to negotiate with Avengers. The issue on the ground now in Nigeria is beyond Avengers. Like I said, Avengers are a mere manifestation of resistance to the injustice posed by the bastardisation of true federalism. What Mr. President should be doing is to call stakeholders and review the structure of the country – the present federal structure. I think those were some of the things the last national conference was supposed to address, that Mr. President felt that the money was wasted. Along the line, the Vice President said they are already picking some items. We cannot do it piecemeal. Let’s address it once and for all. The North is talking about the restructuring of this country, the East is talking about it, the West is talking of it. Youths of the Niger Delta are already taking to arms struggle because of federalism. The solution now is the practice of true federalism, restructuring of this country according to geopolitical interests, according to regional interest, according to nationality interests. Every national interest was protected during the constitutional conference that led to the independence of Nigeria but today, it’s like the voice of the minorities cannot be heard again. So, the solution is for Mr. President to summon the will power and the courage to call for a stakeholders’ conference to negotiate the present structure and unity of Nigeria.
Are you suggesting regional government?
I think we have options. If we practise the present federal structure the way it is in the US from where we copied it, we may not have the same challenges that we are having. Alternatively, we could also have regional governments. We have six regions. The intention of these regions was actually to have regional governments; it wasn’t just to map out some geo-political zones. It was to have regional governments where powers devolve to the regions and the regions now begin to manage their resources. So, we have two options. Either we have regional government or we practice true federalism.
Sir, looking at the state of the nation, how can we work on the economy to improve it?
Well, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) governor recently painted a very gloomy picture of the situation and some people were trying to crucify him; that he was scaring investors and I think that poses a lot of questions on how the present economic situation is being managed. The CBN is very key in the economic development of any nation and is also very key in analysing the present and future situations. The Ministry of Finance came and was sounding a voice that was at variance with that of CBN. I think for now, if what the CBN governor said is anything to go by, it means more or less like, there is a state of emergency in the economy of the nation. I’ll suggest to Mr. President to form a broad-based economic team that is not political, that will not be fighting political opponents. A broad-based economic team comprising the Ministry of Finance, CBN and other key players in the oil sector, manufacturing sector…that will be made up of professionals. When Jonathan was in power, he believed that he didn’t know everything, so he raised an economic team headed by the Minister of Finance, Dr. (Mrs.) Ngozi Ikonjo-Iweala and he made her Coordinating Minister of the Economy and because of her charisma, experience and her tentacles to the international community, investors were still rushing down to this country. Nigeria got a record of being the 20th biggest economy in the world and the No. 1 investment destination in Africa because of the calibre of people that were there.
As one coming from the oil industry where you worked for several years, would you describe the relationship between the oil companies and their host communities as cordial and mutually beneficial?
I will not be able to speak for all the oil companies; but so far, we have not had a major, critical challenge after the amnesty programme, arising from strained relationship between the oil companies and the host communities. That has not been a real issue. Even though we see militants attacking oil facilities, it is not a grudge between them and the communities. It is more or less a face-off between aggrieved persons in the Niger Delta and the Federal Government. I worked in the oil industry before. In Chevron, we had a very strong policy. I say it at the risk of repetition that Chevron has a very good rapport with the oil communities, based on the Global Memorandum of Understanding (GMOU). And because of that, Chevron has a very good rapport with the communities. And because that model was good, key players in the industry, especially the International Oil Companies, IOCs, came to copy that model, even though with some adjustments in the establishment and or in the implementation. And the Senate Committee in 2009 verified and recommended it as a model, even though its original intention was to cancel all GMOUs. But when they visited projects executed under GMOU and looked at the structure, they recommended it as a benchmark, as best practice in the oil industry! So, I believe that the oil companies and communities may have flashes of disagreement here and there but it has not become a national issue.
Most times, we see oil companies live in opulence while the host communities, some a few metres away, live in darkness and abject poverty. What can oil companies do to change that scenario?
Under the joint Venture (JV) agreement between the oil companies and government, there is no obligation on the part of the oil companies towards developing the oil-producing communities. I think what we should address are actually the Joint-Venture (JV) agreements. That’s one. The biggest one is the law of the country that transfers the ownership of land of the oil communities to the Federal Government. The Land Use Decree that was adopted as the Land Use Act specifically made the host communities as people who have no lands. Whereas the ownership status of the land of these communities is older than the Nigerian entity, the Land Use Act now made them to be strangers in their own land. So, I think that the real issue, which the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) should address, is to really see the host communities as stakeholders and owners of the land where the oil is produced. Nigeria is about the only place where you find a law that says land where oil is found belongs to Nigeria!
The kick-off of the Nigerian Maritime University, Okerenkoko, is a demand by the Niger Delta Avengers for peace. What else in your opinion is key to making them sheathe their swords and defer to the dialogue proposed by the Federal Government?
The Nigerian Maritime University, Okerenkoko, is just one item. It’s possible the restoration of the Maritime University will bring temporary relief. I can’t rule that out. But if you also look very well, the issue of true federalism is also on the front burner. Any solution we want to find must be permanent, rather than the temporary measure Nigeria is unfortunately wont to seeking. If there is true federalism or regional government, the issue of Maritime University becomes a regional issue. With true federalism, Delta State has the capacity to finance many other universities. And there is no reason why none of the universities we have in this country is located in the core oil producing areas which are mainly in the riverine areas. So, restoration of the Maritime University may not be the only condition that will bring total relief; it is only part of the package. The biggest one is true federalism, so that we do not have to contend with amnesty today and amnesty tomorrow, due to reliance on palliative measures.
It has been said in several quarters that Niger Delta leaders have not properly administered allocations that come to the region to develop the area. What is your take on that?
First, let’s look at the issue like this. What is your right is your right. It’s also your right to manage what is your right, and manage it very well. We cannot give 100 per cent pass mark to Niger Delta leaders in managing the resources that have come their way. But there are leaders who have shown good performance, too, across the region in Bayelsa, Delta, Edo, Akwa-Ibom, Rivers and Cross Rivers States. But sometimes, it amazes me that people whose states have not contributed one kobo to the economy begin to ask: What do you do with the 13 per cent derivation money? Well, 13 per cent means that somebody is taking 87 per cent. So, what have you done with the 87 per cent that you don’t contribute to? The people whose areas do not contribute one kobo to the economy of this country are often sadly the loudest in asking such questions? Whoever comes to equity must come with clean hands before you begin to raise issues. Yes, … we cannot give Niger Delta leaders 100 per cent performance, but that is not to say that what belongs to me, somebody else should decide whether I am doing well or not before giving it to me. That is not acceptable.
Sir, let’s look at the Petroleum Industry Bill lying in the National Assembly for some time now. What would you advise about the PIB?
The politics of the PIB is big. Firstly, I can tell you authoritatively that until the oil industry is satisfied with certain sections, or issues, clauses, in fact every clause, it will not see the light of day or be implemented. So, it is not the National Assembly that is the issue; it is mainly about the oil companies not being satisfied with certain provision