Septuagenarian author and community leader, Sandys Omadeli Uvwoh, has been an advocate for a peaceful and robustly developed Niger Delta. In this interview conducted in Warri, Delta State, Sandys advances the advocacy, saying the under-development suffered by communities in the oil – rich region is largely self-inflicted by Niger Deltans themselves, political office holders and community leaders in particular.
Much has been heard lately about your advocacy for a better oil producing Niger Delta, but you have been talking more on the failure of government and oil companies in developing the region. What about the internal stakeholders, Niger Deltans themselves. Don’t they share in the blame?
We do share in the failure, in quite significant proportion. As far as I am concerned, we failed ourselves. Should I start with the Jonathan’s era because we had the most opportunity to make change then? Jonathan was a President of Nigeria, not a President of the South – South. I won’t say Jonathan was a failure as a Niger Deltan. Rather, it was a collective failure of the leaders who enthroned him.
None of us during Jonathan’s era went to him to say this was what we needed in the best interest of Niger Delta and he refused. Rather, the political fathers, uncles, cousins and leaders were always going to him to make selfish demands which they got to the detriment of the common good. What they were impressing on him was, ‘this is my boy, give him appointment’. None has come up to say ‘we led a delegation to Jonathan and asked for this and that’.
How do you mean they achieved their selfish interests without bothering about collective interests?
I will not mention names. Some of the people who are billionaires and what have you today were nothing back in the 80s, in early 90s. They were practically nothing, some could not pay their rent, some had no cars, but they became men of means during the Ijaw and Itsekiri crisis. They came claiming, ‘Jonathan was my class mate’, ‘Jonathan was my co-worker,’ ‘Jonathan was my colleague in the university’. Nobody went to him and say, ‘Look, you have to develop this region’. Their primary interest was themselves and that was not the failure of Jonathan. That is why I said Jonathan did not fail us, rather we failed ourselves.
Are you then making excuses for him? There were basic expectations the people in the region had over his presidency?
If those with him never wanted the common good, how could he have succeeded? He supported existing structures and established other ones to make the task of changing Niger Delta achievable. He appointed his own brothers and charged them to drive the processes and made substantial funds available to them. What more could he have done?.
Do you think those uncles, brothers, friends, fathers, university mates and what have you, who helped him to fail, think of his era as failure as the ordinary Niger Deltan feel? They obviously don’t see any failure. They all had more than a handful. A man in such a state of mind wouldn’t term Jonathan a failure. They all succeeded in filling their pockets to the point of overflowing. Their personal successes were the failure of the larger Niger Delta.
Under the current dispensation, a lot has happened and the generality of Nigerians, groaning in worsening pains, are not so enthusiastic about President Muhammadu Buhari’s ‘change’ mantra anymore. Why do you still have so much faith in the administration?
In 1983 when Buhari came in as military head of state, there were appreciable changes he made. Some people complained he was hard, but for democracy to succeed anywhere in the world, the leadership must be resolute. This was where Jonathan failed. Some people said we had three Presidents in his time, he and two women. The man was a weak leader because he wanted to please everybody. He did not want to take the bull by the horn while people around cashed in on that weakness to rubbish his administration.
So you have absolute confidentce in Buhari?
No doubt about that. Development shouldn’t just be viewed in terms of physical development. You must instill sanity into the society. Where there is sanity, people now have conscience for physical development. The problem we are having is that we no longer have conscience. I have confidence in Buhari. I have not met him, but I believe he is committed to changing our ways of life. Anyone desirous of bringing positive change must change our ways of life. It cannot be business as usual.
Buhari is just the head of the executive. You don’t expect that he is the one to fix all the problems. For instance, you have senators, House of Reps members, heads of MDAs representing the region in the government. Do you have corresponding confidence in them to make the difference in resolving the Niger Delta question?
They are worse than our past leaders. Tell me, since 1999, have they fought for anything for the Niger Delta that truly satisfied the common good? They struggle to be ministers, for Board chairmanship, NASS Committee on Niger Delta, NDCC, want to be this, want to be that, but the primary interest for all that struggle should have been how to appropriate the votes for the common good. At the end of the day, in the midst of huge provision budgetary provisions, no development gets to the people. Stagnation reigns, but their personal estates and vaults witness astonishing development. You then see people that never had the opportunity of buying a third hand vehicle; by the time they get there, they become something else. That is why I said our politicians and those of us local leaders failed the region. For instance, there was crisis in the Niger Delta where you had all categories of fighters fighting for purported liberation of the region. For want of how to settle this, people went for Amnesty, saying our sons and daughters should be paid, sent abroad and, in doing that, we forgot about the cause of the fight or struggle. The same people who struggled and personalized the Amnesty to fill their pockets are the loudest voices saying Amnesty failed. What benefit did that give us with all the billions provided?
Look at what happened with the Boko Haram insurgency in the North-East. The people asked for a commission to be set up to develop the zone. They did not ask for amnesty, they did not ask for cash. They want the regeneration of the region because of the destruction they have suffered. You will now find out that the people have foresight. They know what they are doing because the leaders have concern for the common good.
I think human capital development, the kind former Governor Uduaghan was always harping on, is also necessary.
Harping on that is fine. Do you develop people to become idle? What did you put in place to make them useful to themselves and the society after training? It is like sending your son to school and, after graduation, he comes back to join you. So if you are a car washer, he will join you with his degree to become a car washer? What did you then achieve sending him to school? Why don’t you just leave him to have more car washing experience with all that time and money you spent sending him to school? When we say Niger Delta is not developed, you can’t rationalize development. Do we have a master plan for the development of the Niger Delta?
But the interventionist agencies, including the NDDC, are seen in many quarters as part of the master plan to develop the Niger Delta..
How masterful is that plan and how well is it being followed? The NDDC Committees in the National Assembly have been headed by lawmakers from the region. When NDDC drafts its budget, do they verify the past projects to determine what has been executed or not? I bet they rather struggle to pad the proposed budget to suit their interests; then we say projects are abandoned. What have they done to ensure we don’t have abandoned projects? We are the problem of the Niger Delta.
What about the Niger Delta states? They get money based on derivation and have established oil commissions. How well are they playing their roles?
I should be asking the media which sings their praises amid their failure almost all the time. That is what I am saying, that the problem is internal and the states share a lot in the failure. We get allocations from the federal government, we generate funds internally, what have they done with it?
They are commissioning roads and all that.
What roads? Roads you commission today, tomorrow it is washed off by rain; is that what you call development? Put together, the annual budget and accrued income of the six core producing states – Delta, Akwa-Ibom, Edo, Bayelsa, Cross Rivers and Rivers – is almost one trillion naira. Do you see anything commensurate being delivered to the people? Delta is saying its wage bill alone amounts to seven billion and currently they claim they barely get three billion from the federation account. They are not so open-minded about IGR. They are now saying the wage bill alone overshoots what they get, but when they were getting ten, fifteen billion, what were they doing with it? One problem we have had as a government is that most of the governors rose from poor background. They are like children from poor background who didn’t feed well. By the time they get to the rich man’s house, they rush at food like they must eat all the food there so as to have something in reserve for tomorrow or probably for the rest of their lives. That is what is happening to some of our governors. They come to the Government Houses not to develop the people, but to compete for how much they can make after their four or eight years.
Delta State had said through the Chief Job Creation Office that the current government has been able to create thousands of direct and indirect jobs.
That one is like a child is crying of hunger and you gave him something to keep quiet without thinking of how to stop this cry tomorrow or next tomorrow. Those are fire brigade jobs. They are never sustainable, not verifiable beyond the media hype.
Let’s talk about the role of oil producing communities. Are they conducting themselves well?
If you have read my book, Thinking Ahead, I stated there that we have some honorables, community leaders who don’t care about their community. All they believe in is how to benefit at the expense of the larger community. And these people get the backing of government to shortchange the people. Since 1999 to date, government at all tiers has not come to commission even a project of N5million in Ugborodo, for instance. Rather, they come to commission problems.
How do you mean?
They will not develop the communities. Neither will they ask the oil companies to meet their social responsibility to the communities? All they are concerned about is how to collect revenue. They even encourage crime in the communities. Again, let’s go back to Ugborodo where government set up a peace committee from the two factions fighting. One principal actor alleged that the other is corrupt in the community’s leadership. That is the cause of the fight which has left the larger community suffering. In the guise of restoring peace, government created a peace committee with the principal actors as members. If they unite, to whose advantage is it? The poor sense of security in the state is another cause for worry. It is either the security agencies are not alive to their responsibility or government is not showing enough support. Something must be done about it.
Your last response speaks to a basic question. Are Niger Delta states doing enough with their security vote? Apart from appointing the Director General of Internal Security, Delta, for instance, has Waterways and Land Security Committee. Meanwhile, the same government also instituted an advocacy committee headed by the deputy governor to go into the creeks to calm the Avengers to no avail. How needful are these committees and scarce resources being spent on them?
Do you know when that Security Committee visited Ugborodo, there was a protest against the Director General of Internal Security. The deputy governor was there and in a responsible society, he would have asked to know why the community protested against the DG. Up till today, nothing has changed.
Then when you talk about the Avengers, I am concerned whether they are right or wrong. What are they avenging by destroying their own environment? If I am in their position, I would rather do bunkering, refine the oil in my backyard and sell it and if the federal government comes, I will tell them i get this in my back yard and I am not benefiting from it and this is the right way I can benefit from it. What you are supposed to benefit from, you are destroying, that, to me, is self-destruction.
Even the colonial masters recognized traditional governing structures in our communities when they came to impose their imperialist rule. The moment you respect each community’s mode of governance, you will get sustainable peace for development. Where you impose touts as leaders in the name of politics at the expense of the community across the region, peace and security become elusive no matter how much security vote or military personnel you have on ground.