Chief Anabs Sara-Igbe is the Coordinator, South-South Elders’ Forum and a prominent Niger Delta activist. In this interview with DENNIS NAKU, he echoes the opinion of the region on the unrestricted mining of gold in Zamfara State, the National Water Resources Bill and other burning national issues
What do you think about the unrestricted mining of gold in Zamfara State viz-a-viz what is happening with oil refining in the Niger Delta?
These are some of the issues that made us in the Niger Delta region work together with the Afenifere, Ohanaeze Ndigbo and the middle-belt to insist on restructuring. There are two sets of law. The Petroleum Act and the Mining Act. While one set of law allows those who are doing mining to go there, mine and take the money all for themselves, the other law restricts the people from mining the oil found on their land, in their soil and they cannot even go near it. Soldiers are deployed to go after those asking or agitating for benefits and the people suffer the pollution. We have several cases of mining; if you go to Kogi State, you will see people mining iron, people mining granite, people mining marble. All kinds of mineral resources are being mined up North.
They can declare them illegal miners but nobody has ever been jailed for mining. Whereas in the South here, those who are involved in petroleum have been accused, jailed or killed. We are calling for restructuring, because we believe that Nigeria is blessed. Every part of this country is blessed with one mineral resource or the other. There is no mineral that is not in Nigeria, including uranium, which is one of the best minerals that is used in atomic energy. We have them in Nigeria. We have gold and gold is costlier than oil. We have zinc, we have iron ore, all kinds.
Even in the past we were importing mud for drilling but today we have sufficient mud locally. We were importing cement before, but today we are no longer importing cement. We are producing cement locally. And who is doing the mining? These are people who are not authorised by the government and who are not paying any royalty to the government. The royalty goes to the villagers around them and their states. That is why today, Zamfara can come and say they have gold that they want to sell to the Central Bank of Nigeria for $5bn.
If we in the South-South are also allowed to explore our crude oil and pay tax, I think that will be very important. We are talking about fiscal federalism. If we have fiscal federalism today, nobody will bother whether Zamfara mines her gold or Kogi mines her gypsum or Sokoto mines gypsum. Restructuring is the only thing that can create competition among the federating states. If every state is allowed to mine what they have, I think we will be more committed. The governors will not take the allocations, particularly the Niger Delta’s 13 per cent derivation will not be used to sponsor their girlfriends on foreign trips or all kinds of frivolous expenses. They would have reinvested it in activities that will give them more money. But that is not the case today in Nigeria.
As of today, some people feel that they are holding sway and whatever they say is final. But nothing is final or permanent in this world. The only thing that is permanent is change. So, the government should try and see that they balance it. A situation where there is no equitable distribution of the commonwealth, those who are producing the wealth are not benefitting, and those who are not producing the wealth are benefitting, except in the case of mining, where those who are producing are benefitting and the government benefits and the others don’t benefit.
So, we are calling for a balanced and restructured federation where each region will control whatever it has and pay taxes to the Federal Government. If this continues, it will lead to a very serious agitation and it will even break up the country. We cannot allow one region to mine what it has and prevent the other ones not to mine, and whatever that is coming from there is for the entire country, but the other one is for itself. That cannot continue forever. We will not agree.
So, we are calling on the government to restructure so that there will be competition among the federating states and there will be devolution of power. Because there is so much power in the centre. We want power to be devolved so that the regions or states will have more powers and let the Federal Government be concerned with security and international relations.
In essence, are you advocating true federalism?
Of course, it is a federal state and as such, we need to operate federalism the way it should be.
The Federal Government had promised to license modular refineries to create jobs and end illegal refining of crude oil. Why do you think this has yet to happen?
Well, the problem with the Niger Delta lies with the Niger Delta itself. As a member of PANDEF, we held high class meetings with the government. At a point, we met with the Vice-President. The then Minister of State for Petroleum, Dr Ibe Kachkwu, is from the Niger Delta. He came up with modalities that would be difficult for Niger Deltans to meet. I remember the Vice-President warned him and asked him to relax some of those measures so that Niger Deltans would benefit in line with the pronouncement of the then acting President that they would introduce modular refineries to be able to usurp those illegal refineries in the region.
But Dr Ibe Kachukwu arm-twisted the Niger Delta. He brought in conditions that the poor Niger Deltans could not meet, and so, we lost out. Ever since, the dream of getting modular refineries has not been realised, because the government failed to put in place measures that will encourage local government participation, state government participation, local community participation. Maybe everybody from the community may decide to say okay we are going to contribute N2,000 or N10,000 each as per equity in the company; for my community to own a modular refinery, I am buying shares worth N1m or N500,000. You can see that a lot of people can pool resources together and have a joint stock company that will be a public company that will be able to meet those conditions. But Kachukwu refused and I am happy today he is no longer there. And he cannot go back to turn the wheel.
This is the problem we are faced with and I think sometimes, our people are being used to punish the Niger Delta people. That is why we are not moving forward. Because if you look at the problems we have been having, even the Niger Delta Development Commission, and the crisis in the amnesty programme. If you look at all the crises in the various river basin authorities and so on. Not that the government has not provided palliatives or interventions to assuage our plight, but the same people giving it out with the right hand are taking it back with the left hand, because they use our people to their advantage. And this is where we are. So, I think that when the country is restructured, all these things will be put in place.
As a former PANDEF spokesman and an elder statesman, what is your view on the National Water Resource Bill presently in the National Assembly?
Well, my view and that of the Niger Delta is that the people of the region are not comfortable with the Water Resource Bill. We are talking about restructuring, we are talking about devolution of power, yet the Federal Government wants to usurp more power. You have come with a law taking over our oil. You came with a law taking over our land. Now, you want to introduce a law to take over our waterfront. One thing they must appreciate is that most of us in the Niger Delta are fishermen. So, if you want to make laws to cage us, it will not be acceptable. We will resist it.
Agreed that we have the Customs Act that empowers the Customs on the waterways. We also have the Immigration Act that also empowers the Immigration on the waterways. We also have the Naval Act, which also empowers the navy to patrol the territorial waterways and local waters. We have the Inland Water Act that also empowers the inland waterways to coordinate activities in the water. Those are the laws they want to bring together to make the Water Resources Act. But we will advise them to let them remain as they are, while we devolve. We are saying even those laws, we are not comfortable with them.
There should be devolution of power, except those issues of national security, which involve the navy, Immigration and Customs. For instance, NIWA cannot come here and determine how you build jetties, how you put pipelines and collect money for pipelines that are built here. For them to come and claim so much money for activities that are done here is also not acceptable. You take these powers from the states. These are areas the states will have to make their own revenue and you take them from the states. The local governments are also supposed to make their own revenue, but you take it from them. These are not what we want.
So, we are saying restructure this country. There must be devolution of power. Let the regions or the states have powers to regulate their states. Let them control their resources. Let them manage their resources and pay whatever is agreed to the centre. Let the centre be concerned with issues of security, currency, immigration, Customs and international relations. These are areas we want the federation to handle. The security aspects can be managed, and to an extent, the states can also have policing. So, if there is devolution of power and there is true federalism like in America, where the states also have supreme courts, their police and their own laws to guide their security, then Nigeria will be a better country.
Again, for us to move forward with true federalism, we must remove ethnicity and religion from our books so that anywhere you find yourself is your home. The obnoxious laws we have today, we are trying to see how we can remove them. The Petroleum Act, the Oil Pipeline Act and the Land Use Act. These are obnoxious laws against the Niger Delta and as a region, we don’t want those laws. We want a liberal and free state, where we will be able to control whatever that is in our territory.
The Water Resources Bill is presently in the National Assembly. Do you think legislators from the South-South have a role to play on the bill?
Well, they have a role to play. But I must be frank with you. While the North comes together and protects its interest, the South hardly comes together to do so. It will interest you to know that it is only a few years ago when PANDEF started talking that we had the South-South caucus. Before now, there was no South-South caucus in the National Assembly. Everybody is doing what they like. Everybody is after what comes to their pocket. They are not true representatives. They don’t know why they are there, including our ministers. They are not fighting for our people.
Look at the West how they are coordinated. In the case of the West, after election, politics dies and they play development politics. No longer election politics. But here, we continue to fight as if election is everything. After elections, people are still fighting as if it is the end of the world. All the projects that are undertaken by the Federal Government, how many are in Rivers State? But we are fighting. Look at our ports. The Lagos Port is congested. The eastern ports are dead, yet we have all the infrastructure. If the Port Harcourt, Warri and Calabar ports were active in the past, why are they not active today when we have demurrage being paid in Lagos? These are issues, because our people when they are elected or appointed, seem to forget that they are from the region and that they have a role to play in that region and the region has a dream, a reason for sending them there. Until when they come home, they begin to regret. Otherwise, they are doing nothing.