By Godwin Ijediogor, Ann Godwin, Monday Osayande and Inemesit Akpan-Nsoh
In the oil-rich Niger Delta region, where the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) assented to by President Muhammadu Buhari last Tuesday, now known as Petroleum Industry Act (PIA), is supposed to heavily impact, the allocation of three per cent to cater for host communities is still a contentious issue.
Findings by The Guardian showed that stakeholders and residents have continued to hold discussions and meetings on the best ways to ventilate their grievances regarding the provision.
According to the National Publicity Secretary of the Ijaw National Congress (INC), Ezonebi Oyakamegbea, the Congress was still discussing, revealing that it would come up next week with a strong statement on ways to seek redress after its meetings with stakeholders.
He said: “It is very sad that in spite of all agitations, the President still assented to the Bill. It is not acceptable in any form; it is a total disregard to the Niger Deltans. But very soon, after our meetings with stakeholders, the INC President, Prof. Benjamin Okaba, will make our strong statement known.”
In the same vein, the Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF) said the Niger Delta people would speak shortly after full consultations on the best legal and political response to address “the callous act of the President.”
PANDEF’s National Publicity Secretary, Ken Robinson, said: “This assent by President Buhari simply speaks to the repugnant attitude of disregard, propelled by arrogance, disdain, and contempt with which issues concerning the Niger Delta Region are treated, particularly by the present administration.
“The act of the President signifies an unequivocal message to the Niger Delta people, that how they feel and what they say do not count at all in the schemes of the Nigerian Project. That’s insensitive, abominable and against every boundary of proper democratic practice, and, therefore, unacceptable to the good people of the Niger Delta, the critical economic nexus of the entire Nigerian territory.”
Similarly, a coalition of oil and gas host communities in Rivers State, while declaring total rejection of the Act, vowed that by the President’s assent, the next stage of the struggle has started in the region, assuring that they would do it non-violently.
Chairman of the coalition, Barituka Loanyie, said the signing of the controversial Bill into law without resolving the ambiguous rifts in it or even putting into consideration the outcry of our people was display of arrogance and injustice.
On his part, an Ogoni environmental activist and member of Ogoni People’s Assembly, Celestine Akpobari, who described the President’s assent as a big disappointment, said the country would henceforth know that the Niger Deltans are not cowards, adding that discussions on a collective response were still ongoing.
Akpobari’s views were a bit different from that of the spokesman of Urhobo Progressive Union (UPU), Mr. Abel Oshevire, who advised the southern legislators in the National Assembly and other stakeholders in the Niger Delta region to immediately begin to mount pressure on the Federal Government for a quick review of the law to reflect the wishes and expectations of oil-producing communities.
While commending the President for assenting to the Bill, Oshevire, a former member of the Delta State House of Assembly, described it as a welcome development, but added: “There is need for us in oil- producing communities to press for more and ask for 10 per cent, instead of the three per cent we are being offered now.”
He said the three per cent could not address the numerous challenges facing the region; hence the allocation should be increased to 10 per cent to reflect what the communities are asking for.
He ruled out a resort to legal action against the Federal government, saying: “For now, half bread is better than none. So, the UPU is happy for Mr. President to have gotten the courage to assent to the PIB, a Bill that had spanned over 20 years without anybody trying to work on it.”
He stated that though three per cent is not enough, but it would translate to so much money, and if well managed, would lead to a lot of development in the oil-producing communities.
A former secretary of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), Asaba Branch, Mr. A.F. Brideba, feared that the law would not in any way address the numerous problems confronting the Niger Delta region, noting that the three per cent is grossly insufficient, adding that it would not address the problems of environmental degradation, underdevelopment and others challenges in the region.
“Besides, there are areas that would create controversy during implementation, such as definition of where oil pipelines are passing, right of ways, among others,” he stressed.
On the issue of transparency, Brideba said utilisation of the percentage accruable to the community needed to be guarded jealously, otherwise corrupt traditional rulers, politicians and youths would divert the funds for their personal purposes, thereby denying the people of their benefits.
He said the region remains backwards today because of people entrusted with public funds, accusing them of becoming unjustifiably rich at the expense of the people and communities.
For Aiwere Okuns, the President should send the PIA back to the National Assembly as an Executive Bill for immediate amendments. To achieve this, he said, “all stakeholders should put pressure on southern lawmakers in the National Assembly to ensure amendment is done on it, because that is how democracy works.”
Okuns advised aggrieved oil-producing communities to address the issue legally, rather than foment unnecessary troubles, saying after all, the three per cent is a starting point.
Prof. Emmanuel Owodiokut of the University of Uyo stressed that since the governors from the region notified the President of the grievances of the people with regard to the bill before he hurriedly signed it into law, such has become a judicial issue.
“Before it was signed, the governors ran to the President and he was in a hurry to sign and since the governors have identified that the Bill breaches some sections of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, it will be a judicial issue. So, they can resort to court to challenge the law and the court will decide one way or the other.
“It is very clear in our laws that anything that is not in tandem with the constitution is ultra virus and it cannot stand,” Owodiokut said.
He, however, warned youths from the region to remain calm, as violence does not solve any problem anywhere in the world, adding: “The governors will be able to take up the matter effectively. There should not be any violence; the youth should not return to the creeks or burst pipe lines.”