Niger Delta struggle: Explosive interview with Comrade Sunny Ofehe
Obiora Nweke, Associate Publisher of African Heritage magazine and heads our politics and Policy Desk
“I am a strong supporter of resource control but with a very simple condition that the leadership of the Niger Delta region must first free themselves from the hands of our current corrupt political leaders. The biggest corruption in the Nigerian polity today is taking place in the Niger Delta!”
The crisis in the Niger Delta is a central issue in this year of general elections in Nigeria and every aspirant has at least a policy on how to urgently and sustainably address the poor living condition of the entire area that bears the bulk of Nigeria’s foreign earnings. One person who has been in the fore-front of the Niger Delta struggle is THE Dutch-Nigerian, Comrade Sunny Ofehe who resides in the Netherlands and is very active in exposing the inhumanity of oil extraction, the evil machinations of oil multi-nationals and the comprador role of successive Nigerian governments.
He is the founder and co-ordinator of Hope for the Niger Delta Campaign in the Netherlands. This campaign has taken him through some very tough terrain including being regarded as an enemy of the Nigerian state, a saboteur of the struggle by the various organizations and people of the Niger Delta, a loud fly by Shell and oil Multi-Nationals present in the Niger Delta area. In the course of the struggle, he lost his Mother to assassins who obviously came for him and quite recently, he was unjustly locked up in a frame-up that has no bearing whatsoever and in the process, he could not attend the burial of his mother.
Comrade Ofehe, has addressed the Dutch parliament on issues of environmental degradation from the activities associated with oil extraction and would be addressing the European Union on the same issue in April 2011. He sat down with Mr Nweke in an explosive interview that spans his dreams and aspirations, strength and targets of the Niger Delta struggle and ways to glory forNigeria. Please, read through this explosive account of one who is in the know about the Niger Delta region ofNigeria;
Q: When and how did you come about with the formation of this organization, Hope for Niger Delta Campaign?
I arrived The Netherlands precisely 27th November 1995, which was exactly 17 days after the brutal hanging of Ken Saro Wiwa and the 8 Ogoni martyrs. After living in the country for many years and finding out that despite Shell International headquartered inThe Hague, The Netherlands, many of the people including the press didn’t know much about what was happening in the Niger Delta with respect to the environmental impact as a result of Shell Nigeria oil operations in the Niger Delta region.
As an activist from the Niger Delta who have experienced the environmental impact and human rights abuses resulting from oil operations in the region which has only benefitted the Nigerian government and the oil giants with untold hardship on the people whose environment has been greatly damaged, I felt the need to initiate a campaign in the Netherlands (home of Shell), to raise much awareness on the untold sufferings of the Niger Delta people.
It would be recalled that after the 2003 elections in which greedy politicians freely spread weapons among youths to violently win the flawed elections, it was clear that the Niger Delta was heading towards another violent phase. This further reinvigorated my resolve to begin a campaign within The Netherlands. I needed an official platform to carry out this campaign and decided that setting up a nongovernmental organisation will help lend the voice that the region needs internationally.
Hope forNigerDelta Campaign (HNDC) was eventually founded in 2005 with it’s headquarter inRotterdam. The organisation has since then grown from strength to strength with much awareness already raised. We are not relenting as much effort is being made to expand the campaign to other European countries through much participation in the EU activities.
Like I earlier said, having lived in The Netherlands for many years and finding out that as strategic as the Niger Delta is to the economy of country and Shell having its headquarter here in The Netherlands yet the people are not aware of the consequences of oil operations by Shell on the people of the region. I decided that this lack of information must become a thing of the past.
If there must be awareness raising campaign, then it must come from someone who comes from the region and have also been impacted by the effects of oil exploitation in the region. In underlining my commitment as an activist from the region, I decided to stand out and be the one to champion this cause. I made attempts to get more Diaspora involvement in this campaign but unfortunately not many of our people were interested.
I have interacted with the Dutch people at every level and must tell you that the majority of them have a good heart and are not happy with the situation in the Niger Delta particularly after the killing of the Ogoni 9. Realising this about the ordinary Dutch people gave me the momentum to feed them with information that could answer the many questions that bothers them about the role of Shell and theNigeriagovernment in the protracted quagmire that has engulfed the region since oil was first discovered in 1957.
Q: A Nigerian in the Netherlands; what was the perception and impression of the Dutch about you and the organization in the early stage and now?
At the beginning, as a Nigerian trying to spearhead this daunting task was no easy task. I had to fight many stigmatised factors. The only story that gets air attention in The Netherlands has always been how Nigerians are involved in the scam business (419) and banks related frauds. Nigerians have been profiled to be dubious and criminal.
These factors affected the early stages of my campaign as many people see my campaign as being backed by fraudulent intensions. When I attend meetings, one is almost always confronted with the issue of trust and most readily be prepared to be turned down. Whenever you raised any initiative, your background is quickly checked and when it is known that you are a Nigerian, you are quietly alienated.
I was determined to prove that in as much as I will agree that few Nigerians are involved in vices inimical to the image of our country Nigeria, there are still many descent and hardworking Nigerians scattered all over the world. I never allowed the stigma to weigh me down and kept believing in the cause. I felt a sense of God’s hand in the cause, because I was surprised at how all the obstacles were being outmanoeuvred.
I have always grown up knowing that no success is achieved without first overcoming the challenges and in this case the challenge includes fighting the stigma of being a Nigerian. My determination paid off after I was scrutinised by many and they all found out that my agitations were genuine and devoid of any unscrupulous and dubious tendencies.
Today, I feel very satisfied looking back to those horrible beginnings and also using my campaign to prove to Nigerians that your genuine actions can most times help to improve the already battered international image of our great countryNigeria. Today, I see myself as not only fighting the Niger Delta cause in the most nonviolent and peaceful way but also helping to raise the standard of how Nigerians are being looked upon outside Africa.
I am a strong supporter of resource control but with a very simple condition that the leadership of the Niger Delta region must first free themselves from the hands of our current corrupt political leaders. The biggest corruption in the Nigerian polity today is taking place in the Niger Delta!
We must realise that apart from the statutory federal allocation to all Nigeria States, the Niger Delta also receive 13% derivation from profit made in crude oil extraction. Can we now say that the Niger Delta States have seen more development since they started receiving this increase in federal allocations? The answer is capital NO! Where is the money and what has been done so far? The budget ofRiverStatealone is higher than that of many African countries. Is there anything inRiversStatethat you can see today that equates what they get from the Federal government? What about Bayelsa and even my ownDeltaState?
Is there any political leader today in any of the Niger Delta States that can stand out with transparent honesty and can say that he is corrupt free? When names like the Odilis, Iboris, Igbinedions, Alamaseighas and other past Ministerial nominees from the Niger Delta are mentioned, what readily comes to people’s mind is corruption and greed.
I have been told by many people that we need an increase in derivation from the current 13% to a minimum of 25%. I am a proponent of this increase only on the basis of proper and judicious utilisation of the current 13% otherwise we will be fighting an increase that will only swell the pockets of the few current oligarchs.
We can only achieve and win the battle for resource control if we can prove to other parts of the country that we are ready for a zero tolerance when it comes to corruption. It is election period now and I hope we can vote for the right candidates who will have the ordinary people in mind and rule with the fear of God knowing that service to the people is service to God. Until people of transparent and responsive bearings are put in positions of decision making, the call for resource control should not be our ultimate goal. The people of the Niger Delta can be said to ready only when we flush ourselves off greedy political leaders that we now have.
Q: Are you of the view that absolute resource control could end the crises in the Niger Delta region and do you think the government in Nigeria would allow total resource control in the country?
I don’t think absolute resource control will end the crisis in the Niger Delta. There are so many complacency involved in the current agitation. This mainly has to do with ethnic divide and already many smaller ethnic groups in the Niger Delta are complaining that the Ijaws have hijacked the struggle and are now the only ethnic group benefitting from the crisis.
Let us assume that we get total resource control today, what happens to distribution of these resources among the people? Can we have honest leadership that can help make the ordinary people feel the benefit? There must be government oversight and this cannot happen without a corrupt free management which the Niger Delta currently lacks.
Ironically, I don’t even see the government ceding resource control to the Niger Delta. We must not forget that the black gold from this region is responsible for 95% of the nation’s foreign exchange earnings .Therefore with a monolithic economy, the country’s hope for survival is fully dependent on the crude oil from this region. The way the Nigeria Federation is structured and operated will make it virtually impossible to grant the region full autonomy to control the resources.
All the major indigenous oil blocs are owned by powerful political figures from either the North or Southern part of the country. Do you see these people allowing their grip on the oil to slip? Many factors mostly anchored on greed will make resource control actualisation a mirage.
Q: The coming of oil companies to the Niger Delta region no doubt has negatively affected the lives of the people in that region, their farm lands and water have been destroyed as a result of oil spillage. To you, what is the way out of this inhuman treatment?
These oil majors cannot dare this same practice in their home countries otherwise their operating licenses will be withdrawn and contracts revoked. This are the major causes of oil spillages but the role of sabotage cannot be denied also. The companies’ responses to spills from oil leakages and sabotage must be swift and prompt to avoid devastating environmental consequences.
It is a known fact that the oil companies complain of violent youths preventing them from getting access to such sites to carry out remediation. This is always the excuse when such locations are not of huge commercial benefits but when it affects a major money spinning pipelines, they know how to get there with the escort of military (JTF) backed security team.
The Nigerian government is also bearing much of the blames as most of the environmental impact assessment agencies are failing in their duties to report and punish companies where they fail to exercise their duties of remediation. The situation is one of silent accomplice as the oil Multi-Nationals now engage in bribing the environmental assessment agencies to look elsewhere when environmental atrocities are committed by the oil Multi-Nationals
The way out can be summarized thus; old pipes must be replaced and buried underground. The government must carry out a proper and corruption free oversight using their agencies. The communities must have greater involvement in the oil sector by having employments which will create a sense of involvement. When the youths in oil bearing communities have direct or indirect participation, it will reduce the risk of pipelines sabotage.
Q: Gas flaring is one of the greatest problems in the Niger Delta region. What is the remedy to this wastage?
Millions of dollars –actual estimation by global resource.org puts the cost at $2.5billion annually-are wasted every year by the oil companies from the burning of associated gasses in the Niger Delta. The oil companies prefer to burn this gasses because it is cheaper and economical for them. In Western countries, this are often used as domestic gasses supplied to homes. According to resource.org, annual flared gas from the Niger Delta is the equivalent of 25% of United Kingdom’s total natural gas consumption.
This flaring and venting processes produces more greenhouse gas emission than any other single source in sub Sahara Africa. This flaring of poisonous gasses is responsible for the chronic health and environmental problems affecting the people of the Niger Delta region.
There has been a ban on gas flare inNigeriasince the early 1980s but the oil companies have consistently shifted the end date since then and the government have lacked the political will to enforce this ban.
During my recent visit to the Niger Delta with a Dutch Member of Parliament, I was told by her that Shell took her to a project that is aimed at reducing gas flaring by as much as 70% in the coming years. I cannot comment on this because Shell refused my presence in that visit for reasons that are still not very convincing.
The current Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project is a good solution. The wasted gasses can be channelled into production of energy which the country currently lacks. What about helping the communities and urban areas with domestic gas burners and sending part of it for domestic cooking use?
For the sake of the health consequence of gas flaring, it must end now! I visited Oben Community with a Dutch MP in 2010 and I remember how she felt coming close to the heat from the flare. She asked, how long has this been flaring like this? The Youth leader of the Community answered “since 1972”and she was shocked. The people of the community have lived with that flare for 38 years!
Must we trade the health of our people for oil profit? Those who are benefiting from the oil don’t even live anywhere close to feel the environmental impact and health consequences. Who is playing God here?
Q: Who should be held responsible for the unending crises in that region, is it the government, oil multinational companies or the traditional rulers?
I always say that the blames and responsibility is tripod; the Nigerian government, the oil multinational companies and the local leaders under which the traditional rulers falls.
The Oil companies cannot continue to mess the environment without the support of the Nigerian government. Remember, they are in a Joint Venture agreement and the oil companies are the operators of this joint venture. When the oil companies continue to operate at their whims and caprices and the government lacks the political will to regulate and enforce the basic tenets that guides their operations, it then means they are Siamese twins collaborating to milk the environment at the expense of the health and livelihood of the people.
The local leaders have been torn apart by greed and corruption. The oil companies practice of divide and rule which tends to divide community leaders have also heightened the crisis in the region. This has been responsible for clashes among separated communities.
Honesty and transparency amongst these three tiers will help alleviate the causes of the crisis and becomes the home run for a sustainable peace in the region.
Q:Do you see the Federal Governments Amnesty programme as a genuine one?
The intension of the Late President Yar’Adua was clear, he was honestly committed to resolving the problems of the region with his Amnesty programme but I think he had around him people who were out to use to process to achieve their greedy political goals.
When you look at how the budget for the Amnesty program was arranged, you will see that most of the funds were geared towards their own benefits and very little was left for the implementation of the programme.
The process seems to be disguised success at the moment because certain people are receiving money to abstain from practices inimical to its success. The moment the flow of this money stops, we will see escalation of violence again. Look at what happened in the case of John Togo, he got dissatisfied with the process and went back to the creeks and we have all seen what the result has been.
I think with the exit of Timi Alaibi, the body should be re-organised. Fresh blood should be injected and they should be monitored by international crisis monitory experts preferably the UN or EU. Much emphasis should be placed on the re-integration phase and community development programmes and youth empowerment structure should be implemented. When this is done, the public confidence can now grow
and the programme will begin to yield dividend.
Q: Some people from the region has argued that they do not need Amnesty because they did not do any thing wrong but only agitating for their rights in the struggle. What is your take on this argument?
If there is one man I have respects, it is Alhaji Mujahid Asari Dokubo. We might differ in our opinions on how we see the Niger Delta problems but I see him as a man who has passion for the region. He is one person that spoke openly against the programme and refused to take part in backing down his argument which is highlighted in your question.
I think the issue of crime before amnesty shouldn’t arise at all. We understand that in the process of actualising the motivating ground for the agitation, violence or militancy became an option. In it, they ran against the law and ordinarily would have been charged for some offences. The idea behind the amnesty is to sound a wake up call and say listen, whatever you may have done wrong is forgiven. Come out clean and let’s find a way to resolve the differences.
The process gave them the chance to be “born again” and come out without facing any prosecution. I support the amnesty programme but very much against how it is being managed. The programme still has the chance of recording success.
We must not forget that the Niger Delta Technical Committee Reports headed by Mr. Ledum Mitee still holds the key to the overall success of any programme. This is because it encompasses all the nitty gritty problems of the region and of which the amnesty programme is just one of the many recommendations.
Q: As somebody from this region, how do you feel when you see these things happening to your people as the major producers of the nation’s wealth?
I feel deeply saddened and more so very depressing when I see how oil extraction is taking place here in The Netherlands where I live. I will echo the voice of Hillary Clinton again when she said she cannot understand why a country like Nigeria which is one of the largest producer of crude oil still import crude products from outside its country.
We live in penury even though we are surrounded by copious affluence and yet we are considered an oil giant. The country has enjoyed oil boom for many years and yet we still live under $1 dollar per day which is World Bank benchmark definition of poverty. After more than 5 decades of over reliance on oil revenue we must have a paradigm shift from the status quo and begin to set our country in line with the emerging economical giants likeChinaandIndia.
The government ofNigeriamust begin to look in the direction of other naturally endowed resources for income generation. This is vital now in the time when the world powers are looking at alternative source of energy dependence.
We must learn fromMalaysiawho once relied on timber importation fromNigeriaand today are the largest producers and suppliers of timber to the world. Whatever runs must one day dry up. I still believe that we have the chance for a betterNigeriaand it is that believe that is motivating me to do my bit as a Diaspora who has not forgotten his home country.
AH: Thanks a lot for this insightful time together and we wish you all the best in your campaign.
Thank you Obiora and God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Comrade Sunny Ofehe is the Founder/President of Hope for Niger Delta Campaign The Netherlands.
Obiora Nweke is an Associate Publisher of African Heritage magazine and heads our politics and Policy Desk