Juan Pablo Alfonzo, a prominent Venezuelan diplomat was indeed a wise man. He predicted that oil is a devil’s excrement that only brings curses and ruin to those who possess it. The Niger Delta region has been a very painful example of how the discovery of oil
cannot and may not be a blessing. After a very turbulent period that led to the destruction of millions of lives of properties, the conflict has thawed, thanks to the amnesty program. However observers have recently become apprehensive as Rivers and Bayelsa states governments continue to haul verbal missiles at each other. The bone of contention is the ownership of oil wells in their boundary communities. While the Rivers State government claims that the wells are located in Soku community of Kalabari extraction, Bayelsa State Government insists that the wells are within the Oluasiri cluster communities of the Nembe Kingdom. The Kalabari people contend that the age long boundary between the two kingdoms is at the Santa Barbara River while the Nembes insist that boundary is at the St. Bartholomew River. Worried by the lingering controversy, a group known as Kalabari National Forum led by former Minister Chief Alaba Tonye Graham Douglas embarked on a protest march in Abuja recently. Presidential spokesperson Dr. Rueben Abati described the protest as irresponsible and accused the protesters of engaging in an unfortunate school - boy behaviour.
It will be recalled that both Nembe and Kalabari Kingdoms are of the Ijaw extraction and predominantly fishermen and traders who have lived side by side each other for several decades. Though they have had pockets of traditional rivalry, the discovery of oil and the subject of ownership of oil wells deepened their conflict for so many years. During the era of Governor Rufus Ada George between 1992 and 1993, the hostilities between the Kalabari and Nembe kingdoms took an incremental dimension leading to the loss of many lives on both sides. The Rivers State Government at that time, later set up a judicial committee that looked into the remote causes of the conflict and made recommendations to government in a white paper. This was far before the state creation of 1996. Later on, when Bayelsa became a state, the two neighbours went their ways into two different states. Accordingly, an administrative map was produced by the then military government to indicate the boundaries between the two states. It was alleged that the original map produced as at 1996 was deliberately altered to favour one state against the other.
In the last few days since the latest dimensions to the disputes erupted, I have spoken to many prominent people on both sides of the conflict and about five issues have emerged. The first issue is that the conflict is a purely technical one. It cannot be resolved politically or legally. The National Boundary Commission (NBC), a government agency constitutionally empowered to determine and intervene in matters of this nature must be allowed to do their work. A letter written by NBC in 2002 is in circulation where they admitted to committing some errors. Though it has been ten years, the NBC should be allowed to correct such errors professionally. The learned Judges of the Supreme Court alluded to this in their ruling of the 10th of July 2012 on this matter by brilliantly reserving any declarations until NBC concludes its assignment.
The second issue is the role of the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) in allegedly exacerbating this conflict by releasing the revenue accruals from the disputed wells without recourse to the NBC. When the NBC admitted to their errors, the Federal Government decided to put the proceeds of the derivation from the disputed oil wells into an escrow account since the Obasanjo era. By law RMAFC has no right to surreptitiously and unilaterally transfer such monies to one party until either the work of NBC is finalised or the two states jointly decide otherwise. So why was RMAFC in a hurry make such transfers? Is RMAFC simply usurping the role of NBC by redrawing the map of Nigeria or are they simply in pursuit of an agenda? If so what is the agenda?
The third issue is the political risk that is inherent in the seeming intervention of the Presidency in a matter where the President’s home state is a party. Many observers feel that President Jonathan is simply struggling to remain neutral in this saga. Spectators have become more suspicious after statements credited to the Presidency implied a tilt to one side only rather than remaining an unbiased arbiter. Such a move will amount to suicidal politics that will worsen the President’s dropping public perception rating. In addition both Kalabaris and Nembes are of the Ijaw extraction, just as President Jonathan and so a wrong move on such a sensitive matter will further weaken his support at home.
Another important issue relates to the right of self-determination of both the Nembe and Kalabari people. This is where we must get it right judging from our recent experience in Bakassi peninsula. No community must be forcefully excised to any state except such people agree. If for instance the Nembes happen to be Bayelsa and the Kalabaris in Rivers, it means that the boundary between the two states should be without contention. It is simply the boundary between the two kingdoms. Except this happens, any effort to achieve peace by doing otherwise will come to a nullity. It is dangerous to suppress the rights of a majority to service political shenanigans of a few. Nigerians are tired of hearing the voices of politicians; we want to hear the voices of the people. Kalabari and Nembe people should be allowed speak up and tell us who owns the oil wells and where they belong.
The fifth issue and probably most important issue is the possible impact of another conflict in the Niger Delta region. The implication of upsetting the fragile peace in the region is better imagined. With the amnesty program, the daily export figure of crude oil rose from less than a million barrels per day to more than two million barrels. This means more money in the federation account to be shared by the states. Renewed hostilities could potentially reverse the gains of the amnesty and possibly jeopardise the cash projections of the 2013 budget. Furthermore, the dream of sustainable peace by reversing the infrastructural deficit in the Niger Delta can only come true under a conflict- free atmosphere. The Niger Delta remains a developmental sore in the conscience of Nigeria. With all the millions of petrodollars flowing, very little has changed in the life of an average Niger Delta man or woman.
At a time when analysts are applauding novel projects for economic integration like the Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Edo and Delta (BRACED) Commission, to complement the efforts of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), two of the core oil producing states in the region cannot afford to allow themselves to be drawn into an avoidable conflict. And this is so soon after the legal conflict over same issues between Rivers State and Akwa-Ibom State is beginning to simmer down. Only a technical and professional solution by organs of government statutorily empowered to do so can lead to a permanent solution. Organs of government must stick to their statutory roles and steer clear from divisive politics.