From Femi Folaranmi, Yenagoa
The protest in Abuja by the Kalabari National Forum (KNF) allegedly accusing President Goodluck Jonathan of subtly conniving with some Federal Government agencies to cede some oil wells belonging to Rivers State to Bayelsa, his home state, has set the stage for a bitter and fierce war between the two sister states.
The protest which was attended by renowned Ijaw sons who recently commended Governor Henry Seriake Dickson for providing a rallying point for the Ijaws to support Jonathan was full of venom. There are indications that the Rivers State government is ready to go the whole hog to claim what they insist belongs to them.
The development comes even as the Bayelsa State government on its own part has refused to shy away from the fight and in equal measure replied the Kalabari people and by extension the Rivers state government. The state government led by Seriake Dickson thinks that the president and the Bayelsa government deserve an apology for statements credited to the protesters.
But rather than apologize like the Bayelsa state government demanded, Kalabari monarchs and the Rivers State government have fired more salvos where they further dragged the name of President Jonathan into the case, alleging that the boundary between Kalabari and Nembe has been adjusted without their knowledge leading to loss in revenue accruing from oil.
Close observers of political relationship between Rivers and Bayelsa states are of the view that the new controversy has reopened the dangerous rivalry between the two sister states. Beyond that however is the link to the 2015 Presidential election which political pundits believe would set off a chain of reactions in the Niger Delta region.
In 1992, fight broke out in the then Old Rivers State between the Kalabari people in Akuku- Toru local government area and the Nembe people in Brass Local government area. They engaged each other in a fierce war over rights to territories around the Oluasiri area. People were killed and property worth millions of naira was destroyed.
On September 7, 1992, the Rivers State government set up a Judicial Commission of Inquiry to look into the crisis and make recommendations. In one of its recommendations, the committee stated: “Having seen that the issue is one of territorial claims, there is now the need to decide firmly what the legal boundaries are and establish them once and for all. The state Boundary Delimitation Commission should be activated and assigned this important task. As soon as the actual delimitations are fixed, a state apparatus for the enforcement of compliance should be in place. Thereafter, Exhibit SG1 should be withdrawn and relegated to the archives as a mere artifact of history and a competent administrative and political map of Rivers State should replace it”.
It advised that any party not satisfied should go to Court to seek redress and on the strength of that, the Rivers government commenced a legal process against Bayelsa state.
Checks indicated that after dragging the Bayelsa State government to the Federal High Court where the verdict delivered favoured Bayelsa, Rivers State invoked the constitutional provision and filed a suit in the Supreme Court in 2011 on the matter. On Tuesday, July 10, 2012, a panel of Supreme Court Justices which has the then Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Dahiru Musdapher as one of the panel members struck out the case filed by Rivers State laying claim to the oil fields in the disputed areas.
Immediately after the judgment, the Chairman Oil and Gas Committee of Nembe Kingdom, Chief Nengi James, said the judgment had finally ended the intimidation the people had faced since the oil fields were disputed.
Investigations revealed that based on the Supreme Court verdict, the revenue accruing from the disputed oil wells which the River State Government alleged was N17 billion has been paid to the Bayelsa State Government.
While warning that Bayelsa government should leave its oil alone, it described as fictitious a map produced between 2000 and 2002 which suggests that the disputed areas belong to Bayelsa. According to them in the new map, the boundary was moved from Sancta Barbara to St Bartholomew. The state deputy-governor, Tele Ikuru stated that Soku had been part of Rivers State before the boundary was adjusted. One of the protesters, Mr. Ibim Dokubo pointedly accused Jonathan of masterminding the boundary adjustment since he was deputy- governor and has actualized it to favour Bayelsa now that he is the President. The Amayanabo of Kalabari Kingdom, Prof. T. J. T. Princewill, described as illegal, plans to excise 80 per cent of the oil and gas bearing communities and settlements in Akuku-Toru Local Government Area, and making them part of old Brass Division.
The Rivers State Commissioner for Information, Mrs Ibim Sementari in a statement titled: “Soku Oil Wells, Our Story,” accused the Bayelsa government of contradicting itself as regards who owns the land.
The Rivers government wondered why the money that was kept in an escrow account pending the determination of the case would suddenly be paid to Bayelsa.
The Bayelsa government in a statement by Daniel Iworiso- Markson which sent the signal that it is not going back on its position declared that its stand is backed by law. Making references to the Supreme Court verdict in July, Markson on the Soku oil fields said, “on the issue of ownership and the claim by the Rivers State government to Soku Oil wells, I believe it is no longer news that Rivers State Government took Bayelsa State Government to the Federal High Court on this same issue and lost.
“Instead of appealing the matter in the Appeal Court, the Rivers State Government invoked the constitutional provision and filed a suit in the Supreme Court in 2011 and this year, the Supreme Court upheld Bayelsa State’s position”.
The Bayelsa State Commissioner for Information, Orientation and Strategy, Mr Markson Fefegha in a statement, “Soku/ Oluasiri Oil Wells/ Oil Fields: Rivers State Government Should Stop heating the Polity” accused Rivers of denigrating the office of the President.
He said it is well known that the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) erroneously gave the name Soku to oil fields located in Nembe area of Bayelsa state.
“The Rivers State Government had previously filed two suits against the Bayelsa State Government at the Federal High Court and the Supreme Court respectively in order to assert its purported ownership over the said oil wells/ oil field and woefully failed as the said suits were all struck–-out by the courts. Soku is a village in Rivers State while the oil wells/oil field and the flow station are located in the Oluasiri clan in Nembe Local Government Area of Bayelsa State. The name Soku oil wells/oil field was wrongly given by Shell Petroleum Development Company Ltd (SPDC) since Soku village was their operational base at that time.
“This is not peculiar to Soku. For example, the Idu oil wells/oil field is named after a town in Ekpeye land in Ahoada East LGA of Rivers while the oil field is actually located in Biseni of Bayelsa. Similarly, the Omoku west oil field is in Biseni land of Bayelsa but Omoku is a town in Rivers State”, he said.
Oluasiri people speaks
The King of Oluasiri where the disputed oil wells are located, the Olua, and Ibenyanaowei of Oluasiri, Chief Iyerite Awululu in an interview set the matters straight when he accused Kalabari people of deliberately attempting to blackmail the President on an issue they knew predates the birth of Jonathan.
He provided a peep into the past: “Oluasiri is the 13th ward in Nembe local government. It has boundary with Akuku Toru people in Rivers state.
“Soku became famous because of the LNG Gas plant, but the plant itself is at the centre of Oluasiri land. It is far from Soku. It is a minimum of 22 minutes drive from the Gas plant to Soku. Soku is very close to Degema and Abonnema. The gas plant which has been in contention for the past 20 years is located in Oluasiri, Nembe land. Why is it called Nembe Land? I was born in 1957 and I as came on board, I realized that there was an instrument of the Eastern Government creating Nembe city council and putting Oluasiri as part of the council. Before I became King, the place has been widely acknowledged as Nembe territory. This case matter predates my birth. There have been issues between the Kalabari and Nembe even before the Gas Plant. We have cases of 1913, 1918 and 1923, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court cases. There was once a clash in 1992 between Akukutoru and Brass which was the mother local government of Nembe in old Rivers state.
“The crisis generated led to the establishment of a commission of inquiry headed by Justice Peter Akere to investigate the disturbances. There was a map allegedly doctored which favoured the Kalabari people and the map was contested in the commission of inquiry. The commission recommended that the earlier map erroneously known as Exhbit SG1 misled the state. The commission further stated that the Boundary Commission should urgently demarcate the boundaries between Brass and Akukutoru. From then till date, the boundary commission has done nothing”.
Awululu disclosed that under the government of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Presidential Verification Committee was sent to the area to verify who owns which oil fields. He said the report of the committee was signed by representatives of the two states who were co-opted into the committee.
He said, “The Boundary Commission should facilitate the delineation and demarcation between Rivers and Bayelsa to bring a permanent solution to this problem. Kalabari people know Nembe people; they should not shift the blame to Mr. President. They signed the verification report of the Presidential Committee. Government should do their work, it should not be afraid. For 20 years, that matter has been left to linger. The Federal Government’s reluctance to take decision is causing this problem”.
Close observers of oil politics in Nigeria are of the view that the present controversy should be handled delicately before it triggers an unimaginable crisis, the end which nobody can predict. Unfortunately, President Goodluck Jonathan who would have been in the best position to intervene has been dragged into the fray as an interested party by the Kalabari people and Rivers State government. The mutual suspicion and tension between the two states when Bayelsa State was created in 1996 has suddenly returned.
This accounts for why Kalabari chiefs and elders who were in Yenagoa on October 1 to celebrate the unveiling of the Bayelsa State Coat of Arms, Flag and Anthem where they praised Jonathan and Dickson to high heavens are now at loggerheads with the duo.
In its first statement on the disputed oil wells, the Bayelsa government cautioned the Kalabari people on the allegation that Bayelsa plans to annex Kalabari communities warning that “the purported claim is an attempt by detractors of the Ijaw nation to create unnecessary strife and hostility within the Ijaw ethnic family to our collective disadvantage”.
Amaechi’s allegation that the attempt to cede the oil wells to Bayelsa is part of plans to emasculate him ahead the 2015 Presidential election is very weighty and the reverberations it has generated cannot be ignored by the Presidency.
The allegation which some PDP chieftains in Abuja insist is not far from the truth has boxed Jonathan into a tight corner as he looks for a way out of the crisis. Political pundits believe the row over the disputed oil wells with open accusation and the deployment of strong languages against President Jonathan by his kith and kin from Rivers is not good for the fragile unity of the Ijaw nation which incidentally Governor Dickson is labouring hard to solidify.
Many believe that now is the time for Dickson to bring his skills as a consummate consensus builder to the fore and salvage what is left of the camaraderie between the Kalabari and the Nembe people. Jonathan during the last Presidential Media chat said relevant government agencies are seeking ways to resolve the issue amicably.
Political observers believe the President and the two governors must rise above political and primordial sentiments to resolve the issue. They cannot afford to use the issue of the oil wells to engage in political shadow boxing as the ripple effect would not only ensure they suffer collateral damage but also turn the disputed land into killing fields.