…Says Giving Cash to People Not Way to Alleviate Poverty
A former member of the Senate, Emmanuel Ibok Essien, is the National Chairman of Pan Niger Delta Forum. In this interview with OLAOLU OLADIPO, he talked about the expectations of his group from the Bola Ahmed Tinubu government and other issues. Excerpts:
The Niger Delta region is critical to the socio-economic and political life of the country; as a body agitating for better conditions for your region, how well has the current government fared in terms of meeting the expectations of your people?
Let me first extend my congratulations to President Bola Tinubu for his election and his subsequent swearing in as the President of the country in May last year. We also felicitate him for scaling through the judicial processes that followed his emergence as the leader of the country. We welcome him on board and we believe that he knows all the issues surrounding the agitation of the people of the Niger Delta region. This is because he him- self has been close to the people of the Niger Delta before becoming the leader of the country. We, the people of the Niger Delta have been grossly marginalised by successive governments in the country for so long. It is unfortunate to note that each past government that came has tried to see how to ameliorate these sufferings and the under-development of the region but none of them has been able to take a very bold step to ensure that these efforts yielded the envisaged positive results.
Could you be more specific on the kind of steps that you think the government ought to take?
Many issues but take for instance, in the previous years the government has tried to link up the states in the region through the East/West Road that started long ago. That road has never been concluded since it started 17 years ago. What does it take for the government to finish the road? It is a shame for the government not to have concluded the road that traverses the entire Niger Delta region. This is a road that is not more than 1,000 kilo- metres that is expected to start from Benin to Calabar. The road would have solved a lot of problems relating to transportation in the region. We are looking at a road where someone will leave Benin and get to Calabar within three to four hours. Niger Delta is the region that sustains the country.
The region is like a construction site where people come in and build their make- shift offices and other infrastructure and after they finish they take them away. Meanwhile, the entire environment is completely degraded. Most of our people have been reduced to penury because many of them are fishermen but unfortunately, the fishes are no longer there for them to catch.
So, what are you expecting the president to do?
I expect the president to take a very bold step. This is a president that is knowledgeable about all the issues confronting the region. I expect him to take very bold steps in addressing them. We agitated when we discovered that the Ministry of the Niger Delta was not assigned a substantive minister to supervise it. We issued a press statement and I personally went on television to call on the president to do the needful. We were happy when the current minister was assigned the portfolio. Initially, the feelers we got was that the government was planning to scrap the ministry. We thank him for restoring the ministry and as- signing its responsibilities to a minister. We believe that this will also make him release the arrears of allocation due to the ministry.
These arrears run into trillions. The funds need to be released so that the ministry can carry out its mandate of developing the region. There is no need to award contracts that cannot be backed by cash. These funds should be released to them by the government. I know that this president has the capacity to order the release of the money to the NDDC and the ministry. Also, I applaud the president for relocating certain agencies of government such as the CBN and FAAN to Lagos from Abuja. I urge the president in the same manner to immediately relocate NNPC headquarters to the Niger-l Delta and also, all the other agencies relating to the petroleum industry to the Niger Delta. He should also call on the management of the various oil companies to relocate to the Niger Delta, especially to their areas of operations.
How workable is that arrangement?
Okay, for instance, Mobil Oil Producing Company operates in Eket, Akwa Ibom and yet their headquarter is in Lagos. There was a time that the former governor of Akwa Ibom, Mr. Udom Emmanuel l, was building an office in the state in anticipation of the likelihood of the company moving its headquarters to Akwa Ibom. I think it is time the president, in the same manner that he ordered the relocation of the other government agencies to Lagos, did the same for the people of the Niger Delta by ordering agencies relating to the petroleum sector to move to the Niger Delta. This call is to make them more effective just like what the government is trying to do with banking supervision.
One of your sons in the Niger Delta is the current President of the Senate, is there any effort being made by PANDEF to interface with him and other indigenes in government?
Yes! We have been doing that. You see, in Nigeria, all the power and authority to influence things reside with the Executive arm of government, particularly, the President. We have been making our demands to our sons and daughters in government. We have also been making advocacy to the president on these issues. We believe that our sons and daughters are also reaching out to the president. We are appealing to the president to listen to these calls because he has a listening ear just as he did with the issue of relocation of the CBN to Lagos. He has the power to do so. Unfortunately, many of our people in government can’t exercise their power. As the case is now, we can only appeal to the president who has the power to act. The president has the ultimate power on this.
If you were to do an appraisal of the current government since coming into power nine months ago, what would the scorecard be?
(Cuts in) When someone assumes office as the president, he is confronted with the reality which is very different from what you think the situation was before coming into office. Before assuming power, you believe that things are easy and straightforward when you are outside the government but are confronted with the reality when in office. I think the initial shock was the removal of the petroleum subsidy by the president. I don’t think that in the imagination of the president that he would have anticipated the current sufferings of the people. Also, the removal of the petroleum subsidy and the floating of Naira are causing a lot of problems for Nigerians. Today, as we speak, the Naira is exchanging for N1,500 to the Dollar.
The president has to do something to stem the slide of the Naira. They are ask- ing the citizens to tighten their belts, saying things would get better. I agree that we have to receive the pain before we enjoy but the question is, for how long are we as citizens going to endure the pain? The people in government should do something urgently to allevate the sufferings of Nigerians.
But the government has been cushioning the effects of the policies through social safety net initiatives…
Transferring money to the people is not the solution. I don’t believe in that. I believe in managing the economy in a manner that would make people work and earn money for a living. You will discover that because of the exchange rate, so many multinational companies are exiting the country. This is generating mass unemployment across the country. Government needs to address this issue squarely and urgently so that the remaining companies will not shut down their operations. When companies begin to shut down, you are creating anarchy because people who don’t have jobs will become so frustrated and cause social unrest. The frustration in the country is getting so high. I believe that the president should immediately find a way to address this foreign exchange crisis in the interest of peace and security of the country.
Would you say that it was a mistake on the part of the president to remove fuel subsidy and float the Naira at the same time?
To be sincere to you, I have been advocating for the removal of payment of oil subsidies for some time because there have been too many sharp practices in the sector. To me, as far as the fuel subsidy regime is concerned, a lot of corruption is going on there, so I support the courage displayed by the president to remove it. But the foreign exchange policy should not have been done at the same time. The government has to address the negative consequences of the policies because between the time that those policies were announced and today, basic consumables such as panadol which was N50 has become N500. If the common man who uses it falls sick and he is unable to buy it then he is susceptible to death because of his inability to buy the drug. Like I said, the government has to find a way to address the consequences of the two policies.
Your group is one of the major socio-political groups in the country that have been advocating for good governance, one of the major items in your agenda is restructuring, now that someone who once championed such agitation is in power, are we expecting your group to agitate and pressure President Tinubu to carry out restructuring?
This is what we have been agitating for over the years, another thing being true federalism. There is no day we meet that we don’t discuss the issue of restructuring. In all our communiqués, we have always made it clear to the government, to individuals that the only way that the country can progress is to restructure. It is the only way that the unity of the country can be preserved. This will make each area or region grow at its own pace and every region contributes to the common purse at the centre. This is the only way out for the country.