Benjamin Okaba is a professor of Sociology at the Federal University, Otuoke, in Bayelsa State and the new president of the Ijaw National Congress (INC). In this interview, Okaba speaks about national security, restructuring and the fortune of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) in recent time. EBIOWEI LAWAL brings excerpts.
How do you think the Federal Government should address the security challenges facing the country?
Security is very pertinent because you are talking about life, you are talking about existence. When you are not secure, there is absolutely nothing you can do. In fact, one of the major reasons the last administration was voted out of power was insecurity and the hope that a new government was going to fix this problem. But today, Nigerians are so disappointed because indicators have shown that things have worsened over time. So, we have gotten to a point where we don’t have to wait for the government but to take over our own security seriously. That is why I called on every Ijaw person must be vigilant and help to secure their communities, because leaving everything to a government that is failing will not work. I, therefore, encourage Ijaw people to have security outfits in their communities that can at least provide baseline information about the movement of people in Ijawland.
Governors in southern Nigeria issued a 12-point communique recently. Is there anything the INC finds strange or would like to add to the document?
Nothing is strange. For me, they rather came late but to be late is better than not being there at all. We are happy that they have woken up from their slumber to speak to Nigerians and I see seriousness in the governors because we have gotten to a point where we cannot go back.
We must restructure this country by going back to the foundation. We must go back to the era of devolution of power, community policing and fiscal federalism. We all came into this project called Nigeria as equal partners, so a situation where only persons from a particular ethnic group are qualified to hold certain offices is not acceptable to us.
For the sake of security, we must realise that cattle rearing is a business that must have control. You don’t just walk into somebody’s land and continue your business without abiding by the rules and regulations of the land. The average Ijaw man is a fisherman. If he goes to the North and starts to cast his net everywhere, would they accept that? This country belongs to all of us but there are regulations that must be followed.
Talking about restructuring, are you referring to fiscal or physical restructuring?
The simplest way to describe it is that we had a structure that was laid down at the foundation of this country and that structure was distorted by several coups, so today we are saying, restructure the country, meaning, bring back that structure where we had fiscal federalism, where power distribution was equitable, where we had regional policing. Let us go back to the principles that were laid down by our founding fathers.
In a National Assembly where the North has the highest vote, do you think restructuring would work?
If the president is sincere, he should go back to the 2014 confab recommendations. At least, at some point, Nigerians met and agreed on key issues plaguing the country. But they have refused to look into the recommendations of the 2014 confab because the recommendations do not satisfy the selfish interest of the powers that be. The question now is: does the head even see himself as the president of all Nigerians or president of Northern Nigeria? This has been a major setback for the issue of restructuring in this country.
The NDDC was created to tackle issues underdevelopment in the Niger Delta. What is your assessment of the commission so far?
I belong to the class of people who believe that the NDDC is a waste of time. If the government were serious, they would have sent the interventions straight to our communities through the appropriate ministries. Just imagine how much is spent on the administration of the NDDC alone for one year.
You will recall that somebody fainted in the National Assembly while explaining how huge sums of money were spent on Covid-19 intervention. If that money had been directed to communities to drive development, we would have achieved more. For me, the NDDC is a waste of time.
Don’t you think it is because Niger Deltans have not managed the NDCC well to attract development to the region? All the leaders of the NDDC over the years have been from the Niger Delta.
I agree that all the leaders of the commission came from the Niger Delta. But the question is: who appointed them? Are they your choice of leaders? To be on the board, you must be linked to some powers and in the end, you see yourself playing the game of some captains up there. That is the situation we find ourselves. If we have resource control, we don’t need the NDDC but now that resource control is not achieved yet, let the NDDC board be constituted.
Recently, the Myetti Allah said that it was prepared to break away from Nigeria and the statement generated reactions from other ethnic groups. What is the position of the INC on the matter?
We are not interested in the position of other people. Let them break away. We believe in one Nigeria. They can go but the Ijaw man will remain in his land. No inch of Ijawland will be ceded or conquered.
What are the issues? As I said earlier, cattle rearing is like every other business in Nigeria that should be put under control. You just don’t walk into somebody’s territory and continue with your business without abiding by the rules and regulations of the people in that territory.
For example, the Ijaw man is a fisherman. Would the Fulani man be happy if the Ijaw man goes into his territory and throws net indiscriminately? Yes, Nigeria belongs to everybody but there should be some form of regulation.