President-General of the Urhobo Progress Union, Chief Joe Omene, speaks on the newly signed Petroleum Industry Act, and issues of environmental pollution in the South-South, among other national matters, in this interview with Mudiaga Affe
Despite agitations by concerned persons and groups in the Niger Delta after the National Assembly passed the Petroleum Industry Bill, the President, Muhammadu Buhari, went ahead and assented to it. As one of the critical stakeholders from the region, were you disappointed?
I was not disappointed. However, when he returned from overseas, he was required to go on self-isolation for a period due to the COVID-19 protocols, but they took the bill to him while observing the isolation and he gave his assent to the bill. It is believed that it was given immediate assent because the position of the National Assembly on the matter was in tandem with what the Presidency wanted and he signed it into law.
Every action of President Buhari has shown that he is anti-south. Maybe they think that the crude oil comes from the south and they are not happy, so, they want to deny us of the entitlements from God’s gift to nature in our land.
The greatest disappointment I also have concerning this whole matter is that of our legislators. I want to say that at the National Assembly, we have representatives but we do not have representations. If they are there to represent the interests of their people, which ought to be, they should have consulted with us before taking a position on the PIB.
The truth is, the lawmakers were just thinking of themselves alone. At least, the Deputy Senate President would have used his position to galvanize support from his colleagues from the south and other parts of the country, but I believe that for some personal gains, this did not happen and that was why there was no real concern whether the interest of the people of his region was secured. Otherwise, we cannot fathom why legislators from the region would support the position that was taken.
So, are you saying lawmakers from the region did not play a good role during the period the bill was being debated?
Their role was very disappointing. As a deputy senate president, who is the highest lawmaker from the region, if that position is not well utilized, it is unfortunate. Like I said earlier, we have representatives in the National Assembly but no representation.
Before signing the bill into law, did you expect the President to revert to the National Assembly to make some amendments on the PIB, considering the agitations?
I did not expect him to take it back for the amendment because he must have been a party to the pressure put on legislators to ensure that we were short-changed. If the President had a listening ear, then I would have been expected that. But President Buhari does not listen to the yearnings of the masses, especially on issues that affect the southern part of the country.
What is your advice to the people of the Niger Delta concerning the PIA?
I will advise them to do something about it if they can. Otherwise, from the way it is, there is almost nothing they can do about it for now. But our elected representatives from the region should note that the anger of the people is waiting for them. If you did not represent the people well, you do not have the moral grounds to seek re-election in the next general elections.
Going forward, will you advocate that the people of the region should continue their push for an increase in the percentage?
Well, we have rejected some of the critical aspects of the PIA and we will continue to reject them. There is anger everywhere in the region. The truth is that they have had their way now, but with time we would laugh the last laugh.
The President the other day inaugurated the implementation committee for the Petroleum Industry Act (PIA) and, backlashes have trailed its composition. Many consider it a one-sided committee dominated by northerners. Others say the committee is not gender-friendly, what is your take on this?
I will tell you again and again that people like us have long lost faith in this government. We do not see anything contrary coming out from the government of President Buhari. The UPU,
unfortunately, was among the groups that endorsed Buhari for re-election during the last presidential election. We are disappointed, as it is now, for taking that position. However, in less than two years from now his government will expire, so, we hope that a better team will win the next election.
Away from PIA, the forensic report on the Niger Delta Development Commission is reportedly out, what are your expectations?
I do not think it will make any difference. When there was OMPADEC, it had its problems and when it was transformed to the NDDC, we had looked forward to having a better organisation for the region, but to me, it has failed the people.
You should note that most of the contractors in NDDC are from the north, so, there is nothing new in all these. I can bet you that nothing will come out of the forensic report.
After the #EndSARS protests, there were tribunals/panels of inquiries everywhere but what has come out of it is, nothing and this is almost one year after. They just did it to make people stop talking. What is happening in government is a ‘looting’ spree. I am sure that they are looting the system because of the 2023 general elections.
As a stakeholder in the region, how would you describe the environmental degradation in the region due to oil explorations?
I do not know where to start from, but to put it simply, the region is polluted. From the river to the lands in the creeks of the Niger Delta, they are all polluted. About 20 years ago, you could drink the water from the river, but you can no longer do that now because of the level of pollution.
This applies to the farmlands as well that have been degraded due to oil exploration activities. Unfortunately, the government at the centre is not interested in any form of remedy for the people. All their interests are in the continued exploitation of the area and after milking it dry, they will go back to concentrate on their agriculture.
Whether we can continue with our farming or fishing is none of their business. They are not interested in sustaining the area, their interest is on the resources from the area to possibly boost themselves.
I want to repeat that the Urhobo people of the Niger Delta have no fate in this government and from my assessment, this should be one of the worst governments ever. The regime of Shehu Shagari, Ibrahim Babangida, and even Sani Abacha, when people cried they listened. But under this government, they do not listen to the yearnings of the masses. President Buhari just does not feel the pulse of the people to know what is happening to them.
There are fears that this PIA matter may spark unrest in the South-South, do you share in that view?
There is the possibility that it might spark unrest. As the head of the UPU, I will not advocate violence because I do not believe in it. However, under democracy, we believe in dialogues. Besides, the tenure of the present administration will soon end, we pray that God should give us a President that will listen to our cry.
Amid all these worries, the insecurity in the land is escalating. Is the federal government doing enough to tackle this disturbing development?
If you lay mines for your opponent, it will affect you someday. Buhari said before he became President that he would make the country ungovernable for ex-President Goodluck Jonathan, I want to believe that he knew what he meant when he made that statement.
Jonathan, in his wisdom, has left the stage and the country has truly become ungovernable to the extent that it has never got to in the history of this country. So, it is the way you lay your bed that you will lay on it.
If you prepared the bed with mines for someone else to sleep on it, unfortunately, the person did not lay on it and it fell on you to lie on it, it is your fault. The level of insecurity, especially in the northern part of the country has never got to this level before, even in the south too.
The President promised to tackle insecurity when he was re-elected, but what is the situation today? How can we say we have a country and our children are being kidnapped daily within the country, with some losing their lives and parents made to pay huge sums as ransom? This is not proper and it is rather unfortunate.
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