Loud silence of Niger Delta’s Red Chamber legislators, as PIB slips past

[By VICTOR NZE]

The uneasy calm clouding the oil producing regions of the Niger Delta and by extension the South South geo-political zone of the country following Thursday’s passage of the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) could well have been thrown up through the seeming loud silence demonstrated by lawmakers at the Upper Chambers of the National Assembly, July 1, as the much-debated document finally scaled its third reading during plenary and was subsequently passed into law.

Nigerian senate

From a neutral perspective, it was arguably one less contentious bill done with after two decades of debates, squabbles by various stakeholders coming to the table with seemingly hidden agenda.

However, what has become obvious is that the document passed was not in the way it was articulated after several meetings and horse trading. And that, unfortunately, has taken the shine off it and turned the PIB into the beginning of another long-drawn impasse.

The Niger Delta senators in particular, according to opinions sampled from the zone, betrayed the long and tedious agitations by their constituents for attention as oil host communities of oil producing regions in the country when during the presentation of the report of the Joint Committee on Petroleum (Upstream and Downstream) and Gas, the bill’s amended clauses were put to voice vote, but only two members from the zone registered a protest against the marginalization of their constituencies in by the document before eventual passage.

Senate, last Thursday, joined the House of Representatives in finally approving the much-debated Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) after its third reading during plenary.

The bill has five parts, eight schedules, and 319 clauses.

The amended PIB includes recommendation by the Senate Committee for 30 percent of Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) profit derived from oil and gas to be used to fund the exploration of frontier basins.

While presenting the report, Senator Mohammed Sabo, chairman of the Joint Committee on Petroleum (Upstream and Downstream) and Gas, said the legislation is aimed at ‘promoting transparency, good governance, and accountability in the oil and gas sector.’

 “The various obsolete laws currently in operation in the country have been updated and consolidated in this chapter to meet global competitiveness and best practices.

 “A total of 355 amendments were recommended to this chapter while others were retained,” Sabo said.

During the clause-by-clause consideration of the bill in the committee, the percentage that should be allocated to the host communities caused a division among the senators.

While representatives of the host communities had during the PIB public hearing demanded to be allocated 10 percent allocation, the Joint Committee recommended three percent after a meeting of the senators with Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Timipre Sylva and the NNPC Group Managing Director (GMD), Mele Kyari.

Shockingly, only two senators; Senator Thompson Sekibo, representing Rivers North-East and James Manager, representing Delta South argued that the originally agreed five percent was not too much for the host communities, worse still the final 3 per cent passed into law.

Although, President Muhammadu Buhari is expected to sign the PIB into law at a yet unspecified date, the host communities in reaction, plan to put up more fight to cause the lawmakers to shift ground.

As Bayelsa State Governor aptly put it while reacting to the passage of the PIB during Channel TV programme ‘Sunrise Daily,’ Tuesday, July 6.

“It’s obvious they don’t want us in Nigeria,” the governor said.

Out of the 18 senators in the Red Chamber from the Niger Delta, in addition to the six from the two oil producing states not listed in the South South geo-political districts; Imo and Ondo but categorised as oil producing territories, that only two legislators registered what would amount to a protest over the 3 per cent allocation to host communities as contained in the final PIB is mind-boggling.

Many observers posit that their deplorable position on the issue was akin to carrying partisan politics and personal interests too far.

Most baffling perhaps was the shocking silence put up by the Deputy Senate President, Ovie Omo-Agege representing Delta South senatorial zone, and whose region is still reeling under heavy environmental damages in the form of gas flaring ad oil spillages suffered from extensive oil exploration and production activities by upstream firms in the country.

“The more you think deeper into this, you more you are tempted to conclude that it was probably against we in the Niger Delta communities. I mean how else do you even rationale the fact after all the long legwork done by our elders and other traditional rulers in the region, and they succeeded in securing 10 per cent for us. And then these people (Niger Delta senators) just allowed the effort to go to waste.

“That fund was to be used in addressing our long sufferings which the NDDC has failed to meet up with. And now, even the Minister of State is from here, and he allowed this to happen. The least I expected from our people would have been to stage a walkout, just to show their protest,” said Alali Abideh, a Political Science student at the University of Uyo and environment activist residing in Yenagoa, Bayelsa.

The story of the PIB itself is replete with hiccups and disagreements as parties have refused to shift ground, until last Thursday, when it seemed either that compromises has been made, or that parties had become wearied from years of conflict and as such were ready to accept whatever was given to them.

The biggest gainers remained the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and the International Oil Companies (IOCs), who constitute the exploration and production (E&Ps) of the upstream segment the mid-stream and downstream interests in the industry that had now all gotten a seemingly clearer picture of the operating terrain for their activities.

According to the auditing and advisory firm, KPMG, only 4 per cent of the $70 billion investment made in Africa’s oil and gas industry between 2015 and 2019 went to Nigeria, despite the fact that it is the continent’s biggest producer with the largest reserves.

The firm also noted that previous attempts in 2009, 2012 and 2018 failed ‘because of factors such as lack of ownership, misalignment of interests between the National Assembly and the Executive, perceived erosion of ministerial powers, stiff opposition by the petroleum host communities and push back by investors on the perceived uncompetitive provisions in those versions of the bill.’

The Federal Government plans to attain 40 billion barrels of reserves and production levels of four million barrels per day and the PIB aims to drive that agenda. The PIB re-affirms the oversight and supervisory role of the Minister of Petroleum Resources in driving government policy in the sector.

The new provisions contained in the PIB curtail the powers of the minister in approving or revoking an oil licence.

Interestingly, the new bill prescribes 30 per cent of NNPC’s profits to fund exploration activities in ‘frontier basins.’ Clause 4 of the new bill calls for the setting up of a Nigerian Upstream Regulatory Commission to enforce, administer and implement laws, regulations and policies covering upstream petroleum operations while Clause 29 prescribes creation of a Nigerian Midstream and Downstream Petroleum Regulatory Authority for the regulation of midstream and downstream operations.

Clause 53 requires that the Minister of Petroleum Resources incorporates the NNPC into a Limited Company with 100% FGN share ownership not later than six months after the coming into effect of the new Act. The new entity shall operate in accordance with the Companies and Allied Matters Act.

However, the biggest losers were the host communities and environment activists and other human rights groups who had hoped that the much-anticipated five per cent Community Development Fund contained in the original document would help in restoring their environment and normal lives long disrupted by operations of the oil firms.

That Community Development Fund payment was what mattered most to the host communities spread across the South South and South East regions of the country. Their representatives had in earlier public hearings culminating in the articulation of the bill demanded 10 per cent, but were reluctant to settle for five of the total profits of the oil firms to be paid to host communities. However, out-voted by the majority as their representatives looked away inside the Red Chambers, three per cent stares them in the face. Under Clause 240 (2), the matter was settled at three per cent.

Puncturing the justification y the lawmakers to allocate 30 per cent of NNPC’ profits to future search for oil, senior analyst at SBM Intelligence in Lagos, Joachim MacEbong, corroborated the Bayelsa Governor, Diri, when he posited that there has been no record of commercial quantities of oil and gas being found outside the Niger Delta region and it is unlikely that there will be in future.

The ‘Frontier Basin Development Commission’ which will receive the bulk of NNPC’s 30 per cent profit will end up incurring overheads, this, according to him, is in addition to the issue of the global move toward low-carbon energy sources.

“In the unlikely event of any significant crude oil finds, it is again doubtful whether the amount realised will be worth the initial investment.

“Rather than putting money aside to search for oil, the discovery of which is doubtful and the value of which may not even be worth the investment even if found, every spare kobo should be put back into the Sovereign Wealth Fund, especially the government’s share of revenues,” MacEbong said.

As it is, the 30 per cent allocation of NNPC’s profit for more oil search appears to be dead on arrival, this is as many others question the rationale behind starving the Niger Delta region of money for repair of their land damaged by crude oil explorations and productions, in view of the seeming politicization and bureaucracy surrounding activities of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NNDC).

The NDDC has been bedeviled by unwholesome practices, with a forensic audit hanging over its head after nearly two decades of existence tainted by a plethora of awarded, fully-paid but unexecuted contracts for projects in the region.

“It’s obvious they don’t want us in Nigeria. Or else how do you accept to give 3% to host communities who have lost so much and on whose soil the oil is exploited to settle for that amount? While you then allocate the rest 97% to the rest of the country.

“The people in the host communities have lost their land, their original means and sources of livelihood to oil and gas exploration activities, as well as suffering environmental pollution arising from such activities. And then you further allocate 30% of profit from our resources for more exploration in other parts. And they have found nothing yet.

“I really hope they find oil in the Chad basin for instance, because then I would imagine the host communities would be give n the same 3% and let us see if they will keep quiet and accept it,” the Bayelsa Governor, Diri further said.

Presently, the Niger Delta host communities are spoiling for a showdown with both the executive and legislative arms of government before the final signing into law of the PIB by President Buhari, as they have rejected it in totality.

For activists like Alali Abide, the mere fact that the Niger Delta region has suffered environmental damages caused primarily by exploration and production activities of oil forms should inform the National Assembly on the imperative of allocating more palliatives to help in restoring to them their normal means of livelihood.

This fact was also buttressed by the recent admission of the Minister of Environment, Dr Mohammad Abubakar, who on Monday, July 5 disclosed that the country recorded 4,919 oil spills between 2015 to March 2021.

Abubakar said during a Town Hall meeting in Abuja, organised by the Ministry of Information and Culture, on protecting oil and gas infrastructure, that; “According to the National Oil Spill Detection Agency (NOSDRA) data, the total number of oil spills recorded from 2015 to March 2021 is 4,919, the number of oil spills cost by collation is 308.

“The operational maintenance is 106, while sabotage is 3,628 and yet to be determined 70, giving the total number of oil spills on the environment to 235,206 barrels of oil. This is very colossal to the environment.

“Several statistics have emphasised Nigeria as the most notorious country in the world for oil spills, losing roughly 400,000 barrels per day. The second country is followed by Mexico that has reported only 5,000 to 10,000 barrel only per day, thus a difference of about 3,900 per cent.”

Abubakar added that the activities that come with oil exploration and exploitation had similarly caused alterations to the environment and some of its effects had either been reduced or prevented.

“From the damage alone to their lands, there is no need stating the obvious that our region need all the money it can get, not just from the resources taken from our land, but also because of our means of feeding ourselves taken from us as our land is heavily polluted,” said Pere Abideh.

Since the passage of the PIB, the Southern Governors Forum in a communiqué issued after their meeting on Monday in Lagos on Monday, July 5, while commending the National Assembly for progress made in the passage of the bill as law, had rejected the proposed 3 per cent and supported the 5 per cent share of the oil revenue to the host community as recommended by the House of Representatives.

The forum also rejected the proposed 30 per cent share of profit for the exploration of oil and gas in the basins.

In the same vein, members of the House of Reps from the southern part of Nigeria approved the resolutions reached by the Southern Governors’ Forum on the PIB, among others.

Reps Chairman of the Southern Caucus, Victor Nwokolo, in a statement issued on Tuesday, July 6, titled, ‘Southern Reps Backs Southern Governors On Presidency, Electronic Transmission of Election Results, PIB, Others,’ said his colleagues at the House of Representatives also backed ‘our governors in rejecting the proposed 30 per cent share of profit for the exploration of oil and gas in the basins.’

At the community level, the Ikwerre people of Rivers states under the auspices of Ikwerre People’s Congress (IPC), has also rejected the new PIP, calling the representing senators ‘a disgrace and enemies of our region,’ further lashing the Niger Delta senators  for backing the ‘injustice without staging a walkout.’

IPC in a press statement signed by Livingstone Wechie, Chairman; Comrade Innocent Okocha, Vice Chairman; Stanley Worgu, General Secretary and Bright Chukwuma, Director, IPC Diaspora, described the new provision as, ‘the most ridiculous and insulting allocation of three percent proceeds to host Communities truly defines the unjust and repressive posture of the federal government which continues to undermine minority rights in this Country.’

“The most ridiculous and insulting allocation of three percent proceeds to host Communities truly defines the unjust and repressive posture of the federal government which continues to undermine minority rights in this Country. As long as Nigeria continues to unitarily sequester our assets without allowing the ancestral owners of land and natural resources to determine their economic future as of right in the principle of federalism as is applicable all over the world, the economic injustice meted on our people will naturally continue to breed instability.

“It is unfortunate that the value of Oil and Gas for host Communities in the eyes of government is rated at 3% while the federal government who have no legitimate rights ab initio over the resources will keep the rest hidden under veiled technical arrangements. This is more horrendous given the fact that the said host communities have been left to their fate to grapple with environmental degradation that has denied them livelihood. The danger ahead is that as the world transits into alternative energy, Niger Delta, stripped of livelihood stands as the biggest loser because its environment is criminally destroyed with the federal government looking the other way.

On its part, the Niger Delta Congress (NDC) described the passage of the PIB as ‘as antics of thieves in National Assembly,’ even as it called the bill ‘legalised robbery.’

A statement by its acting spokesperson, Ovunda C. Eni, the NDC condemned the bill, saying it is a tool for further plundering of the region’s resources.

“The news of the passage of the Petroleum Industry Bill by both Chambers of the National Assembly does not come as a surprise to the Niger Delta Congress.

“This, as expected, is only a new legislation to be added to other legislations that have been used as tools to plunder our land and resources, and to further enslave our people; and a new addition to the plethora of reasons for the upcoming Niger Delta Peoples Conference slated for 8th and 9th October 2021,” the statement reads in part.

The group accused some politicians from the Niger Delta region for their treacherous role in the passage of the Bill, adding that the PIB is not different from flawed 1999 Nigerian Constitution.

Dismissing the PIB as an antics of thieves in National Assembly, the NDC said with the Bill, oil companies in the region are carrying out legalised robbery.

Also, adding its voice in condemnation of the PIB, the Urhobo Progress Union (UPU) rejected the proposed three per cent allocated to oil-bearing and pipeline-bearing host communities, maintaining its request on nothing less, but 20 per cent.

The Urhobo socio-cultural group also condemned and described the 30 per cent of profits for further frontier oil exploration in the north as insensitive, provocative and injustice to the goose that lays the golden egg.

“A paltry 3% is what Northern lawmakers felt should be for the owners and host oil communities, a culmination of a game of wits between Southern Legislators who wanted justice for our people versus Northern lawmakers who connived with International Oil Companies (IOCs) and their principals to ensure those host communities must not be given the insulative and unacceptable 5% they initially offered.

“Even this unacceptable 3% is also redefined to include any pipeline bearing communities such as those areas in the north where oil pipelines pass through to convey petroleum products entitled to the same 3% that oil-bearing communities from where oil is drilled will be entitled.

“By all intents and purposes, this bill denies the people of Niger-Delta a commensurate entitlement of the resources in our lands while handing out generous benefit for everyone in the value chain other than the owners of the resources, in particular, increasing profits of IOC investors and other people outside the Communities that own the resources and suffer the most from the devastating environmental consequences oil exploration activities,’ President-General of UPU, Joe Omene, argued in a statement made available, Sunday in Warri, Delta State.

He warned that “if they participate in that joint session to pass it, history shall record it and so shall all those who participated be remembered by history.”

On his part, Elder statesman, Chief Edwin Clark described the newly-passed PIB as ‘satanic, unjust and embarrassing to Niger Delta,’ adding further its passage has ‘dashed the hope of the people of the Niger Delta region.’

Clark, who leads the Pan-Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF), and the Southern and Middle Belt Leaders Forum (SMBLF), said the provision that allocated a huge 30% of profits for further frontier oil exploration in the north was a source of concern.

He said it is an absurd provision especially in a fast changing world as investment shifts away from fossil fuel.

Clark who was represented at the press conference in Abuja by PANDEF’s National Publicity Secretary, Ken Robinson, declared that the region has had enough of the post-colonial oppression and will be resisting it.

“Given the depth of ingratitude expressed and delivered after decades of exploitation and neglect of the region, the entire people of the Niger Delta region, for and on behalf of the host communities, vehemently reject the following aspects of the bill: the 3% and 5% of Operating Expenditure granted to the Host Communities; the fraudulent and provocative 30% provision for the Frontier Exploration Fund.

“And now demand: the PIB must be reversed, reviewed and amended to ensure that the Oil-Bearing Communities must now receive not less than 10% of Operating Cost.

“If this is not done, the Niger Delta people may be forced to take their destiny into their own hands and all IOCs may find themselves denied access to their oil activities in such communities.”

With all the many rejections by the host communities, many posit that if only the Niger Delta senate caucus of the Upper Chambers of the National Assembly had adopted a more people-oriented position, the angst which has trailed the PIB passage would instead have been jubilations after 20 years of debating the subject.

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