Minister of the Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio, recently had a meeting with youth chairmen of ethnic nationalities in the Niger Delta area. Shortly after the encounter, he talked of developmental projects for youths in the region and abandoned projects in this interview with BEN OGBEMUDIA
What has happened to the several abandoned projects by NDDC, are there plans to complete them?
If those projects are completed, the people of the region should go there and see how much we are working to change the narratives, and then they shall no longer be a sanctuary of criminals. This is a period where there is a new focus because no matter how much money we share, we will spend the money, but the infrastructure that we build can lead to investment and can also assist the region in terms of empowerment and entrepreneurship.
The youth of the region appears not to be happy with the way things are, how do you intend to address this?
The youth of Niger Delta are more focused and are more concerned than the youths in some other areas, especially now that banditry and kidnapping have been the order in other places. The Niger-Delta region has become the safest place and the fact that the youth is safe simply means that the youth embrace peace. I know they embraced peace because the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari continued with the amnesty programme. A lot of people thought it was going to be abandoned, but he has continued with the programme. It has been able to get the youth involved in the implementation and building of refineries through local content. Fantastic structures have been erected in Bayelsa and centres through the local content and a lot of people are putting the programmes into play. Apart from that, I do know that we have completed, skill acquisition centres in the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs which will also help to empower the youths of the region. The Federal Government is now undertaking training and as far as I am concerned that will create thousands of jobs, but you need to be trained for it so that you can gain employment.
You recently embarked on a trip to France, what gains do you have to share in that trip?
I have said it times without number that the amnesty programme will not last in perpetuity. I was recently at the Paris Nigeria France Partnership Forum where I canvassed before the international community for investment focus and in the Niger Delta region. I pointed out to them that everybody in the region has viable land for farming. The region used to be known for farm produce and farm produce for over the years in the regions and pay salaries for all other development you saw. The southwest region was known for the production of cocoa, while groundnut, cotton, and other things kept the north in the past and a lot of things were done at that time. This is the period where Nigeria is trying to identify some parts and trying to get an alternative source of funding for the nation and bring in alternative means of livelihood, we continue to showcase the agriculture potentials in the Niger Delta region.
So, are you saying agriculture in the region is an alternative to oil?
The Niger-Delta region must be the first to embrace it. We have been the life wire of the economics of this country for the past 60 years and I know if we put our house together, we should be focused because in the 1960s it was in the Niger Delta region that the first seedling of palm oil product was taken to Malaysia and Malaysia became the best palm oil-producing country in the world. And if you look at the price of palm oil, it is much higher than crude oil and is even more stable than crude oil prices. The price of crude oil has continued to fluctuate and what that means is that our youth must do everything possible to take advantage of the economies on the ground. The programme of the Federal Government is to improve, not just yourself, but get involved in enterprises that will bring sustainable growth in the various communities.
Some former militants are worried that the current peace in the region may not last due to a lot of issues unattended to by the Federal Government, how do you hope to address this?
Yes, there is a lot of work to be done and the region is not a small one. To address some of these challenges, the youth would need more empowerment. It is a region that a kilometre of the road can cost up to N500 million to N1 billion to construct, unlike other regions because we need to do land replenishing, particularly in the texture of the soil. If you check the Lagos Benin road, there are some places you will pay special attention to because the soil may look clean but you can dig and remove the clay soil and go and buy red sand somewhere else and construct kilometres upon kilometres and it will never last. Unfortunately, we have difficult land terrains in the region because of the nature of our soil and weather. In the region, we have more than eight months of rainfall and then when we do construction for instance it cost more compared with other regions.
How do you hope to push for the industrialisation of the region through your ministry?
Honestly, a lot is going on, I am talking about the region where small-scale industries can take our youths out of amnesty so that we do not have adults in the future that are idols. This is a region where even cassava alone will make Nigeria the headquarters of cassava production, and then we can sell to the whole of West Africa. You know cassava has a lot of value chain from starch to down to pharmaceutical industries, they need cassava and today we are talking about producing vaccines. It is possible tablets that will help relieve COVID-19 in the country, and of course, some of those regions can come from some of the raw materials in the region.
Would you say oil is a curse to the region?
I thought about the situation and we found that out when oil was discovered in 1956 in Olobiri and the people of Olobiri today for more than 60 years were only recently connected to the national grid for the first time. There has been a lot of neglect and marginalisation by the government after government. A few years ago when the then President Umaru Yar’Adua was president, the youth of the region decided to destroy the pipelines but thank God the amnesty was put in place and vandalism was stopped. This present government has continued with the amnesty programme and has brought out a lot of social programmes to restrict the suffering of the youth to also ensure that something is put on the table. I am delighted as a minister to work with youth and I want the youth to have an organisation that will outlive my office. I will give the youth all the support and I hope that future ministers from the region will also support the youth programmes. We have between 95 and 100 ethnic nationalities in the Niger Delta region.
What is happening to some failed and uncompleted portions of the East-West road project being undertaken by the NDDC that is under your ministry?
Two issues must be explained in advance before you say anything. The Eleme section of the road is very bad, and that is the section from Eleme junction to Port Harcourt, which is about 15 kilometres. It was not in the original contract that was given out in 2006 during the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo because at that time the section was already dualised and they keep bringing the different functional sections of the road. But because over 5,000 heavy duties vehicles pass the road every day, the portion of the road has failed and something needs to be done.
I have tried to explain to some leaders of the region that the Federal Government is not sleeping, we are working very hard to redesign the entire place. My ministry has released money to the contractor, RCC, over N4.9bn for mobilisation because it is a new contract. We are working with the Ministry of Works and the President has brought in the presidential infrastructure development fund and we are also discussing with some of the institutions with funds from DMO to get a special intervention to that particular section. I believe with that, other sections will be completed. I do know that we will commission sections 1-4, which from Effurun (Delta State) to Oron (Akwa Ibom State) by Mr. President. When that is done, that means we are going to have a new bridge and many bridges have been completed so far.
The total number of bridges is over 42, so after the Ogoni side, you will know that there is a new bridge at the end, but I don’t want to mention it. One of the bridges around the Eleme junction has collapsed, it is just hanging and that is why we have a lot of traffic gridlock there. So, that road has been redesigned because the road has been there for over 14 years.
What about other abandoned projects in the region, what is the NDDC doing about them?
All the major projects that should be done in the region are undertaken by the NDDC and we were able to select some of them that we are working on. For over 11 years, the sub-station in Ondo that was giving light to Ondo-South about nine local government areas have been in darkness for three years. We are working on it, the contractors are on-site and by God’s grace before the end of December, we will commission it and give light to all the local government in all that region. And of course, we have also looked at the plight of the student, I think about 18 structures, 18 major hostels projects in institutions that were started by the NUC (National Universities Commission) were abandoned. They have about 1,000-bed space in each state.
There is one at the University of Uyo and we have started working on it, by the end of this month it will be commissioned and this will take at least 1,000 students out of the houses and out of arm robbery attacks in shanties and in places they are probably staying and then house them in one location and this will help them to focus more on learning. It will also help that have settled minds and they will have confidence in their learning environment. We want to do the same in many other places, there is one in the Niger Delta University in Bayelsa that was also abandoned, we want to see how we can start, once funds are available. We will make sure that they are completed for their benefit and there are various places like that across the states.
Be assured that we are going to do it for the region as soon as funds have been allocated. The Federal Government has completed the forensic audit and then it has been submitted to the office of the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, but I am sure the summary will be read by Mr President. So, for NDDC, we will set a new template for the incoming board to work with.