Lt. Col. Satchie Etoromi (rtd), an octogenarian, played a major role in the peace process that heralded the end of hostilities between the Itsekiris and Ijaws in the infamous Warri crisis. In this interview, he takes a critical look at recent developments in the country, including insecurity, corruption, alleged fraud in the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on school calendar, amongst other issues. OLA JAMES brings the excerpts
You retired from the military as a Lt. Colonel for nearly four decades now. How has life been outside the military?
It has been interesting. I have spent most part of my nearly forty years of retirement in community development and peace building. I have been playing the role of a conciliator in conflicts resolution and for this I have been given recognition by people from my father’s side, Ijaw and my mother side, Itsekiri. In fact, during the Warri crisis, I was on both sides and I helped to ensure there was a peaceful resolution of the crisis. Before I retired from the Army, I was a Task Force Commander on security and it was during my tenure that the Escravos-Lagos gas pipeline was constructed. So, I supervised the security arrangement of the construction of the whole project. Since I retired from the military about forty years ago, I would say life has been interesting. Most of my people appreciated my contributions, so I became part of the local administration in my various communities. I became a leader in both my father’s side and my mother’s side. They made me a leader because when I was in service I did not turn my back on my people. I took the interest of my people into consideration. And I did a lot of things for my people. That was why the late Olu of Warri decided that I must be the first person to be bestowed with a chieftaincy title. I did not apply for the title. It was given to me because of my contributions to the development of the Itsekiris’ interest. So, I thank God that I was appreciated.
As a security expert, you may have been abreast with the security challenges that have bedeviled the country in the past 10 years or so. Recently, the Nigerian Senate passed a resolution calling on the service chiefs to step aside for their failure to address the security challenge of the country. What are your thoughts on that?
The appointment of service chiefs in the country is the prerogative of the president. If after five years of the tenure of the service chiefs, President Muhammadu Buhari still thinks that his service chiefs are still competent then there is something wrong. The point is that the tenure of the Chief of Army Staff, for instance, is clearly spelt out. Why must the President, because it is his prerogative, decide to keep officers in positions where their usefulness or their efficiency has become inadequate to resolve the security challenges that are prevalent in the country? What we are seeing now is that certain groups of people migrate from wherever they come from to some parts of the country. Whenever they cross the border into Nigeria, they are not searched by security personnel and when they migrate into the country they come in with all sorts of sophisticated weapons and they call themselves as herdsmen. In those days, herdsmen go about with long sticks with which they control their cattle. Now, these herdsmen carry AK47 rifles and ammunitions but you have a government that is blind to the criminal activities of these people. It is a pity that the President has so far refused to address the several complaints of Nigerians to these illegal movement of armed foreigners into the country. As a former military officer, I cannot pretend to be blind and deaf and say all is well with the security situation in the country. So, the question is: How long are we going to keep quiet while the situation is growing from bad to worse?
So, are you supporting the recommendation of the Senate that the service chiefs should step aside?
Of course, they should. In fact, if they have any honour, they should have stepped aside long ago. I’m happy that people have started asking questions and demanding answers.
You were a chief security consultant to the defunct Oil Mineral Producing Area Development Commission (OMOPADEC), which metamorphosed into what is known today as the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC). Recently, the National Assembly embarked on the investigation of the Interim Management Committee of the commission and a lot of revelations have come out. Would you say the commission has achieved its vision for the people of the Niger Delta?
The National Assembly’s investigation of the NDDC Interim Management Committee has unearthed a lot of mind-boggling revelations. We can see the monumental fraud committed by the IMC in less than six months. They have awarded themselves contracts running into billions. It is a pity that it has been revealed that the IMC spent over N1.3 billion as palliative for its staff who are on salaries. I have never seen that anywhere in the world. And to make the matter worse, they are boasting that they have to take care of themselves before other people and that if they die nobody will be available to intervene in the problem of the Niger Delta. Something is fundamentally wrong. It was not like that in the days of OMOPADEC. The question I always ask is: Are these people aware that there is a law guiding the operations of the NDDC? What is happening now in NDDC didn’t take place during the days of OMPADEC. It is a pity that those who find themselves in positions of authority have betrayed the trust members of the public have in them and they have become very dishonest and dishonorable. It is a pity some of them have become so clever in the act of fraud. Imagine the Minister of the Ministry of the Niger Delta Affairs claiming that he didn’t sign any document. My take in all of these is that the IMC should be sacked even along with the minister and the already confirmed board of the NDDC be put in place to midwife the forensic audit and put in place an efficient management team that will execute the vision of the commission for the people of the Niger Delta. The Act setting up the NDDC must be strictly followed.
What do you think is the impact of the continuous closure of schools in the country over the COVID-19 pandemic?
It is a pity! I’ve heard some politicians saying that we should just forget this year and that academic activities should be postponed till next year. The unfortunate thing is that those who are advocating that academic activities be suspended till next year are the same people who have their children studying abroad and who are not affected by academic shutdown. They have refused to educate the children of poor Nigerians, whereas their children are studying abroad. I strongly believe that it will be unfair to our children, especially those in their final year in their various academic institutions. If they are not given the opportunity to take their examinations, then it is unfair. If there is anything they could do for the children not to lose a whole academic session, I have no objection.
Has the COVID-19 affected your business in any way?
Yes, of course. I’ve been involved in providing light to my communities. Now, because of the COVID-19 and the ban on imports and all that, we have been finding it difficult to source for diesel to service the power generating process. So, that is how it has directly affected us. Perhaps, I should also mention that within this period of COVID- 19, the main economic occupation of our people which is fish farming has been affected in one way or the other. I’m sure you heard of the massive death of fishes and other marine animals during the period. Although it has not been established that the development was caused by COVID-19, but the fact remains that the government has so far remained unconcerned about the plight of my people in this regard.
Recently, the Delta State government was quoted to be preparing to slash the salaries of its civil servants by as much as 25 per cent and also contemplating sacking some of them. It was also alleged that the government has decided to revert back to old minimum wage. What is your take on this?
I think the problem rests squarely on our trade unions. They are the ones that make various demands on the government. If the government has agreed to their demands for payment of a new minimum wage, now that the economy is down due to COVID-19, it behooves on the unions to go back to the government for negotiation. If I was in government and I have the opportunity to recommend, I would rather say that staff of some agencies and committees, who do not contribute to the economy of the state should be dropped. But for those whose services are very strategic to the progress of the state’s economy, government should not only pay their staff according to the minimum wage but should also not consider sacking them.
Finally, the 2023 presidency, what is your take on the clamour between the North and South?
We all agreed on rotation of the presidency. By 2023, the North would have completed their turn and then it should come to the South. But if they are coming with another theory geared towards retaining the presidency in the North, then it is unfortunate and that will be wrong.