Engr. Anthony Okwuosha is the Managing Director of the Imo State Oil Producing Areas Development Commission (ISOPADEC). In this interview with STEVE UZOECHI, he speaks on the realities of oil producing communities in the state and how the commission is contending with multifarious challenges they are facing. Excerpts:
Do oil producing communities in Imo State really suffer deprivations?
Yes, they do and we cannot overemphasize that. They suffer several special kinds of deprivation to such extent that strange health issues and ailments that are uncommon in this part of the world are being experienced by our people due to the effects of oil exploration. And as a matter of fact, the government did well to set up the 13 per cent Derivation Fund. But unfortunately, over the years some of us did not quite understand why the commission was set up. They have continuously misapplied the funds meant to solve the problems and help our people come out of the challenges they face living in areas where oil and gas are mined.
In what specific ways are people in the oil producing communities suffering differently from the rest of the state?
You might need to visit some of the communities by yourself. When you fall sick and apply drugs with which people with similar ailments are treated elsewhere, they may not work here. Their farmlands do not yield and the air they breathe is polluted. My people cannot fish any longer, whereas we are predominantly farmers and fishermen. We used to do well in agriculture and fishing before the oil companies arrived and began oil exploration activities. Our people suffer so much, coupled with the emotional and psychological trauma that they are just there in penury and just in your back yard; millions of naira are ferried out on daily basis.
Our educational system is bad and the level of awareness is poor. The companies bring all kinds of persons from across the country and beyond and they occupy positions in these companies. They fence off the communities where these oil sites are located and the people consequently lose the opportunities of learning new things as a result of the oil companies running a closed system in their communities. They hardly get opportunities to prove or improve themselves. The challenges are huge and mind boggling.
A former Managing Director of ISOPADEC, Henry Okafor, once said that the oil in these communities cannot create jobs for the natives, but could be used to develop the area. Do you agree with that?
I think that oil on its own won’t create jobs, but you need a kind of special intelligence to do things and see how to lift the people. I agree with him that oil on its own cannot create jobs, but the oil companies are doing a lot for themselves, they are growing their people back home, so their activities can help our people and make them get the know-how to better themselves. But that is not happening.
What has ISOPADEC under you, done in the various sectors, especially education?
It is no longer news across the country that our education system has progressively been in rapid decline over the years, particularly the basic education system. We have lost it. It is the same thing in our area, where oil is produced. But ISOPADEC, after a studious appraisal of the situation, is rolling out an education support system before the end of this quarter, covering primary education. After that we can scale it up to cover secondary education. At the tertiary level, we are getting together our people who have done well in their various fields of study to see what we can do support them to do their post graduate degree in specialised schools, so that we can begin to develop quality people, who can truly be leaders tomorrow and come back home to help us solve some of the problems we are facing right now.
Our support in education is just to help the government in what it is doing. The state government already has a lot in stock. What we are doing is aimed at restoring qualitative teaching culture and we are providing the kind of support that would make teaching attractive for the teachers that would teach in our communities because it is scary coming to some of our areas to teach. Our communities are not exempted from the violent nature of petro-politics in the Niger Delta region of this country and it is chasing a lot of teachers away.
Currently, we have done a lot in the area of security, so much that psychologically they are now assured of their safety and would be willing to come. We have security structures across the local governments, comprising the Army, Police, Department of State Services and others. However, we want to see additional support we can provide in terms of the pay package, so that they can teach our kids with passion and commitment. I grew up and schooled in this same community and I saw teachers who would take you as their children and nurture you for the future. But we have lost all that. Many of the people who teach today are those who chose teaching as a last resort just to earn a living. We want to see how we can get those who love teaching to come to our communities. If we get our kids and groom them for future challenges, we would have taken them away from the streets and drugs.
You talked about the security efforts in the ISOPADEC catchment area. Is it the same thing as Operation Iron Gate?
No, it is in addition to the Operation Iron Gate, which the state government is running. But we have a special security situation in our place. By the time we came on board, people had fled their communities and several communities were scanty and deserted. But right now, they are coming back. For instance, in December, when we went to Ohaji-Egbema for the ground breaking ceremony for the electrification project we are doing in the area, people turned out in their numbers. The crowd that turned out to grace the occasion showed that people have returned to their communities.
What about the issue of herdsmen in the rural communities. There was a report that some communities in your area were attacked and the people fled. What is the situation now?
The herdsmen issue has become a national embarrassment. At our level, we are also talking with the security chiefs in our areas and we hope the issue would be addressed and amicably resolved. You know that cattle rearing is a business, but it appears we are not getting it right. You do your business and I do mine. You protect your business and I protect mine. I don’t know what actually went wrong in the country that we are experiencing these unfortunate incidents. It is indeed embarrassing to our country and not good for our people.
Is your commission making any intervention in the health sector?
We have a lot going for us in the health sector. When we came in, our health facilities were decrepit. The workers were just hanging around without drugs or tools. The people were not turning up to access healthcare services. What we did was to understand what was going on and we found out that the people did not make enough income to take care of their healthcare needs. It was difficult. People preferred to walk across the street and buy drugs from the patent medicine shop, where they would mix all kinds of drugs for them because they could not afford to go to the hospital. To support them boost their income, we came up with an agricultural programme because our people are predominantly farmers and fishermen.
In our agricultural programme, we are buying out cassava being produced by the farmers. We buy at a premium margin, so that the farmers can make additional money. We want to scale it up in order to arouse more interest in farming, so that they can make enough money to take care of themselves. We want to help them make disposable income to take care of their needs. While we are doing this, we are rebuilding failed health infrastructures in our area. We will soon have the ground-breaking ceremony for Ochia/Awara health facility. They don’t have one at all. We are doing another one in Ihie community. We are also rehabilitating failed health infrastructure in Orsu-Obodo. We are doing another one in Izombe.
Oguta Community used to have one of the biggest general hospitals in the state, but it has been grounded for so many years. So, we are looking forward to rehabilitate the failed general hospital. We have not started work but it is in our plan, and very soon we will start work on it. But for the health facilities in Ochia, Ihie, Izombe and Orsu-Obodo, we have awarded contracts for their rehabilitation. We are doing this to help our people, so that by the time our agricultural programme and other empowerment programmes mature, they would make enough money to take care of themselves.
What about the nagging issue of power supply in the oil producing communities?
For a lot of people, who understand how electricity infrastructure works, it is not a complex thing. But at the same time, it is not what you just press a button and every community gets electricity. It does not work that way. These are infrastructures that have been neglected for eight years and more. So, the infrastructures have completely failed. When we came into office, Oguta and Ohaji-Egbema were in total darkness even when the last administration documented that it had paid N140 million for power supply, a claim that has since been found to be untrue.
However, what we did was to look at the low hanging fruits and harvest them first. Today, the majority of our people have electricity. If you go to the communities in our area, the communities that do not have electricity now are those with the complex problems like in cases of burnt transformers and those places where electricity poles are no longer there and the conductors have failed. Honestly, over 70 per cent of our people now enjoy electricity. We have procured the materials; poles, transformers, conductors and others for the job. It takes time to bring these things. I agree that some communities don’t have electricity, but that does not mean we have abandoned them. Not at all; work is ongoing and it will soon get to all the communities.