By Egufe Yafugbrhi, WARRI
SINCE rampaging Niger Delta Avengers heralded renewed militancy in oil producing Niger Delta with several parallel groups jumping on the bandwagon by the day, Chevron Nigeria Limited, CNL, has inevitably been on the receiving end with its vast oil assets in Delta State as prime targets.
This challenge of corporate survival was aggravated at 1300hrs on August 9, 2016, when men, women and youths from all five communities of Ugborodo, major host to CNL’s Escravos facility in Warri South West council area of Delta state besieged the company’s main gate in protest. The protesters say they won’t quit until the issues in dispute were resolved.
The company’s statement in day three of the community’s occupation of its premises suggested that the protesters were staging a misplaced demonstration, but motivators of the mass action see the company’s position as merely begging the issues.
Deji Hastrupp, General Manager, Policy, Government and Public Affairs, had in Chevron’s statement said the Ugborodo community protesters are agitating for CNL’s “recognition of the Ugborodo Community Interim Management Committee, IMC, and also requesting CNL not to recognise the Ugborodo Community Trust, among others.
“CNL does not interfere in the internal affairs of communities in the areas of its operations including Ugborodo. We continue to engage with the protesters and other key community leaders and stakeholders, including the Delta State Government, DTSG and hope for a resolution of the situation shortly.”
Former chairman, Ugborodo Community Trust, Pa Sandys Omadeli Uvwoh in reaction said: “Deji deliberately stated half-truth to bury the meddlesomeness and divide and rule by CNL in the leadership crisis and underdevelopment the community has suffered over the years.
“Nobody is asking Chevron to interfere in Ugborodo affairs. The issues of dispute with the company is that Chevron said it does not recognise the IMC, the collective leadership organ the community put in place since March this year and they (Cheveron), on the other hand are dealing with the factional leaders whose tenure have elapsed as community trust.
“This issue has been on for six months and the old leaders have the backing of the state government and Chevron is stressing that the IMC must have government backing before it can accord it recognise. I don’t know where government has started appointing leaders for communities.”
At the heart of the matter for which Chevron has been caught in the web is the continued conflict generated by the community’s determination to extricate itself from the Ogidigben Export Processing Zone, EPZ, Interface Committee which has ran Ugborodo affairs since government constituted it in May 2014.
At the acquisition of Ugborodo land (Ogigigben) for establishment of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, facilitated EPZ, also known as Gas City Revolution Project, in 2013, the Federal Government hit brick wall interfacing with the community. There was turmoil in the land as two factions laid claim to the Ugborodo Community Trust, the administrative organ of the community.
Under the heated leadership strife, supporters of Chief Thomas Ereyitomi-led Trust, just elected for a second term then in a process observed and endorsed by the Delta State government, were sacked from their homes.This followed arms struggle by forces loyal to rival David Tonwe who also assumed Trust chairmanship in a parallel election backed by foremost Itsekiri historian, Pa JOS Ayomike. The conflict which assumed dangerous proportion at a point reportedly claimed a life and several persons displaced from their homes.
To navigate through the crisis which was getting in the way of the EPZ project, the Federal Government, after series of truce meetings with key actors, constituted a 20-man EPZ Interface Committee, 10 from both factions with a mandate to restore peace to the community, resettle displaced persons, lead the community’s interests in the EPZ and push for election of a generally accepted community trust in the long run.
Revolt against EPZ Interface Committee
In March 2016, a simmering campaign of rejection against the committee got to crisis point as a gathering of the community moderated by Benson Omadeli, Olajori (Spiritual Head) of Ugborodo installed an Interim Management Committee, IMC, headed by Emmanuel Meke to administer the community pending election of a substantive Trust.
Former Trust chairman, Pa Sandys Uvwoh, noted thus: “The EPZ Committee was a creation of government. It was never the will of Ugborodo that the same key actors who set the community on fire in leadership tussle and stagnated her people should not, under the guise of EPZ Committee, transform into a Community Trust.
“Secondly, not only has the tenure of the contentious community Trust claimants which led to crisis expired; Ugborodo under the circumstance cannot elect a substantive Trust following death of all the registered trustees under the governing instrument. There has to be a new constitution to elect new trustees before a substantive Trust can be elected.
“Pending the election of a Trust, the community can’t be left in vacuum. The IMC has mandate to administer the community. It was not a one-man decision. It was a collective decision done at a gathering of the Ugborodo traditional authority, elders, youths and women who suffer the current stagnation in the community without clear leadership. As a benefit of its birth, the IMC paved for the election of a new youth body which people thought would create commotion.”
Government, Olu of Warri favour expanded EPZ Committee
Apparently alerted on the appointment of an IMC, the father of Itsekiri nation, His Majesty, Ogiame Ikenwole, the Olu of Warri ruled against dissolution of the EPZ Interface Committee in running affairs of the community.
At a closed door meeting with the community stakeholders in his palace on March 31, Mrs. Praise Igbene, member of the EPZ Committee who attended said: “The Olu noted that it is too early to dissolve the EZP Committee. He tasked us to rather include more persons in the committee to allow peace reign.”
In tandem with the Olu’s directive, Governor Ifeanyi Okowa, had at recent stakeholders meeting in Warri, also voted for the expansion of the EPZ Committee rather than a parallel IMC to lead affairs of the community for the time being.
Drift into Occupation of Chevron
Sensitive to the situation, Chevron tacitly respected the position of the Olu and the governor, ignoring all entreaties from the IMC and its supporters to accord it recognition. The refusal to work with the IMC informed the current Occupy Chevron protest much to the chagrin of the EPZ Committee.
Alex Eyengho, spokesman for the EPZ on his displeasure with the demonstrations said: “What is happening there is being carried out by grossly misled few rebels in Ugborodo. They are rebelling against the decision of the Delta State government, the Olu of Warri, Pa JOS Ayomike and of course they are rebels against law and order.
“The IMC and the duo who fabricated it, Olajori (Spiritual Head) of Ugborodo, Benson Omadeli and his cousin, Sandys Uvwoh against the will of Ugborodo and the decision of a court of competent jurisdiction are behind this illegality and potentially dangerous protest.
“They are doing all these to arm-twist Chevron to recognise the IMC led by Emma Meke. For the avoidance of doubt, the only management structure for the entire Ugborodo as of today is the expanded EPZ Interface Committee under the leadership of Austin Oborogbeyi. Security agencies should do the needful by treated the isolated characters as rebels”.
Okowa at the stakeholders meeting, in Asaba August 15, to find amicable end to the matter, reportedly directed that Emma Meke’s headed IMC nominate 10 persons, while each of the five Ugborodo communities should nominate three persons each, making a total of 15 persons to bring the EPZ Interface Committee to 46 members.
Anything is possible going forward for both Chevron and Ugborodo, divided by leadership strife. At the heart of the raging crisis, however, remains the critical unanswered question. Who benefits from the confusion? The community sure loses as development opportunities from Chevron are put on hold. Or some persons, as others are speculating, are taking the commonwealth for themselves.