The federal government and Delta State collaborate to save the multi-billion dollar gas project at Ugborodo, Delta State, threatened by feuding host communities
Twice in a space of two weeks, the federal government read out the riot act to the feuding parties in the seemingly intractable crises that have claimed many lives and made life a living hell in the oil-rich Ode-Ugborodo community in Warri North Local Government area of Delta State. Though the Itsekiri community had been engulfed in crisis since 2011 when two rival groups emerged, laying claim to the leadership of the Ugborodo Governing Board, an arm of the Ugborodo Trust, the feud became aggravated and more intense following the decision of the federal government to set up a $16 billion (about N2.5 trillion) gas city at Ogidigben, near Escravos, within the Ugborodo community.
The issue at stake is who gains control of the leadership to negotiate for compensation over the project located in their land. The crisis came to a head when the rival groups clashed early January, a development that is likely to threaten the realisation of the project.
Hence the federal government waded into the crisis to save its investment in the gas city project touted to be the largest in Africa. Representatives of the two factions and top officials of the Delta State government were consequently summoned to a meeting in Abuja with Dele Ezeoba, immediate past chief of naval staff. A tough-talking Ezeoba read the riot act to the warring parties warning them that the government would visit the full weight of the law on them if they did not sheathe their swords. At that meeting, a committee headed by Ovuozorode Macaulay, secretary to Delta State government, SSG, was empanelled to mediate in the crisis and find an amicable solution. An earlier effort by the Delta State government to broker truce had failed. Shortly after that, the two groups were invited to a security meeting at the Government House in Warri but one of the factions headed by David Tonwe refused to show up. Tonwe, a former chairman of Warri South-West Local Government Council, is one of the two persons laying claim to the chairmanship of the community.
In pursuance of this mandate, the Macaulay-led federal government committee on Ugborodo crisis recently held its inaugural meeting in Asaba where the government once again warned the two rival groups against further hostilities to allow a peaceful resolution of the issues at stake. The meeting had in attendance Ikechukwu Aduba, commissioner of police, Delta State, representatives of the chief of naval staff and the Department of State Security, as well as a legal team from the state Ministry of Justice led by Charles Ajuyah, attorney-general and commissioner for justice and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN.
Macaulay sent strong signals to the two groups that the government would no longer tolerate the carnage and wanton destruction of properties in the community. He recalled that the crisis came to a peak some two weeks back, and being a federal government project, the presidency had to intervene based on which all the parties involved in the crisis were summoned to Abuja and a committee put in place by the presidency headed Ezeoba and Mohammed Abubakar, inspector-general of police, IGP.
The SSG warned that while the issues were being looked into, “the work at the site should not be disturbed and nobody should claim leadership as far as the Ugborodo Community and the gas project is concerned.” According to him, “Our duty here today is to commence mediation on the issues so that the gas plant, the first and the largest of its kind in Africa, should be able to go on smoothly without any interference or disturbance from the communities, from the Ugborodo community in particular that is involved.” Macaulay advised them to come with an open mind and be prepared to shift grounds in the spirit of give and take so that there would be peace.
A source at the meeting hinted the magazine that three decisions were taken at the meeting before it rose after about two and a half hours. “The earlier committee set up last year was scrapped. Two, the two parties are to meet among themselves and find a way forward. They are to resolve among themselves a committee that will be acceptable to both sides; they should jaw-jaw. And three, the meeting was adjourned for one week within which we are to revert to members of the committee with names of the chairman and members on equal basis,” said the source.
With the ball thrown back into the court of the warring parties, the state government on its part is not folding its arms waiting for solution from them. Emmanuel Uduaghan, governor of the state, who also has a stake in the matter as an Itsekiri man, was also busy troubleshooting in order to find a way out of the logjam. He had to enlist the help of the Olu of Warri, Ogiame, Atuwatse 11 on how to save the situation at Ugborodo. At the meeting, the Olu disowned Johnson Ayomike, one of the purported leaders of the troubled community, whom he described as “an impostor.” The monarch who described the renowned historian as “an individual in the community” and not a leader, said “we do not want a situation where Ayomike wants to draw the community backward and I want to let you know that he does not have my blessings.”
Ayomike had alleged in some newspaper reports that a sum of $6 million provided by Chevron and meant for the Ugborodo New Town Project was missing, accusing the governor. Reacting to the allegation, the governor said the money was intact. According to him, “The way it is arranged, Chevron has to approve the project. Chevron has to sign the cheque and Chevron has to supervise the project. The money is a fund no single individual can withdraw.” Ecobank where the money is domiciled confirmed Uduaghan’s position. The bank at a press conference in Warri explained that the said money was not paid in dollars, but in naira, stating that the amount had increased from N705 million from December 18, 2008 to over N908 million currently with accrued interest.
On Wednesday January 8, 2014, Uduaghan had also played host to prominent Itsekiri women led by Rita Lori-Ogbebor who were agitated by the precarious situation at Ugborodo and wanted to understand the issues. The governor had explained that the chairmanship of Ugborodo Community Trust was at the root of the crisis and assured that the federal and state governments were working together to forestall any breakdown of law and order.
The genesis of the Ode-Ugborodo crisis can be traced to 2011 following the expiration of the first tenure of Ereyitomi as chairman of the Community Trust. He assumed leadership of the community in 2008. Trouble, however, started when he indicated interest in continuing in office for another term but the Ugborodo Council of Elders, which installed him in 2008, was not favourably disposed to his second tenure. There were sundry allegations against him. Instead, the council installed Tonwe as the new chairman. Another election was, however, conducted by John Kpokpogri, a retired rear admiral and then security adviser to the state governor, which saw the mergence of Ereyitomi as chairman, thereby setting the stage for the crisis that has lingered on since then.
The crisis reached boiling point when the federal government decided to build the Gas City in the area. Macaulay said the state government was aware that “some enemies of progress are out to thwart this laudable project of President Goodluck Jonathan, which will form the economic bedrock of Nigeria.”
Governor Uduaghan has vowed to work in concert with the federal government to restore peace to the community and safeguard the multi-billion dollar gas project. “My interest is to ensure that there is peace in the community and that the project succeeds, because this project is beneficial not only to Ugborodo community, Itsekiri land, Delta State, but Nigeria as a whole,” he said. He allayed the fear of the project being relocated as a result of the crisis, adding that the contractor would soon move to site. Meanwhile, all eyes are on the Macaulay-led committee to see how the crisis would be resolved and how soon.