Friday, July 17, 2009

Dispute over 76 oil wells

OVER the past few weeks, the governments, people and stakeholders of Cross River and Akwa Ibom states have been engaged in a riot of media campaign and altercation over 76 disputed off-shore oil wells. Governor Liyel Imoke of Cross River fired the first salvo when, several weeks ago, he raised an alarm over the precarious finances of the state government. The state, ordinarily a marginal oil producer, had zero allocation from the derivation formula, because its 76 oil wells had been reallocated to neighbouring Akwa Ibom.

The ensuing passion, claim and counterclaim underscore the gravity of the problem. Although tempers have been kept in check, there is a high risk of an eruption of conflict between the peoples of the two states who share kinship and other cultural affinities. When the 12-state structure was first created in 1967, the area was known as the South-Eastern State. In 1976, it became Cross River State, which was further split into Akwa Ibom State in September 1987. The commercial and cultural exchanges between the two states go back a long way. That now, is at risk, because of oil revenue.

The primary cause of the raging dispute is as much political as it is legal. Acting on the advice of the National Boundary Commission, the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission had proceeded to credit Akwa Ibom with 76 oil wells which only in 2004 had been allocated to Cross River by the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo. The government had taken the step at the time in response to one of the major consequences of the implementation of the decision of the International Court of Justice directing that Nigeria cede Bakassi to Cameroun.

The Supreme Court had also held in 2005 in a case in which Cross River was the plaintiff and Akwa Ibom the defendant, over border disputes upland, that the crucial effect of the Bakassi judgement was to render Cross River non-littoral. Which meant that Cross River could not lay claims to off-shore oil wells. The point being canvassed tenaciously by Akwa Ibom advocates is that the Obasanjo administration adopted an arbitrary geometry in skewing the median line between Cross River and Akwa Ibom in their maritime boundary. The skewed line, to the west, is where the 76 oil wells are located.

It certainly calls to mind once more the arbitrariness of the Obasanjo years, that similar skewed geometry was applied between some other oil-producing states. Thus, on its western boundary, Akwa Ibom lost oil wells to Rivers State; much as Bayelsa and Abia also lost. These peremptory actions have now been corrected by the administration of President Umaru Yar'Adua.

Yet, at a deeper level, the agony of Cross River State has been exacerbated by the heedless cession of Bakassi to Cameroun. It was bad enough that Nigeria took the border dispute to the ICJ for adjudication. But it was all the more unpatriotic that the Nigerian government with its eyes wide open opted to cede part of its territory to Cameroun. As we observed in an earlier editorial, there were cogent constitutional reasons for the Nigerian government not to be in a rush to implement the Green Tree Accord that spelt out the procedure for enforcing the ICJ ruling. Government officials had argued then that Nigeria would still administer the western part of Bakassi, with the result that the country would not lose its control over the maritime area. But that has not materialised; as Cameroun has taken full control of Bakassi, and Cross River is now a non-littoral state. Without the cession of Bakassi, Cross River could still have claimed some oil wells.

Considering the Bakassi factor in the lingering dispute over the 76 oil wells, it would be mistaken for anyone to assume that this is a matter merely between two neighbouring states. Two states are involved alright, but the issue has a national resonance. It goes to the heart of the quality of the country's leadership and the locus of the minorities in Nigeria's political equation. The people of Cross River were never consulted before the agents of the Federal Government, acting in selfish interest, took the Bakassi matter to the ICJ. The voice of the people of Cross River was stolen from them. Even when the Obasanjo administration was stampeding itself to hand over Bakassi, no plebiscite was ever conducted among the people.

Today, Cross River is in dire financial straits. Its current paltry receipts are swallowed up by recurrent expenditure, with no hope of embarking upon any meaningful capital projects. The state is also labouring under a huge debt burden which is being serviced at source through irrevocable standing payment orders. According to Governor Imoke, the State's capacity to implement even its modest budget has dropped by some 25 per cent. It is anybody's guess for how long more Cross Riverians will endure the aggravation of their penury.

Resolving the issue will involve two major levels of intervention. One should be by the Federal Government (i.e. the Executive and the National Assembly); the other by joint action of Cross River and Akwa Ibom. The Federal Government must acknowledge straightaway that its cession of Bakassi created the condition for the declaration of Cross River as a non-littoral state and its attendant loss of off-shore oil revenue. The Federal Government must equally demonstrate that it is genuinely concerned about the grievous financial consequences of the loss of Bakassi. Cross River itself is battling with the resettlement of the returnees, and has also lost rights to the collection of rates and taxes in Bakassi.

The Federal Government must intervene decisively to shore up the revenue of Cross River. The most effective way to realize this is through legislation, by which the Federal Government would be under a duty to subvent Cross River State at an agreed rate or sum that the National Assembly should work out.

Happily, Governor Godswill Akpabio of Akwa Ibom has spoken of his willingness to explore an amicable solution. We urge that, beyond litigation, the governments and people of the two states should tone down the rhetoric and arrange a roundtable for what should be, considering the close ties, a family meeting at which measures will be outlined and steps taken to assist an indigent cousin. It will also require the participation of the legislatures of both states, so that an agreeable legal framework of assistance can be hammered out, and to ensure that the agreement and obligations arising therefrom are honoured by successors.