AKHA: Putting Cart Before The Horse

Akwa Ibom House of Assembly
Akwa Ibom House of Assembly

By: Israel Umoh

The parched harmattan wind blew crazily across the expansive legislative complex. And most equipment in its offices looked dusty. The Sergeant-At-Arm stepped forward. “Mr. Speaker a! a! a! a!” Silence! The Protocols and security agents stood attention. And he gaitly walked into the hallowed chambers of Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly, Uyo. And the distinguished members and spectators rose to welcome the speaker.

This was the scenario that played out during the plenary of the state House of Assembly on Thursday, February 13, 2020, on the floor of the house. And he settled down for the business of the day as contained in the Order paper. When it was time, Aniekan Bassey, the House speaker called on Emmanuel Ekpenyong, the member representing Ini State Constituency in the house. The two-term member raised a resolution on the relocation of ExxonMobil Headquarters to Akwa Ibom. The house deliberated and gave a nod to it. Thereafter, Mr Speaker picked his gavel and banged three times. “Tuai, Tuai, Tuai.” The house unanimously adopted the resolution, asking it to be forwarded to President Muhammadu Buhari and members of the National Assembly of Akwa Ibom extraction for action.

After the resolution, the house members and members of the public are waiting for its implementation. During the era of the defunct Cross River State House of Assembly in which most members hailed from the present Akwa Ibom, the resolutions of the members were nothing but the law. The speakers were seen as Lord Denning, the celebrated English judge of the 20th century. Once the late Christopher Udomessiet or the late Ndaeyo Uttah as speakers sat over the plenary, bills and resolutions were promptly transmitted to, and speedily obeyed, by the late Clement Isong, the renowned economist-turned governor. Earnestly, the executive feared the house like the proverbial Sword of Damocles. A resolution passed would be implemented by the executive without any delay. In fact, the governor dreaded impeachment notice like leprosy. Next day, people picked copies of Hansard from the house or Government Press, Calabar and read its proceedings.

The period could be described as the golden era in the country’s democratic dispensation, though it might have had some imperfections. The members- great minds and people of impeccable records- evolved from the grassroots and were massively voted for by the people in their constituencies. Their political parties in the 80s- National Party of Nigeria, Unity Party of Nigeria, Great Nigeria Peoples Party and Nigeria Peoples Party and the rest- played the role of impartial judges in sending their names to the defunct Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO) while the then governor was an unbiased referee in their emergence. They went to the house and ventilated the views and positions of their constituents. They were frank, down-to-earth and courageous in raising any contentious issue (if they really were) of urgent state importance and the executive did not vacillate in implementing such and assenting to the bills, perhaps with minor amendments. The bills readily turned to Acts.

However, the present democratic dispensation is a different spice. Some members would stay in the comfort of their rooms to churn out what is called resolution and take it to the house for deliberation and subsequent passage into law. Or, others who sponsor executive bills, would raise a hand (and on recognition), would strain their necks, adjust their pair of trousers or agbada, exude an air of confidence and solicit their colleagues to join in their passage. They would not care to consult experts in the relevant fields, consult their constituents to know how relevant such resolutions or bills are to the electorate. Their loyalty belongs to their peer group, or governor or kingmakers, where they emerged from, not their constituents.

While applauding the sponsor of the resolution on the relocation of ExxonMobil headquarters to Akwa Ibom, it is important to go into the nitty-gritty of the matter. The proponent of the resolution stated that the state contributes about 33% of Nigeria’s daily volume of crude oil production and is by far the highest oil-producing State in Nigeria.

The Assemblyman asserted that with the adverse environmental impacts caused by crude oil and natural gas production such as air and groundwater pollution, damage to flora and fauna, exposure of biota to contaminants, among others, ExxonMobil should have its operational base in the state, as such development would have positive economic impacts on the people. Though he did not elaborate on the economic benefits, the message sounded like a half-truth.

Before now, ex-Governor Victor Attah who was seen as the advocate-in-chief of the Resource Control struggle fought for its entrenchment in the nation’s statute book and vehemently pursued the relocation of headquarters of the defunct Mobil Producing Nigeria (MPN) Unlimited now ExxonMobil to the state. Also, the organised labour championed by the then President of Nigeria Labour Congress, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole was in the forefront. Yet, neither the resource control struggle nor the headquarters was realised.

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So, the resurrection of the issue in what many Akwa Ibom persons see as an injustice by ExxonMobil in siting its headquarters in Lagos while crude oil is dug from Akwa Ibom is also welcome. However, the house must avoid a situation where it opens its flank unnecessarily for critics to see it as an executive appendage, a perception that impugns on the integrity and esteem of the house in the eyes of the discernible. During the 6th Assembly, some people described it as a rubber stamp but the then speaker Onofiok Luke countered, claiming that it was iron-sealed. But, the pall of reservations still hovered over the house until it faded into oblivion.

Honestly, the resolution is like putting the cart before the horse. How many times have the house members stayed on the side of the masses on issues that benefit their constituents? How many members sponsor resolutions or bills that will compel the governor to implement or sign into law with precision? How many of them will pass resolutions or bills into law without looking at the body language of the governor or in a disparaging parlance ‘ete abodie’ (what does the governor say)? How many of them will consult their constituents before sponsoring any resolution or bill? Are most bills not from the executive arm of government? How do the house leaders emerge- is it from the members or being teleguided by the executive? These are the rhetorical questions.

Again, directing ExxonMobil to relocate to Akwa Ibom without knowing its allegiance is a hard nut to crack. Exxon Mobil Corporation, doing business as ExxonMobil, is an American multinational oil and gas corporation with headquarters in Irving, Texas.

It is the largest direct descendant of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil and was formed on November 30, 1999, by the merger of Exxon (formerly the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey) and Mobil (formerly the Standard Oil Company of New York). One of the world’s largest companies by revenue, ExxonMobil from 1996 to 2017 varied from the first to sixth-largest publicly traded company by market capitalization.

But, in a response to a similar demand on it 15 years ago, ExxonMobil had said that the relocation of its head office to Akwa Ibom wouldn’t have “a significant impact” on the state, and also that such movement “was not practical for a number of reasons”.

A letter written from the ExxonMobil’s international headquarters, Texas, in the U.S, and signed by the then Public Affairs Manager, Fred Marshall, said “Mobil has three businesses in Nigeria which are managed by one Lead Country Manager. It is essential that the headquarters of each of those businesses be consolidated in one office where support services can be shared.

“Lagos offers each of those businesses a convenient and well-suited hub from which all three businesses can be efficiently conducted and coordinated by that manager.”

The company said another reason why they wouldn’t relocate their head office was that their “primary federal government contacts in Nigeria” were based in Lagos.

It said that Akwa Ibom was still getting huge benefits from its operation, despite the company’s head office being in Lagos.

“The majority of MPN’s business activity is centered in Akwa Ibom. MPN’s operational headquarters are in QIT, Ibeno, where about 80 percent of MPN employees are based,” Mr. Marshall said in the letter.

“MPN also has a liaison office in Uyo, the capital of Akwa Ibom, to facilitate interactions with the state government. Additionally, the majority of our community assistance is focused on Akwa Ibom.

“Another consideration is that MPN participates in a joint venture in which the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC) has a 60 percent interest. Hence, the majority of any relocation cost would be primarily borne by NNPC.”

For the lawmakers to avoid making a mockery of the hallowed chambers and their representatives, they should always carry out a background check of some corporate organisations to knowing how to deal with them. Also, they have to regularly liaise with in addition to consulting their constituencies and some key stakeholders across party lines on issues of state importance. Whether this was done, is left for them to answer.

Already, there are perceived wranglings and bad blood between the company and the host communities on some issues, yet the house appears to look the other way. When it was Mobil Producing Nigeria Unlimited, Mobil Pegasus Club and Mobil Filling Station, Eket embroiled in riots were closed permanently. As ExxonMobil, Mobil Airstrip in Eket is said to be temporarily relocated. Did their predecessors in the House wade in or persuade MPN or Exxon to reopen any of them, knowing that majority affected by the closure were of Akwa Ibom extraction?

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When MPN or ExxonMobil prematurely retired some indigenes of the state- some Senior Managers, Managers, others in key managerial and other positions, did the house wade in to secure the jobs for them? Even the award of contracts worth billions of Naira to people, does the House have any inkling or any input before the contracts are or were awarded?  In the payment of compensation on oil spills to the people, there used to be complaints of shortchanging or non-payment. Has the house talked and convinced the company to pay such to duly confirmed and affected persons?

Just recently, a prominent indigene of the state alleged that ExxonMobil has been paying N30 billion as development funds yearly to Akwa Ibom government. He made more claims on other amounts usually paid to the government. Didn’t the house set up an ad-hoc committee to investigate the claims? An allegation flew that ExxonMobil paid N8 billion for the construction of Eket-Ibeno Road (that is in a sorry state now). The house set up a committee to investigate the matter. Has the report seen the light of the day?

From the home front, there are some rumblings between the host communities called the core oil-producing communities and the non-core oil-producing communities in the state. It is said that most people from the core communities always call for the heads of people from the non-core communities occupying vantage positions in the company. Again, it is said that some people in the core communities are fond of kicking against people from the so-called non-core communities who vie for or get contracts or employment from the company. Has the House soused this tribal tension and paranoic attitude that can impede unity, togetherness and tribal cohesion among the Akwa Ibom citizens?

Perhaps, the 7th house of Assembly is just waking up from its slumber. It could be argued that the state has Udom Inoyo, the company’s Vice-Chairman as Number two person in the company. A witness once claimed that there was a time Inoyo was invited to the house to proffer answers on why the company has marginalized the state in the scheme of things. He was quick in telling the house that he climbed to the position on merit and he was not a representative of the state in the company. He was right. I remember agitations for an Akwa Ibom person to be appointed as a chairman of the company. So, his elevation to the exalted position throws him up as an employee, not a political appointee. As such, he could look not bite for fear of dismissal. Only politicians could stoke the fire. But then, did the different stakeholders carry him along, lobby through him or explore his expertise on certain issues that could benefit the generality of the state? Or, did our people mount pressure on him to award contracts to them for their selfish reasons?

At the moment, the resolution appears like a paper-tiger one that may be cast into a dustbin. The NNPC may not give serious thought to the resolution because they need to be properly lobbied, their ego totally massaged and their interest clearly defined and protected, a sort of quid pro quo arrangement- for consideration not approval of the request. Moreover, such lobby must consider and accommodate the larger interests of major stakeholders in the political class, corporate bodies and oil industry.

Let the honourable members do a self-appraisal of their performance by ensuring their resolutions and bills are religiously obeyed by the executive and judiciary arms of government. Let them stop the so-called empowerment programmes seen as freebies but to adequately train your eligible constituents on relevant skills and trades. Create a new image, a can-do spirit and we-ness in attracting projects to your communities and meeting the demands of the electorate especially the downtrodden.

Oftentimes, Akwa Ibom people cry about insecurity to life and property, joblessness, dwindling academic standards in public schools, poor basic infrastructural facilities and crushing poverty among the people, among others. Do the members proffer solutions to the thorny issues facing the masses to curry their confidence? Go to the drawing board and see how to achieve the plan (not in a hurried manner but through systematic manner). After the reggae (as some people may say), let them play orchestra music on the relocation of ExxonMobil headquarters to the state to enable the people to join in dancing to their tune.