Bolaji Adebiyi argues that the conversations around resource control should shift from ownership to impact

Combo of former President Olusegun Obasanjo and Edwin Clark. Image via Trust TV


DECEMBER 30, 2021 (THIS DAY) -- The altercation between the nation’s former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, and former information minister, Edwin Clark, over the ownership of oil resources beneath the ground of Niger Delta earlier this week roused a dormant debate which unless resolved quickly would continue to be a sore point in the nation’s conversations on the control of its mineral resources.

Although both old men raised no fresh issues safe to advance the existing divide on the matter, their passion even at their age reinstated the seriousness and the continuous danger the irresolution of the contention posed to the prospect of the nation remaining one and indivisible country.

Clark fired the first salvo when he accused Obasanjo of being a Niger Delta hater for the reason of the former president’s insistence that the oil-rich region could not exclusively appropriate the ownership of the black gold simply because it is located under its soil. The Ijaw leader only echoed the widespread belief in the region that it ought to control the exploitation of the oil resource and pay tax to the federal government. This proposition has the sympathy of many politicians, policy analysts and academics from the southern part of the country. Its other name is resource control, a component of the much-touted but controversial restructuring.

Obasanjo’s response denied hating anybody or group, stating for the record that his position has the backing of the 1999 Constitution as altered and the laws regulating the control and exploitation of mineral resources generally, including oil. To ground his contention, he cited Section 140 of the 1963 Constitution which implied ownership and control of mineral resources was in the hands of the federal government but established the derivation principle. Subsequent grundnorms have adopted this provision. His citation seeks to correct the popular notion that it was the military that hijacked the control of mineral resources from the states for the federation.

Without a doubt, Obasanjo’s position is robustly grounded in the constitution and the law. And none of his trenchant critics, including Mike Ozekhome, learned silk and social activist, has been able to successfully argue with the former president’s tenacious hugging of the strictly legal and constitutional point, which incidentally is largely supported by northern politicians, policy analysts and academics.

Put simply, Obasanjo argues the law while Clark’s case is essentially a proposition for the review of it. Ordinarily, these two are not mutually exclusive and it was in the realisation of this that they had been the source of hot debates at every post-independence constituent assembly and constitutional conference in the country. Yet despite the heat at the meets, there had always been a middle ground. The challenge was the implementation of the consensus.

There are three main issues: ownership, control and distribution of benefits from mineral resources. The constitution and mining rights laws placed all three in the hands of the federal government but established the derivation principle by dedicating a percentage of the financial resources derived from mineral exploration and exploitation to the state where the resource is located. The derivation principle speaks to the sense of social justice which seeks to ensure that a mineral-bearing entity derives equitable benefits from the resource located in its soil and environment.

The case for federal control is that Nigeria being a federation, its resources must be preserved and used for the benefits of the entire unit in order that no part of the whole is left behind in terms of economic and social development. The regionalists do not necessarily disagree with the federalists on this but make the point that regional ownership and control would not deprive the rest of the federation of the benefits of the resource since taxes from proceeds would be paid to the centre.

These positions were canvassed at the three post-independent constitutional conferences in 1994, 2005 and 2014 and the matters were resolved in favour of federal control with compromises on derivation. Although the regionalists, having lost the argument for control, asked for a return to the 50 per cent derivation principle enshrined in the 1963 Constitution, not less than 13 per cent was approved in 1994, up to 17 per cent in 2005 while the 2014 conference advised that a technical committee be set up to advise on the percentage to be allocated to derivation.

Somehow, safe for the 1994 recommendation that was eventually incorporated into the 1999 Constitution as altered, the follow-up conferences’ recommendations were never implemented. It is the frustrations arising from the none implementation of the latter conferences coupled with the lack of positive impact of the subsisting 13 per cent derivation principle on the oil-bearing communities as well as the inequitable application of the principle across the board that has continued to generate tension in the oil-bearing region and communities.

The frustrations are two-fold. Despite the application of the 13 per cent derivation, most communities in the oil-bearing states are still steep in poverty and underdevelopment with the oil-bearing communities worst off. Youth restiveness and agitations for a better deal manifested in the militancy in the region forcing the federal government to deploy enormous security assets to calm the region. When this failed, pacification policies, including the establishment of development intervention agencies such as the Niger Delta Development Commission and Amnesty Programme were deployed. That too would appear to have failed to mitigate the abject poverty and under-development of the oil-bearing communities.

The other level of frustration is the inequitable application of the derivation principle. Whereas the federal government has enforced its control of the oil resource in the Niger Delta and other littoral states, including Imo, Anambra and Lagos, it has been unable to exert the same control over the mining of rich mineral resources including gold in most part of the North, particularly Kebbi and Zamfara States, with the effect that individuals and the state governments have been exploring and exploiting those benefits for their exclusive benefits. Salt was added to injury sometime last year when the Central Bank of Nigeria bought some gold bars from the Zamfara State government. It is this type of double standard that has continued to fuel the resource control debate and agitation.

The way forward to hemming the agitations, therefore, is to shift the conversation more towards not only the equitable application of the derivation principle but also a just distribution of the benefits of proceeds of mining resources in such a way that it maximally impacts the resource-bearing communities in particular and the generality of Nigerians in general. From what we have seen so far, the impact on both the host communities and the generality of Nigerians has been abysmally low with the outcome that the nearer you are to the rich resource the more poverty-stricken you are. This, therefore, is the substantive issue, and the inequity and social injustice cannot persist without dire consequences for the polity.

Adebiyi, the managing editor of THISDAY Newspapers, writes from