A lot of us know Professor Pat Utomi. Back in the day, he interrogated the inconsistencies in our socio-political milieu through a television programme known as Patito’s Gang. Therefore in 2009 when I was lucky to run into him in Benin, I took him to task on several issues bordering on the fortunes of the South-South. He had just been appointed Chairman of the South-South Economic Group, and part of what Utomi said that his group sought to do was revitalize agriculture, stimulate manufacturing clusters and take advantage of certain service sectors like tourism. Among other problems which Utomi cited as challenges to the development of the South-South were problems of the peculiar terrain of the South-South and the upsurge of militancy then. He said then that the problem of militancy could be solved either politically or economically, that is, with the introduction of programmes and initiatives that create jobs, create a sense of belonging, and eventually stimulates an atmosphere of peaceful co-existence. When I asked him to be a little more specific on other areas that he as chairman of the South-South Economic group will likely focus on he said ‘peer review mechanism’ - governors of states that were seen to have less than average performance would be encouraged to emulate or copy those that were doing well so as to copy the template for success. A lot of the issues that we were discussing then were actually from a discussion he had broached at a certain edition of the Anyiam Osigwe lecture at the International Institute of Foreign Affairs in Lagos. The Prof made that famous statement, to wit, that Nigeria always made the greatest achievements at times of great adversity, great austerity and great misfortune.
Arising from the huge success of the South-South Conference in Tinapa in Cross Rivers State, and with the great expectations that it generated, certain key personalities – Chief Timipre Sylva, former governor of Bayelsa State, Rt. Hon. Chibuike Rotimi, former governor of Rivers State, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, governor of Edo State, Senator Liyel Imoke as chairman and Dr. Eweta Uduaghan – got together on Monday June 13, 2011 at Government House, Port Harcourt, Rivers State, seeking to forge closer economic cooperation and integration akin to the ECOWAS union of states and nations. In a communiqué that they released right after the meeting, the governors sought to deepen their collaboration in the areas of education, human capacity development, information & communication technology, infrastructural development, agriculture and investment. The part of their resolution which tickled me no end was in the area of the plan to invest in regional oil and Gas Company and a regional electric company.
A regional oil and gas company, together with another regional power company would have done wonders to the economy of the South-South, especially now that oil prices are unpredictable, electric tariffs are at all-time high and the word on the lips of world leaders today is climate change and the reduction of carbon emissions. But before the second South-South summit scheduled to have taken place in Asaba in Delta State in October 2011 Governors from the region were already fighting one another. Instead of the peer review mechanism which Prof. Utomi suggested, some wanted to be chairmen of the group, while some became claustrophobic, insisting that the BRACED Commission had the trappings of a party affair, and therefore any successes ascribable to it was going to be used to fuel campaign rhetoric and propaganda. In no time, the idea of the BRACED Commission went kaput, sadly. I believe as well that issues of monthly allocation for derivation for oil producing states and the disparities thereof contributed to the collapse of the BRACED affair.
And today, if you would run into Prof Utomi today, he wouldn’t exude the sort of enthusiasm you’d probably have expected. On Channels the other day, he heave a great sigh before answering to the question related to the economy of the South-South and of Nigeria, as if he was mourning a beloved child. The reason cannot be far-fetched: the economy of the Niger Delta is still largely dependent on proceeds from oil, the education system has nearly collapsed, investors are running away, and agriculture has been abandoned – I visited an agricultural development programme, ADP, in one of the states in the South-South recently, and the carcass of what I saw there – dilapidated offices and worn-out infrastructure is a metaphor for the fortunes of our region.
But it must not be like this. Apart from Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, whose tenure as governor of Edo State would expire soonest, all the other governors who egos were clogs in the wheel of the BRACED Commission have all had their times and tenures. They have gone and I believe, with their egos and mutual suspicions. From Bayelsa to Rivers, to Akwa-Ibom and Delta, we have a brand new set of governors who should put aside the differences they inherited from their predecessors and resurrect the idea of a South-South EU, whose economy should not be tied to the apron strings of Abuja, and whose agricultural policies tap their roots in Rev Father Nzamujo’s Songhai Farms in Benin Republic. The South-South can come together again and harness the immense human and material resources which abound in our homelands for the benefit of all.