The hoopla over the NDDC board appointment

Space, geography and ethnicity combined are muzzling one another in Ondo State at the moment. The subject matter is the appointment of Tokunbo Ajasin, son of the first civilian governor of the state and into the board of the Niger Delta Development Corporation (NDDC) to fill the state’s quota. Ondo, you will recall, is one of the oil-producing states in the federation, so bestowed by the fact of the oil deposit discovered in its riverine community of Ilaje almost four decades ago. Younger Ajasin, book publisher and accountant, urbane, cerebral and a chip of the old order, had been nominated by President Muhammadu Buhari into the board and this appointment has generated quakes akin to a storm in a tea cup.

The riverine community has raised a deafening resentment since the last few weeks of the announcement and the gruff of its shout has attracted some measure of empathy from systems persons. Their argument appears so lush and fascinating from the perspective of a system that has, since the establishment of the corporation and even its predecessor, OMPADEC, pandered to space and geography of the oil-producing community. Since the system had always been run on appointment of board members of the corporation based on a particular reading of the NDDC Act 2000, long years of this practice and unrelenting adherence to status quo had probably given leave to the systems advocate who see abnormalities in Ajasin’s appointment to the board.

Let us begin from its legal fundament. Section 2(b) and (c) of the Act says “There is hereby established for the Commission a governing Board (in this Act referred to as “the Board”), which shall consist of- (a) a Chairman; (b) one person who shall be an indigene of an oil producing area to represent each of the following member States…(c)  three persons to represent non-Oil mineral producing States provided that such membership should be drawn from the remaining geo-political zones which are not represented in the Commission.”

The {b} part of the Act has become a subject of consideration and intense exploration for advantage by the systems advocates since the arguments erupted. What is the correct interpretation of “who shall be an indigene of an oil producing area to represent each of the following member States…”? Is the Act referring to state indigeneship or community indigeneship? In other words, should the NDDC appointee hail from the state, in this case Ondo, or Ilaje community? Again, Section 2(c) of the Act recognizes the powers of the president to choose “persons to represent non-Oil mineral producing States” and said that that such membership should be drawn from the remaining geo-political zones which are not represented in the Commission,” so why the hoopla?

Barring legal interpretation of this portion of the Act, a deeper reflection on it would suggest that the systems advocate would be goofing serially in inputting or arrogating finality to their submission that the portion of the Act refers to a communal indigeneship. This is because, “an oil producing area” could as well have been referring to the state in general as an oil producing area and not necessarily the community in particular as they aver. The latter rationalization, in the light of the state resource as a collective resource, may not really make any sense. The sense in this argument is that the Act could not have envisaged that whatever accruals from the oil producing fund would cater for the interest of only the oil producing area, as against the state in general. Ondo State, as an oil-producing area and Ilaje as an oil producing area are justifiable, logical and reasonable arguments that an ordinary man of passable intelligence will proffer as a correct interpretation of that section of the NDDC Act.

Upon the recommendation of the Justice Ayo Irikefe Panel for a further splintering of the earlier Western State into Ogun, Oyo and Ondo States which was accomplished by the proclamation of the 3rd of February 1976 by the late Head of State, General Murtala Muhammed, an area known historically as the Ondo Province that comprised nine Administrative Divisions of the Western State viz Akoko, Akure, Ekiti Central, Ekiti North, Ekiti South, Ekiti West, Okitipupa, Ondo and Owo were meshed into a state known as Ondo. Geographically, the nine Divisions were the hub of a contiguous territory that was bounded in the north by the old Kwara State, on the eastern flank by the former Midwest State, in the south by the Atlantic seaboard and in the west by the Oyo and Ijebu provinces. While the Lord Lugardian colonial era persisted, the geographic territory that is now known as Ondo State was under a singular administration, under a single Province, placed in the firm grip of a suzerain then known as a Residency, with its administrative headquarters located in Akure.

For a moment, let us leave the legal purport of the NDDC board appointment arguments and deviate into a far more instructive corpus of our humanity as Yoruba people. It is the humanity that binds us as a people. The Yoruba always tarry, at the pain of self injury, to recompense evil to any man who has ever deigned to do them good. They have a number of aphorisms, wise-sayings, wisecracks, lore, mores and proverbs to back up this worldview of theirs. Self-styled Queen of a genre of Yoruba Fuji music called Waka, Salawatu Abeni, had encapsulated it in its rawest form in one of her vinyl. According to her, she had received monetary favour from the person under consideration and could thus never be part of those who would pillory him. Appreciating that favour is a symbiotic necessity, both the favour dispenser and the recipient of his favour, Yoruba believe, are bound by an unwritten code to be good to the unseen chord that binds them. A journey into recent history will suffice to explain how this Yoruba aphorism speaks to the Ondo NDDC appointment under discourse.

The father of the board appointee, Tokunbo, was the first civilian governor of our state, Ondo. The elder Ajasin easily evokes effusive nostalgia from the people of the state whenever selflessness as an administration credo and performance as condition for the immortality of political office holders is on the discourse. Ajasin, taking over from David Ita Ikpeme as the first civilian Governor of the state, continued in the strides of Ikpeme. One of the first things he did was the construction of the first dual carriage way in the state that is now known as the Oba Adesida and Oyemekun Roads in Akure, complementing them with a road architecture of street lights even in those days when such was a rarity in many parts of Nigeria. This, among others, gave Akure the fillip it needed as a State Capital. He followed this up with the building of a superstructure for the state development and its industrial take-off by establishing the Ile Oluji Cocoa Processing factory and Oluwa Glass Industry at Igbokoda, the riverrine area of the state, Ifon Ceramic Company, Okitipupa Oil Palm, Premier Metal Works, as well as building the Ire and the Owo Block-making factories. For him, these industries were needed to serve as engines to drive the State economy that was hitherto largely agrarian. Ajasin also followed this up by establishing sizeable number of educational institutions like polytechnics, Advanced Teachers Colleges and the Ondo State University, then at Ado Ekiti which is now located in Akungba Akoko. He also established a number of commercial ventures like the Owena Bank, refusing to be cowed by the dictatorial and political shenanigans of the Shagari federal government which placed diverse obstacles on his way.

More fundamental to this discourse is the pioneering role that Ajasin and his government played in the inclusion of Ondo State as a member of the oil-producing states in Nigeria. Before Ajasin, Ondo’s coastal waters where oil was being exploited, was not categorized as belonging to the state. Bothered by how the exploration accruals from its contiguous coastal waters were appropriated by the then Bendel State, the Ajasin government not only established claim to the territorial waters, but sent a powerful protest letter to the Shagari government through one of its commissioners, Mrs. Osomo. Bendel was forced to pay some royalties to Ajasin’s old Ondo state until it got its Oil Minerals Licence (OML). It was not until the Ernest Shonekan era that the state was finally activated as an oil producing state.

In a piece entitled “40 years of Ondo State: The journey of statehood” Taoheed Ajao said of the vision of the state founders who wangled through establishment opposition to its creation: “The emergence of the State was catalysed by our legends, the visionary men and women, who worked assiduously behind the scene to make it happen.  The dream of the founding fathers and mothers of the State was that of a land of the brave and industrious; a land of opportunities where no one would be marginalized or left behind but (one)… that fosters fast-paced growth and development unfettered by binding constraints of rigidity.” The elder Ajasin was a major factor in that regard. Never could anyone of these founders of the state have imagined that a day would come when any of their children would be peremptorily spiked off accruals from the sweats of their labour.

Law leaves the appointment of Ajasin subject to debates and its vagaries; history and Yoruba humanity make opposition to it unfeeling and a departure from the essence of a people reputed to be one of the strongest mirrors of the essence of culture and humanity.

*Dr. Adedayo writes from Ibadan, Oyo State.