Was the clean-up a Greek gift?
President Muhammadu Buhari’s announcement of his administration’s decision to implement the environmental clean-up caused great euphoria across Ogoniland. It was nonetheless accepted with caution if not scepticism by some people. Many Ogonis thought of it as a Greek gift. The handling of the clean-up exercise coupled with the opaque operations of Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP); has made the clean-up project appear like fading gossamer. The view that behind the actions of the present government is the desire to resume oil exploitation has been in the air; a premonition born out of conjectures.
But while Ogoni people are still wondering if they can trust the government under Buhari to redress the years of environmental and economic injustices; a memo signed by Abba Kyari, the Chief of Staff to the President was leaked to the public. The memo directs the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) to takeover OML 11. It asks NNPC’s production subsidiary to resume oil production in Ogoniland on a determined date.
The news has put paid to all speculations that the “flag off” of the clean-up project was to pull the wool over the eyes of the Ogonis. A detour aimed at cajoling them to remove the seals on the oil in their domain. The clean-up is now viewed as a political move and, a platform for some politicians and elite class to continue their shenanigan. The surreptitious manner in which the information about plans by the government got leaked has led to a lot of speculations and suspicion in Ogoniland.
In the first part of this article, it was stated that the resistance against the resumption of oil operation bears some psychological and sociological value to the people. It is not arrogance that the Ogonis take pride in their “psychological victory”. The ability to resist oil production since 1993 is to keep their honour in a fight that they lost badly against Shell and Nigeria. Ogoni oil in the ground is a bargaining chip of last resort.
But one equally understands if the nation-state sees the action as an effrontery. Nigeria did not envisage that an insignificant and once conquered group as the Ogonis; who were barely known beyond sections of the country have stopped the flow of petrodollars for 26 unbroken years.
At a production capacity of 30, 000 barrels per day multiply by 365 days multiplied by 26 years and, calculated at a profit margin of $5 per barrel, we would all agree that both the government and Shell has lost a whopping sum of money. But by the same token, we should imagine how much that had carted away from Ogoni soil in 30 years before 1993. Add that to what would have been taken over the 26 years of non-operation, and compared the same against the excruciating poverty amongst Ogoni people.
Ogoni did not only shock Nigeria and Shell because of the courage to stop oil production activities for this long as they also fear the ripple effects. Government and other International Oil companies (IOCs) would not want the Ogoni example replicated. It will signal disaster for Nigeria if the “keep-the-oil” in the ground is repeated across Niger Delta. No right-thinking person is under the illusion that government and Shell will accept the resistance of the Ogonis without a fight, even the Ogonis have always known that they have never heard the last from the government and Shell. The patience for two decades and a half is because government and Shell have been watching, monitoring, hoping, plotting and anticipating that the Ogonis will either let down their guard or have a change of heart.
The regimes before Buhari have made efforts to recapture the oil wells. They did everything possible to make the pipelines to steam again. Even Gen. Sani Abacha could not wait for the remains of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his compatriots to decay when he tried to bring back Shell to Ogoni. Having stroke fear into the elites with the manner in which Ogoni 9 were killed; he dangled carrots and wailed sticks. With his mischievous goggle; some Ogoni leaders were harangued to kowtow to his whims and caprices.
At the demise of Abacha, Gen. Abdulsalaami Abubakar (Rtd); came with an approach underscored by subliminal messages and subtlety, there were attempts to plant seeds of discord amongst Ogoni. After him came Olusegun Obasanjo who built on what his Abubakar started. Obasanjo took his predecessor’s strategy further by adding pacification and placation to subtlety. As a former military leader who re-emerged as in civilian apparel, Obasanjo was as civil as his political ego could be boosted, yet, intimidating when he perceived that the resilience of the Ogoni people thwarted his agenda.
The persecution which the Ogoni suffered under Abacha received prominence at the Oputa Panel for two reasons. Firstly, Obasanjo wanted to further demonise Abacha. Secondly, to sell a dummy to the Ogonis that he should be trusted. He visited Ogoniland and commissioned a Peace Centre sponsored by his government. He appointed a few Ogonis including Ken Wiwa Jnr, the son of Ken Saro-Wiwa; into his administration.
Obasanjo’s regime authorized the Environmental Assessment to be carried out by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which is the precursor of the flagged-off clean-up project. On the surface, these are progressive steps, but, it emerged that the objective was to pave the way for the resumption of oil production.
After Obasanjo came, President Musa Yar’Adu whose approach was guided by his educational and progressive political leaning. Yar’Adua tempered his administration’s interest with moderation and pragmatism. In his response to a question by this writer during a visit to Cape Town, South Africa, the late president said that the relationship between the Ogonis and Shell has broken down.
Those close to the former president; still maintain that the Niger Delta Amnesty Programme was one of the steps to address the Niger Delta agitation broadly. But when his successor took over, the programme was almost reduced to some kind of reparation for the Ijaw ethnic nationality. Close associates of Goodluck Jonathan twisted the programme as their own reward for taking up arms. It was more of a privilege than a right for non-Ijaws to be enlisted into training programmes. It was worse for the Ogonis; as their nonviolent and ideologically approach did not count much – amnesty was seen as something designed for militants for carrying arms – as against ideology – taunted and spoken of only as a euphemism for cowardice.
Politics of Exclusion:
Once Jonathan ascended the throne, he was cornered as an Ijaw-president. That Ogonis took risk against the lethal weapon of the military government was ignored. Cold water was poured on several cries for the implementation of the recommendations made by the UNEP. The failure by Jonathan is a bitter pill that Ogonis find difficult to swallow. Jonathan’s action or inaction was insensitive to the brutality, subjugation, oppression and years of economic strangulations, political marginalization and environmental degradation suffered by Ogonis. Jonathan who is from the Niger Delta did not demonstrate empathy enough to implement the UNEP recommendation.
Allies of President Jonathan were blunt that the environmental clean-up cannot start from Ogoniland. It was stated that unless the clean-up will be escalated and extrapolated to cover some other areas in the region; the clean-up would not be allowed to happen. The Ogonis were not and are never against the idea, except that the environmental assessment which determines the planned clean-up took place in the Ogoni territory; only recommendation made by a United Nations Fact Finding Team in 1996. It is therefore not in the hands of the Ogonis to determine any substantial alteration and/or expansion of the clean-up to cover other territories in the region – if anything, it was in the hand of the government under Jonathan to start in Ogoni and, then cause it to be expanded to reach other places.
Also under Jonathan, another narrative that gained currency was why would the Ogonis benefit from the proceeds of oil drilled from other tribes whereas oil in their territory remained sealed? The third experience of the Ogonis during Jonathan was the unwarranted and unprovoked invasion and occupation of some Ogoni villages by militia groups from Okirika; an action reminiscent of the attacks which the military instigated against the Ogonis in 1993/4.
Muhammadu Buhari as a candidate of the APC did his homework, capitalized on the pain and vulnerability of the Ogonis. He visited Ogoniland in person and vowed to implement the UNEP Report. In the bid to keep his campaign promise to the Ogonis, Buhari, represented by his Vice, Professor Yomi Osibadjo came to Bodo in 2016 to “flag off” the project. The mere announcement or the “flag off” of the project made the Ogoni group to have a great sense of relief. But with hindsight, the Ogoni are asking if they were too quick to rejoice?
Many voices but one cause
But with the information contained in the leaked memo signed by Chief of Staff to the president, the tension in Ogoni is heightening. The stories in town are similar to the kind of stories that were heard during the era of Abdulsalaami Abubakar. Stories of attempted secret discussions facilitated by some religious leaders and held outside Nigeria in 1998/9, which almost marred the unity of purpose. The Ogoni struggle has never been able to regain the kind of united front it kept against Abacha since then. The bad blood spread into the refugee camps in Benin Republic and amongst activists that had relocated to other countries like USA, Canada and the United Kingdom.
If past experiences were to be the yardstick and the current wave of speculations are used to judge the leaked memo; those interested in the oil are beating a drum of war and not of marriage. Ogonis might disagree on many things but Ken Saro-Wiwa managed to bind them together on the basis of collective affirmation of their indigenousness. Ken Saro-Wiwa used his pen to engrave the philosophy of one ecology one destiny in the minds of Ogonis.
By the time Ken Saro-Wiwa and his comrades walked up to the gallows, they died knowing that Ogoni people believe that their geo-seismic configuration is an instrument of collectivism. The Ogoni 9 died leaving Ogoni people with the understanding that their environment is unique. They made Ogoni people know that every village and town contribute to the flow of crude. They Ogoni 9 were forced to bid farewell without raising their hands, but, they died in the assurance that they have taught their people to believe that Ogoni oil might be drilled from certain points but its impacts are borne by all.
But what we hear now shows that the government is going about the resumption of oil in Ogoni clandestinely. Manoeuvres and manipulations with the intent to ignite a strange geo-clannish-political orientation will set the land aflame. The situation is so tensed that people are beginning to believe that communities, where oil wells are located, would be armed against communities where there are no drilling points.
It is on the ground of the situation in Ogoni: whether the rumours are true or false, whether the fears are imaginary or real, whether the concerns are genuine or not, whether the strings of speculations are mere perception, unfounded or not, and, especially against the backdrop that Ogoni has experienced historical haemorrhage, cruel exploitation, economic smiting and political battering; the present government should deal with Ogonis with utmost transparency.
The government need to give Ogoni people the confidence to lie down without fears. After all, an Ogoni adage says, he who picks lice from the body of a dog should show it to the dog. This article is written; to ask and answer one question: can the resumption of oil drilling in Ogoni not happen without causing another round of violence? The next part of the article articulates a solution for the government, something that they can do, they should do and must do; to ensure a win-win for all parties.
Barry Wuganaale is based in Cape Town, South Africa. He is a Sustainable Development Consultant, a writer, the Senior Pastor of Altar of Liberation, Coordinator of Hands of Nehemiah International, CEO of Sirabari Investment Pty Limited, CEO Nigerian Transformation Movement, he is also an activist and Expert in Developmental Theology.