By Contance Meju, Henry Eferegbo
For Ogonis, Niger Delta, Nigerian activists, government and the environment world, November has assumed a month of significant events. On November 9, 1995, the then military government of Gen. Sani Abacha stamped itself as a government with impatience for dissenting voices. It gruesomely snuffed life off a world recognized environmental activist, playwright, poet and great advocate for ethnic nationality, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogonis over the killing of four pro-government Ogoni leaders.
The killing of Ken and the others was the climax of a long series of brutalization, dehumanization and destruction of hundreds of Ogoni lives and communities populates by irate solders led by Major Okuntimo of the Nigerian Army which, saw many Ogoni youths go into exile in neighbouring countries like Ghana, Cameron and as far as, South Africa, Canada, etc., to escape the government brutality.
The clampdown on Ogoni was an attempt by the Nigerian government to silence for ever, any attempt by the people to ask Shell to leave the oil in their land in the soil following numerous longstanding un-cleaned oil spills, which had so devastated Ogoni land, that the people who have nothing as gain from oil exploration activities in their land for over 20-30 years, were displaced from their traditional occupation of fishing and farming.
For mobilizing his people to begin to say no to environmental injustice, Ken and his compatriots had to pay with their lives but the government came late for the message had already taken root since, an idea whose time has come, can never be silenced.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Ken Sarowiwa and in all of these years, rather than be silenced, the message for environmental justice has grown louder spreading beyond Ogoni land to the entire Niger Delta. To overcome the magnitude of the crisis from environmental injustice, while Ogonis marked the anniversary in Ogoni land, environmental activities and civil society members on November 12, staged two events back-to-back to honour the late icon in Port Harcourt. Venue was Visa Karina Hotel, Port Harcourt and participant came in from different part of the country-Benin, Lagos, Abuja, Benue, Yenagoa, Uyo, etc. in spite of the COVID pandemic.
Same Visa Karena Hotel also hosted an end of project sign-out by an international organization, Cordaid, in collaboration with the Foreign Office of the Government of Netherlands, home base of Shell Nigeria Company Plc, culprit of much of the environmental abuse in the Niger Delta, and all in Ogoni land. Shell has been accused of conniving with the Nigeria government to kill Ken and others since the Ogoni upspring which shut Shell off Ogoni land was a challenge to its milking without conscience, the good of their land.
As global criticism continued to rise against the Nigerian Government and Shell, the Dutch government has been most uncomfortable of the negative effect of Shell’ unwholesome activities and following a UN Environmental Programme report, confirming the level of environmental abuse, the Dutch Government has been making efforts to reach out to help right some wrongs and in the least, help create a semblance of peace in Ogonito enable HYPREP, the organ created by the Nigerian government for the clean up, remediate and restore Ogoni spill sites.
That day, the Cordaid CSO Strategic Partners were assembled to tell other stakeholder including related government agencies, Ogoni leaders, youth, women, media, legislators and civil society, what they have been able to contribute toward the Ogoni Clean-up issue.
Dr. Akinwumi Oke, told journalists that the partnership intervention project which began in 2016 has created better understanding of the process among Ogoni stakeholders and made HYPREP more functional.
“The Strategic Partnership progamme started in 2016 and we have been sharing experiences and outcomes with the public. It is about empowering communities to play an active role in the implementation of the HYPREP Ogoni Clean Up process. “Before we came in, HYPREP had no functional office and governance was not in place, sites were being cleared but now things are functioning –HYPREP has a functional office and that is something to celebrate”.
Dr. Oke said the focus was to improve the capacity of Ogonis to take care of themselves and that is happening.“The role of Cordaid is to improve the capacity of the people to take care of themselves.Cordaid is like a catalyst. People are now taking responsibility; people now own the process, now engage HYPREP, government,” he explained.
Like the activists in the other hall, every concern is on HYPREP getting it right. Dr Oke had some words for HYPREP in this regard.
“We think HYPREP needs to be more accountable to the people; stakeholders need to be informed on KPI (Key Project Indicators), what exactly will we see on ground at clean-up sites? It needs to communicate with informed stakeholders.
“There should also be relentless advocacy – going out to engage. HYPREP needs to be accountable on funds to the public and people who should benefit should see it”.
On the worrisome illegal refineries, a threat to the clean-up, Oke said, “There should be alternatives for income generation. There should be alternatives for income generation. There is need for research on this.
“Bayelsa already has an example, Face Initiative introducing seline rice, planting on high salt soil- Akasa community, rice has high value and the state is looking at this. Kebetkache, one of the strategic partners jut released a research finding on livelihoods for women and this has been presented to HYPREP for adoption”.
The strategic partner created a meeting point between HYPREP and the Ogoni communities.
Meanwhile, at the ERA/Friends and Oil Watch, Nigeria events focused on examining how the struggle for a clean environment had faired over the year and righting the wrong on Ogoniland and other Niger Delta communities in continued effort to keep the SaroWiwa legacy alive.
With the theme as, “Ken Saro-Wiwa: The Nigerian Environment and Lessons Not Learned,” welcoming participants to the Environment Summit for the morning session, ERA/FOEN acting executive director, Chima William said not much has changed in the Niger Delta environment narrative for which Ken lost his live. He said Ken is yet to be understood.
“25 years down the lane can we say that the Nigerian people-governments, communities, corporations, civil society, media, etc., all did take some good lessons from Ken? To us the answer will be in the negative hence the theme of this year’s memorial environmental summit”.
Chairman ERA/FOEN and environment laureate Comrade Nnimmo Bassey who chaired the occasion, said Ken and his compatriots rose up in defense of the environment and it was wrong of the Nigerian government to have killed him for insisting on environmental injustice for his people. It is wrong for the government to continue to treat them as if they committed any crime.
Nnimmo noted that Shell and the Nigerian government committed the crime against Ken and Ogoniland for killing the people who committed no crime. He said the time has come for healing and it should start with the exoneration of Ken and his compatriots from whatever offence government accused them of. The environment laureate called on government to take steps towards immortalizing Ken and others for their ultimate sacrifice towards the protection of the environment.
Cross-border litigation was suggested as a non-violent way of securing environmental justice and, linking up “local community struggles in the Niger Delta with local struggle across the border, noting that”.
The head of Environment, CEHRD noted that activists are way behind on the clean-up. “Activists are way behind, the Ogoni clean-up has gone very far and there is no international synergy”.
Restating the imperative of stakeholder participation to ensure the exercise works in line with the UNEP recommendations that brought it about, Dr
Sam Kabari, head, Environment, Center for Environment Human Rights and Development, CEHRD suggested the possibility of MOSOP linking up with UNEP over concerns on the clean-up.
“Can MOSOP discuss with UNEP on the clean-up on issues of concern? How do we get communities to actively get involved?” he asked.
Celestine Akpobari of the Ogoni Solidarity Forum reminded that the Ogoni clean-up is supposed to be a pilot for cleaning up the whole of the Niger Delta but at the pace of the clean-up, it might take longer than necessary time to conclude and if not followed up, the all-Niger Delta idea may be truncated by government.
He advised that it is time to begin to ask for scientific studies on other pollution sites in the Niger Delta.
Dr. Patterson Ogon, a long term activist pointed out that local people understand the environment and are willing to protect and sustain it but, the oil economy was foisted on the people, endangering the forest and water resources which sustained the livelihood of the locals. Forest produced economic trees/like Ogbono, Awolowo grass and so while locales preserved the environment, government and the oil companies see nothing but money without minding what happens to the environment.
He cited a case study on impact of Shell activities by Prof. Nwakwoalo which revealed that long exposure to oil spills exposes Niger Deltans to neotal cancer and wondered why government has not shown interest in investigating the Niger Delta health implications of environmental abuse. He said the next couple of years might be worse.
Urging a focus on what applies globally, Ogon said pollution like climate change, does not have boundaries giving as example, the wave of whales being washed ashore and dying in Bayelsa/Bonny/Oron, dead fishes stretching from Bonny river to Ondo.
He called for planning for environmental sustainability adding, “when you understand your environment, you are able to plan sustenance and urged global collaboration. “We must find a common ground with the global movement like GreenPeace to fight environmental abuse, climate change, etc.
“Globally, people can begin to reach out to those with common concerns.”
He added, “In dealing with pollution, pollute and pay agents, when you place money over value, big guns get the money”.
He suggested continued advocacy for the health of the environment, collaboration to ensure defaulters pay, building of local capacity as well as promoting responsible environmental practices.
Elias – Ogoni is a global child. Ken globalized Ogoni issue by linking up with international environmental bodies like GreenPeace. We need international/regional and local stakeholders to see what is happening in Ogoni.
The struggle to correct the wrong in Ogoni he said, requires money and technical expertise. The Gulf of Mexico spill occurred over nine years ago, rumbles still exist over the clean-up, what will happen in Ogoniland?
We need to know what is going to be used (as chemicals) in the Ogoni clean-up. There is need to form an international watch group, it will require resources, information, expertise, etc.
This will involve diverse range of organizations, experts to enforce observation of the clean-up process and ensure the exercise I competently completed.
The watch group should also help harmonize laws between international rules and the Nigerian hydro-carbon clean up exercise.
“You don’t clean-up to mess up again. We need to partner with international experts in tune with our commitment. There should be representatives from all corners of the globe – public/private sector, trade unions, civil society, environmental groups, diverse opinions and ideas.
Internationalize the clean-up. Ogoni is an entry point to the Niger Delta, inaugurate the civil society body on the clean-up.
The clean-up is a political economy. There was less noise on Mexico clean-up, the watchdogs just pointed out the defects.
The watchdog should be voluntary/collaborative, it should have a purpose, shared rules and responsibilities with understanding that all participants will work and gain something- working with diverse actors will achieve a lot.
Ogoni Beyond Ken
Speaking on “Creating Agenda for Pro-Local Communities Environmental Policies” under the theme, “Ecological Justice in Nigeria, the Journey So Far,”Prof Sofiri Peterside of the Political Science Department, University of Port Harcourt encouraged youths to emulate activists like Dr. Nnimmo Bassey, late Ken Saro-Wiwa and others, stressing that the attitude of community leaders helped in keeping communities behind in terms of development.
He charged leaders to be transparent, equitable and fair to the Niger Delta communities, especially the oil bearing communities.
Dr Sam Kabari who spoke on “Communities, Local Livelihoods and the New PIB” reviewed the source of livelihood and how oil activities have destroyed and negatively impacted fertility of the land thereby keeping the people in hunger and abject poverty.
He encouraged Niger Delta people to acquire skills especially, those that can be exported to widen their opportunities as many persons in the region need skills. Kabari also advised people to speak up on the Petroleum Industrial Bill, as that when passed, will help in creating livelihood opportunities for oil bearing communities since has the governance, host community and other components.
Another speaker, Dr Elias Curson in his presentation on national and international collaboration on the Ogoni clean-up called for political will by government to do the needful and cross border collaborations to serve as a check in ensuring that the clean- up is carried out in line with specified guidelines in conformity with international best practices noting that despite efforts to swiftly clean up the Gulf of Mexico spill, environmentalists are still picking holes.
At the end of the day, it was clear that Ken SaroWiwa did not die in vain as an army of activists and thousands of Ogoni are in the trenches pushing his message with passion, demanding respect for the Niger Delta environment and punishment for all who helped destroy the land.
And the final message, that operating companies apply international best practice or leave the oil in the soil.