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Again, Ogoniland slides to the brink

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A preliminary approval granted to an oil company to resume crude oil production in environmentally ruined Ogoniland, is threatening to tear apart the bond that tie the people together.

Activists, who resisted the despoliation of Ogoni environment by multinationals, namely Shell, Total and Agip in the 1990s, and whose agitation were criminalised by the Nigerian state, are presently pitched against traditional rulers, who have endorsed the Federal Government’s bid to resume oil production in the area, despite the non-implementation of the recommendations of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report on Ogoniland.  

It would be recalled that Shell and its joint venture partners had pulled out of Ogoni oilfields on April 30, 1993 after soldiers attached to Shell’s contractor, Wilbros, which was laying the Trans-Niger pipeline killed several Ogoni indigenes, who were protesting against the destruction of their farmlands.

Due to the loss of confidence between Shell and Ogoni people, the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, while on a state visit to South Africa in June 2008, announced that by the end of that year, another oil operator would take over Shell’s interests in Ogoniland.

The immediate past government, which was handed the UNEP report that revealed the environmental disaster wrecked on Ogoniland by multinational oil companies (and also exposed the weakness of Nigeria’s mining regulations, but failed to act on it) was, however, motivated by economics as it began behind the scene moves to resume oil production in Ogoni, without first addressing the principal grievances that necessitated the Ogoni struggle.

The undercurrent and intrigues came into public glare in January 2015, when members of the Supreme Council of Ogoni Traditional Rulers, in the palace of Gbenemene of Tai, king Godwin Gininwa, endorsed Belema Oil Producing Ltd, to take over the Ogoni oilfields.

Irked by the decision of the chiefs, the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) President, Legborsi Saro Pyagbara, called for a congress of the Ogoni people on February 7, 2015 at the Peace and Freedom Centre, Bori, where it was resolved that all discussions and activities relating to the resumption of oil production in Ogoniland be suspended.

Consequently, MOSOP was mandated to establish a committee that would develop a clear and inclusive engagement framework on oil investment in Ogoniland. The Committee was headed by Professor Johnson Nnah of the University of Port Harcourt, and co-chaired by former vice chancellor of the Rivers State University, Professor Barineme Fakae.

While Ogoni was yet to adopt an inclusive framework for engagement with the government, the Nigerian Petroleum Development Company (NPDC) awarded the Oil Mining Licence in respect of OML 11 Ogoni fields to one RoboMichael Nigeria Limited; a move, which was described by MOSOP as not only provocative, but a recipe for crisis and conflict with the Ogoni people.

In a bid to secure social license from Ogoni, which its appropriate geology has made the area an epicentre of low-cost oil production, several oil companies visited the area, meeting various stakeholders and in some instances, adopting a primary tactic of the mining companies globally, to ‘divide and conquer’ opposition to their bids. As a result of this, there now exists a previously unknown group called Ogoni oil-bearing communities.

At a meeting held in December 2017, between the Conference of Traditional Rulers (COTRA) and RoboMichael, the Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of the oil corporation, Madam Arobo Michael Ibrahim, revealed that the firm had been granted operatorship licence to operate and develop the Ogoni fields of OML 11, adding that they were consulting the people to ensure understanding that would ensure that all the parties work together for the common good of all Ogoni people.

RoboMichael in a bid to convince the Ogoni Community to accept it packaged a development scheme (a sort of corporate social responsibility), which it tagged “Robocare.” The scheme focuses on youth development and empowerment, research and development, leadership development, skills acquisition, job creation, peace building, mentoring, infrastructural development, entrepreneurship development and human resources development.

In February 2018, the Supreme Council of Ogoni Traditional Rulers, and the Conference of Ogoni Traditional Rulers met at Korokoro and jointly endorsed RoboMicheal Limited having obtained the operatorship license for OML11 from the Federal Government.

The King of Kpite Community and spokesperson of the Supreme council, Samuel Nnee, said they endorsed the resumption of oil exploration activities because it will generate wealth, provide employment for Ogoni indigenes, and also open up the area to investments such as the establishment of modular refineries.

Former MOSOP President, Ledum Mitee, noted that while the state can make unilateral decisions in granting concessions and mining licences to companies, all that Ogoni people are demanding is that they be treated humanely. He explained that for protesting against the activities of oil companies, about two per cent of the Ogoni population were killed, several communities decimated, and destroyed. To this end, he urged the chiefs to be circumspect as their actions could trigger crisis.

“A whole generation of our leadership had been wiped away. We have not been able to get to that level any longer, so, they should always have at the back of their minds that before they could proudly shout Ogoni, there were lives that were laid down. Consequently, in whatever they are doing, they should have at the back of their minds, the sacrifices that have been made. They should also come to terms with the fact that whatever they get today that will lead to bloodshed will not be good in the sight of man and God. My understanding is that the Ogonis have not said completely that no oil production whatsoever, under any circumstances should go on. What the Ogoni people have said is that they do not want to repeat a situation we had passed through in the past. We want to be treated humanely,” said Mitee.

The National Coordinator, Ogoni Solidarity Forum, Celestine Akpobari, said the endorsement of resumption of oil exploring activities in Ogoni by the chiefs, without first ensuring the restoration of the damaged fragile ecosystem such as forests, highlands, wetlands, including the water body, was tantamount to insensitivity and dancing on the grave of slain Ogoni heroes like Ken Saro-Wiwa and the others.

According to him, the UNEP report has clearly shown that oil production by its very nature causes environmental and social damages, as it contaminates water bodies, pollutes the air, tends to have a negative impact on the quality of soil, just as it affects biodiversity.

He said: “There was a struggle and there were demands. As a result of that struggle important persons died in Ogoni. I will not be a part of those, who will betray our heroes and dance on their graves because of their stomachs, without achieving those legitimate demands that they died for. The real cleanup is yet to start and so it will be very unwise for any Ogoni man to begin to ask any oil company to come and explore oil when they have not cleaned up the mess that led to the killing of our people. The international community will laugh at us; our comrades that have been supporting our struggle will laugh at us. It means that what we embarked upon was a suicide mission- just to kill people. As far as I am concerned, nothing has changed. It also means that Ken and the rest should not have been involved in any struggle because nothing has changed. So, if I may ask, what did they die for?”

Akpobari acknowledged that though poverty remains prevalent in Ogoniland, just as it is in all oil producing communities in the Niger Delta, the chiefs and those backing the resumption of oil exploring activities must take into cognizance, the justice side of the Ogoni agitation.

According to him, supporting the resumption of oil prospecting activities while the primary reasons for the Ogoni struggle has not been achieved is not being fair to those that lost their lives in the struggle.

The Executive Director of Social Action, Dr Isaac Osuoka, who is one of those whom the Ogoni struggle has inspired described the issuance of operational licence to RoboMichael to resume activities in Ogoni as the height of insensitivity to Ogoniland and the Niger Delta by the Muhammad Buhari-led administration, especially when the government has not taken any concrete action towards cleaning up polluted areas as recommended by UNEP.

“It seems that all the fantastical flag-off ceremonies with respect to the Ogoni cleanup were just ploys to restore petroleum exploitation in the area. Any attempt by the Federal Government and its agents to push for a return of oil companies to Ogoniland, without the implementation of the recommendations of UNEP, and without full consultation with Ogoni people, is a recipe for conflict. I believe that the forces that are against injustice within Ogoniland will resist this move, and we will support them. Can you believe that the Federal Government has not even responded conclusively to the minimum UNEP recommendation, which in the first instance, includes the provision of clean drinking water and essential health services to Ogoni communities that have been drinking poisoned water for decades. To now go ahead to return oil companies to produce in the area is the height of wickedness, which should be resisted. Nigeria’s appetite for oil money cannot justify the poisoning of oil-bearing communities. The rate of deaths in Ogoniland is very high, and people are dying daily of all kinds of unknown ailments, without the response of the government,” said Osuoka.

Similarly, the Executive Director, We the People – Centre for Social Studies and Development, Ken Henshaw, told The Guardian that throughout the history of crude oil exploration in the Niger Delta, dire consequences have always been the case, including environmental and social disasters. For this reason, he called for restraint on the part of government and business interests that are pushing for the resumption of oil production until when the wounds of the 1990s have healed.

“I think that attempts to go back to Ogoniland for oil production now is not just provocative to the Ogoni people, but it also signals a brewing crisis in that region. I know for sure that the Ogoni people are highly mobilised and very angry over what happened in the 1990s; I know that the Ogoni people still think of Ken Saro-Wiwa, and have not forgotten the atrocities of Shell. So, this is a recipe for crisis, anarchy which may take the dimension of murders; armed uprising and all that. People were killed and up till now the gazette available in Nigeria is that the man Kenule Saro-Wiwa, was tried and convicted for murder. He has not been granted any state pardon, and he is a hero of the Ogoni people, who fought against Shell. However, another oil company wanting to come back to Ogoniland is like a validation of what happened in 1995. I don’t think that any genuine Ogoni person will support it,” he said.

MOSOP President, Legborsi Saro Pyagbara, is urging the Federal Government and the international community to call RoboMichael Ltd., and Belema Oil Producing to order before their desperate and despicable bid to take over Ogoni oilfields plunges the Ogoniland into another avoidable cycle of crisis.

“I want to reiterate that MOSOP is not opposed to the resumption of oil production in Ogoni, which will take place only after due consultation with the Ogoni people, not with a committee of deposed and discredited chiefs. Oil companies wanting to do business in Ogoni must await the adoption of the report of the Professor Ben Naanen-led Pan-Ogoni Committee, which was set up to draw a template for oil production in the area. This template will give such companies a level playing ground for their engagement with the Ogoni community,” he said.

External Relations Manager, Shell Petroleum Development Company Mr. Igo Weli, has, however denied claims that RoboMichael was acting as a front for Shell, just as he reiterated that the company was not interested in returning to Ogoni.“There is no relationship between ourselves and RoboMichael. Like we have said severally, we have no plans to resume oil and gas production in Ogoniland. That link does not exist and we have clarified that severally,” he said.

“The OML we applied for covers all our onshore assets, including OML 11 but the mistake people make is to give the impression that OML11 is only the Ogoni oilfields. It is not only the Ogonifields. OML 11 includes Bonny, Imo River. People make that mistake because one group of people have been very vocal and have made it look like OML 11 is synonymous with Ogoni fields. It is not true. Don’t forget that we are operating on behalf of the government, Total and Agip. So, as a responsible operator, when the time is due for the renewal of license you have to do that,” he said.


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