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Ogoni women, Saro-Wiwa’s legacy and clean-up process

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Ken Saro-Wiwa, one of nine Ogoni community activists executed after a grossly unfair trial in 1995.

No fewer than four hundred and eleven thousand, eight hundred and three women. A landmass spanning 1,050-square-kilometres. Some, if not most of them, in huts and mud houses for homes, without light and water.

It is a narrative that reads quite pathetically but offers nothing new for anyone who is familiar with rural life in Nigeria. Except that in the case of these beleaguered Ogoni women, the familiar picture is bearing out it’s starkest unravelling in the Federal Government’s intention to clean up their land. The women, largely poor and lacking access to and hope for a better life, are surely being led into further exclusion, deprivation, and disillusionment.

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And there is more. Ogoni women, like the bigger Ogoni nation, are no strangers to being short-changed. Or didn’t we all notice, that only days ago, we witnessed a muted wave of reminiscences on the life and legacy of Kenule Saro-Wiwa, 25 years after the military junta of Sani Abacha satisfied its hankering for his blood by ordering the murder of a man who put the Ogoni issue on the global agenda and stuck it on the national conscience? In all frankness, Nigeria lacks courage and the capacity for righteousness and restitution; it does not even place any value on closure as a vehicle for historical justice.

Nor does it appreciate the beauty that comes to the human soul when it takes the courage to right its own wrongs. Otherwise, among the many wrongs Nigeria has done itself, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s murder remains a great, yet-to-be restituted evil for which a simple pardon and exoneration, as well as an apology to the Ogoni, would have served as first steps to redress.

Speaking of which, I will quickly shift my attention back to the Ogoni women and how the abandoning of first steps is not helping the cleanup process instituted by the Federal Government.

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The UNEP report, which recommended the guidelines for the clean-up, states clearly that the emergency measures (that’s what the report calls them) must first be undertaken before the commencement of bioremediation. But HYPREP, the Federal Government’s vehicle undertaking the clean-up process, has not followed this procedure; instead, it has abandoned those first principles and proceeded instead to bioremediation at once.

Now there are natural consequences even for a motor vehicle if it skips preliminary checks before hitting the road.

The emergency measures include the provision of potable water. This is against the backdrop of people drinking water filled with more than 900 times the level of benzene recommended by the WHO. Benzene causes cancer! Second, to conduct a health audit of the people to ascertain just how much the oil pollution or what I call the oil holocaust has negatively impacted them so that both the people and the earth they live on can be comprehensively cleaned. But this hasn’t happened either. If you were familiar with the Ogoni story, you would have heard of cancer in children and how untimely deaths have become commonplace.

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Another recommendation is the establishment of a Centre of Excellence that will provide skills, training, and enterprise development for women and youths in Ogoniland. This, too, remains to be done.

Now, the findings of a study undertaken across the four Ogoni LGAs by the Kebetkache Women’s Development and Resource Centre, a strategic partner with Cordaid, helping to build the capacity of women in the clean-up process, show glaring disparities between what is and what could have been if these emergency measures had been followed.

Data from the study of livelihood needs assessments in Eleme, Gokana, Khana, and Tai, the four local councils of Ogoniland, shows that Ogoni women boast quite a rich collection of livelihood opportunities that can be upgraded and exploited for light industrialisation.

Some figures from Kebetkache’s study show that ability to attain an education or pick a trade and earn monthly incomes were significantly hampered and threatened.

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The report states that “a higher proportion of those who had primary level education (83.9%) compared to those who attained at least secondary school education (78.1%) reported lack of capital as a livelihood challenge. Women who engaged in the occupation because of finance/being the available option were more likely to face a lack of access to loans as a challenge compared to those who are engaged in the job because of their skills or passion. With the data so far, changing or searching for livelihood alternatives holds little promise given the absence of opportunities or the required economic structures to support opportunities. 38.3% of respondents are engaged in trading – buying and selling of clothes, provisions, drinks, food spare parts, building materials, woods, etc. 20% of respondents are into farming, fishing, and poultry. 80.1% of respondents like farming and fishing.”

The point that calls for genuine regretting here is that simply following the laid down guidelines in the UNEP report could have helped these women do better in a skilling/reskilling programme to support the catalysation of light industries.

But now, Ogoni women are largely no better than when the clean-up first started. Several pieces of training have been promised and proposed with HYPREP largely dragging its feet, leading to more disillusionment and frustration than fulfilment.

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The same questions that drove Kebetkache to undertake its study must be asked again with both international oil majors and relevant government agencies put on the hot seat. They include: What are the existing livelihood activities and opportunities for women in Ogoni? What are women’s expectations and priorities in terms of livelihood options in Ogoni? What constitutes women’s responses to livelihood challenges in Ogoniland? What are the adaptative strategies for the design of a viable livelihood programme for Ogoni women?

Let me close with the recommendations of the study: “Given the impact of oil pollution on rural livelihoods and occupations, there is a need to upscale and expedite efforts in environmental restoration of the area by government and oil companies.

“Upscale interventions around improving rural market support systems to aid improved income from farming and fishing.

“Identify rural market needs and strategies to improve the local economy and possible improvements through a baseline for rural market needs.

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“Commission efforts at reducing post-harvest losses by providing processes for reducing produce from direct sunlight and rain and supported by improving market channels for agricultural produce to move from points of production to points of sale and consumption in urban areas.

“Audit intervention projects around the emergency measures noted by UNEP to improve access to water and health facilities.

“Increase women access to loans and credits to aid livelihood mobility from less preferred to more preferred activities. This should be followed by technical support structures for sustainability.

“Improve channels of communication, participation, and decision-making by women in the clean-up process as a means of communities owning the process.”

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