Resumption of oil operation in Ogoniland is recipe for crisis, warns Mitee
Former President of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) Ledum Mitee, tells KELVIN EBIRI that attempts by powerful players to force the resumption of oil production in Ogoniland without a clean up and dialogue with the people will precipitate a fresh wave of crisis in the area.
Is there truth behind the planned resumption of oil exploration in Ogoni?
The issue of oil exploitation in Ogoni has become business for several people. There are people who have gone around shopping for companies and signing documents serially. This has also not been helped by the activities of some companies of doubtful pedigree that have been going around, dishing out money to traditional rulers and some individuals.
The issue of oil exploitation in Ogoni is deeper than some are making it. And I think most of those making comments are in three categories. First, those who feel, ‘let’s just collect money from any company that can give us money. We don’t care what happens after’. There some people who feel, ‘well, I am getting old and I think that this thing is getting so long to resolve. So, whatever I see, now, let me grab it’. There are also some who genuinely feel, ‘yes, we should start talking about oil exploitation’.
The issue is deeper than saying, ‘let’s take oil’. It is difficult to see what the Ogoni have gone through. People believe you can just say, ‘that is it. Let’s go and start from where we stopped’, without a consultation that will involve several stakeholders. People are not even taking time to do some elementary investigation or research. When I see companies and I see people who are shouting, some don’t even have a drop of oil on their land. In other words, they are not even from communities where oil comes from. Most of those who are shouting all over the place, you don’t even see their pedigree, as to what they did, even in the past. I feel that companies should, at least, ask questions. There are certain names that should shout at you in Ogoni. Did you see any of the Wiwas, any of the Badeys, any of the Kobanis, any of the Orages, families of the Ogoni 13, or those people who lost their lives, and some people who were involved in the struggle?
I think people should have been sensitive to some of these issues because ultimately, after you have wasted all these money, if the companies say now they are coming, the real people will then confront them. If you intimidate the people with the army, will you get soldiers to guard all the flow stations and all the pipelines that will pass through the area? I think the government is also not fair. Considering what the Ogoni have passed through, you need to, at least, have a consultation on how we should go forward.
How would you assess the planned oil resumption against the yet to be implemented UNEP recommendations?
It is quite insensitive to use it as blackmail, saying, ‘we will not clean your place unless you allow us to pollute it more by further exploitation’. You don’t start bribing people, intimidating them, saying, ‘we will not clean your place unless you allow oil to flow’. In very opaque manner, not making any pretence about transparency, you say you will bring one company that was formed yesterday to come and resume oil production, and then the company goes around giving money to people. That will not help.
If you want operation, Ogoni will sit down with you and say, ‘this is what we want’, because almost every community suffered as a result of that struggle. There are some people who were on the side of Shell at that time, and they also are the people who are now saying that this company should come. Some of them have thus far supported at least three companies serially. When this one comes and they pick something from it, they will say, ‘we support you’. The next time, they will support the next company.
Government should be able to say to the Ogoni people, ‘can you sit down with us?’ and then ask, ‘what do you people actually want?’ That does not exclude, even in my view, the multinationals themselves. Ogoni will be more prepared to work with those who will show they have performed better somewhere else than those who want to take us as guinea pigs. Clearly, I have said it repeatedly that what those companies are doing, including those who are supporting them, is trying to precipitate crisis in Ogoni, so that they will use it as another excuse to repress us. And I think that is quite callous.
In my view, the Ogoni are not as divided as people make us to be. They are still asking for justice. The voices we are hearing are not necessarily the voices of the majority, because several people feel, ‘why should we speak when we know that we can just wait and when the real thing comes we will confront it’. And so, they are there, silently. That is why some of us keep quiet, because we know that what is going on is some kind of bazaar that does not stand any chance of success. It has been tried several times and it didn’t work.
Do you share the chiefs’ claim that resumption of oil activities will boost development, employment and reduction in criminality?
Go to other parts of the Niger Delta, like Etche, Omoku and others, the oil industry is not an industry that is labour intensive. All they do is that you put a well somewhere and mechanically you transfer the oil to anywhere. Five people can do it. How many people in Etche are employed, even when oil is flowing from there? It is either out of ignorance that people make such claims.
Now, how does this lead to economic development? How many Ogoni will be in position to get the big contracts that would lead to empowerment? How many contractors are there and why have they not got contracts to lay pipes or some other major jobs? Cutting grass in the flow station is not what leads to economic empowerment. It is not farming. It is not a petrochemical firm that can employ people. All they will do is just dig a well and then go and sleep and then their dollars flow for them. It is either ignorance or people are trying to project what is not true.
How many Ogoni people have the papers to bid as major contractors in the oil companies? The main people who get the major contracts are in Abuja, Lagos and other cities. So, that is why consultation is imperative. They should think about the poor Ogoni people who end up getting pollution, because that is what the oil industry is all about.
As we speak, go and see the new bill of the host communities that is before the National Assembly, it is retrogression on all the things we have been saying. Now, the companies will set up trust and members may not necessarily be from the host communities. This is a law they want to pass. This is what will guide the oil industry in the future and they are already at the public hearing stage.
So, I think that a lot of disinformation and ignorance pervades the conversation. The voices of those that people should hear have not been heard. That is a recipe for crisis. When you exclude those who will be affected by what is happening from the solution to the problem, it is the fastest way to escalate crisis.
Why has it been difficult to implement the late President Umaru Yar’Adua’s proposal that another operator should replace Shell in Ogoni?
Self-interest of all the characters that are involved! Not even the Ogoni interest. No one cares about the Ogoni interest. Even before Yar’Adau, President Olusegun Obasanjo had called some of us, Ogoni leaders, and said they wanted to get another operator that would be acceptable to the Ogoni people and they will send them to us, so that we will have this conversation that we are insisting on. Why did that one not go forward? People from other places who were close to the government didn’t allow the process to go forward. When Yar’Adua came in, it was the same thing. What you are seeing now is that those who are close to power want to grab Ogoni oil and make money out of it, without thinking of the interest of the people. That is what is playing out. Somehow, what they seem to be doing is looking for fronts they will use for that purpose. It is not about the Ogoni people at all. It is mainly about the bigger interests of some people who just want to exploit, not for any other purpose, but their personal interest.
Under what conditions will Ogoni people consent to the resumption of oil production?
We need to be treated fairly. We need to sit down and express our concerns, our experiences. We want to say, ‘this is what we want from what you are going to do’. How do we ameliorate the problems caused in the past? How do we get some basic benefits? These are the conversations that should be dealt with, not doing things in a manner that suggests we do not have a voice. If you think you can just corner one or two persons and give them something, what you are doing is that you are planting a seed of discord in the community, which can lead to communal crisis, and even the communal crisis will not open the way for the resumption of oil activities. It will further delay it. It is even in the interest of those that want the oil to say, ‘why can’t we have this conversation?’
We went to the Justice Oputa commission and called for it. The current Archbishop of Canterbury, at some stage, also tried to intercede in this matter, and we had conversations. Somehow, as I said, those in power and those who are close to power feel they should just grab Ogoni oilfield. ‘Ogoni oil is very cheap to get. It is shallow. It is sweet. Therefore, you are going to make massive gain’. And they believe these are people who have no political power. So, ‘why can’t we seize the oil?’ It is something that intoxicates those who are out to appropriate resources. That is what is playing out.
I think Ogoni people have never been the stumbling block to the resumption of oil production. But no one wants to hear them. No one wants to atone for the pains we have passed through. Their thinking is, ‘we are in government and in power and will do what we want. And if the people don’t want it, we will send soldiers’. The same thing led to Shell not exploiting oil in Ogoni. We didn’t set out to block them. But when there were protests over issues, they sent soldiers to kill people, and that created the crisis.
Now, you say, ‘all that doesn’t matter. What we want is to resume oil production’, even in disregard of the United Nations call for the clean up of Ogoniland. The Vice President came about two years ago to flag off the exercise. The former Minister of Environment has done several foundation laying ceremonies. Is there anything to show for these activities? Because of the visibility of the Ogoni thing, people just want to exploit it for public relations. They don’t want to do any tangible thing that will make the people say, ‘our struggle had not been in vain. Our heroes that were killed have not died in vain.’ It pains some of us who witnessed the beginning of the struggle to see the same thing that happened in the past repeating itself.
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