Belema! story of resilience, victory
The ancient kingdom of Kula is located in a remote coastal enclave of the Niger Delta. It boasts a long and profoundly spiritual history that is kept alive by a custodian who bears the title of His Royal Majesty King Bourdillon Oko the 28th. The king professes his allegiance to his royal ancestors constantly by observing rites and ceremonies regularly and religiously. While King Oko’s legitimacy is widely accepted by a substantial proportion of the indigenes of Kula some members of the community have gone to court to challenge his authority. In spite of this his ancestry as a direct descendant of the founder of the kingdom is well documented and can hardly be questioned. As a consequence he was one of the two original signatories of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that granted Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) the right to establish a major oil installation registered as OML 25 in Belema community, one of the fourteen traditional settlements that comprise the kingdom, in 1980. At the time he was bearing the title of Chief Ekine as the regent of Belema, and his co-signatory was the now deceased King Oko the 27th. His role as a key leader of the Kula Kingdom’s traditional institutions has therefore always been influenced by the fact that he is one of those who can claim responsibility for bringing the oil industry into contact with the community.
According to the present monarch when the MOU was signed the community leaders believed that Shell would put a number of public amenities and services in place that would enhance the quality of life for the people of the community. Their initial expectations included the hope that potable drinking water, health care services and educational institutions and scholarships for the young people of the area would be provided within a reasonable period after the company began its operation. King Oko and the community leaders who support him are adamant that Shell and its operating partner the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) promised several projects over the years but provided only minimal and substandard ones.
The Shell run installation is estimated to have produced between 28,000 and 45,000 barrels of Bonny light crude per day for nearly forty years. In spite of the community having produced such enormous wealth for the nation in that time King Oko says, the people have suffered the destruction of their traditional livelihood as the environment has been destroyed by the oil giant with no commensurate development or compensation. The traditional ruler claims that while they have appealed for help peacefully to the Nigerian government and the oil company over the years the only result has been abject neglect.
Then last year the cup ran over. In August scores of women and young children stormed the Shell complex in Belema and drove all the workers out. They have remained there for more than ten months. The story of this remarkable event has attracted some attention from local media but it appears that the remoteness of the location has kept it out of the frontline of public curiosity and attention. The women have stayed on the site with young children and both elderly matrons and young mothers have abandoned their homes for almost a year to keep the protest alive. How such an event could occur in what appears to be a remote and even backward rural community so far away from any major urban centre in Nigeria (about four/ or five hours by boat from Port Harcourt and two hours from the LGA Headquarters at Abonemma) that some people say travelling there is like leaving Nigeria, is a remarkable story in itself.
King Oko has explained that while the community leaders were not the ones who provoked the action they have become the ones who support the women most. According to him, “The women decided on their own that they have had enough. We entered into discussions with Shell and NNPC about two years ago for a new agreement in which the communities would be given a share in revenue earned from the installations in our territory. After terms were agreed between us we waited for implementation and nothing happened. We travelled to Abuja to hold meetings with NNPC and the oil company. We were treated like outcasts. So we decided that when the women closed down the Belema installation we would no longer enter into any discussions that did not contain rock solid guarantees of development for the community. That has been our stand ever since the occupation of the site began.”
This decision which King Oko says has the support of the entire Council of Chiefs of the kingdom has been given greater impetus in recent months as a new oil company owned by a young indigene of the kingdom has begun operations in the territory. The company which is actually called Belema Oil has displayed a high standard of corporate responsibility and social concern since it began operating its licence to extract crude from a location in another part of the kingdom.
According to King Oko, “When the women of Belema community closed down Shell’s operation they were not even aware that our own son who owns Belema Oil was able to run such an operation. In less than a year the services and scholarship assistance that his company has provided put all initiatives taken by Shell over the last four decades to shame. His company has put the best community water supply ever seen in this area in place in Kula town, and he has provided scholarships for over three hundred students. He has employed scores of our youth and is opening up the territory with a new road complex. The record of Belema Oil has therefore opened our eyes to possibilities that Shell concealed from us. Now that we know that we have been cheated for four decades we are determined that the future will be better.”
The construction and commissioning of the Kula water treatment plant and the distribution of clean drinking water throughout the town by Belema Oil has indeed reverberated throughout the kingdom, In many of the fourteen communities that make up Kula Kingdom the people still take their drinking water from ancient surface wells. In Belema community itself the surface well is estimated to be more than five centuries old and people drink from the same source as wild reptiles and domestic animals. A jetty built by Shell several years ago in Belema has collapsed and its ruins stand as testimony to, and justification for, the militant determination to close down any links with the company that King Oko has become recognised for in recent months. Although he is faced with challenges over his occupancy of the ancient throne of his ancestors he has not allowed these to interfere with his advocacy of a new order of commitment to the welfare of the communities in the kingdom by those who exploit its wealth. He has emerged as the major adversary of Shell and its partners and the most stalwart supporter of the women of Belema who have confronted the oil giant for nearly a year.