By Mac Durugbo
The recent article by Obadiah Mailafia with the above title on the back page of Nigerian Tribune makes interesting reading. Aside doing what amounts to a postmortem on the “embodiment of criminality and injustice” which the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) has become, the piece sought, though inconclusively, to show that the long years of neglect and apparent deprivation which the people of the Niger Delta have suffered were brought on them largely by their own people. I wish to expatiate on that.
Before I do so, however, let me quickly point out that although the Niger Delta region comprises of Abia, Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross River, Delta, Edo, Imo, Ondo and Rivers States, whenever it is mentioned, most Nigerians think of Rivers, Bayelsa and Delta States, to a large extent and the other states to a lesser extent. This may be due to the fact that agitations against apparent neglect and environmental degradation were spearheaded principally by youths from those states. So, the gains of those years of agitation, which turned violent at some point, could also be credited to the people of those states.
Having made that point, let me return to the main focus of this piece; and I think the place to start is from the late Kenule Beeson “Ken” Saro-Wewa. A Nigerian writer, television producer and environmental activist, the late Ken was, aside other responsibilities, an arrowhead of the struggle by the Ogoni People, an ethnic minority whose entire land has been targeted for oil extraction by the Nigerian Government since the 1950s and who have, as a result, suffered extreme environmental damage from decades of indiscriminate petroleum waste dumping.
In the face of brazen military dictatorship, Ken showed exemplary courage in striving non-violently for civil, economic and environmental rights for the people of Ogoniland and, by extension, the Niger Delta region. He was initially spokesperson and then President of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), which played a very significant role in internationalising the campaign against environmental degradation of the land and waters of Ogoniland by the operations of the multinational petroleum industry, especially the Royal Dutch Shell Company. He was also noted for his criticism of the Nigerian government, which he viewed as reluctant to enforce environmental regulations on the foreign petroleum companies operating in the area.
Ken Saro-Wewa was hanged in 1995 along with eight other activists (The Ogoni Nine) by the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha which accused him of masterminding the gruesome murder of Ogoni chiefs at a pro-government meeting. Apparently betrayed by his own people, all through the kangaroo trial by a Special Military Tribunal, Ken maintained that he was framed because of his opposition to the military regime of Gen. Sani Abacha and to the oil industry. And several facts emerged later to confirm that.
Evidence One: facts that emerged during the trials revealed that many witnesses who testified that he was involved in the murders of the Ogoni elders later recanted, stating that they had been bribed with money and offers of jobs with Shell to give false testimony.
Evidence Two: The lawsuit brought against Shell by the families of the Ogoni Nine which alleged that Shell conspired with the military to arrest and execute the men was settled out of court before it came to trial so were never tested in a court of law.
Evidence Three; there are records of rampant use of the military by the Federal Government to harass and intimidate citizens of the region at the instigation of Shell who was accused of supplying arms and ammunition to soldiers detailed to suppress any opposition to oil extraction in the area. But as heinous as that execution appeared to the international community, back home, however, the focus was shifted to the “Elders” for whose deaths Ken suffered capital punishment. They were tagged Ogoni Four and the Abacha Junta tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to make them heroes.
Except the established fact that they were “Ogoni Chiefs”, there is very scarce information concerning their background. As for what led to their death, reports have it that they were holding “a pro-government meeting”; which may be interpreted to mean working in opposition to the aspirations of MOSOP and the people of Ogoniland. And there were, and still are as a matter of fact, many of such “Ogoni Chiefs”, who, over the years, have worked against the aspirations of Ogoniland for selfish interests; black legs in the cause for justice and fair play.
I had a glimpse of them in the mid-1990s when I was Energy Correspondent for one of the leading national dailies then. They played into the hands of the multinationals that used them expertly to divide and rule the numerous “kingdoms, chiefdoms and selfdoms” that constituted the region. They were “settled” and made comfortable by the oil companies so they were always scared of acts that could tilt the apple cart.
They live in golden palaces, often far away from their environmentally polluted and degraded communities. They claim to represent the people, but they only feather their nests along the line, using the youths, when necessary, to twist the arms of the multinationals for their own good. I will give an example. We were in Warri, Delta State at the invitation of Shell to inspect some of their CSR projects in their host communities. We lodged at the Petroleum Training Institute, Efurun. One evening their PRO drove us to the Shell Club along a less than three kilometre very dilapidated road.
We questioned as to why Shell could not rehabilitate the road. The PRO told us that several attempts by the company to do that ended in a near bloody clash. On one occasion, the company had just mobilised to site and were about to commence work when youths of the community attacked the workers and burnt some of their equipment.
When Shell met with the “Chiefs”, they said they were not consulted and that if the road must be reconstructed, Shell should give them the money to execute it. They were accordingly asked to submit cost implications. They did and Shell paid them. That was over five years before our visit. That was just one of many such incidences all over the region.
So the truth of the matter is that the tragedy that has befallen the Niger Delta Region is largely aided by the indigenes themselves. If you doubt this please tell me, where are the agitators of yesterday? They are billionaires of today, with major investments scattered in foreign lands while the cause they fought for is still far from being realised.
Durugbo is an Abuja-based public affairs analyst.