A Tale of Two Oil Spills
by Ebenezar Wikina
A Story of Rage and Resilience in OgoniLand
“I was 2 years old when Ken Saro-Wiwa was killed for this struggle, it’s an honour to report his dream coming true”, I tweeted as I stood backstage in the media booth with Esther Agbarakwe at the launch event for the cleanup of Ogoniland and other oil impacted communities in the Niger Delta.
It was on Thursday, June 2nd, 2016, the sun was smiling, the cultural dancers were shaking beautifully, women union members were dressed in their blue and green wrapper holding a big welcome banner with the President’s face on it, the air was thick with tension and the smell of fresh palm wine.
When the ceremony actually kicked off it was great. Everybody was there: Governors, Ministers, Commissioners, Senators, Journalists, Actors, Musicians, everybody. There was more singing, dancing, and cheering when Vice President Yemi Osinbajo’s helicopter landed.
As my uncle Mr Blessing Wikina, who was compere for the day, introduced speaker after speaker from the long list of dignitaries present at the event, hope started to build in all of us. The speakers said all the right things. The time for the salvation of the Ogoni people has come, I thought to myself. This is surely what Ken Saro-Wiwa fought for…or is it?
The Village without Villagers
In March 2017, I visited Goi Community — just a few kilometers from Bodo where almost one year ago the prestigious Cleanup launch event held — for a field reporting project with media fellows from African Art and Media for Earth Initiative. Besides the beautiful signpost welcoming you to Goi you will notice that unlike other villages, there was nobody.
Yes, the village had no villagers. Chief Eric Doo explains why; “Inspectors from Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project (HYPREP) came to our community in 2012 during their assessment of oil polluted areas and Goi was characterized as one of the most impacted areas that were uninhabitable for people, so they asked us to leave the place…”
Since 2012, the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from Goi have been squatting in neighbouring communities like Bodo without any form of support, as Chief Doo told me. He said in 1977 his father established multiple businesses in Goi including, a poultry farm, a bakery, and a fish pond.
In 1997 there was a spill from Bodo-West and the spill got into his fish pond, this crippled his aquaculture business and Doo said, after assessment of the spill by Royal Dutch Shell (Shell, for short), his father was paid “a token”.
Doo said in 2003 multiple spills flowed down from Bodo-West again and this made his father take Shell to court requesting payment for damages. Chief Doo painfully narrated how they kept going back and forth in various courts for almost a decade until his father passed on in 2012 which eventually killed the case because, according to him, Shell filed a motion at the Federal High Court to end the case.
Speaking with so much resentment, Chief Doo shared how he had spent all he had in court cases and can no longer continue the fight except he gets help from external sponsors. During my recent visit to Goi, I noticed some people had started clearing the bushes and rebuilding their homes.
I saw men walking on the muddy riverbed to fetch firewood on the other side just like the biblical Moses and the Children of Israel except that this time the men were walking on oil. Women were fetching from a puddle of polluted water by the bank to do their laundry while children were bathing in it. Dumka, a little boy playing at the muddy bank, ran towards me with a small lobster he just caught. I opened the lobster and there was crude oil inside.
“...because of the pollution, we have lost all our shellfish...we often ride our canoe towards Bonny island on the atlantic to get food for consumption”, Doo said. Most times we only consider the environmental impact of oil spills but this opened my eyes to its impact on the food of the people affected. He is planning to reach out to foreign lawyers to help them fight for justice and compensation. “There’s nothing like human right in this country only riches right...I no longer trust the judiciary,” Chief Doo painfully muttered.
600,000 naira for your Pain
It was a foreign court that came to the aid of Bodo people after thousands of barrels of oil was spilled in Bodo for 72 days in 2008. The river, creeks, and farmland were all destroyed. Although Shell accepted responsibility for the spill ascribing it to operational failure, Emma Pii, a resident of Bodo City, told me “...all Shell did was give a couple bags of rice and beans and one cow as compensation to the community.”
According to Pii, the community approached foreign lawyers who sued Shell at a London Court landing a historic judgement where the oil giant was made to pay $83.4 million -- the highest compensation ever paid in Nigeria -- to Bodo Community which was then shared as six hundred thousand naira (600,000) to every individual of the community 18 years old and above.
That huge sum of money however didn’t take away the realities of living in a polluted environment. “We still bathe and eat the fish from the polluted river. Since the flag off event last year, HYPREP had visited only twice or so to do inspection but no cleanup has been done in Bodo…,” Pii laments.
The Ogoni people are known for fishing and farming. Bodo, due to its coastal nature, used to pride itself in owning the best variety and sizes of fish in the Niger Delta region. I recall summer holidays in Bodo with my grandmother, Elder Grace Wikina -- who is a native of Bodo -- eating fresh “Eyimbari” (fish in Ogoni dialect) as dinner.
Apparently, nothing fresh can come out of that river now and the people can only hope that something will happen, and happen fast so they can go back to their means of livelihood. Apparently 600,000 naira doesn’t last forever.
Can HYPREP Handle the Hype?
Before her recent appointment at the United Nations as Deputy Secretary General, Amina J. Mohammed worked tirelessly as Nigeria’s Minister of Environment to engage the Ogoni people in town hall meetings to know their wishes and manage their expectations. In an exclusive interview with me on The Stroll Live, she said the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report on OgoniLand has outlined the process for the cleanup to span 25 - 30 years.
“It will be a tough few years. The first 2 to 3 years will be quite tough, and then you know it will be over 20-25 years to get this done. So in the first instance, what we’re doing is speaking with stakeholders, trying to explain to manage expectations. So that when one says we’re cleaning up by the end of March, it doesn’t mean you’re going to see boats out there cleaning up — there’s a lot to be put in place for that to be done.”
So what has been put in place and how well has this been communicated to the Ogoni people? Especially considering the media and political “hype” that followed the launch event in Bodo last year. Project Coordinator for the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project (HYPREP), Dr Marvin Dekil, is an Ogoni native and I ask him some of the burning questions raised by the people I have met in course of the journey across Bodo and Goi. Dr Dekil responds, “In managing expectations, we have engaged with communities across four Local Government Areas (LGAs) in Eleme, Tai, Gokana, and Khana.
In course of sensitizing members of the various LGAs we’ve been able to educate them on what this project is really about and what it isn’t. A lot of people think this money is for compensation. In course of the interaction we have told them this money is not for sharing…”
Struck by that last statement, I probe further to find out if what he means is that no one will get any form of compensation in course of this process. I think about Chief Eric and other Goi IDPs who had been forced to leave home for more than nine years. Does this mean they will get nothing?
He answers, “HYPREP is implementing the UNEP report and that report deals solely with environmental remediation. Compensation was not captured in that document…” and said he won’t comment on any issue outside the HYPREP mandate. I have made it my personal responsibility to find out from Mr Erik Solheim, Executive Director, UN Environment, if it was an error on the part of UNEP for not recommending that people who had lost their livelihood for years be given some tangible form of compensation. What can be done at this point? I will find out .
I also asked Dr Dekil what was being done at the moment considering that more than one year after the launch event, there hasn’t been action on any of the spill sites. He said, “Sensitization is ongoing and demonstration projects have been open across all four local Governments. We also have been doing some trainings in collaboration with the United Nations Institute of Training and Research (UNITAR), a partnership that was initiated by the former minister. We are talking with UNITAR to get 300 women from each of the four local governments into the training scheme. We also have done training for environmental scientists from Ogoniland and all of this is to make sure we carry the community along in the remediation process.”
Sustainability and misappropriation of funds meant for the cleanup were also major issues on the hearts of many people I met. When this current administration leaves office, will the Ogoni people not be forgotten? I asked. In his response Dr Dekil said the Nigerian Government had learnt from its previous mistakes and thus restructured HYPREP to run independently. He believes this new governing structure will also check misappropriation of funds because “...the project coordination office needs approval from the Governing Council and Board of Trustees before any fund can be released…It’s a three-step process and no one can bypass this process.”
Pia Ogoni Aa Ke!
This is the first line of the Ogoni anthem which translates into english as, “People of Ogoni arise”. In course of interacting with various stakeholders in course of this project, it became apparent that no development will happen in Ogoniland except the Ogoni people arise and take ownership of the process. Ogoni Millennials hold the key to a prosperous future for the indigenous people of Ogoniland and I spoke with a couple of them to find out what their dreams are for their hometown and how they would personally contribute to making that dream a reality.
Pamela Leesi Peters won the Miss Nigeria beauty pageant in 2015--the first Ogoni woman to achieve that feat--and she said, “...As a Daughter of Ogoniland and someone aware of the environmental degradation and issues going on, it is only normal that I hope that the parties responsible for cleaning up the environment stick to the plan and ensure that the processes to ensure that the environment is salvaged takes place as it should…”.
When I asked her where she sees Ogoniland in 10 years time she said, “I would love to see the land being interacted with in ways that are less destructive and more sustainable. It would gladden my heart to see Ogoniland flowing with access to high quality education for the young ones and all that wonderful and highly creative energy of the youth channeled in more productive ways.”
Cyril Bieh is the founder of Centre for Youth Entrepreneurship Development (CENYED) and he’s been exposing young Ogonis to the culture of entrepreneurship through various events and conferences. He recently worked with NDLink to host the Rivers State Edition of the Rivers State National Youth Policy Dialogue that gave young people from Rivers State the opportunity to contribute to the ongoing review of the Youth Policy in Nigeria. Cyril believes that entrepreneurial development for the teeming Ogoni youths and its neighbours will go a long way to push down poverty, birth innovative ideas,and inspire initiatives that will strategically improve living conditions.
Menedi Geteh and Sira Lewis-Wikina have carried out development projects in various communities in Ogoniland. In 2016 Menedi organized a workshop for young people in Ogoniland bringing together ex-militants and cultists to educate them on the negative repercussions of violence. This year he’s planning to work with PIND’s peacebuilding team--who successfully held the first ever Ogoni Security Stakeholders meeting early this year--to scale his project.
Sira is a Civil Engineer cum environmental activist and she’s been touring community schools in Ogoniland to teach kids about recycling and climate change. Sira dreams of an Ogoni powered by renewable energy while Menedi dreams of a land with positive role models for young people to emulate.
For Saatah Nubari, the future is not looking as bright as he wants it to be. On his part, he plans to “...set up a foundation that will tackle education and issues such as portable drinking water and small interest free loans for women.” Author, Bura-bari Nwilo said, “In ten years, I see more informed Ogonis who would go out of conventions to nurture their own happiness and demand what's right for their environment.”
Bura-bari, who had always put Ogoni on the map through his collection of stories and poems, vowed to contribute to this renaissance by, “writing about it and speaking to the young people to fuel confidence in their own bodies…”
National Youth Council of Ogoni People (NYCOP) is the youth wing of Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP). The current NYCOP President, Young Nkpah, admitted that a lot still has to be done to recalibrate the minds of young Ogoni people to embrace unity and peace. He described himself as an intellectual militant describing his biggest achievement as NYCOP head as rebranding the youth organization and giving it a voice at the global stage, his attendance at various conferences at the UN as an example.
The National Union of Ogoni Students (NUOS) exists in almost all Federal and State Universities across Nigeria. I spoke with Light Boris, the current National Secretary of the Union, who had just graduated from Rivers State University and he told me the Union’s objective is to bring all Ogoni students under one umbrella to speak with voice. Boris pledged to keep doing this because, in his words, “When we speak together we are more powerful.”
Tech, The new Oil
One person who strongly believed in the power of millennials was Ken Saro-Wiwa Junior (one of the sons of Late Ken Saro-Wiwa). Sadly, Ken Junior passed on last year and it broke my heart because we had only just established a relationship before he died.
In fact few days before he died, Ken sent me a text message following our conversation about the establishment of an Innovation Hub where millennials -- from Ogoni and beyond -- can work together to innovate solutions to challenges facing their communities.
hat text message, inspired me to work with Stakeholder Democracy Network in February 2017 to carry out a research on the barriers to the Digital Economy in the Niger Delta. I also got the chance to shoot my first documentary with my Android mobile phone as my friend, ThankGod, and I travelled through the region to meet with techies and other stakeholders in the tech space.
We had the inaugural Ken Junior Award for Innovation which was used as a launchpad to kick off activities in the Hub. We also got Chukwuemeka Afigbo, Facebook’s Lead for Platform Partnerships, Middle East/Africa to visit the centre and hosted Google I/O Extended.
Sira, my cousin told me about a small business centre in Bani in the same compound Ken Saro-Wiwa (snr) was buried, teaching young girls soft computer skills. When Jennifer Uchendu and I visited the Ken Saro-Wiwa Polytechnic (formerly Rivers State Polytechnic) located in Bori--the capital city of Ogoniland--for our project, Ogoni Stories, they were observing cultural day on their Students’ Week. The place was bursting with life and energy, and the dreams and aspiration of the young people we spoke with were so tangible you could almost touch it. Ogoni millennials can indeed rule the world if they are given the right exposure and platform.
Although I’m not very sure where the law stands on this, I think there’s need to compensate all the other communities like Goi, where oil spills have displaced many families and deprived them of their livelihood. In course of this journey, I met many people suffering but I’m inspired at how they’ve been able to survive despite all the odds stacked up against them; still alive, still smiling. The Ogoni people are strong. Dr Marvin assured me that the implementation of the UNEP report will not be politicized. He’s an Ogoni son and I believe he would do what is good for his own people. Hopefully, we will begin to see some action soon, because this seeming delay, from the perspective of many Ogonis, is beginning to feel like denial.