‘Be proud, be proud, Ogoni people be proud, We shall no longer allow the world to cheat us’ – Ogoni song
The quote above comes from an Ogoni song that was made popular in the heat of the Ogoni struggle. The story of the struggle is a narrative that mirrors the defiance, perseverance and anguish of the Ogoni people. It is a struggle that has had its high and low points.
When President Olusegun Obasanjo invited Ken Saro Wiwa Jr to come and serve the government, analysts thought that it was to right the injustices done not only to the Saro Wiwa family but also the Ogoni people and their struggle. Alas that was not to be, pundits expected the narrative to change radically albeit to them it was still business as usual.
At a recent reading in Abuja of his book A month and a day: detention diary, Ken Saro Wiwa Jr was asked why he was working for the government that killed his father and what he was doing to counter the measures of multinationals like Shell. His answer shocked many when he opined that it was important for him to begin his own narrative and his strategy was fruitful engagement and not the route of his father. Even before his father began activism he had attempted to engage the government first. The recent findings of Ogoni land degradation by UNEP brings to mind the aforementioned views.
Don’t blame laymen in Nigeria when they say that Ogoni land can be turned into a small London or Dubai. It’s a fact that the land is only 650 square kilometres. Their livelihood as farmers and fishermen is not subsidised by government just like the rest of Nigeria, they hustle to access seedlings and fingerlings. It is this state that they have to contend with as a people whose earth bears valuable resources enough to change their lives.
To properly put in context what the Ogoni land degradation means is to recollect what is known in the public domain as the Ogoni narrative. The threat to the Ogoni people started when Shell discovered oil there in 1958. At that time, Nigeria was still under British colonial rule, and the Ogoni had no say in the oil exploitation. With the coming of independence in 1960 the Ogoni situation did not improve – being a minority ethnic group in a country which has a current population of 150 million, the Ogoni have never had an effective say in Nigerian politics. For several years since the return of democracy, the Ogoni people have been albeit silent, fighting their battles in their hearts and eking out a living in penury. A MOSOP statement reads: “The once-beautiful Ogoni countryside is no more a source of fresh air and green vegetation. All one sees and feels around is death.”
To understand the activities of this multinational is to take a cursory look at their activities. Shell’s operations in Nigeria are operated by the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) in a joint venture agreement with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). Almost 14% of Shell’s production -the greatest production outside the USA -comes from Nigeria. Since Shell started operations in Nigeria, Ogoni has yielded about 30 billion dollars in oil revenues. The Nigerian state is heavily dependent on oil sales, with oil accounting for around 80% of government revenue.
The environment effects of having more than 100 oil wells (most of which are Shell owned) in Ogoni territory have been severe. Between 1976 and 1991, almost 3000 separate oil spills, averaging 700 barrels each, occurred in the Niger delta. Response to oil spills is slow, and often very damaging. A major spill at Ebubu in 1970 was set alight, causing irreparable damage to the ground it spilled on. Though the area of the spill is unuseable, and still leaks oil into surrounding water supplies, Shell has it recorded having been cleaned up twice. Oil spills are not the only environmental disaster the Ogoni have to deal with. Gas flares, burning 24 hours a day (some of them for the last 30 years), are often situated near Ogoni villages. The villagers have to live with the constant noise of the flare, and the area is covered in thick soot, which contaminates water supplies when it rains. Air pollution from the flares results in acid rain and respiratory problems in the surrounding community. Shell pipelines pass above ground through villages and over what was once agricultural land. Despite Shell’s claims to the contrary, no pipeline has ever been re-routed. A case in the UK, where a pipeline required 17 different environmental surveys before construction, highlights the extent of Shell’s environmental racism in Ogoni -the Ogoni have never seen a single environmental impact assesment.
To protest against Shell’s actions and the Nigerian government’s indifference, the Ogoni people founded MOSOP, the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People, in 1992, under the leadership of the Nigerian author, Ken Saro-Wiwa. For him the struggle is summed up in this quote attributed to him. ‘We either win this war to save our land, or we will be exterminated, because we have nowhere to run to.’ The struggle later claimed his life.
It took several years for Shell to accept its responsibility and accept UNEP’s report is meticulous and detailed. It states that oil spills in the Niger Delta, over the 50 years of oil production in the region will require an initial investment of $1 billion to repair. The degradation that Ogoniland suffered from oil extraction and accompanying accidents will take about 30 years to clean up. Shell and other operators contaminated an area of about 386 sq. miles (1,000 sq. km) with devastating consequences for the health and livelihoods of the local people and wildlife. The report’s findings, “underline that there are, in a significant number of locations, serious threats to human health from contaminated drinking water to concerns over the viability and productivity of ecosystems’’. Shell is severely implicated in the UNEP report. The company’s previous denial of the extent of the environmental damage has been dealt as serious blow. Importantly, old corroded pipelines owned by Shell have to be replaced so accidents like the Bodo-Bonny pipeline spills do not occur again. The environment is priceless. The massive costs of replacing the pipelines must be borne by Shell and joint venture partners.
It is also time for us to review our standards in the oil and gas industry and other environmental protection regulations. The capacity of supervisory institutions like NOSDRA and the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA) also need to be reviewed; to reposition them for greater monitoring and environmental audit.
There is a greater need for a change in the Ogoni narrative, a change that will also correct the wordings of the song quoted at the beginning of this article and most importantly in the fortunes of its people more than ever before.