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Niger Delta: 18 Years After Ken Saro-Wiwa

10 Nov 2013

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Environmentalist and poet Ken Saro-Wiwa died fighting for political, economic and environmental justice in the Niger Delta. 18 years after his death, how far has the oil-rich region fared on the issues for which Saro-Wiwa laid down his life? Vincent Obia writes

Nigeria marks a bitter anniversary today. On this day 18 years ago, Mr. Ken Saro-Wiwa and his eight Ogoni compatriots were killed by the late Sani Abacha junta.


Saro-Wiwa was one of civil society’s brightest hopes. But he had offended the Nigerian state, then represented by the Abacha military government, by mobilising his native Ogoni people – in Rivers State – to fight against political and economic exploitation as well as environmental degradation. The culprit in the injustice that Saro-Wiwa fought against was a criminal alliance between the state and multinational capital, represented mainly by Shell Petroleum Development Company. He felt the problems in his native land might never be addressed by a national government obsessed with an ethnic majoritarian mentality. Thus, using the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People as platform, Saro-Wiwa led the Ogoni to seek autonomy within the Nigerian nation, so that they could use their resources for their own development.

Though, his approach was non-violent, Saro-Wiwa’s agitation rankled with many in the Nigerian ruling class, as the issues he raised struck at the core of their economic and political power. He was arrested along with his other Ogoni compatriots on trumped-up charges bordering on murder. Saro-Wiwa, Baribor Bera, Saturday Doobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbokoo, Barinem Kiobel, John Kpuinen, Paul Levura, and Felix Nuate were accused of sponsoring the killings of four fellow Ogoni men, Albert Badey, Edwin Kobani, Samuel Orase, and Theophilus Orase.

They were put on trial before a Kangaroo Court assembled by the military government. Their accusers had capitalised on disagreements among the Ogoni people over the June 12, 1993 presidential election, which Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) had wanted the people to boycott, apparently, to draw national and international attention to the environmental degradation of Ogoniland. 
Saro-Wiwa and eight of his compatriots in the Ogoni struggle were sentenced to death on November 8, 1995. They were executed two days later, on November 10, 1995, in a country where condemned criminals are known to await execution for upwards of 10 years.
Documents have emerged to confirm the general belief that Saro-Wiwa and his fellows were framed with intent to silence the Ogoni agitation and, then, wage a psychological warfare against other minorities, especially in the Niger Delta, that may want to have ideas similar to that of the Ogoni. But it was a mistaken belief. The Ogoni killings merely strengthened the resolve of the Niger Delta peoples to stand out against the oppressor to fulfill a collective destiny.

The launch of the Ogoni Bill of Rights on August 26, 1990 had opened the floodgates to similar articulation of rights by many nationalities in the Niger Delta. Though, the bill of rights preached non-violent struggle, the killing of the Ogoni 9 sent a deep message of despair among the ranks of non-violent agitators and lionised groups that elected armed struggle.
At the core of the Niger Delta question is the destruction of the people’s environment and means of livelihood by oil and gas activities, expropriation of the region’s mineral resources, unemployment, and dearth of infrastructure.
The remedy, many believe, is: first, a cleanup of the Niger Delta environment by government and the oil companies and a conscious effort to ensure that the explorative methods that destroy the environment are never applied again; employment creation through integration of the local economy with the oil economy in a way that helps the people realise their full potentials and a move away from the culture of enclave development whereby luxurious structures that house and service the oil economy exist within run down communities; and establishment of institutions primarily dedicated to facilitating development in the region.

But there has been little effort to achieve these. There is up till now little or no integration between the oil economy in the Niger Delta and the local economy, a situation that has heightened unemployment. And, the exploratory laws that confiscate the people’s right to their resources are still intact. What the region has witnessed in the last two decades are mainly symbolic efforts that do not really address the issues at the core of the people’s agitation.
Saro-Wiwa never believed in tokenism in the search for answers to the Niger Delta question.
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo made the first efforts. He had come on board at a time when armed struggle was taking centre stage in the Niger Delta agitation. His government established the Niger Delta Development Commission and pushed through the National Assembly a constitutional provision increasing the derivation percentage due to oil producing states from petroleum proceeds from three percent – under the military – to 13 percent.

Obasanjo inaugurated a National Political Reform Conference on February 21, 2005, saying it is a historical “opportunity to reassess, refocus, redefine and redesign our political landscape in a direction that would strengthen the bonds of unity.”
At the NPRC, the Niger Delta people demanded fiscal federalism and resource control and a return to the practice under the 1963 Republican Constitution, when the federating units received 50 percent of the proceeds from mineral resources produced in their territories. In the interim, they asked for an increase of the derivation percentage to 25 percent. They also asked, among others, for the abrogation of the laws that expropriate the people’s right to control their resources, including the Exclusive Economic Zone Act, Petroleum Act, and Land Use Act, appointment of a petroleum minister from the Niger Delta, and a December 2006 deadline for gas flaring in Nigeria.

Those demands were largely not met, as the conference itself turned out to be an alleged third term strategy by Obasanjo.
When the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua took over in 2007, he launched a seven-point development agenda in which the Niger Delta was an integral part. The Yar’Adua government on September 8, 2008 inaugurated the Technical Committee on the Niger Delta headed by Mr. Ledum Mitee, to review the various reports on the Niger Delta since the Willinks Commission Report of 1958 and make short, medium and long term recommendations to the government.

Key recommendations in the Mitee committee report included increased derivation revenue of 25 percent in the interim and a graduation to 50 percent; establishment of a Disarmament, Decommission and Reintegration Commission to address the issues of arms and militancy in the Niger Delta as well as the open trial and unconditional bail for leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, Henry Okah; amnesty for all Niger Delta militants; a December 2008 date to end gas flaring; completion of the East-West dual carriageway; and significant improvement in education, healthcare, and youth employment in the region.

The Mitee committee report is yet to be implemented since its presentation to the federal government in November 2008, neither has the government issued a White Paper on it. But the Niger Delta has seen what looks like snippets from the report, including the amnesty programme and the Ministry of Niger Delta – though the ministry was announced by Yar’Adua on September 10, 2008, about one month before the submission of the Mitee report. 
Ironically, President Goodluck Jonathan, then vice president, who had inaugurated the Mitee committee on behalf of Yar’Adua, does not appear to be keen on implementing the report since 2010, when he took over following Yar’Adua’s death.
The amnesty programme seems to be the only significant item on the Mitee report that is being implemented. Yar’Adua had pronounced the amnesty in 2009 and initiated a five-year presidential amnesty plan, 2010-2015, tailored to wean youths of the Niger Delta off armed struggle.

But the amnesty project, too, is hardly running its course due to the absence of necessary support programmes.
Special Adviser to the President on Niger Delta and Chairman of the Presidential Amnesty Programme, Mr. Kingsley Kuku, said in January that before the amnesty was offered and accepted by the armed agitators, the issues at the heart of the Niger Delta struggle, such as development, land and people’s rights, and justice, were tabled before the government and agreed upon.
“They have to do with the East-West road, the railway line, the coastal road linking Lagos to Calabar. They have to do with construction and establishment of new towns with modern facilities in the Niger Delta. These things were basic,” Kuku stated. “These were the issues of agreement. And until those issues are dealt with, the agitation in the Niger Delta will continue.”

The East-West road is yet to be completed, though the federal government says it is nearing completion.
Neither is there any clear cleanup plan for the Niger Delta environment after over 50 years of devastation through oil exploration. The report of the United Nations Environment Programme on the environmental restoration process for Ogoniland is so far the most comprehensive attempt to tackle the problem of environmental degradation in the Niger Delta. The report, which recommended an Environmental Restoration Fund for Ogoniland with an initial capital injection of $1 billion, to be contributed by the oil industry and the government, is yet to be implemented since it was presented to the federal government on August 4, 2011.
Gas flaring remains a burning issue in the Niger Delta, with the UN’s humanitarian news network, Integrated Regional Information Networks, reporting last year that gas worth about $2.5 billion is wasted every year, while most people in the region lack access to electricity.

For the Ogoni, Shell in 2009 agreed to settle a court case in the U.S. in connection with Saro-Wiwa’s death with payments totaling $15.5 million. This has been dismissed as insulting by many in Ogoniland.
Oil spillage remains a recurring nightmare for many communities in the Niger Delta. Only last week, two global bodies, Amnesty International and Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development, accused Shell of manipulating investigations into series of oil spills in the country.

The key issues in the Niger Delta question remain largely unaddressed. It is doubtful if things would change significantly under Jonathan before 2015 – or 2019. But, most important, perhaps, is whether the Niger Delta question would still be an issue after Jonathan, with some groups already saying that the region has gotten so much.
As the country marks another anniversary of the killing of Saro-Wiwa and his eight compatriots, there is no doubt that, as Saro-Wiwa had said, the Nigerian state and Shell still stand before history on trial for the very issues for which Saro-Wiwa and others made the supreme sacrifice 18 years ago.

Tags: Politics, Nigeria, Featured, Niger Delta

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