Buhari Launches Ogoni Clean-up Project amid Three Years of Unpaid Staff Salaries

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  •  Scion of slain Ogoni leader seeks recognition for ‘Ogoni four’

By Ernest Chinwo in Port Harcourt and  James Emejo in Abuja

President Muhammadu Buhari will on June 2 flag off the Ogoni clean-up project in Ogoni, Rivers State.

The project is a cornerstone of the Buhari administration’s environmental policy.

But indications emerged at the weekend that the clean-up project, might be threatened by the failure of the federal government to pay the staff of Hydro Carbon Pollution Restoration Project (HYPREP), the specialised agency created during the last administration to carry out the exercise.

The Minister of Environment, Hajiya Amina Mohammed, had confirmed the project will last for 25 years.

HYPREP staff have blamed the non-payment of salaries on the previous leadership of the Ministry of Petroleum under Jonathan which, despite so many meetings and promises, failed to deliver.

However, despite a stronger commitment to the project by the present administration, there’s still no clarity regarding the payment of the salaries, a situation which could have negative implications for the commencement and sustainability of the project-and even demoralise staff from putting in their best.

Mohammed had reportedly held a meeting with representatives of HYPREP staff a few weeks ago but a concrete feedback was still being awaited.

Expectedly, non-payment to affected staff has resulted in untold sufferings and inconvenience for HYPREP employees during the three-year period they’ve been denied entitlements.

On May 1, 2013, while on a field visit, three members of staff, Dr. Zaaki Labbo, Dr. Aloy Agunwa & Mr. David), lost their lives to a fatal vehicle accident. The then National coordinator who was the lone survivor of the accident, sustained severe injuries and spent several months in hospital.

THISDAY further learnt that members of staff had lost their homes and had their children kicked out of school, as well as subjected to untold hardship.

A particular member of Staff endured the death of his wife and baby during childbirth because he could not afford the N25,000 hospital bill, it was learnt.

However, the project has now been moved from the Ministry of Petroleum to the Ministry of Environment, a move which had been welcomed by experts who have stated that the project should have been overseen by the Ministry of Environment in the first place.

HYPREP was anchored on a 2012 report by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) on the clean-up of Ogoni land following decades of environmental degradation.

This report recommended the establishment of an organisation or unit to oversee and facilitate the remediation process.

HYPREP was set up under the Ministry of Petroleum Resources with over 100’members of staff recruited, from within and outside the country.

These included engineers, chemists, lawyers, accountants among others.

The project started on a good footing with a lot of work done in order to prepare for the pilot phase of the remediation. Emergency measures were completed, a budget was prepared, work plans were put in place, and units created for efficiency and division of labour.

In January 2014, the then Group Managing Director of Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Mr. Andrew Yakubu had approved the sum of N2.5 billion for the outstanding salaries to be paid. However, the previous administration did not implement the approval before it left office.

Again in 2014, some members of the HYPREP staff also went to the 7th Senate and the House Committee on Environment to convey their plight.

Senate President, Senator Bukola Saraki, who was the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Ecology at the time, waded in and appealed for these salaries to be paid.

With the advent of the Project being moved to the Ministry of Environment, it is hoped that the competence and technocratic attributes of Hajiya Aisha Mohammed would bring an end to this sordid tale.

Experts believe the remediation of Ogoni land and the restoration of its communities deserve urgent attention without any encumbrances of outstanding salary issues. Though the present government has shown the sincerity of purpose to actualize the recommendations of the UNEP Report, this could only be substantiated by payment of outstanding entitlements to staff.

The son of Chief Albert Badey, one of the four prominent Ogoni indigenes killed 22 years ago, Mr. Suage Badey, has expressed regret that both the people of the area and government have failed to recognise the role played by the “Ogoni Four” decades after they were brutally murdered while searching for peace.

He recalled that on May 21, 1994, Badey, who was former Secretary to Rivers Government; Chief Edward Kobani, Chief Theophilus Kobani, and Chief Samuel Orage were killed at Giokoo, Gokana Local Government.

The young Badey, former chairman of defunct Action Congress in Rivers State, spoke with journalists in Port Harcourt on issues surrounding the death of the “Ogoni Four” and violence in Ogoniland.

“On the day they were killed, they were suing for peace, reconcile all parties and adopt peaceful approach, but unfortunately, the process consumed their lives,” he said.

 He expressed regret that while the four sacrificed their live while searching for peace, a section of the people still referred to them as “vultures”.

He said there was need to put the records right and encourage the people to embrace peace instead of violence.

“Ogoni needs to come back to the drawing board and ensure peace.  We need to adopt peaceful approach. Let this day be a memorable one for us to embrace peace,” he said.

He said Ogonis should embrace peace saying that the violent approach to issues affecting the area would not help matters.

 He said the four prominent Ogonis deserved to be remembered because they contributed to the development of the area.

 He said for instance, his father, assisted in the establishment of the state polytechnic (now Kenule Sarowiwa polytechnic) at Bori, creation of new local government areas in Ogoni while the other three elders assisted in developing the area.

He said his the family had set up a body known as “Albert Badey Centre for Development” to address peace locally and internationally.

“We are doing our best to affiliate it with larger NGO`s affiliated with the United Nations. This is because insecurity has become a world- wide problem, especially in Africa.

“This is one of the fundamental problems that led to the crisis in Ogoni and led to the death of the four,” he said.

The young Badey called on government and leaders of Ogoni to embark on massive sensitisation of the people ahead of the flag-off of the implementation of the UNEP Report on Ogoniland to avoid the pitfalls of the past.

He said plans by the federal government to clean up Ogoni land was a step in the right direction and required the support of everybody to achieve a peaceful exercise devoid of suspicion.

Meanwhile the Ogoni people under the auspices of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) have for the first time remembered the “Ogoni four”, describing them as fallen heroes.

A statement issued by the Media/Public Affairs Advisor of

MOSOP, Mr. Bari-ara Kpalap, quoted MOSOP President, Mr. Legborsi Saro Pyagbara, as saying the four: Chief Edward Kobani, Mr. Albert Badey, Chief Samuel Orage and Chief Theophilous Orage “paid the supreme prize that we may live”.

 “These martyrs were murdered in cold blood at Giokoo, the traditional capital of the Gokana people of Ogoniland in controversial circumstances some twenty-two (22) years ago,” he noted.

Pyagbara, who spoke from New York, United States of America where he is attending the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Populations, cautioned his people to eschew violence and ensure that they did not repeat the mistakes of the past.

MOSOP President, said: “As we remember these great sons of our land in deep sorrow, we urge all Ogonis to stand by our resolve that never again shall we allow the regrettable happenings of the past to reoccur in our land. Today, whilst we continue to suffer the huge implications of their demise, it will undoubtedly be in our national interest to unite and work together to ensure that their death would not be in vain.”

“These late founding fathers in collaboration with other Ogoni leaders championed and led the Ogoni struggle on the principle of non-violence and articulate peaceful advocacy. Thus the strict adherence to these tenets earned us acknowledgeable and applauded global recognition and support. It is in this regard that we reiterate our condemnation of recent violence and needless killings in Ogoni and called on perpetrators to give peace a chance and stop undermining the peace of the area. Violence, we must say, is an ill wind that blows no one any good. This occasion should therefore provide the platform for the reform of our attitude and approaches with recourse to the peaceful and non-violent disposition of the martyrs.”

“The deceased, in conjunction with other Ogoni leaders, fought and died for the rejuvenation, protection and defence of our environment; political and economic participation as of right; self-determination and resource ownership and control amongst others. It is indeed gratifying and consoling that the environmental issue, a core of the Ogoni campaign is about to be realised, which goes to prove that they struggled and died for a just, legitimate and credible cause. Ours is not only to co-operate and provide a conducive atmosphere to ensure success of the remediation and restoration exercise but also to work relentlessly for the attainment of the yet to be achieved goals of the struggle.”