Ogoni: Cleaning Up an Oily Impediment to Peace, Development

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Mohammed, Osinbajo and Wike

Thousands of people who defied the early morning rains to witness the kick-off of the clean-up of Ogoni were disappointed that President Muhammadu Buhari did not make it to the event. But the enthusiasm for the take-off of the exercise was overwhelming and across party lines, writes Ernest Chinwo in Port Harcourt

Thousands of people defied the heavy rains on Thursday morning to converge on Tekru Waterfront, Bodo City, venue of the flag-off of the clean-up of Ogoni land and other impacted communities of the Niger Delta. For some, the most important event of the day was not just the commencement of the implementation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Report that recommended the clean-up of the area. It was to catch a glimpse of President Muhammadu Buhari, who would be fulfilling his electioneering promise to clean up the area devastated by years of oil exploration and exploitation. They came in their numbers, dressed in their best for the celebration of the restoration of their environment and livelihood, expecting to see the man who made it possible.

The marshy environment, a result of the heavy downpour, did not deter anybody. Not even the security scrutiny of guests was enough to dampen the spirit of the people.

Conspicuous Absence

The event started with goodwill messages, obviously, to buy time while waiting for the arrival of Mr. President. Speeches flowed, singers and dancers entertained. People hailed as dignitaries arrived, but they reserved the main accolade for the president.

Then about 11.10am a helicopter landed close to the venue. There was a flurry of activities and some people even told the crowd that Buhari had arrived. But when the entourage walked into the venue about 11.15am and the master of ceremonies announced the arrival of the vice president, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, as the representative of Buhari, it was like a wind of disappointment swept through the crowd.

“Wetin dis man sef dey fear wey make am no come? Abi na Niger Delta Avengers? We, we no dey here?” said somebody from the crowd. In his disappointment, he attributed Buhari’s absence to an earlier threat by the militant Niger Delta Avengers.

Important Milestone

However, the disappointment over the absence of Buhari did not make the people lose sight of the significance of the event of the day, the launch of the clean-up of Ogoniland and other oil-impacted communities in the Niger Delta. All the speakers at the ceremony spoke of the uniqueness of the event and why the day marked a turn-around in the fortunes of Ogoni people and the Niger Delta.

Osinbajo, who represented the president, kicked off the implementation of the UNEP report on the clean-up of Ogoniland and other oil-impacted areas of the Niger Delta with a warning that the Buhari administration would no longer tolerate oil theft and illegal refineries in the region. He expressed regret that oil exploration and production in Ogoniland and the Niger Delta had negatively affected the ecosystem.

Delivering Buhari’s address, the vice president said, “I recall the time as a military Head of State when I visited Bodo Town in Ogoniland. During that visit, I commissioned a large fish pond and planted a tree as a sign for that government’s concern for the environment. Unfortunately, since then, the degradation of land, water and air has done huge damage to the fragile ecosystem of the Niger Delta, especially the Ogoniland.

“Oil exploration and production have been going on in Nigeria for six decades. Oil has given a boost to the Nigerian economy, but the ecosystem of the Niger Delta has been severely damaged. Fishing and agriculture have been badly affected. There were acts, enactment, laws, guidelines, regulations to govern the operators of the oil industry. However, either because of lack of will or wilful non-compliance with environmental laws, the environment was put in jeopardy.”

Giving an insight into what gave rise to militancy in the region, Buhari said, “The various communities in the Niger Delta region, noting the negative impact of oil production and lack of consideration for best practices, quite right commenced the struggle for justice and fair play in the conduct of business by the oil industry operators. This, unfortunately, led to loss of lives and property. International concern was raised while past governments were urged to take decisive steps to address the issue.”

Buhari noted that former President Olusegun Obasanjo engaged the UNEP to undertake a mission towards the clean-up of Ogoniland but expressed regret that the previous administration did not implement the recommendations.

“The report was submitted to my predecessor in office in 2011, but the implementation was not accorded the necessary support it required. The people of Ogoniland continued to suffer from pollution of air, land and water,” he said.

He recalled that he promised the people of Ogoni during the 2015 election campaigns that he would implement the clean-up of the area if elected president and said the flag off of the exercise was a fulfilment of that promise.

“We are determined to put right the wrongs of the past, where the people of this land were treated unfairly and their environment unduly degraded,” the president vowed.

He reiterated, “Today, we are in Ogoniland, in the heart of the Niger Delta to fulfil our promise to you and to bring justice and succour to our people. The clean-up of this land will require change on the path of all those who deal with the Niger Delta environment, particularly the oil companies and our communities. The tempo of this assignment increased when my cabinet was constituted.

“The Honourable Minister of Environment consulted all relevant ministries to actualise the UNEP report. We are, therefore, laying a solid foundation today for the restoration of the fragile ecosystem of Ogoniland and the rest of the Niger Delta.”

Buhari noted that the UNEP report indicated a timeline of 25 to 30 years to achieve a full restoration of the environment of the Niger Delta. “The first step begins with a solid foundation, which would be brought about through consultation, transparency, accountability, investing in the people and the environment,” he said.

He called on all Nigerians, irrespective of political affiliation, to support the effort of his administration as, “Our lives to a great extent depend on the quality of our environment.”

Warning

The president, however, warned, “Let me seize this opportunity to sound a note of warning that the current oil theft and illegal refining will not be tolerated. The regulators of the oil industry must live up to expectations. They must ensure that oil companies carry out their operations in line with universal best practices.”

He said his administration was laying a foundation for change, adding, “The government places high emphasis on the diversification of our economy. This is to ensure that our economy is strong and capable of supporting our teeming young people through job and wealth creation.”

Closing an Ugly Chapter

In his address, Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike said the state would provide the required platform for the successful clean-up of Ogoni land and the implementation of the UNEP report.

Wike said, “On our part, the Rivers State Government will ever be willing to provide the platform for a smooth achievement of this long awaited intervention. We acknowledge that this is a federal initiative. The direct impact is borne by our people. We, therefore, urge all our stakeholders to embrace and support this federal government gesture and ensure a hitch-free exercise.”

The governor commended Buhari for initiating the clean-up exercise, noting, “We therefore welcome this initiative wholeheartedly as shown by our enthusiastic presence, believing that the recommendations of UNEP will be systematically executed. This is because, we believe that only environmental justice would restore sustainable peace, stability and socio-economic progress in the Niger Delta.

“We commend Mr. President’s determination to close this ugly chapter in our country’s history. Although this has taken long in coming; it is never too late when it comes to the environment. Therefore, Mr. President, Sir, your presence in Ogoniland today is a testimonial of the long awaited clean-up and remediation exercises of the Niger Delta polluted environment.”

The governor stated that the entire Niger Delta had been subjected to the worst forms of environmental degradation ever experienced by mankind. He added that millions of barrels of oil had been spilled into the environment by companies exploiting and extracting hydrocarbons from the area with severe consequences for the ecosystem, including wildlife, marine habitations, soil and water quality and human health.

According to Wike, “Despite continuing protests by the people, the environmental degradation of the Niger Delta has not stopped. Oil spills continue to occur with distressing regularity even in Ogoniland, where oil exploitation had since 1993 ceased.

“As the UNEP report starkly reveals, the degree of environmental damage in the Niger Delta has been so deep and expansive that it would take several decades to carry out full remediation of impacted sites.

“The UNEP report, which is the precursor to today’s event, is significant for at least, two reasons. First, it presents the best available and factually detailed documentation of the scale of the existing and continuing damage to the entire Ogoni environment and, by extension, the Niger Delta. Second, and most significantly, it presents a clear roadmap on the priorities for action by government, stakeholders and the international community in terms of clean-up, remediation and restoration of the damage that has accumulated over the years.”

He explained that the launch of the clean-up exercise was a watershed for the victims of environmental degradation, pointing out that the exercise marks a success in the collective struggle for environmental justice from the Nigerian nation and the world community.

Promise Kept

Minister of Environment, Mrs Amina Muhammed, in her welcome address, said, “This is a promise that is being kept by President Muhammadu Buhari to launch and implement the UNEP Report and its recommendations for the clean-up. It is now a collective responsibility. It will require the trust that we have lost over the decades; it will require transparency and accountability and it will require proper representation of the people in what we are doing in investing in their future. It will also require that we do things differently. That is why this administration called for change.”

Executive Director of UNEP, Mr.Achim Steiner, in his remarks, confessed that the task of producing the report was a great risk taken by the UNEP team. But he thanked former Obasanjo for taking the initiative to start the process of cleaning up the devastated Ogoni environment.

“I didn’t think that this day will come, the day for the implementation of the report. We have waited for long but, thank God, today has come,” he said.

Steiner said UNEP would stand by the federal government and the people of Ogoniland to ensure the success of the clean-up.

Minister of Transportation, Chibuike Amaechi, in his address, recalled the efforts he made, as the sitting governor in the state, to persuade former President Goodluck Jonathan to start the process of implementing the UNEP report. He regretted that the efforts did not yield the desired result.

Amaechi lauded Buhari for taking the bold step to ensure the commencement of the implementation process, adding, “He promised and he is keeping that promise…

“Today, we are gathered here in keeping with the promise by President Muhammadu Buhari, knowing that the economy of the Ogoni people will improve. In keeping with that promise, we know that there is no how you spend $1 billion here and we shall not create employment.”

Victory for Ogoni Struggle

In his address, president of Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), Mr. Legborsi Pyagbara, thanked Buhari and everybody that supported “the Ogoni Cause”.

Pyagbara said, “We are here to appreciate the immense contributions of different people; of our friends; of our supporters and of those who stood with us when some people found it difficult to stand with us. We want to thank those who helped us to get to where we are today; without their support, this story would have been different.

“Environmental restoration of our land remains the central plan of the Ogoni struggle. To the Ogoni people therefore, this day is a historic moment. It is the beginning of our victory; our journey for justice has been recognised. Our strategy of non-violence has been vindicated with the flag-off of the clean-up initiative by the president today.”

He explained, “The history of UNEP Report and its implementation did not just come; it has its origin in the Ogoni struggle. Sometime on August 26, 1990, the Ogoni people launched the Ogoni Bill of Rights which, among others, demanded from the federal government to protect the rights of the Ogoni people to a safe and clean environment. We believe that, that singular action, that non-violent approach by the Ogoni people is today being rewarded by the action that will be taking place here today.

“In the course of the Ogoni struggle, over 2,000 souls were lost; some communities were decimated, a whole generation were wiped off and, of course, thousands were driven into exile. In spite of all these, the Ogoni people remained resilient and resolute and we continued to keep the faith with non-violent methodology and peaceful engagement, despite violent contestation from the other parts of the Niger Delta. We have kept the faith with the non-violent struggle which has changed the course of our history as a people and as a nation. Today, my brothers and sisters, marks the triumph of non-violence.

“It is on this note that we call on all those who are involved in violent agitations in our country to sheathe their sword and embrace a non-violent, peaceful advocacy. This is very important because the benefits of non-violence are immense. We also urge our government to avoid acting in ways that tend to suggest that they listen only when there is violence. Government should protect the rights of the citizens without making them to resort to violent demands.”

Pyagbara said the launch of the clean-up “is a clear indication that the process of national healing and reconciliation with the Ogoni people, which we had believed will herald the second coming of the president had taken off effectively in Ogoniland.”

He also said, “We also call for steady and successful clean up…The government, as a matter of urgency, should also place a limiting framework that would ensure that the oil companies adopt best practices to keep a sustainable environment and avoid those practices that created the environmental devastation that we are trying to address today. For a successful clean-up in Ogoniland, it will be necessary to back this up with a sustainable socio-economic framework that addresses the tripod issue of poverty, of infrastructural decay and representation.

“It is in this note, that we call on the president, as he steps in today, there is a critical infrastructural problem that also needs to be addressed. We are urging Mr President to seize the opportunity of being here today to re-award the Bodo/Bonny Road.”

Speaking on behalf of the Ogoni community, the president of Supreme Council of Ogoni Traditional Rulers, King GNK Giniwa, said Jonathan made a mistake by not implementing the UNEP report.

“My son, President Goodluck Jonathan, failed to do what he promised to do for Ogoni people. I thank President Buhari for coming to our rescue. Time for mourning is gone. Ogoni people are happy. Buhari has not failed us,” he said.

Earlier, Catholic Bishop of Sokoto, Bishop Matthew Kukah, who mediated in the crisis between Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC) and Ogoni people, recalled the incidents that trailed the resolution of the Ogoni crisis.

He said, “This is a day we didn’t believe we will see. There is a time for everything. This moment is not an accident. We are not yet at the point of celebration but it is a moment we all cherish.” While paying tribute to Obasanjo and former Rivers State Governor, Dr. Peter Odili, Kukah saiod, “I think it is the greatness of our country that we can come from different directions and still meet at one junction in the interest of our people.”

Former Captain of the Super Eagles, Chief Joseph Yobo, also commended Buhari for the take-off of the project and said Ogoni youths would provide the enabling peaceful environment for the implementation of the report.

Former chairman of the Senate Committee on Petroleum (Downstream), Senator Magnus Abe, also commended Buhari for the take-off of the project. “Today, we stand at the threshold of history; the Ogoni people are making history today in Nigeria. Without blowing up one pipeline, without kidnapping one white man, but by stubbornly insisting on what is right,” he said.

Abe called on other agitators in the Niger Delta to follow the example set by the Ogoni people by staying away from oil theft, pipeline vandalism and other vices.