I attended the commemoration events marking the eighteenth anniversary of the murder of the environmental activist and leader of the Movement of the Survival for Ogoni People (MOSOP), late Ken Saro-Wiwa.
I was already in the University of Ibadan in November 1995 when Ken and his kinsmen were arrested and sentenced to death by a military tribunal set up by the Abacha junta and executed few days later despite appeals for clemency from the international community. Many aspects of Ken’s controversially impressive but short life caught my attention. He was a very gifted internationalist, eloquent speaker and prolific writer who maximised his writing acumen to put the campaign against the marginalisation of his people to global attention. It was him that first brought the issues of environmental despoliation and economic deprivation of the Niger Delta people before the global radar screen. The phenomenal success he achieved through non-violence remains a model for effective campaign in Africa. Mr. Wiwa leveraged international agencies and multilateral institutions to amplify his voice. It is on record that Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth as a result of the uproar that arose after his execution.
Many years after the death of the fiery activist, one was pleasantly surprised at the turnout of sons and daughters of Ogoni and their friends as the anniversary event. The candlelight procession on the night of the 9th attracted an enthusiastic and tumultuous crowd in their thousands. The procession started at Ken’s former office at 24 Aggrey Road where speeches were made before moving over to Port Harcourt prisons where the Ogoni activists were remanded for two hours and later executed in the morning of November 10, 1995. The crowd later proceeded to Port Harcourt cemetery where Ken and his kinsmen were buried in shallow graves and soaked with acid for fasted decomposition. The procession was solemn especially at the prison and the cemetery. The symbolic drumming and dancing at the end of the procession turned the event to a celebration. The fiery activist and founder of Ogoni Solidarity Forum, Comrade AkpoBari Celestine who organised the event lamented that eighteen years after the death of Ken Saro Wiwa, the condition of an average Ogoni man has grown from bad to worse.
On Sunday, the 10th of November, I travelled with my compatriots to Ogoni communities. The amount of pollution is mind blowing. The fishes, crabs, periwinkles and shrimps that were part of the aquatic ecosystem had almost completely disappeared. I saw blatant environmental despoliation and unjustifiable ecological catastrophe. There were many elderly people whose hair were either discoloured or completely withered, ostensibly as a result of acid rain or accumulated carcinogens from crude oil. Poverty is obvious in many rural communities in Nigeria but what I saw in Ogoni was up to a dimension that can only be described in extreme terms. Men, women and youth wretchedly turned out in their large numbers but remained resolute to continue to fight the betrayal by the Nigerian state that has benefitted from the oil resources under their feet.
It will be recalled that the government of Nigeria in consultation with other stakeholders commissioned a comprehensive assessment of the Ogoni Environment by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). The UNEP Report as it is known recommended the creation of the Ogoniland Environmental Restoration Authority with a fixed lifespan of thirty five years under the Federal Ministry of Environment, tasked with environmental restoration and engagement with polluted communities under the oversight of a Presidential Implementation Committee. Instead of complying with the recommendations of the UNEP Report, President Jonathan’s government hastily put together the Hydrocarbon Restoration Programme (HYPREP) under the Federal Ministry of Petroleum Resources, an alleged accomplice in the pollution of Ogoni environment. Now what morality has the polluter got to annex an agency that is supposed to clean up the mess it created? How else can somebody describe the paucity of political will? Furthermore the so-called HYPREP have allegedly been staffed by incompetent and compromised individuals, whose mandate is to cover the tracks of the polluter rather than clean up Ogoniland. Prominent political leaders of Ogoni extraction had appealed severally to the President to come to the aid of Ogoni people. Arguably, one will expect that the issues of neglect and marginalization of the Ogoni people will become a thing of the past with the enthronement of a President of Niger Delta extraction. Pundits argue that President Goodluck Jonathan should be held responsible for the neglect of Ogoniland even as he is seen as biggest beneficiary of Ogoni struggle. Yet no politician of Niger Delta extraction with a sense of history should be exempted from this indictment except they suffer a sterility of conscience.
Observers opine that the underdevelopment in the Niger Delta is a constant source of worry to the Nigerian President. However, it is believed that many of his project interventions might have been delayed by some of his lieutenants, allegedly with vested interests in the region. On another note, others suggest that the state of neglect of Ogoni people might be part of a punitive strategy unleashed on the Governor of Rivers State who has been part of a group of Governors embroiled in an intra-party conflict within Nigeria’s ruling party. For instance after many promises, the East West Road still remain uncompleted. The part of the road that passes through Port Harcourt city has not gone beyond the Onne junction (trailer park). Many federal projects within the state have suffered a similar fate and those already fixed by the Rotimi Amaechi led administration have not been reimbursed. However, it was reported that a quick face-lift was organised preparatory to the funeral of the President’s in-law who unfortunately lost her life in a ghastly accident on the same road. The case of the Ogoni people is particularly unique and very shocking to many observers as the first major global sensitization of the plight of the people of the Niger Delta came through the Ogoni Bill of Rights of 1991 authored and widely publicised by the late Ken Saro-Wiwa and his kinsmen.
Travelling through Bori, the traditional headquarters of the Ogoni people is not all tales of woes. The internal road networks within the little town were in surprisingly good shape courtesy of the Rivers State Government, filling the gap of federal presence. I was informed by an indigene that the Bori-Kaani-Sogho road has also been awarded for construction. It was also said that the dualization of a major access road into Bori known as the Saakpenwa-Kpopie-Bori-Kono road is expected to commence soon. On our way back to the city, one could notice a yellowish cluster of buildings said to be one of the model secondary schools scattered around the state. Not to talk about the massive Songhai farm and Banana plantations which are said to have commenced production. Yet more needs to be done to uplift the living standard of a people who have suffered untold hardship inflicted by Nigerian oil production and whose means of livelihood have been destroyed by pollution. The UNEP Report estimates that about one billion dollars is expected as an initial start up capital for the so-called Ogoni Environmental Restoration Fund. Who will bell the cat? That none of these recommendations have been implemented leaves a foul smell on a government headed by a son of the Niger Delta. Beyond politics, all levels of government must come together with the companies that operate in the area. Sustainable development of Ogoniland is no longer a negotiation, it is an emergency. That is the only way we can say that the souls of Kenule Saro Wiwa and all those who lost their lives in the struggle will rest in peace indeed.
Uche Igwe wrote from the Department of Politics, University of Sussex. He can be reached on email@example.com