The Ogoni struggle was launched during a brutal military era. What was the drive?
The underpinning of the struggle then was that we looked through and saw Ogoni in a very dire state. We saw that we were almost going to get extinct. We had the highest population density for rural areas, and we were sharing that with pipelines, spillages, pollution, gas flare and all that. And we thought if we didn’t do anything, our people would go into extinction. Like maybe they would all get cancer. And we thought we needed a way to bring this sort of thing out, so that the country could be aware of our plight.
You people in Abuja, Lagos and wherever are not actually seeing what we are seeing. As soon as we raised the issues, it was like, ‘how dare you people?’ They shouldn’t be saying those things to us. We were confronted; we were at crossroads. What should be our response in these circumstances?
I remember the last meeting before the first Ogoni Day held in my family house. We considered all the options we are seeing now: militancy and sabotage of facilities. And we came to the conclusion that those options would not help us. Our land is flat. You don’t go into those sorts of things, when you don’t have where you can run to hide. The terrain is such that they could finish you in one day. So, we thought the best thing to do was the non-violent option that would expose the violence in the system. We were not fighting any person; we just wanted our message to be heard. But instead, they started killing us.
We stated in the Ogoni Bill of Rights that we are not making these claims exclusive to us. It does not deny other people from getting their rights. But while saying we remain part of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, we made certain demands and raised the issues. We thought those were things that would lead to dialogue to resolve those issues. But the then government felt the only thing to do was to silence us.
24 years after the extrajudicial execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and others, what has changed in Ogoni?
Many things have changed. On the positive side, there is a sense of recovery of the Ogoni identity. Before then, Ogonis were looked upon as second-class citizens, and they themselves had that sense of inferiority complex, based on how people perceived and projected them. I think they have gradually risen above that. I also think there has been recognition that we are suffering a lot of injustice, which is quite important. We have also got to the level, where people now take for granted that issues, which we raised transcend Ogoni boundaries.
Indeed, it has become a metaphor for larger issues of justice in Nigeria and the Niger Delta question.
On the other hand, I won’t say sufficient atonement has been made for those issues our people died. Currently, the environment is still highly polluted. There has been an attempt, through HYPREP, to do a cleanup.
Personally, I think that is more of patronage, as always. There has never been any serious attempt to deal with those issues. One had thought considering the sacrifices people have made, that maybe government and the oil companies would say, ‘Let’s do things differently because of what these people have gone through.’
Government’s attempts have always been to respond to and assuage the feelings of the dominant tribes. You can see both Goodluck Jonathan’s government and the current administration fighting over each other to immortalise MKO Abiola’s name and moving Democracy Day to June 12. This is trying to amend what they saw as past injustice. I completely agree with it. I don’t begrudge them. Similarly, to treat equals unequally is injustice and to treat unequal as equal is also injustice. Why is it that there has never been any attempt to make atonement for what the Ogoni 13 died for? After the execution on November 10, 1995, the Ogoni society was split into two: The Ogoni four and the Ogoni nine. Happily, we have been able to come together as a people. So, that split no longer exists. Everyone has come to realise that the murder of the four was an excuse to get at the nine. The State used us against one another.
President Olusegun Obasanjo, in his democracy speech in 2005, said government would take steps to immortalise the names of the Ogoni 13. But till today, nothing has happened to that effect. Regarding those issues, I regret that we have not been able to move one step further. One had thought that by now, we would have gone beyond the issue of Ogoni clean up. Now, we should be talking of Niger Delta clean up. Ogoni ought to be a framework for people to know that it is wrong to pollute the land from which we are exploring the resources, and for which we are being dealt with. It is with a sense of profound disappointment that we have not got the justice for the goal our people died for.
How did the State use divide and rule in Ogoni?
What I mean is that the death of the four was used to get the nine. Without trying to reopen old wounds, in my view, there is a lot the State could have done to prevent the death of the four. But government was more interested in finding excuse by allowing what happened, so that it could get at the nine. There is the finger of the State in the death of both. From what happened, we know the military was all over the place. There were clear evidences from several sources. The soldiers were within three or five-minute drive from where the incident that consumed the four happened. And a report was made, alerting them that there was a crisis. But they did not go there to intervene. They said they were waiting for orders from above to save lives. Why didn’t they go there? What was the combined team of Army, Air force and police there for? You can commit a crime by commission or omission.
As an adult, if you see a child about to jump into a well and you look the other way, you have committed a crime. I still believe that, if not for the way the State handled the aftermath of the murder of the four, the Ogoni people would have found a way to get those responsible for that killing. The painful aspect was that the State now went after almost everyone. People had to run for their lives. This made people who should have gone after the perpetrators of that heinous crime to just escape, which is sad. The Ogoni four were, by all account, very profound leaders, who deserved far more respect than they got.
Why has no legal action been taken outside Nigeria against agents of the State who delivered the judgment against Saro-Wiwa and others?
All the people involved in any of those atrocities did what they did as agents of the State. And the sad reality of this country is that those that perpetrate evil for the State are not only recycled, but are also projected further. This is not peculiar to the Ogoni situation. Almost all that raided Odi were promoted and became generals. All the people involved in the atrocities in Ogoni also became generals. All those that participated in the judgment against the Ogoni nine rose to the peak of their careers. Why? Because government of the day derives so much joy from injustice. It has not at any time looked back to say, ‘Let me break away from the same pattern.’
There is so little you can do to hold government accountable outside, as it will plead sovereignty. What most countries do is to break from the past. So, all those who perpetrated heinous crimes are held accountable. This sends signal to the next generation that this is not the way to treat citizens.
Nigeria seems programmed to only extol and indeed, reward those that perpetrated this sort of crimes.
Could this be the reason government has not deemed it fit to exonerate Saro-Wiwa and others?
The system is saturated with the fingers and influences of those that engaged one way or another in the atrocities. So, do you expect government to absolve itself from its own crime? In Nigeria, we don’t have the political will to do such things. That is why the rest of the world is laughing at us, in terms of human rights and how we deal with ourselves.
Why did government clamp down on Ogoni leaders, even when your struggle was non-violent?
Basically, government was not used to that kind of situation, and didn’t know how to respond. It was a government that did not even want dialogue. Just look at the political parties; are they dialoguing among themselves? They only know one way of doing things, like Fela would say, Zombie. They do not know that government can be humble enough to sit down with the people to discuss issues. They feel government is all- knowing, all powerful.
America has all the guns in the world. Britain has all the guns in the world and when armed persons take people hostage, they do not blast the building. Globally, governments know you have to negotiate with people. They do not say because I am more powerful than you, you must be eliminated. At a point, when you continue to repress a people, people of good conscience all over the world will say, ‘wait a minute, what is going on?’ And that is how international attention came to be focused on Nigeria.
Federal Government has rolled out plan to resume oil production in Ogoni. What is the situation presently?
I have never been in an informed position to say this is what is going on. But personally, I don’t think the Ogonis are opposed to resumption of oil exploration. The Ogonis are only saying it should not be business as usual, and that there should be something to show for the sacrifices they have made through the years. Why is nobody saying, ‘Ogoni people, come let us talk. What do you people want, based on your past and current history? How can we do things differently?’ That is what everybody is avoiding. All you hear is that one company will come give people money and they will say we support this. Another company will come and do the same thing, as if it is Ogoni people that issue mining licence.
My view is that, while it is the Federal Government that issues legal licence, Ogoni people are the ones that give social licence, without which it will be difficult for any oil company to operate. Why is the Federal Government not looking at the Ogoni history and say, ‘before we give this legal licence, Ogoni people, come let’s talk? What do you expect from this company?’ Ogoni oil has become synonymous with all sorts of shenanigan. There are companies without office address that want to take Ogoni oil.
What is really hindering resumption of oil exploration? What is the way forward?
What we are in the process of doing, at least the groups that I belong in Ogoni, is that within the next couple of weeks, we will sit down and articulate a position; to prevent people from thinking we are the problem. We will find out and present what Ogonis want to those that want to take our oil. If government wants to give licence, it should look at our template. That is our current position.
Contrary to public perception; that oil production has not resumed is not so much about the Ogonis. Rather, it is about the interest of the big players in Abuja. I can tell you several instances of past happenings. Some people that are close to the corridor of power want other companies to come and take oil. It is those clashes, which they play over and over, and which they are using people to play in a manner that now make it look as if Ogonis are the ones stopping oil production.
I have heard of occasions, where there were clashes within the DPR, people in the Ministry of Petroleum, NNPC and the Presidency over Ogoni oil. So, those close to power are responsible. It is their selfish interest that has been responsible for our not getting desired solution. And this is why they don’t want to sit down with the people to ask what should be done, so we can move forward. I don’t think the people are asking for so much by saying, ‘Please, listen to us. Let us tell you how we feel about this matter.’ No one is asking about Ogoni’s interest in all this.
What progress has been made so far in remediation of polluted sites in Ogoni?
I wish I knew. If you ask me, it is more political than real, and in saying that, I am using the UNEP Report as the peg to assess what is happening. Sometime ago, I asked an HYPREP person how many sites the company was treating. He replied that they were just taking some sites. How do they choose the site? He said they were looking at the ones that are not very polluted. I said okay, for instance, I come from a village called K-Dere, which produces about 70 percent of Ogoni oil. No one site in that place comes within what you people are doing. So, how do you choose? Now, how many people are on ground that you will say actual clean up is going on?
What has been done concerning emergency measures? The report said we are drinking water that is about 1,000 times contaminated, and UNEP said to take provision of water as an emergency. Why is it that we have not thought of that? Meanwhile, there is supposed to be signs in certain places saying, ‘don’t bathe, drink or fish in this water.’ But these are areas they are not touching. As we speak, artisanal refinery is going on with complicity of security agents. Now, how do you clean when such is going on?
UNEP report says spend about $10m to ensure you provide alternative vocations for those engaged in this. In other words, how do you clean when the place continues to be polluted? Some of the companies involved in the so-called clean up were registered as shoemaking outfits and all that. In one or two cases, some contractors came to Rivers State and didn’t know where Ogoni is. They lodged in a hotel in Port Harcourt, asking people to show them Ogoni land. For heaven’s sake, we are talking about people’s lives here. I am not one of those who think we should pretend about what has happened. There is nothing on ground to show there is a cleanup going on. What should other parts of Niger Delta look up to? The Ogoni cleanup was supposed to be a model, to be replicated everywhere.
What has sustained the Ogoni struggle over the years?
The sense that you are not alone; that the cause you are pursuing is just, and that you have moral superiority over the oppressors. Sometimes, you find someone in Australia, Canada or New Zealand saying, ‘what you people are doing is right.’ Because you see people who still believe in justice, this gives you some sort of superiority over those who believe in brutal force.
For me, it is more than the Ogoni thing. It is more of the sense for justice, the national question and the Niger Delta issues, which unfortunately, seem to be eroding daily, because no one is listening. It has become more of an industry. People are only concerned about what they can get out of the crisis.