Unsure of what the future holds, for his family in the aftermath of the August 2008 major oil spill in his community Kozo, in Bodo, Gokana Local Government Area, Rivers State, Simon Kpagha paid an unscheduled visit to his inlaw, Philip Nsereka, a construction worker that resides in Port Harcourt.
“Luckily the visit yielded fruit. He loaned N40,000 to me when I told him that my children may drop out of school if I don’t find something doing very urgently. “It is with that money that I bought this “okada” which I have been using for local transportation since then.” Kpagha says he considers himself lucky unlike most of his mates whose major occupation before the spill were fishing and crop farming.
“Most of my people cannot find food to eat today because after the spill everything started disappearing. We don’t catch enough fish again and the crops were withering. It was risky to consume anything from there, for fear of chemical contamination.” Asked how he feels about the recent United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report, Kpagha replied; “It is one thing to make report and another to implement it. I pray to be alive to see the result.”
Indeed, if Kpagha were lucky to have found an alternative means of livelihood, thousands of other Kozoleans and indeed other oil bearing communities in Ogoniland have not been as lucky.
Not a few Ogonis blame the mass unemployment, poverty and lack of sustainable infrastructure in the area on the decades of oil exploration and exploitation in the joint venture operations of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and Shell Development Company. This situation, they claim, destroyed the aquatic life and the entire ecosystem leaving the people dislocated and devastated.
It is as a result of this, that the area has continued to witness bloody convulsion in their various attempts to register their grievances even as most of the violence were believed, by the people of the area, to be politically motivated and to have been sponsored from without.
The high point was the killings of four prominent sons of Ogoni in 1994 in a violent outburst and the subsequent arrest, trial and execution of yet other prominent sons of the area whom the government accused of having inspired the riots.
Convinced that violent approach can never solve problems but could rather create more problems, Bodo people and indeed other Ogonis have since resorted to dialogue and legal action as peaceful approaches to their agitation. One of such legal actions filed in a London court gave a favourable verdict to Ogoni people recently. Though, the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) has been at the forefront of the struggle, reaching out to international agencies and humanitarian organisations, the locals, through their councils of chiefs, have also not relented in their efforts to organise themselves and to speak with one voice in support of the agitation.
The Bodo council of chiefs and elders where His Royal Highness, King Felix Sunday Berebon reigns as the paramount ruler is one of such unions.
The chairman of Bodo council of chiefs, Mene Leema V. Hycient, while reacting to the UNEP report said that his council and the entire Bodo people are peace loving people and also speak with one voice. “That is why we cooperated with other Ogoni people in the London suit that has just given us a favourable verdict.” According to Hycient, Bodo people are happy on hearing about the UNEP report because it has vindicated them.
“The struggle claimed many of our heros. We are a bit consoled by the report. But we shall only be fully consoled if the federal government reacts positively.” He traced the history of oil exploration and its concomitant effects on the environment to 1958/59. According to him, when Shell first started operation in Bodo Oil field, it did not take time before the devastating effect began to manifest. But rather than draw up a comprehensive programme of remediation and reparation, the oil giant adopted temporary measures which they called “clamping.” Subsequently, aquatic life began to dwindle.
“You know three quarters of our people depend on a dual means of livelihood, namely: fishing and farming.
These have been seriously affected over the years, but the high point was the fire disaster of March 16, 2011.
“A little spark here ignites a wild fire everywhere. The lands are now barren and lying waste.”
Echoeing the views of Hycient, the Public Relations Officer (PRO) of the community chief Patrick Tonwe said Bodo people should be seriously considered in the implementation of the report.
“We know there has been several reports in the past that were dumped. This one should not be like those ones. It is the devastation that is responsible for the mass poverty that we are experiencing in Bodo today,” he said.
If the destruction of aquatic life in Bodo and other parts of Ogoni worried the people, the greater apprehension came from health concerns. Expressing this concern, Tonwe explained that Bodo people cannot absolve Shell of responsibility for the high incidence of oil spill contaminations, cancer and other related diseases in Bodo and its environs.
“The life expectancy here is very low. Some experts have put it at below 50 years. A 50-year old man or woman is supposed to be middle-aged. But if one is lucky to get to this age here, that person rejoices and is celebrated.
We blame Shell because even the UNEP report indicated that we have been taking in hydrocarbon and Benzene,” Tonwe stated. He denied knowledge that the NNPC was planning to resume oil exploration in the area. “If such a thing is going to happen we should be informed but we will insist that old wounds must be healed first.”
When The Tide visited Bodo City health centre, there was no sign that the health centre was functional. The structure looked dilapidated and there were no sign of medical activity going on at the centre. However, at the Gokana General Hospital, commissioned by the Col Musa Shehu’s administration in Rivers State in 1996, few patients were seen at the outpatient ward waiting to receive treatment. The buildings were also largely dilapidated.
Patients constantly adjusted their seats to avoid being drenched by water dripping from a leaking roof in the out patient lounge. The medical Doctor on duty was said to be carrying out a surgical operation in the hospital theatre.
There was a consensus of opinion, among the council of chiefs whom The Tide team later met in session at the town hall in Bodo, that the area would require, as a matter of urgency, clean up, remediation and restoration of the environment as a first step towards addressing the health concerns. This should also be accompanied by massive employment of youths of the area in productive ventures.
Other development programmes that they believe would go along way in assuaging the pains of the people include; regular power supply, provision of portable water, reactivation and equipping of existing health facilities, construction of internal roads and scholarship awards.
However, worried about the health consequences of continued lack of dependable source of portable water in Ogoniland the Rivers State government last week deployed water tankers to the area while efforts to reactivate existing water schemes and construct new ones are on.
Before the publication of the damning report about the environmental impact of oil exploration and exploitation in Ogoni by UNEP, the Oil Producing States Farmers Association of Nigeria (OPSFAN) Gokana Chapter, had accused Shell of exposing the fishermen in the area to ridicule by keeping silent over the devastating effect of oil spills in the area despite efforts by the association to draw Shells attention to the situation. According to the OPSFAN chairman, Chief Simon Visanga, the affected fishermen were all members of OPSFAN.
He said that before the major spill of August 2008, the fishermen in Bodo alone had the capacity of making a daily income of N1m, but that the spill had robbed them of that life of abundance leaving in its wake hopelessness and gloom. According to him, Shell accepted responsibility for the spill attributing it to equipment and operational failures, but rather than pay compensation to the fishermen they brought some bags of rice and distributed to some chiefs at the expense of the actual victims of the spill.
He lamented that the periwinkles, lobsters, crabs and mudskippers that they used to harvest in large quantities for domestic and commercial purposes have all vanished making life miserable.
Also, reacting to the report, the Ogoni Welfare Association Lagos chapter, through its Public Relations Officers, Mr. ThankGod Meekor, called for a comprehensive implementation of the UNEP’s report’s recommendations under the supervision of the United nations. The group wants 99 per cent of the manpower needed for the implementation to be sourced from amongst the Ogoni at home and in the Diaspora.
Again, after a meeting last week in Bori, which MOSOP claimed was attended by 5,000 delegates, the group gave 30 days ultimatum within which the federal government, Shell and other stakeholders must begin action towards implementation of UNEP report after which it will begin mobilisation for a non-violent mass action.
However, officials of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and representatives of international oil companies (IOC’s) including Shell met Thursday last week in Abuja to deliberate on ways of implementing key recommendations of the UNEP report on oil pollution in Ogoniland.
Group General Manager in charge of Public Affairs Division of the NNPC, Dr. Levi Ajuonuma, said last week that a key decision reached at the end of the meeting was that a committee would be set up to study and evaluate the report and come up with a desirable action plan that would bring back the glory of ogoniland.
He said that the meeting of the stakeholders over the UNEP report was a testimony of how important they regarded the Ogoniland issue and also a demonstration of the fact that oil companies were not out to deliberately damage the environment of their host communities.
How the knotty issue of environmental degradation in Ogoni is addressed viz-a-viz the implementation of the UNEP report will certainly determine the future of oil exploitation in the area. For now the general thinking by the Ogonis appears to be that healing old wounds should be the first step in determining the future of oil exploration activities not only in Bodo, but in the rest of Ogoniland.
Desmond Osueke, Friday Nwinudee & Donald Mike Jaja