Reported by Cadmus Atake, Zaid Shopeju and Oluwafunmilayo Oyatogun
Before the sun rose in the Ogoni sky, veterans of epic ecological struggles were already making their way to Bori, to the historic Finimale Sauna conference hall at the headquarters of Khana LGA. This hall lays claim to the MOSOP addresses by the Late Ken Saro-Wiwa in the early 1990s. The hall was packed full with women, young and old, who knew the critical role they play in the ecological struggle. We also could not help notice the men who hung around the windows and doors, hoping to be a part of the action. The occasion was the workshop titled Memories and Hope: Ogoni Women as Ecological Defenders organized by the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) on the 6th and 7th of August, 2014. The program was co-organized by the Federal Ministry of Environment (FMoE) and supported by the United Nations Development Programme(UNDP) and the Ogoni Solidarity Forum (OSF).
It is commonly said that what a man can do, a woman can do better, but in the case of Ogoni the women seem to have been relegated to the back burner for too long. Ogoniland has become the poster child for environmental problems in Nigeria, especially as a result of unscrupulous extraction activities of multinational corporations. So, even though the women of Ogoni were well aware of the problems surrounding them, the workshop provided them with an opportunity to take actively articulate the best paths to be taken if their land is to recover from years of ecological attacks. In fact, with the women as the focus of the workshop, we were not surprised to see plays, poems and other artistic renditions that helped lighten the ambience of the heavy despoliation of Ogoni environment and the much ignored UNEP report of 2011. There was also an abundance of passion and determination, qualities that have characterized the Ogoni people over the years.
The much welcomed United Nation Environment Programme (UNEP) report in 2011 on the state of the environment of Ogoniland brought a glimmer of hope to the indigenes as the detailed document spelled out clearly what was required for the government and oil polluters to do to recover the best of Ogoni. Unfortunately, three years later, the federal government has failed to respond to the recommendations of the report. The “keep off” posts erected by the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project (HYPREP) are the only visible signs of an acknowledgement of the report. The oil companies who have done major damage to the areas have successfully driven the people away from their livelihoods and the “keep off” signs only seal the exile the residents have been forced into.
With such a heavy topic of discussion, it was apt to have the humorous MC Loveday – an Ogoni indigene – as the anchor to the program. The resource persons for the two-day workshop included Comrade Celestine Akpobari, coordinator of Ogoni Solidarity Forum, Nnimmo Bassey – Director of HOMEF, Emem Okon – executive director of Kebetkache, Esther Uduak Okon – representative of the Federal Ministry of Environment, Mrs Mariann Orovwuje – Friends of the Earth Africa (FOEA), Hilda Dokubo – Nollywood Actress, Comrade Che Ibegwura, Constance Meju of The Nation and Comrade Legborsi Saro Pyagbara of MOSOP. The Finimale Sauna conference hall is no stranger to hosting such renowned environmental activists, with Ken Saro-Wiwa setting the pace in the early 90s.
Comrade Celestine Akpobari opened his remarks with his trademark saying that “to destroy a people, one only needs to destroy their environment.” He decried the rate of devastation in Ogoniland and the seeming indifference of the government to the plight of the Ogoni people. Comrade Akpobari gave a sneak peek into old Ogoni, recalling his days as a vibrant child on the farm with his mother and the abundant harvests from the fertile, unpolluted Ogoni soils. Following his lead, the Federal Ministry of Environment representative, Esther Okon, gave her remarks and thanked the women for their courage in taking part in the Ogoni struggle. Renowned Nollywood actress, Hilda Dokubo, expressed her feelings of insecurity about the poverty and destruction ravaging Ogoniland. “Insecurity encourages social vices and women must rise up against the causes of these insecurities”, she said. The Director of HOMEF, Nnimmo Bassey, encouraged the participants to continue in the struggle for justice. He assured participants that they could count on the full support of HOMEF in their efforts to see the cleaning up and restoration of Ogoni land.
Following the opening words from the speakers, Mrs Constance Meju and Emem Okon anchored an interactive session leading the women down memory lane. It was a lively, if sad, session listening to the women relive what Ogoni used to be prior to the devastation by oil extraction.
Once the women settled in, they were not short of words. One prominent voices during the workshop was 82-year old Comrade Che Ibegwura who spoke eloquently on the place of networking in ecological defense. As he began to speak, everyone else fell silent, his poignant words reverberating through the hall: “Environment is life and we must connect with people of similar interests to defend the environment. This is networking. ” He went on with the grace and wisdom that comes from his life experience, to stress that “oil companies never came to Ogoniland to develop it, they came in search of capital and with that came destruction”, to which thorough networking is the only counter-force. According to Comrade Che, “if companies have joint ventures, citizens must also join forces because pollution does not respect ethnic boundaries.” Not surprisingly, Comrade Che was able to drive home his point using apt proverbs as he recounted the memories of Ogoni while she still flourished, emphasizing that “an animal does not know how to help another animal’s baby” and therefore we are responsible for the defense of our ecology.“The things that have dimmed our hope are deep and complex”, he said, “and memories are vital – memories of the good Ol’ Ogoni as well as memories of those who died in the struggle. Networking brought me here and once we achieve a common goal, we can decide what to do with our own land.”
As he closed, he hit close to home with some who get trapped in the capitalist mentality oil companies sell to indigenes. He said, “literacy is good, but it is just a step towards solving our problems. Don’t be afraid. Poverty is a disease. Don’t sell your land. Let it be a contribution to any venture anyone proposes on the land. That way you become a co-owner or shareholder and your rights, including rights of access, are preserved. Selling off our lands dispossess us because the price of land is never commensurate to the value of the land. Those who want to buy lands have their own land. Why do they want to grab ours?”
Other women had questions and contributions, some of which brought tears, others laughter and others a lesson or two. One woman, Mrs Grace Namo, brought awareness to an often ignored sector of the Ogoni economy – pottery. She said, “in the past we made clay pots as there was abundant clay to produce them. Today, we cannot produce clay pots because our soil is so heavily polluted. Our pottery industry is dead.” This bears witness to the extent of oil pollution and its far-reaching impact beyond riverine industries. Neewa Dugbon from Bane Khana L.G.A joked that “everyone in Ogoniland is sick, suffering from one disease or the other except the Ebola virus disease”, making reference to the current epidemic in the sub-region. While this brought a few laughs, it struck the audience with the stark reality of the effects of oil in the region.
After a few hours, it was apt to inject art to the session as art lightens up any soul. Hilda Dokubo, a renowned Nigerian actress coordinated a skit which demonstrated many of the issues going on in Ogoni. The skits covered the ordeals as they now experience poor crop yields, declining health, poor fish harvest (or poisoned fish), lack of potable water and increased miscarriages, community conflicts and death. Many in the play also linked their loss of livelihoods directly to Shell’s actions in Ogoni. Their heartfelt plea to the government is the same as it was many years ago. It was as if Ogoni was frozen in time. If a march was called up at that second, our women were ready – they had been charged for so long with all the atrocities that Shell had committed against them and they were continually seeking means of staying adequately informed on how to make the struggle more effective.
On the second day, more emphasis was placed on the content of the UNEP Report published in 2011. It is a pity that such a comprehensive report reached the government and Shell and made no impact. Whatever impact may have been made is comparable to water running off a duck’s back. Apart from the cosmetic “keep off” signs mentioned earlier, the UNEP report seems to be a forgotten story. Comrade Celestine Akpobari was able to communicate in-depth the expectation of the UNEP towards Shell and the government in Ogoniland. After his words, Nnimmo Bassey encouraged the people to protect their resources keeping in mind that their livelihoods depend on having a safe environment. Speaking on the topic Re-source Democracy, Bassey stressed the fact that what we call natural resources are actually nature’s resources and should be treated as gifts from nature and not as objects to be plundered. According to him, the people must have the primary say about what happens in their environment including who extracts what, for what purpose and for whose benefit. He suggested that the UNEP Report should be published in local languages so that the people can further understand its contents and demand implementation.
As in any quality session, there was no shortage of questions from women – some of which they had been yearning to ask for years. Gilbert Nwiluka Manna of Wiiyaajara in Khana LGA asked “how do we as a people overcome our differences and achieve unity as a result of our common struggle?” This question was particularly important because it is a common joke that every square mile in the Niger Delta is a different ethnic group yet the issue of environmental devastation is only one of the many common threads these areas share. The workshop facilitators were quick to highlight some of the other commonalities and encourage communities to unite and avoid divisions. Others like Ledum Kukelg were concerned about adhering to legal and political boundaries, and lamented that authorities have refused to respond to the youths’ requests for permission to monitor devastations in their environment. However, communities do not require permission to monitor their own environment and any such restrictions are a cause for alarm. Some issues should draw the attention of medical researchers such as complaints of early menopause, incessant miscarriages and unusual stomach pains from the residents.
On individual developments, Constance Meju and Hilda Dokubo shared with the women on the importance of exercises for their daily upkeep. More topics discussed included “Networking for Ecological Defense” by Comrade Che Ibegwura, “Impact of Pollution on the Elderly” by Constance Meju and “Impact of Pollution on Women” by Legborsi Saro Pyagbara, the MOSOP president. It is also striking how invested the women participants were in their current situation as was evident in the nature of their questions and the eagerness to share experiences and to learn more. One of the most inspiring aspects of the workshop was the field visit to Goi community – one of the most oil-damaged communities in Ogoni. The community welcomed the participants warmly, gladly volunteering information about their lifestyle, history and ongoing challenges. Chief Mene Tomii lamented the contamination of Goi Creek, stating that “only 30 percent of our livelihoods are land-based, the other 70 percent depends on this creek.” Chief MB Dooh and Madam Bia Dooh Koda – all from the Goi community – reinforced their commitment to continue to pursue environmental justice in their homeland.
After two days of consultations, paper presentations, drama, poetry and songs, the women resolved and demanded the following:
- The immediate and full implementation of UNEP Report including the scrapping of HYPREP, establishment of an Ogoni Environment Restoration Authority, Ogoni Environment Restoration Fund as well as a Centre of Excellence for environmental monitoring and remediation.
- Immediate provision of safe drinking water to all impacted communities.
- Immediate commencement of cleanup of the Ogoni environment as well as other polluted areas in the Niger Delta.
- Halting of all oil exploration, further contamination and compensation for inflicted harm.
- Creation of employment opportunities and establishment of a specialist health institution in Ogoniland to address the health impacts of the pollution in the land.
- The creation of a network of Ogoni Women Ecological Defenders (OWED) to network with other community based organizations in Nigeria and to monitoring of environmental justice in Ogoniland. OWED will also monitor and regularly review actions taken with regard to the UNEP recommendations for the restoration of the Ogoni environment.
You can leave Ogoni physically, but the agony of the ecological devastation there can never be forgotten. Participants noted that 2015 will mark the 20th anniversary of the murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni patriots. They all agreed that it would be a case of criminal neglect if the fourth anniversary of the UNEP report arrives in that landmark year without a serious start up of the cleaning up of their environment.