I have always known Nigerians to be very optimist people even in the face of untold hardship and suffering. The late music legend Fela Anikulapo once sang of the “suffering and smiling” syndrome of the average Nigerian. We are stoic in the face of adversary, always objective even when all logical conclusions point to the other direction; and we are quick to retort to our normal mantra ‘e go beta’ (everything will be alright). Little did I know that this is not a generally shared belief in Nigeria as there are people out there whose hope of a better tomorrow have been dashed by decades of unbelievable destruction of their environment and means of livelihood and survival. Ogoniland is one of the most devastated place on earth and its people living below the average standard of life in a country like Nigeria, with their life expectancy hanging around 41years. It is not uncommon to hear an average person in Ogoniland refer to him/herself as a living corpse. A land totally devastated by corporate greed and uncaring government profiteering.
I was in the company of Nnimmo Bassey, the 2010 Right Livelihood Award winner and Director of Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) and Dr. Monika Griefahn, the Co-Chair of the Right Livelihood Award Foundation on tour of Ogoniland. The laureate was in Port Harcourt with Dr. Griefahn to inaugurate the 5th Right Livelihood College Campus at the University of Port Harcourt; making UNIPORT the 2nd university in Africa and 1st in Nigeria to be so honoured. After the inaugural lecture, we set out for Ogoniland to see the much talked about environmental pollution but what I ended up seeing was an environmental devastation of an unexplainable scale. Our first call of visit was Goi Community; a community without a single inhabitant! A whole community ransacked by severe environmental impact.
The strong stench of crude oil that greeted my nostrils as we entered the community was impossible to ignore; I felt a burning sensation in my throat and chest for 3 days after the visitation! The rivers were dead and the species in them were either dead or all gone – no fish, crabs, shrimps; nothing to justify the existence of life within the river. Unfortunately for the Goi people, their land is not an oil producing community but they are the most impacted of all by the activities of multinational corporations. According to Nnimmo Bassey the situation here “…is ecocide; the destruction of the land and the sea and everything. Nothing in the foreseeable future will restore this back to normal and the Nigeria Federal Government and Shell Corporation needs to act immediately in cleaning up these communities as recommended by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report on Ogoniland.” The visiting Co-Chair of Right Livelihood, Dr. Griefahn was shocked by the stack reality of the environmental devastation. She says “you could fill your tank just by scooping the stuff right here.”
While speaking with the HRH Mene Tomii S. Tomii Chairman Goi Council of Chiefs and Elders/Bua Numuu say “we go to neighbouring villages to get our basic needs; no drinking water, no pure water, no streams.” He went on to say that “Goi community has 5 streams but they are are polluted (by crude oil spills), no drinking water, no government facility, no health care centre, no electricity, nothing!” Mene Tomii explained that “People say this is a bushy area, but why is it bushy area? It is because we have deserted the land because of the environmental (degradation).”
The agony in their faces and pains in their heart tell the untold stories of hardship in this once-upon-a-time Disneyland. He showed us one of his harvested yam tubers, which was quite big but rotten deep inside as a result of crude oil contamination. The people in Goi community are now environmental refugees in neighbouring villages, coming to Goi only to farm in the contaminated land despite the big sign post that reads “PUBLIC NOTICE: PROHIBITION! CONTAMINATED AREA, PLEASE KEEP OFF, BY ORDER: HYDROCARBON POLLUTION RESTORATION PROJECT (HYPREP), FEDERAL MINISTRY OF PETROLEUM RESOURCES.” But the poser is; where will these people go? And why restore hydrocarbon pollution, instead of restoring the health of the polluted and devastated areas? It shows the half thought-through action plans of the government are just meant to placate the people and not to find real and lasting solution to their problems.
We witnessed the same story of destruction and environmental degradation in Bodo Community. Our airways were filled with the concentrated hydrocarbon smell. The water bodies were coated by crude oil and the water sources were highly contaminated as a direct result of Shell extractive activities in the Niger Delta which have caused permanent damages to the fragile ecosystems. I was feeling lightheaded by the time we reached the centre of Bodo community as my body metabolism couldn’t withstand the continued assault by crude oil fumes on my body system; but I forced my mortal body on when I sighted a nursing mother feeding her child inside the terrible stench. I asked her if she wasn’t affected by the stench, her response was shocking “wetin I go do?” What can I do? I was told by the villagers that children still swim in the contaminated rivers since there are no alternative waters around to bath. The feeling of powerlessness in this region is not limited to this poor woman, but how can I blame them after years of neglect by their government? Shell is having a field day while people in the Niger Delta are dying of terrible health diseases on a daily basis. Those that try to resist or challenge the capitalist agenda of the multinationals are immediately tagged enemy of the state and persecuted.
But I can feel the wind of change blowing as the people are once again recognising the power in their voice just like the days of Ken Saro-Wiwa. The people are organising again, and young people are leading the change – for peaceful direct actions against polluters. As Celestine Akpobari of Ogoni Solidarity Forum put it “we must restore the dignity of our ancestral land and preserve it for the coming generations.” He explains further, “our matter is a case of justice, if the government agrees to our legitimate demands, naturally peace we come.” Unfortunately he says “the government were trying to come in through the back down, therefore, we created the Ogoni Solidarity Forum not to upstage the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) but to use it as an alternative platform for the mobilisation of our people so that we will not betray Ken…the only thing I see as the success of our struggle is that our oil is under the soil.” The Ogoni Solidarity Forum with the support of the environmental laureate Nnimmo Bassey have successfully used the November 10 remembrance anniversary of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other 8 Ogoni to mobilise the people and demand their legitimate rights.
In the famous words of Nelson Mandela “it always seems impossible until it’s done”, I have a dream of a prosperous Ogoniland with its waters restored to health, it’s land flowing once again with milk and honey and the people reconnected with nature. I have a dream that one day; the whole of Niger Delta will be free from oil extraction and gas flaring. In one of his parting salvo Ken Saro-Wiwa says “we are going to demand our rights, peacefully, non-violently, and we shall WIN!” Let us stand with the Ogoni people believing that in our right comes our might!
–About Zaid Shopeju–
Zaid Shopeju is the Executive Director – Youth Vision Alliance Network (YVAN) and coordinates Zero Carbon Africa. Follow him on twitter @ZaidShopeju