May 29, 2013

Democracy Day For Nigeria, But Not For The Ogoni

May 29th celebrates the election of Olusegun Obasanjo as the president and the return of democracy to Nigeria after 16 years of military rule. However the Ogoni are still to enjoy the benefits of democracy, being the most repressed group in the country.

Nigeria, the biggest and one of the most ethnically diverse countries in Africa, had been ruled by military junta leaders since 1983, when Muhammadu Buhari seized power from president Shugari, who had become extremely unpopular because of alleged corruption and deteriorating oil prices. For the next 16 years, Nigeria went through five military dictators and a severe situation for human rights until General Abubakar handed power to a fellow military man Obasanjo, who had been elected as the president in 1999. The day is celebrated annually as Democracy Day and represents the perseverance of human rights, diversity and freedom of speech.

These noble slogans do not apply in real life as they should. Political corruption is a pervading phenomenon in the country, as indicated recently by the 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index which ranked the country 139th out of 176 countries. The discovery of oil and natural gas is seen as one of the main contributors to the problem. Today, oil accounts for over 90% of Nigeria’s export earnings and some 80% of government revenue. 70% of oil revenues were estimated to be stolen or wasted in 2003.

The worst victims of ruthless oil extraction and related corruption are certainly the Ogoni people residing in Niger Delta, where 90% of Nigeria's petroleum reserves are situated. Ogoni are a small nation, long ignored by colonial powers, involved in agricultural activities like marketing yam and cassava. Royal Dutch Shell discovered oil in the region in 1957 and in collaboration with government started extracting it en masse. This activity produced oil spills and pollution of water that stripped the Ogoni people from their traditional lifestyle and caused permanent damage to environment. Ogoni people have no other means to sustain themselves but agriculture and they have little professional skills, so their level of unemployment continues to be severe.

These events led to massive non-violent protests against Shell activity in early 1990s. The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) issued the Ogoni Bill of Rights. It outlines the demands of the Ogoni people for environmental, social and economic justice. The Ogoni protests in January 1993 forced the Shell to end their production in the area, but only to come back with the aid of Nigerian military to construct oil pipeline. Shooting of innocent people and grave injustice to Ogoni people was the culmination. The regime of Sani Abacha saw the hanging of famous activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other MOSOP leaders in 1995.

The ongoing struggle of Ogoni people to preserve their homeland has led to more international attention after August 11 release of UNEP report on the assessment of the Ogoni environment, but also to failures in their legal cases against Shell. Land-grabbing and repressions by the government still haunt the daily lives of these people.

UNPO wishes strength to the Ogoni and hopes that the Democracy Day will mean one day real political rights to all groups in Nigeria.