Dec 15, 2008

Ogoni: Tensions Simmer

Active ImageCommunities claim to be victims of sustained human rights abuses from oil companies and government.



Below is an article published by The Daily Triumph:

Reuben Onyewikpe Loveday, a farmer in the depressed swamplands of the Niger River Delta, nostalgically remembers the days when he could make a healthy living off his three acres of land.

Bountiful yields of yams, cassava and plantains and reliable catches from his fish pond used to guarantee him about $8,000 a year–a handsome sum in a country where the annual per capita income hovers around $320.

Now those days are gone, a victim, contends Loveday, of a government oil policy that enriches politicians and foreign oil ventures at the expense of local communities.

“Oil is supposed to bring wealth, but for the local communities, it has been doom,” said the veteran farmer, who says that his soil can no longer sustain crops and that his pond has gone stagnant from oil poisoning.

Loveday’s complaints are part of a growing chorus in the 27,000-square-mile Niger Delta, home to about 7 million people and the primary source of billions of dollars’ worth of Nigeria’s black gold.

Local observers say the increasing tension is threatening to explode as it did in the early 1990s, when the Delta’s Ogoni people began campaigning for political self-determination and for ownership of the lucrative resource beneath their land. Their efforts ended in a wave of violence and killings and the 1995 execution of prominent writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other dissidents.

“The situation has gotten worse. Now everybody here is suffering,” said Loveday, 56, who is surviving off the goodwill of friends.

Nigeria’s military regime, led by late General Sani Abacha, has sole ownership of the country’s mineral rights; a number of oil companies also share profits through joint ventures.

The stakes are huge. The Niger Delta produces about 2 million barrels of oil a day, worth about $7 billion a year. That accounts for about 90% of Nigeria’s foreign exchange and about 80% of the government’s total revenue.

The United States, which imports about 50% of Nigeria’s oil output, has been criticized for helping to prop up a regime that Washington has itself branded one of Africa’s most oppressive.

Local activists say that protests are intensifying in the delta, especially among young people seeking a bigger share of oil industry jobs along with improved living conditions and respect for their environment.

In the last several months, demonstrators have occupied and closed down oil platforms, shut down pumps, picketed production facilities and taken workers hostage.

Local observers fear a recurrence of the kind of violence that occurred after Saro-Wiwa’s execution–an action that drew limited sanctions from some Western nations and resulted in Nigeria’s immediate suspension from the British Commonwealth.

In the three years since, more than 2,000 Ogonis have been killed for protesting the government’s oil policy, and 50,000 have been displaced, according to the Port Harcourt-based Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law.

Today, spurred by deteriorating living standards and a general dissatisfaction with the Abacha regime, the protests have spread beyond the Ogonis to include the Delta’s other 20-plus ethnic groups.

But pro-democracy leaders say that authorities have tried to stifle dissent by intimidating and arresting suspected activists–a charge the government has denied. And so far, the protests have had little impact.

Thirteen percent of oil revenues are supposed to go toward developing the infrastructure in oil-producing areas, industry officials say. But community leaders say the government reneges on this task, leaving the oil-rich southern delta without such basic amenities as running water, electricity, sanitation, paved roads, health clinics and schools.

Locals also complain that oil exploration is a menace to their health and their environment, and they blame both the government and the foreign firms that are its longtime partners–including U.S. companies Texaco, Mobil and Chevron.

“One would think that with the oil companies here, there would be much improvement, but there isn’t,” said Isaac Uchechukwu, vice chairman of the Egi Youth Federation, a delta-based civic and environmental pressure group. “Instead, millions [of dollars] are being carted away in front of our eyes.”

Most harshly criticized in recent years has been the British-Dutch oil giant Shell, which owns 30% of a joint venture with the Nigerian government and produces about 1 million barrels a day from more than 1,000 active wells in the Niger Delta. Critics accuse the company–which has been in Africa’s most populous nation for more than 50 years–of encouraging the government to suppress dissent and ignoring international standards of oil exploration.

“The northern-dominated government has allowed oil companies to exploit us in exchange for petroleum,” said Olisa Agbakoba, a political opposition leader and human rights lawyer. “It’s a nice deal for them. They exploit oil without looking at the human rights and environmental ramifications.”

Shell officials disagree, arguing that the company has gone out of its way to be a good neighbor, spending millions of dollars on education, employment, health facilities, agricultural support and infrastructure development.

“Shell has been progressively filling the gap where the government does not,” said Basil Efoise Omiyi, director and general manager of relations and environment for the company.

While some Delta residents acknowledge that they have benefited from Shell’s community projects, there is a general feeling here that the company owes them more, given profits that some estimate at $220 million a year.

In addition to wanting a greater share of the wealth, locals want the government and oil companies to clean up the land.

Farmers in Erema, a municipality about 30 miles outside Port Harcourt, the country’s southeastern oil capital, maintain that oil seepage has so contaminated the soil that within the last 15 years, the popular red cocoa yam has become extinct.

Earthworms, a natural fertilizer for the soil, also seem to have disappeared in some places, local environmentalists say. And gone are a host of medicinal weeds, natural herbs and spices. Once-common aquatic life has been wiped out, some claim, by dynamiting designed to clear swampland for exploration.

“This land is an ecological disaster,” said Che Ibegwura, a paralegal assistant for the Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. “The rural communities have started to deforest swamps searching for [arable] land. Each time we appeal to the authorities, it falls on deaf ears.”

Community leaders say that women, who typically cultivate the farms in rural Nigerian society, have been hardest hit by the devastation of arable land.

“It’s almost impossible to survive now,” said Priscila Mgbonu, 26, a mother of two children, ages 6 and 3. The family farm she inherited can no longer produce enough cassava and yams to sustain a livelihood, so she now hawks fabric from a market stall.

Her family has lived in the poverty-stricken Egiland community for several generations, but now, says Mgbonu, “If it is possible, I want my kids to leave here when they grow up.”

In the nearby Obagi community, open flares of natural gas, a byproduct of crude oil, are burned off daily, emitting a pungent smell that tingles the nostrils.

The bad air causes skin sores and respiratory ailments, residents say. New galvanized rooftops are caked with rust within two years, thanks to acid rain. And miles of brown, rusting oil pipes that dot the landscape often leak or burst, sending streams of sticky black liquid into the fields.

Many delta residents have taken on the oil companies in court. In the southeastern Andoni district, villagers are demanding compensation for an offshore oil slick of about 40,000 barrels from a ruptured Mobil pipeline. The January spill poisoned fish and ruined nets, the villagers say.

Mobil publicly apologized, launched a massive cleanup operation and said it is investigating the case to determine whether compensation is called for.

“The federal government owes its citizens social responsibility, but the oil companies have the responsibility to protect the environment, which they are exploring,” community activist Jackson Omenazu said.

Officials at Shell say their company never puts wells on arable land, and they even complain that efforts to introduce development into certain communities have been thwarted. They say residents often steal electrical generators, vandalize water tanks and sabotage the company’s 3,800 miles or so of pipes.

“They want to get the cleanup contract, and the more the oil spreads, the more they have to clean up,” the company’s Omiyi said.

As for Nigeria’s government, Omiyi says it has “no commitment to development. So whom do the communities turn to in frustration? Us. If you ask them whom the government should give their development money to, they would say Shell.”

Not quite, say citizens of Rumuokwurusi, site of a Shell housing compound. Residents living just 30 feet away, without access to running water or regular electricity, peer enviously over barbed-wire fences into Shell’s sprawling compound of modern bungalows and outdoor recreational facilities.

“You can see the rays of light flashing over the fence, but we don’t have any lights here,” Omenazu said. “It’s not fair.”

Many activists believe that the oil companies are obliged to pressure the Abacha regime into cleaning up its human rights record, which has been condemned around the world.

“They have the power,” said Mofia Akobo, a former Nigerian oil minister and current chairman of the Port Harcourt-based Southern Minorities Movement, a pro-democracy civic education group.

Omiyi says Shell cannot influence the regime, even though it uses every opportunity to condemn human rights violations and has been “playing the delta lobby as the world expects us to.”

“The government doesn’t give a damn,” Omiyi said. “They could put all our people on a plane tomorrow and things would continue running. To expect us to change the government is something you shouldn’t expect from a corporate body.”