Blessing Ibunge writes that the $1billion United Nation Environment Project, UNEP,-backed cleanup scheme in Ogoni may be ongoing with all its controversies and scandals, but the silent massive award of scholarships in Ogoni may have turned into a quiet revolution
November is a solemn month in Ogoni, being the month the hero of the ‘Ogoni Struggle’ (demand for resource control, environmental justice, and autonomy), Saro Wiwa and eight other Ogoni freedom fighters were hanged at the Port Harcourt Prison, precisely on November 10, 1995. The event caused an international image crisis for Nigeria, under the late Sani Abacha military junta and has continued to make Ogoni areas a troubled zone to this day.
Every year, the indigenes of Ogoni in Rivers State under the aegis of Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) stage events, peaceful demonstration and otherwise, to keep the memories of their martyrs and heroes burning in their memories. Several programmes and government projects have been floated to heal Ogoni land, but each seems to cause more crisis and injury.
Now, the Ogoni Scholarship Scheme (OSS) seems to be different, operating quietly and transparently to groom a new generation of Ogoni elites expected to redeem the land. For five years, the OSS has been awarding scholarships to a number of high-scoring students. This year, the managers decided to mark the effort with an anniversary and also release the 2023 scholarships of 493 slots, which was held at the Rivers State University (RSU), Port Harcourt.
The scheme which took off with little patronage of 18 slots five years ago in 2018, according to the managers, attracted more attention of 346 slots the next year when students were said to have found that the Kiisi Trust Foundation (KTF) which floated the OSS kept to their words and did exactly what they promised to do, thus emerging as about the only scheme that works successfully in Ogoni with no single evidence of compromise, corruption, or scandal.
The next year, the scheme attracted 447 beneficiaries and 421 in 2022, totaling 1,725 in the five years. This was achieved by the effort of Kiisi foundation headed by Hon Uche Onyeagucha, a human rights activists who fought on the side of the Ogoni in courts during the Saro-Wiwa’s struggle with other eight who tried to redeem justice for the their people over the degradation of the environment.
Speaking on the scheme during the event, Chairman of KTF, Onyeagucha, a former member of House of Representatives from Owerri in Imo State, said it was both for marking five years and for award of the 5th batch. He explained the lowkey celebrations of the past years, saying it was to reserve funds for direct awards to more students.
Onyeagucha disclosed that the foundation was formed some years ago after some families that suffered deaths during the Ogoni crisis took Shell to court in New York. “At a point, out-of-court settlement was done and $15.5million was awarded. The families resolved to donate $5million to a fund to develop Ogoniland”.
Addressing the beneficiaries, Onyeagucha said that they were benefitting from the sacrifice including deaths of the numerous Ogoni people killed in the quest for justice. “This is very important so you situate what you are getting very well.
He told the beneficiaries that the aim of the project is to see them succeed in academics, use it to transform themselves, their community, and Ogoniland, also be an ambassador of their areas and the foundation.
“Kiisi means development and the Kiisi Trust Foundation (KTF) supports community development such as education, health, etc, but the needs in Ogoni are plenty.”
Onyeagucha said Kiisi tried to intervene through grants to community-based organisations and non-governmental organisations especially Ogoni-based ones, but later did prioritisation and decided on direct intervention. He revealed what brains and integrity can achieve in Nigeria by putting forward two renowned professors from Ogoni. He named them as Bariname Fakae, Friday Sigalo, Deziah Hannah Karikpo, and Lebatam Ndegwe (Executive Secretary of KTF).
The former federal lawmaker who fought for the Ogoni struggle and for Ken Saro-Wiwa and the martyrs said there is something that is a must in the board and management of Kiisi; which he said is total transparency. “There is no room for any undue favour to anybody. For spending, we adopt world best practices.
“We insist that scholarship must be for scholars. So, if you are not a scholar who is totally committed to studying and passing with high grades without cheating, then Kiisi or Ogoni Scholarship Scheme (OSS) is not for you.
“So, if you know you got your scholarship by knowing any of us, say it openly here and now. This is one of the few scholarship schemes without compromise or connection or fraud.”
In the health sector, he said KTF executed a solar power project at the most sensitive sections of the General Hospital Bori. “Assessment has shown that power has boosted attendance to patients after official hours. Visits revealed that the Kiisi power scheme is still what is supporting the hospital in those sensitive places.”
Another strategic impact, Onyeagucha stated, is in ICT. He said the board realised that Information Communication Technology (ICT) penetration in remote areas in Ogoni is low because it awareness programme is low.
“We have thus carried out sensitisation and support in two out of the 24 local councils in Ogoni. We took two best students in each of the 14 secondary schools in Gokana and trained them on how to effectively write computer-based test (CBT) and also same approach in Khana LGA. We found that intelligent students in Ogoni fail tertiary school entrance examinations because of poor ICT background or inability to put their what is in their brains with the computer.”
He said their playing in the lives and brains of young persons has revealed to them along with other research findings around the world that all children in the world are born equal in intelligence, but the difference is that as they grow, they face different standards of education in schools of different standards.
“Five years down the line, we have found the value of the OSS as sound and enduring. This has been on since 2018. This is in response to cries of lack of funds in Ogoni families after the many years of crisis, violence, land and water ruination, decline in farming yields, instability of business people, etc. Income per family seemed to decline very much, but many students were found to be brilliant.”
On challenges, Onyeagucha mentioned the overwhelming demand for slots as the biggest challenge, whereas at the onset, it was lack of participation of Ogoni students that was the challenge. He also mentioned poverty and anger in Ogoni areas due to many years of strife and deprivation as something now fueling ill-feeling in the communities.
In his remarks, the former Vice Chancellor of the RSU, an Indigenes of Ogoni, Fakae, said celebrating five years is good, saying that those who started at first have graduated.
The professor of parasitology, pointed to endless testimonies from beneficiaries and their families, an evidence that the project is real. “The beneficiaries have all said when they first saw the adverts, they called it scam. Now, they say its real. They do not contact anybody to get the scholarship slots. Also, we release their money exactly when we promised to send. They are the ones to speak about the credibility and transparency of the Ogoni Scholarship Scheme (OSS).
“Our events can be tracked and every name can be traced. Education is still relevant because I do not believe that it’s those that didn’t go to school that are getting the jobs. Its still educated people that get the few jobs. Now, the jobs are for the best. So, go to school and get an education.”
Putting the five years in perceptive, Lebatam Ndegwe, a trained medical doctor working in community health sector, said “We insist that scholarships must be given to the most intelligent ones. It was conceived for the best.
“We release the money at the time we promised to. This is an opportunity to bring parents together with the children to celebrate and to show Ogoni children that if you study hard, you will be celebrated. Some of the resource persons are being asked to come and facilitate other scholarship schemes. Some other communities who have got funds are asking us to come help them.”
On what next to expect, Ndegwe said they listen to the communities to know what is most in their minds. “It is what communities want that we consider as long as the ideas are not to serve self. We want ideas away from serving individuals but the people. There are some suggestions being considered, example being on reproductive health awareness intervention, basic menstrual circles, exposure, drugs to take in such period, even amongst educated women. We are open to ideas.
“No man is an island of knowledge, as a community trust, it is open to ideas so we can continue to empower the majority of the people, not ones to fritter away resources of the people. Good ones can be considered for collaboration, for funding. That is where the thinking of the Trust is in the coming months and years.”
Most student beneficiaries and parents interviewed said they never believed it was real when they learnt about it but promised to canvas for others to join.
Mrs Beauty Benda, a mother to one of the beneficiaries from Gokana appreciated the foundation for keeping to the promise of continuity after five years of inception of the education scheme. Also, Nkpornwi Ntito-Obari and Magni Gbani, beneficiaries said they didn’t believe without connection they could get success opportunity. They also thanked KTF for preparing them for a better future.