Legborsi Pyagbara is the President of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People, (MOSOP) . In this interview with Daniel Abia, he speaks on why federal troops deployed from the 2nd Brigade of the Nigerian Army in Port Harcourt to quell the crisis in Ogoni in which over nineteen people were reportedly killed including a pregnant woman, could never be a solution to the problem in that area. He took time to reflect on the latest development on the implementation of the United Nations Environmental Program, UNEP, report on Ogoni environment under President Mohammadu Buhari’s government, and other interesting issues. Excerpts:
What would you attribute as the cause of the recent crisis in Ogoni in which more than eighteen people were reportedly killed in a shootout between the Nigerian Soldiers and suspected hoodlums?
It is very unfortunate that at a time we are trying to experience relative peace in the area, we just wake up to see the militarization of the area. I must sympathize with those who lost their lives in the cause of the crisis. I spoke with the father of one of the victims and the man told me that he had not been in Rivers state for a long while. He had been in Warri, Delta state and just decided to send the children to Bori, so that they can start learning our local language. But unfortunately, one of the sons was shut by a soldier. I want to also express disapproval over the kind of destruction that took place at Yeghe and the subsequent burning down of some buildings in Bori. These things were not necessary. To burn down houses in Yeghe and that of Senator Magnus Abe’s campaign office in Bori are not necessary. I think we put this whole thing at the doorstep of the military. As far as I am concerned, the military should be held accountable for what had happened in Bori. You cannot in the name of military campaign; you criminalize the entire surrounding communities. You started in Yeghe, from there you moved to Bori, then Zaapor and other communities. That is condemnable. I don’t see why the search for criminals should turn to the killing of innocent people. The young boy I told you about had nothing to do with criminality. Another one they killed was just going to do his clearance to enable him go for his youth service. What sort of operation were they doing that resulted into the killing of these innocent people! The pregnant woman they also killed only went for her business. These people did not deserve this kind of fate. As an organization and for whatever reason, we demand that the entire military campaign in Ogoni should be suspended. I don’t think they have the best of methodology in terms of civil conduct in this sort of operation. I don’t think they have the best of intelligence as far as this sort of operation is concerned. This whole thing should be discontinued with immediate effect. Let them go back and reassess what has happened so far.
Have you bothered to make any official complain to the military headquarters to express your disappointment over the operation?
Well the truth is that, we cannot rush into making complains. What we are doing is to compile the list of casualties so that we have proper information about the whole thing. We want to get the pictures of the casualties so that we can sent them to the military and human rights commission, as well as other places. These people cannot just die in vain. We will do everything possible to ensure that we have local and international spotlight on this issue. Amnesty international is a campaign organization like us. They use the same instrument that we do. As far as we are concerned, this is extra-judicial killing. With this sort of casualty, it means that the intelligence for that operation was faulty. If you say you are looking for criminals, who has declared those people criminals? Have you also done the first thing that you were supposed to do before now? Have you asked them to surrender before now and if they did, can we see it! It is not about going to somewhere and say you are looking for criminals. There must be evidence that these people are criminals. You must establish the fact that they were caught with guns or something incriminating. This cannot be a fight just by the military. If there are such criminals, then the community people should also know. As much as we condemn criminality, we want the security agencies to operate within the law. I don’t even think that the community head of that place was informed before this military operation. We had lost over three thousand souls and fourteen communities to military campaigns before this time. We don’t want that again. Doing anything in Ogoni must be done within the ambit of the law. We must protect the lives and survival of Ogoni people. Military campaign is not necessary. Military campaign has never solved any crisis in the world. So, I see no reason why soldiers were deployed to the area in the first place. MOSOP will not want to be drawn into politics as far as this whole thing is concerned. There have been claims and denials as to who is behind this and who is not. Our position as an organization is that whatever the military has to do concerning the matter, must be done within the ambit of the law. In anything you are doing there, ensure that casualties are not recorded in Ogoni. That is our position and we stand by it.
President Mohammadu Buhari had promised to implement the UNEP report on Ogoni, what is causing the delay now?
Well, as far as I am concerned I have always said that the President did not start a new process, but he has brought a personal touch on this matter more than the previous government was doing. He resumed office in May 29 and by June he received a letter from the United Nations environmental program, reminding him on the need to take over the whole of this process. Immediately, he called on the most senior government official then to lead a discussion. Of course we had met and had discussions. The consensus of that agreement was passed onto him, which he approved immediately and requested people to start doing something. But I know that politics could hamper some speed. We had issued an ultimatum and they promised that in the first quarter of the year, something would be done about it. That is where we are right now. The process for the implementation of the UNEP report will begin. I am hopeful that the process will start by March. We still have a subsisting ultimatum, which expired in February. Such ultimatum is to draw government attention. The minister of environment is billed to visit Ogoni but not the killings in Ogoni. The minister has given her words to convince us that she will commence the implementation. If they fail on their part, then we will go back and called a congress for what possible step to take next.
What has the state government done so far in this implementation process?
We have a situation during the study of Ogoni environment; the state government was well involved from the time of Governor Peter Odili when he donated a secretariat for the study. Between 2014 and last year, the state government was not involved because of the full-blown crisis that happened. The community, local government, state and federal governments have a role to play in this implementation. In a discussion during the governing council, the state government had a representative and somebody was nominated. Presently, the state commissioner for environment is in discussion with the federal minister. Beyond the issue of cleanup, there are other issues that are raised in the report. The environmental sustainability is in that report. People talk about benzene in the report; there are other chemicals that are more dangerous than that. Far more dangerous. What are we doing in our advocacy so that those chemicals don’t become more dangerous to the people! That is the question. The report talks about legal, institutional reforms. What is the role of NOSDRA and NESDRA in this whole thing! Do they have duplication of functions such that we need to reconcile their functions! It is not just cleaning up the environment. But the Rivers state government can look at the report and think of what they can do within the framework of the report. The UNEP report instructed the federal government to declare Ogoniland Wetland and Ramsar site. There is what you called Ramsar convention. It is to protect wetlands over the world. If you declare a place a Ramsar site, it means that you are drawing international attention to Ogoni. Beyond drawing attention, it means that you can access funds internationally in addressing some of the challenges of the place. It does not require Nigerian government to spend its own money. It only takes the government to have the political will to declare the place a Ramsar site.
Editor’s comment: There was no reported crises in Ogoni before the military raid on February 22-23, 2016.