The Ogoni Lessons of the Past 30 Years – by Fegalo Nsuke

Ogoni is one of the world’s most celebrated cases of state-sponsored repression. Against all odds, the people have persevered in the search for justice, equity and basic freedoms deserving of all humanity. Indeed, it has been a painful account that in our own country, our government ordered a military crackdown that left some 4,000 people dead, thousands of others went through torture, rape, brutal detentions which were supervised by Major Paul Okuntimo, the commander of the military task force at the time.

Trouble started in 1958 when the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited, Nigeria’s subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, commenced commercial crude oil exploration in the area. By the 1990s, the situation in Ogoni had become unbearable as the consequences had become far devastating on the environment and the people. 

A UN report released in 2011 stated that benzene contamination in underground water was 800 times more than the UN tolerant levels. Shell, the company responsible for the pollution, had compromised its standards and actually encouraged an ecological disaster in Ogoni, violating ethical business practices and global standards acceptable in the industry.

In 2017, a report by the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland found that of the 16,000 infants killed within their first month of life, 11,000 infants would have survived their first year if it weren’t for the pollution caused by the oil spills. The Ogoni people have certainly become endangered by the corporate irresponsibility of Shell. These are the very difficult conditions in which the Ogoni people live.

In 1993, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) led a series of protests which forced Shell to exit the area. The company consciously understood that it was no longer wanted by the people. In response, the Nigerian government deployed its military against Ogoni civilians who were only protesting neglect and demanding greater attention to deal with the social problems they faced.

The military repression left some 4,000 people dead, nine of whom were hanged on November 10, 1995 –  including,  Baribor Bera, Saturday Doobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbokoo, Felix Nuate, John Kpuinen, Dr. Nubari Kiobel and Ken Saro-Wiwa.

These deep injuries ruptured the relationship of the Ogoni people with Shell and made reconciliation not worth considering. Understandably, the fact that Shell funded the repression was extremely painful and eroded every possibility of trust. MOSOP eventually decided that never in Ogoni history should Shell Petroleum be given another opportunity to unleash their ruthlessness on Ogoni. 

Rather than submit to the repressive tactics of Shell, the protests intensified and In mid 1993,  Shell suspended its Ogoni operations, practically exiting the area. 

The company was however not deterred. It later launched an Ogoni reentry program causing a shift in the focus of our struggle towards resisting Shell’s reentry. The success of the resistance against Shell made Ogoni celebrated and successive leaders of MOSOP were measured by how much they could sustain the resistance against the resumption of oil production.

Unfortunately, MOSOP got carried away by the euphoria of its successes against Shell’s reentry schemes which became an emerging philosophy of the struggle. Its leadership became too scared to discuss what should be done with the oil as “no to oil resumption” became the new maxim of our struggle.

On assuming office in January 2019, I began a process of reorientation. I very well understood the sensitivity of the matter but I also knew that as a leader my primary task is to solve problems and not escalate them. I needed to lead the people into attaining the development goals they sought and disabuse their minds against an absolute “no to oil resumption” which was anti-developmental. 

So our initial engagement took us to every Ogoni community where we presented and discussed the proposal for the operation of an Ogoni Development Authority. We moved further to the various kingdoms and to the national executive committee of MOSOP. Finally, on the 27th day of September,  2020, the Central Committee approved the operationalization of the Ogoni Development Authority (ODA) as an acceptable pathway which when implemented will permanently resolve the Ogoni problem. 

I should admit that it has not been an easy task and it is no surprise that in the history of our struggle, no president of MOSOP took the risk of calling for the resumption of oil production in Ogoni.

The Central Committee’s approval of the ODA provided an actionable framework, within the context of Nigerian laws, to pursue the Ogoni development goals which motivated and justified the launch of the Ogoni struggle.

Amongst others, the ODA primarily prescribes a fair allocation of the profits from natural resource extraction in Ogoni to be set aside for Ogoni development. This guarantees that the Ogoni people can solve critical social problems like job creation, water provision, electricity, road construction, education, healthcare services, security, and more.

The ODA is a win-win for all parties, namely the Nigerian government, the Ogoni people and the oil industry as it will unlock a proven daily oil production capacity of 500,000 barrels into the Nigerian economy. Estimated at $40 Million per day, that will increase government funding and guarantee a sustainable flow of funds into the development of Ogoni.

This is the path we have chosen. We are convinced that it is in the best interest of all parties to embrace this initiative as an acceptable path to a permanent resolution of this very costly three decade conflict. We are committed to it, we will vehemently defend it because It is our life and our hope to rescue Ogoni from the strangulating pains of the past.

I urge all parties to demonstrate their commitment to peace by accepting this modest proposal. The successes we have made in pushing community acceptance for this development initiative is an opportunity we must all take..

Ogoni Must Survive!

Fegalo Nsuke is President of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). He wrote from Lagos, Nigeria.

February 24, 2024

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