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Nigerian Tribune: Shell-Ogoni: No truce in sight

The Ogoni/Shell relationship does not seem to be showing any sign of improvement as recent developments have been characterised by accusations and counter-accusations. Bolaji Ogundele appraises the turn of events and the possibility of a truce.

One of the most famous issues about Nigeria, which keeps coming up like a television soap opera, is the love lost between the Ogoni people of Rivers State and the oil giant, Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC).

On a daily basis, the Ogoni nation, blessed with an expanse of oil-rich topography, trades blame and accusations with its former oil-exploring tenant, SPDC. The Ogonis seem resolute on not having anything to do with Shell again in their lives.

The relationship, which actually began several years ago, turned sour with the execution of the playwright/environmentalist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, along with eight others in November 1995, by the then military government of late General Sani Abacha. Before this climax, reports of events of the period had it that SPDC, in collaboration with the Nigerian government, unleashed mayhem on most Ogoni communities where a possibility of ‘rebellion’ was spotted.

That was the time that no Ogoni person was considered innocent, especially if he was enlightened. Many were marked for arrest by government, culminating in a season of flight into exile and the seeking of political asylum around the world. The experience of those years still linger in the average Ogoni man’s mind.

In recent times, the agitation seems to have intensified with both sides adopting new strategies to assert the validity of their viewpoints. Ogoni people maintain that the SPDC is too arrogant and irresponsible, as it pertains to its social responsibility to its host community and that its return to resume oil exploration in Ogoniland would further hurt the psyche of the people.

On the other hand, Shell has insisted, persuasively though, that it would like to return to the Ogoni fields, at least, for the security of its facilities there, which in recent times, have been attracting public attention as leakages and explosions have persistently occurred in its facilities.

The Federal Government has in the past few years shown particular concern to the Ogoni/ SPDC affair through a reconciliation stunt to facilitate the return of the company to Ogoniland. Government’s sudden appearance is reportedly prompted by Shell, in its all-out effort to ensure that it regains access to the fallow fields of Ogoniland.

But, what the government did not immediately realise was the fact that the people’s bitterness is not just against the oil company, but even against the federal structure. The Federal Government has constituted a reconciliation panel, being facilitated by Reverend Father Mathew Hassan Kukah, the then Secretary of the Oputa Panel of Inquiry, which gave prominence to the Ogoni experiences during the Abacha days.

The panel was really making a headway and all sides were looking up to it to bring the desired reprieve to the long-drawn conflict until when its facilitator, Fr. Kukah, a man who had been accorded high regards by the people because of the role he played during the Oputa Panel days and the grounds he had maintained on the issue of the release of the panel’s report, stepped on some toes in the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP).

First, MOSOP expressed its loss of faith in the entire reconciliation process, accusing government and the convener of the process, Father Kukah, of unilaterally imposing a predetermined agenda on it.

Besides that the movement said it considers the reconciliation process “dead” because, according to it, the facilitator was unable to convene meetings for a long time. So, the people lost contact with Kukah for months. The clergy had a piece of the people’s mind when he accompanied a visiting United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) team to Ogoni communities for a clean-up exercise.

During the visit of the UNEP assessment team, ahead of the real clean-up exercise, the mainstream MOSOP leadership was conspicuously absent. In another meeting of the Ogoni stakeholders held in the Government House, Port Harcourt, representatives of the various Ogoni communities, including the number one traditional ruler in the land, the Gbenemene Tai, King G.N.K Gininwa, were there. Again, MOSOP stayed away from the meeting. When the issue of the absence of personalities like the MOSOP leaders, Barrister Ledum Mitee and Dr Ben Naane, was raised, one Chief Priscilia Vikue said MOSOP is not about personalities, but about the Ogoni people, saying, “all of us here represent MOSOP”.

At the end of the meeting, Father Kukah told journalists that he and some others involved in the process had tried all they could to get the president of MOSOP, to be part of the meeting, but this was to no avail. “I was on phone with Mitee all night. But, he said he was out of the country. We have tried all we could to make sure everybody was here so that everything could go well. But, as you can see, this is as far as we can go and I guess you won’t say this is a bad attendance”, he said.

It was no surprise, however, that some two days later when MOSOP came out with a press statement, signed by its information officer, Bari’ara Kpalap, alleging that the whole process, from the Ogoni reconciliation process to the UNEP arrangement, was being sponsored by Shell. Based on this, there was no way it (peace process) could have worked against the interests of its sponsor.

“MOSOP is acutely worried that the already dead so-called Rev. Fr Matthew Kukah facilitated reconciliation process, which has failed even in the very basic criterion of facilitating one single meeting between the parties, should facilitate a so-called stakeholders meeting at which an already prepared “communiqué’ announcing a reconciliation between Shell and the Ogoni people was made.

The movement through its president, during the last Ogoni Day in Bori, announced that it has pulled out of the peace process as it “considered the dialogue process flawed and non-transparent. MOSOP opted out of it, especially in the face of the so-called clean up exercises used as smokescreen for resumption of some Shell activities. ”

But, an Ogoni man once asked, “If Shell is throwing fire on its facilities in Ogoni just because it wants to regain access to the place, has it thought about what it would come in to operate with if it ever gets readmitted or how much it would cost to re-fix the facilities that are being burnt daily?”

In any case, Shell has severally refuted allegations of “subtly dancing its way back to Ogoni through the back door”. It has also said it believes in the ongoing peace and reconciliation efforts and would not do anything to jeopardize it.

In recent times, the Federal Government has indicated its desire to increase the nation’s oil production output. This may be considered a reason why the Federal Government has been dedicated to resolving the Ogoni/Shell face-off.

Again, the people are not saying they do not want to bend. They have only been saying they are no longer comfortable with a tenant like Shell. They want a fresh oil prospector, who would be willing to enter into an understandable agreement with them.

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