Ogoni: Long walk to environmental justice

After many years of delay, the Federal Government flags off the implementation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report on Ogoniland
Ogoni-kkk-pix-2-4-6-16The flag-off of the implementation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report on Ogoniland recently is considered as a breakthrough in confronting one of the most serious environmental crisis humanity has faced in Nigeria.

Since the 1950s, Ogoni environment has suffered its share of environmental degradation occasioned by reckless activities of oil companies operating in the area. The people of Ogoni have for decades contended with environmental degradation that has adversely affected their health, drinking water, farming, hunting and fishing, which are vital aspects of their lives and identity.

Following decades of widespread environmental pollution and degradation arising from poorly regulated oil and gas exploration in the country, the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), the apex organisation of the Ogoni ethnic nationality, was formed in 1990 by the Ogoni elite, with the mandate to campaign non-violently to protect the environment of the Ogoni People, seek social, economic and physical development for the region, protect the cultural rights and practices of the Ogoni people and seek appropriate rights of self-determination for the Ogoni people.

The fight against environmental degradation of Ogoniland started receiving global attention in December 1992, when Ogoni elites comprising the late environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Professor Ben Naanen, and  Ledum Mitee under the aegis of MOSOP, issued a 30-day demand notice to Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) to end the abuse of their environment. This demand notice was followed almost immediately by series of non-violent activities including the Ogoni protest of January 4, 1993 in what was regarded as the Ogoni Day in commemoration of the declaration of 1993 as the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People.

Following incessant protests against its operations, by the first quarter of 1993, Shell withdrew from Ogoniland, citing the hostile attitude of the Ogoni community to the company’s activities. Amid the series of campaign against oil companies operating in Ogoni, tragically on May 21, 1994, four Ogoni leaders were murdered in Gio. Saro-Wiwa, Mitee and a number of other MOSOP leaders were arrested and accused of involvement in the murders.

In February 1995, after eight months of detention without charges, Saro-Wiwa and the other Ogoni leaders were brought before a special tribunal, established by the late General Sani Abacha-led military government.

On October 31, 1995, Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders were sentenced to death by the Special Tribunal. In blatant defiance of numerous appeals by the international community, Saro-Wiwa and his eight Ogoni colleagues were executed on November 10, 1995. The killing of the Ogoni nine which was seen as ploy by the government to silence the Ogoni agitation for environmental justice and economic inclusion, triggered an international outrage that further gave impetus to Ogoni demand for environmental justice. The death of Saro Wiwa, which exposed the unmatched military repression and horrendous human rights abuses in Ogoniland, spurred the United Nations to create the position of the Special Rapporteur on Nigeria in 1997 and appointed Mr. Soli Sorabjee to the position.

Mr. Sorabjee in his report to the 48th session of the then United Nations Commission on Human Rights in March 1998 recommended that the Nigeria government undertake an independent environmental study of Ogoniland. This was the setting that led to the invitation extended to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in October 2006 by the Federal Government within the context of the Ogoni-Shell Reconciliation Process to carry out the environmental assessment of Ogoniland.

In adherence to the United Nation’s demand for environmental audit, the President Olusegun Obasanjo administration evoked the polluters pay principle which compelled Shell to cough out $9.5 million for a detailed study of the Ogoni environment and UNEP was contracted to carry out a detailed assessment of the environment.

On August 4, 2011, UNEP representatives presented a detailed report which revealed widespread havoc wreaked on Ogoni environment to then President Goodluck Jonathan. Unfortunately, Jonathan failed to implement the report despite the fact that his administration had set up the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Programme (HYPREP) which is contrary to UNEP recommendations.

However, in the course of his campaigns for the 2015 presidential election, President Muhammadu Buhari who was then the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC) promised to address the Ogoni question if given the mandate. It was in fulfilment of his promise that the implementation of the UNEP report was flagged off by President Buhari who was represented by the Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo on June 2 at Bodo Town in Gokana Local Government Area of Rivers State.

He regretted that oil exploration and production in Ogoniland and the Niger Delta region had negatively affected the ecosystem. Delivering the president’s speech, Osinbajo, said:  “I recall the time as a military Head of State when I visited Bodo Town in Ogoniland. During that visit, I commissioned a large fishpond and planted a tree as a sign of government’s concern for the environment. Unfortunately, since then, the degradation of land, water and air has done huge damage to the fragile ecosystem of the Niger Delta, especially Ogoniland.”

Osinbajo said that the Buhari administration was determined to right the wrongs of the past, where the people of Ogoni were treated unfairly and their environment unduly degraded. “Today, we are in Ogoniland, in the heart of the Niger Delta to fulfil our promise to you and to bring justice and succour to our people,” Osinbajo said.

The Minister of Environment, Mrs Amina Muhammed, said the clean-up of Ogoniland would require transparency, accountability and proper representation of the people.

The Executive Director of UNEP, Mr. Achim Steiner, said that the task of producing the report was a great risk taken by the UNEP team but thanked the Obasanjo administration for taking the initiative to start the process of cleaning up the devastated Ogoni environment. He said UNEP was deeply committed to standing by the Federal Government and the people of Ogoniland to ensure the success of the clean-up process.

The President of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), Mr. Legborsi Pyagbara, thanked President Buhari and  all those who supported “the Ogoni cause for the flag-off.”

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