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Solving a huge problem

By Donu Kogbara
THE recent United Nations Environmental Programme, UNEP, report – which accused Shell and the government of failing to protect my Ogoni homeland from chronic pollution – has generated bitterness as well as satisfaction.

Bitterness because most of us did not know the full extent of the damage to our waterways, ancestral lands and the air we breathe until the report became public and revealed a level of devastation that is absolutely shocking – UNEP categorically stated that Ogoniland requires the biggest oil clean-up in history and that the process will take about three decades and cost at least $1 billion.

Satisfaction because Shell and the government have no choice but to accept the authenticity of a serious scientific study – the most detailed to ever be conducted in the Niger Delta region – that comes from such a credible source.

Foreign media

Satisfaction because the report has attracted the attention of the foreign media, which means that it is more likely to be acted on.

Joe Brock, a Reuters journalist who has visited Ogoniland, has just sent me an article in which he highlighted the extremely disturbing fact that in 10 out of the l5 areas that the UNEP team toured – areas that Shell claimed to have completely sanitised – high levels of pollution were still found.

Brock, who interviewed a fisherman whose livelihood and morale have been totally undermined by the situation, also points out that: “In one community, drinking water was contaminated with benzene, a substance known to cause cancer, at levels over 900 times above World Health Organisation guidelines”.

OK, so what next?

Whenever I discuss this burning issue with fellow Ogonis, feelings run high and scepticism prevails. Much as many of us would like to believe that Dr Goodluck Jonathan will, as the first-ever President from an oil-producing zone, bend over backwards to ensure that this mess is sorted out as quickly as possible, we are not l00 per cent sure that he will behave like a genuinely concerned Big Brother.

It didn’t help the collective mood when Mr President constituted a Special Committee on Oil Pollution in Ogoniland last week and didn’t see fit to include a single Ogoni on the membership list….an omission that is both mystifying and depressing, given that there are several well-qualified and responsible Ogoni sons and daughters who have what it takes to play substantial advisory roles.

Holistic review

It is difficult not to take offence when the Head of State decides, for reasons best known to himself, that no member of an ethnic group that has already been so brutally short-changed needs to be part of a Committee that was set up to “undertake a holistic review of the UNEP report…and make recommendations to the Federal Government on immediate and long-term remedial actions”.

Meanwhile, NNPC – which has been mandated to replace Shell in Ogoniland, via its subsidiary, the Nigerian Petroleum Development Corporation, NPDC – is establishing its own committees to investigate the Ogoni Problem…but has yet to officially reach out to the suffering people who own the problem.

NNPC may mean well and I’m told that it will undoubtedly communicate with Ogonis in the near future. But NNPC doesn’t seem to realise that establishing in-house committees before you have spoken to those who will be directly affected by your policies is like putting the cart before the horse.

Are all Ogonis intellectually and emotionally immature children who should meekly content themselves with quietly waiting on the sidelines until the “adults” in the Villa and NNPC eventually tell them what the Action Plan is?

When I privately complained about the current modus operandi to a friend who works in government, I was reminded that NNPC has Ogoni employees and was assured that these employees will be invited to robustly express their views during the period when discussions are still at the purely in-house stage.

But none of the Ogonis in NNPC are particularly senior; and we all know that it is very hard to be fearlessly frank in front of your bosses…, especially if your bosses are typical Naija Ogas and Madames who are not good at listening!

Is it too much to ask that independent Ogoni leaders – who don’t depend on NNPC for their incomes or promotion prospects – be invited to participate, from day one, in crucial debates and in all aspects of the decision-making journey?

Right now, there is a strong suspicion that the NNPC committees will be too busy approving generous allowances for themselves to sincerely focus on our pains. This suspicion may be utterly unfair, but Nigerians have (understandably) become so cynical about government that they usually assume the worst.

Unnecessary acrimony

I urge – nay, beg! – Mr President to drastically rethink the way the government handles its Ogoni agenda if he wishes to avoid unnecessary acrimony.

Thanks to the uncompromising political and environmental activism that the late Ken Saro-Wiwa initiated, Shell became an international pariah and was compelled to abandon its exploration and production activities in Ogoniland in 1993. And many Ogonis are saying that NPDC will not succeed in taking over from Shell in a harmonious manner unless existing tensions are eliminated.

Respectful and honest communication is the key to progress within this context. Innovation will also be useful. Ogonis, all Niger Deltans and all Nigerians are haunted by the mistakes of the past. And it is time for our rulers to engage in some creative thinking and get away from the drearily unimaginative and ultimately ineffective approaches that they have always foisted upon us.

It’s not just about oil or the Niger Delta. It’s about everything and everyone. In all four corners of this country, citizens yearn for fresh ideas and exciting new implementation strategies…and are desperate to be inspired and empowered.

The Ogoniland challenge, if it is managed with intelligence, humility and the right kind of toughness, can gradually become a socio-economic development triumph that can be dynamically replicated in other geographical zones.

Jonathan could do with a lasting legacy and I hope he takes steps that will enable him to be hailed from the rooftops both here and all over the globe.

The world is watching with keen interest. A few words are enough for the wise.


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