Written by Emmanuel Ogbeche

Ogoni’s Moment in the Sun

For the Ogoni people, the rays of the sun have been meaningless for decades just as downpour from the clouds has for seasons. The pernicious penetration of settled spill in the earth’s bowels had ensured that the land was no longer green; the air heavy with acidic condensate; and the waters wafting slathers of sludge. That is the sorry story of oil-rich Ogoni, Rivers State Nigeria where the paradox of resource curse assumes an eerie embodiment. 

The Ogoni narrative is a perfect example of corporatism at work in the Niger delta. The brutal state-sponsored murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa is an unforgettable highpoint of this sad tale; sadder still is the perilous conditions of natives inhabiting whatever is left of the land; and of course saddest, is the threat of annihilation awaiting generations unborn. All variables considered therefore, Ogoni is a hell-hole blessed with the curse of black gold.

Welcome to Thursday, June 2, 2016. A mood of subsumed ecstasy pervaded the air as a new era of positive expectations beckoned. Days before, Ogoni, nay Rivers State in general, had been seized of all the trappings of the arrival of many Very Important Personalities (VIPs). President Muhammadu Buhari’s advance party had climaxed preparations for the big event:  the historic launch of the Clean-up of Ogoni land destroyed by oil spills from the indecorous operations of Shell Petroleum Development Company. Even though the President eventually got represented by his vice, Yemi Osibanjo, the occasion turned out to be epochal; a moment in the sun for a land and people long confined to a combined contortion of environmental despoliation, socio-economic despondency, compounded health hazards and worst of all, a contrite spirit sustained only by the relentless agitations of activism spearheaded by groups like the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP).

Like VP Osibanjo said in a prayer before reading the President’s prepared speech at the event, the flag-off of the clean-up exercise signaled the restoration of Ogoni land in many ramifications. To the President and his All Progressives Congress (APC) political party, the flag-off was the beginning of the fulfillment of a campaign promise made during the 2015 electioneering season. But to the Ogoni people, it was a sublime signal of a forlorn hope. The expectation is that it will not be hope deferred after all. This is where the buck falls on Amina Mohammed, Buhari’s Minister of the Environment who is assigned with the onerous responsibility to drive the 30-year long $1billion remediation project to fruition. 

Although, the road map for the clean-up has been drawn by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) which is also providing substantial funding for the exercise, it is expected that Buhari’s demonstrated political will in kicking off the project is followed up strictly by the Minister, an acclaimed technocrat with reach and contacts across the international development community. The onus is on her for instance, to attract support to meet up with government’s counterpart obligation in the $1billion start-up fund for the project, especially if no provision has been made for the Ogoni clean-up in the 2016 budget.

The optimism on Mohammed’s propensity to deliver is shared by Sam Onuigbo, Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Climate Change who attended the flag-off event and was duly recognized for the commendable oversight role he has been playing in the environmental ecosystem of the country. According to him, the Minister has demonstrable resolve and capacity to see the project through if she continues to get the needed political support, which he is said is assured as far as the National Assembly is concerned.

Onuigbo is however concerned much about ensuring that the climate change component of the remediation work is strictly applied and assures that his committee will strengthen its oversight on the exercise. “The Ogoni clean-up has cross-cutting dimensions which must be taken into account and even though the entire project itself is a manifestation of the global response to push of climate change advocacy, the implementation must ensure that we do not aggravate an already difficult situation. This means that the flag-off must represent continuity and empowerment for the local community; there must be no contemplation of abandonment and all concerned partners, stakeholders and the impacted communities must join hands to see to the end of this marathon race because of the 30 years’ time frame for completion set by UNEP.”

Indeed Mohammed’s speech at the event gave the impression that she clearly understands the challenges and what is expected of her and her team as articulated above by the Member of Parliament. “I think it’s important to look at the back drop (of the Ogoni debacle). First of all, it was a campaign promise Buhari made before coming into office. We came into office in November (2015) and very quickly attended the climate change conference that lasted two weeks. So at the end of that conference, coming back in December, one of the first things we did was come straight to Ogoniland to see what this is about, because it was one of Mr. President’s campaign promises.”
Acknowledging the distrust in the minds of the Ogoni people who had expected government to act on the UNEP report released in 2011, Mohamed said further: “I think we have gone as fast as we could and with this flag off ceremony we have started delivering on our promises.” She also however, sounded a note of caution on the hoopla that has been raised in some quarters about the money for the project. She said, “We hope we will have funds managers take care of this money because $1bn is not going to be enough. When we get the $1bn we need to start the job, but we also need to use that to leverage on the funding from the budget, from other donor agencies and from other opportunities around the world.” 

Well, enough said Madam Amina Mohammed; time now to walk the talk as it would be a poor record for posterity to further aggravate the inhuman sufferings of the long-suffering people of Ogoni land. It is understandable that they will not accept any further excuses for failure or haphazard performances. It is only expected that VP Osibanjo’s prayer for restoration be more than a clergy’s admonition of faith because even the Bible affirms that faith without works is dead.
May the struggles of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues hanged in 1995 by the Sani Abacha military junta over justice for Ogoni never be in vain. May this moment in the sun translate to sustained sunrise for the weather-beaten traumatized compatriots of Ogoni land. And may the Niger Delta Avengers call off the debilitating spree of sabotage on the oil and gas infrastructure; for they unwittingly create seething scenarios of pre-June 2, 2016 Ogoni land which does no one no good.

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