Let us not forget that ecological restoration is one of the most important things the people of Ogoni have ever asked for. Now that the opportunity to accomplish that is here, no one should constitute himself or herself into a centrifugal force or a clog in the wheel of progress.
I was at Bodo for the launch of the implementation process of the United Nations Development Programme (UNEP) report on the clean-up of Ogoniland. It was indeed an historic event that has potentially ushered in the birth of what many describe as a new Ogoni. I congratulate Ogoni people; I congratulate the federal government and all partners who worked together to make that event happen. As I sat at the corner listening to the speeches, I saw the apparition of Ken Saro Wiwa and four of his kinsmen hovering in the arena. It was an electrifying moment when a man popularly known as the spirit of Ogoni recited the last words of Ken extempore before the audience. Just behind the stage where the event held is a heavily polluted creek. The imagination of the transformation of such a wasteland to a farmland is vindication of what the Ogoni heroes lived and died for.
It was heartening to learn that when the exercise is completed the flora and fauna will be regenerated for the people to return to their traditional occupations and reclaim their livelihoods. It may take thirty years or more but the mere fact that it has started is something that will keep hope alive both in Ogoniland and all over the region. Expectedly, the clean-up will be a complicated technical process. It will neither be easy nor simple. The ceremony we witnessed was just the beginning of what promises to be a very tasking endeavour. Care must be taken to ensure that the right technical choices are made, at the right cost and speed. The Federal Ministry of Environment, under the leadership of Mrs. Amina Mohammed has shown signs of preparedness but the Niger Delta people must still remain vigilant until promises are translated into concrete actions with defined timelines and verifiable milestones.
The political atmosphere in Bodo was charged on that day. Although it was clearly an event led by the federal government, I saw the efforts of the opposition party in the state to make political capital out of it. They mobilised so many of their members, although they could not get into the venue until much later. Such intrigues are normal in politics. There are some people who suggest that politics should have been removed from the ceremony and the implementation. I strongly disagree with them. The clean-up of the Niger Delta was a political promise made by President Muhammadu Buhari, then as a presidential candidate of the All Progressive Congress (APC). If after one year, he decided to fulfil his promise, he has every right to maximise the political benefit that such an event has to offer. Anyone who suggests the opposite is only being unfair or better still hypocritical. The positive example of Buhari in this one must be encouraged and emulated by other politicians.
The UNEP Report was completed and submitted to the former administration under former President Jonathan, an indigene of the Niger Delta. If he reportedly refused to implement it despite pressures from political leaders in Rivers State, the comment must be made that he squandered an opportunity. No one should therefore begrudge President Buhari. That he could not make it to the event in person but sent a representative does not weaken the political statement that was eloquently made by that outing. For me it would have been better and far more symbolic if he was present. However, by sending someone of the caliber of the vice president, he further demonstrated a high level of political will.
For me, all eyes are now on Ogoni people. Those who understand their past are waiting for them to ignite another row of divisive crises and eventually thwart the clean-up process. Such actions will amount not only to suicidal sabotage and betrayal but may simply give Shell, the federal government and other partners the excuse to back off from the exercise.
There are those who argue that the president stayed away from the event due to the death threats from the Niger Delta Avengers. Could it be true? I do not know the president in person but he does not come across as someone who will yield to a threat by a faceless group. So why will he send a representative if he was afraid? Why will the so called avengers spare the vice president if they were that powerful? Some commentators did not know that the venue of the launch was extremely well protected. I wondered what would have happened to the Avengers if they came anywhere close to Bodo on Thursday. The presence of the team from UNEP, Shell and an array of diplomats demonstrated strong international support for the clean-up which must be commended.
The communities in Ogoniland, like many oil bearing communities in Nigeria, have a history of internal disagreement amongst themselves. However, I am sure they will all realise that the clean-up is one project that they must put above their differences and unite for it to succeed. I say this because I learnt that there are some prominent Ogoni sons and daughters who may have reservations with the way a few things went during the launch or who may even begin to complain about how the constitution of the governing structures may pan out. Let us not forget that ecological restoration is one of the most important things the people of Ogoni have ever asked for. Now that the opportunity to accomplish that is here, no one should constitute himself or herself into a centrifugal force or a clog in the wheel of progress.
Even after the modalities for the clean-up have been announced, it will be impossible to get every prominent Ogoni to be on the Board of Trustees, Governing Council or the Project Coordinating Unit. The wisdom of the government is to make it representative enough so that all those who have a stake in the project can have a voice. For me, all eyes are now on Ogoni people. Those who understand their past are waiting for them to ignite another row of divisive crises and eventually thwart the clean-up process. Such actions will amount not only to suicidal sabotage and betrayal but may simply give Shell, the federal government and other partners the excuse to back off from the exercise. For once, Ogoni people should prove these naysayers wrong by coming out strongly and holding hands with one another so that this project might succeed.
I learnt that after the launch, the Niger Delta Avengers attacked one of the Shell facilities at the Forcados terminal. Two other oil wells belonging to Chevron near Dibi were also reportedly attacked with threats of more to come. How else can one describe insensitivity? How will these attacks and huge losses translate to benefits to them and their sponsors? Such cowardly actions directed at an organisation like Shell which is struggling to repair its corporate image in the Delta is reprehensible. The presence of Shell in Ogoni last Thursday was a clear demonstration that they are willing to reclaim their social license to operate in the area. It will be most reasonable to visit such a positive effort with any resistance or sabotage. I am shocked that since the mayhem started, no state governor has uttered one word. It was reported in the media that former President Goodluck Jonathan returned to the country a few days ago. One wonders why he has kept quiet as the Niger Delta keeps going up in flames daily resulting from unprovoked attacks. Though he could not implement the UNEP Report, he should not wait to be told to call these murderous avengers to order. Continuous silence from a person of his calibre and other leaders of the region render them vicariously culpable. They should speak now.
Uche Igwe is a doctoral researcher at the Department of Politics, University of Sussex, UK.