Last month, YNaija.com launched its Monthly Citizenship Dispatches, which explores in detail, the lives and realities of Nigerian citizens across the country.
This month, the dispatches come from the Niger Delta, where our reporters have spent weeks digging deep into a part of the country oft reported about and sadly still mis-understood.
These are the stories we will share with you daily over the next two weeks – for the voices, the issues, the realities that fellow citizens living in the Delta have dealt with, and continue to deal with every day.
On November 10, 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa, a leading Nigerian playwright and environmental activist was hanged along with and eight other Ogoni elders in execution of a judgement meted out by a military tribunal under the Sani Abacha junta.
Their crime? Daring to speak up against the environmental degradation of their land by international companies in connivance with the federal government which simply collected its rents and turned to look in the other direction.
The action angered the international community, triggering a sanction from the Commonwealth of Nations and necessitating a rebuke from Nelson Mandela, then president of South Africa.
Back home, Ogoni youth especially members of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni people (MOSOP) which Saro-Wiwa founded in 1990 realised they were not safe. So many ran away, seeking – and getting – asylum in the United States & Canada.
Among those who escaped was Mene Stephen Kpea, one of the founding fathers of MOSOP. He had helped in the drafting of the Ogoni Bill of Rights that same year and was perhaps the youngest of all the leaders at the time.
“Ken-Saro Wiwa and I were close friends”, he reminisces. “He was very instrumental to the struggle and those of us young men at the time looked up to him. Four Gokana chiefs died and the ruling head of state at the time, General Sani Abacha blamed the deaths on MOSOP. MOSOP leaders were targeted so Saro-Wiwa advised us all to escape. However, as a true leader, he himself went to the police station for questioning. John, one of the Ogoni Nine was caught in Lagos.”
As a teenager, Mene would go fishing with his bare hands; all he needed to do was step in the water or get into a canoe and get to work because fishes, crabs and periwinkles were everywhere. But since the 2008 oil spill of thousands of barrels of oil from a leaking pipeline in the area, things have changed – for the worse. The water has been contaminated, the mangrove swamps have withered, the fish are polluted and everything has been drastically impacted. One of the communities, Bodo managed to get compensation because of pressure mounted on Shell by Patrick Porobonu, one of the locals.
“We have always been primarily fishermen and farmers in this community and you have to believe me when I say there was no need for us to use nets then. Now, the river is a desert. There’s nothing there. In those days, you didn’t need to learn anything other than fishing because you could become wealthy from just fishing.”
After escaping the claws of Abacha and settling for self-exile, Kpea who in the 80s had obtained his undergraduate degree in Business Administration from Roosevelt University, Chicago, decided to further his education in the United States. He would return more than a decade later to continue the struggle, this time against the democratic government and its neglect of his people.
“Since I returned, I sneeze all the time and it takes months at a time before I get back to normal”, he laments. “The air is polluted so bad.
Now chair of MOSOP’s USA Central Working Council and paramount ruler of Mogho community, 57-year old Kpea travels back and forth between Ogoniland and Atlanta where his family resides. But he still manages to perform his duties as chief in his native land, including participating in the Federal Government’s plan to clean up the spill in the area, a project which he is skeptical about.
“I am a stakeholder in this cleanup process. When the government says it is doing cleanup, I laugh. You went there and you saw it yourself. Nothing is happening. I don’t think this government is serious about the cleanup. Even if the minister is serious about the cleanup, can she work without the help of the government she’s serving. When a spill like this happened in the Gul of Mexico, the government made things happen within a week. In a civilized country, the president could even be impeached for this.”
For Mene, beyond the cleanup – whether it happens or not – the government needs to empower the youths in Ogoniland through a long-term engagement plan to curb militancy. “When you came into Ogoniland, what government presence did you see? There is no engagement for youths any more. Now, all they do is drink and get involved in anti-social vices because they can’t fish any more.”
“The river is now a desert.”