Opinion: Is this the end of agony for the Ogonis?

By ‘Kayode Oyero

Appreciating good literatures is a necessity for lovers of arts. Having read his debut novel, Waiting for an Angel, whose opening chapter clinched the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing in 2001 and Measuring Time, his second novel, one cannot but look forward to his next mind-blowing release. Helon Habila is one of those writers with enchanting and exceptional storytelling abilities. I bet you may lack the will to resist his poetically lucid prose should you mistakenly read a page of his literature.

So, when he finally stormed the literary scene again after a long silence with the comeback novel, Oil on Water, I was more than willing to go on another rich storytelling safari. Heard and read about Oil on Water on the internet when it was first published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton in 2010 but the book was not within reach. So, you can imagine how elated I was when Parresia Publishers Limited released Oil on Water in Nigeria in 2012

Being an undergrad then with paltry allowance, a sacrifice was made to get a copy of the book. I remember the mixed feelings of joy and grief that masked my face that afternoon as I handed out N1500 to the cashier at the Lagos State University Bookshop. Joy because it is Helon Habila and grief because the stomach would wail in the days to come. The stomach did not wail eventually – compulsory fasting came to the rescue. Embarking on this kind of spiritual exercise was a norm then. Who was I deceiving?

Oil on Water is a hit. The plot is not just captivating and intriguing; it is fluid too – you’ll find yourself gliding through the pages like a Skater, you may slip if care is not taken. No wonder the book clinched the 2011 Best Novel, Commonwealth Writers Prize and the 2012 Orion Environmental Book Award.

Habila was picturesque. His choice of words achieved a graphical effect in painting the tragic difficulties that the unmanaged blessing called oil cursed the people of the Niger-Delta. For instance on page eight, the protagonist, Rufus told of his experience while venturing into the dangerous terrain of Irikefe Island, a militant zone in search of a missing expatriate:

“The atmosphere grew heavy with the suspended stench of dead matter. We followed a bend in the river and in front of us we saw dead birds draped over tree branches, their outstretched wings black and slick with oil; dead fish bobbed white-bellied between tree roots… In the village center we found a communal well. Eager for a drink, I bent under the wet, mossy pivotal beam and peered into the well’s blackness, but a rank smell wafted from its hot depths and slapped my face; I reeled away, my head aching from the encounter, something organic, perhaps human, lay dead and decomposing down there, it stench mixed with that unmistakable smell of oil. At the other end of the village a little water trickled towards the big river where we had left our boat. The patch of grass growing by the water was suffocated by a film of oil, each blade covered with blotches like the liver spots on a smoker’s hand.”

Habila did a fantastically laudable job of putting words together to form a vivid portrait of the destruction wrecked by oil on the Delta, no doubt about that. But you’ll agree with me that traditional photography or direct sight contact is more convincing and real than elegantly coiffed string of words used to conjure images. I have no intention to degrade Habila’s stylistics efforts in the amazing novel though; my inference is just that “seeing is believing!”

So, it was shocking and irritating on May 31 2016 when I watched Channel news at 10 ran a news feature on Ogoniland in Rivers State. To say the sights were awry and horrible is to say the least: marshy hectares of land and kilometers of black rivers and creeks with glossy surfaces that were turned acidic and sulfurous by toxic hydrocarbon release and oil spills. These corrosions stifled aquatic survival and crop yield thereby paralyzing Ogonis’ ecological and economical systems of subsistent farming and fishing.

Ignorance, negligence and nonchalance may have been responsible for the environmental degradation of Ogoniland as drilling firms dumped industrial waste into the Delta river. This practice is totally unconventional unlike in the developed countries such as the United State that require mud from drilling to be enclosed in containment well or land fill to prevent seepage. The Nigerian government erred in this regard with her failure to have enacted codes that forbade disposal of drilling waste into the environment.

Consequently, it had been all-round pollution for the Ogonis. None is spared between soil, air and water. The air is densely polluted by indiscriminate flaring; the soil destroyed by oil seeps; underground water contaminated and rain water unfit for drinking because it falls as acid rain. Confirming this, scientists of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in a recent report puts it that Ogoniland had been drinking water contaminated with high levels of hydrocarbons such as benzene – a terrible carcinogenic organic which is responsible for the endemic cause of cancer, asthma and lung diseases amongst them.

The situation in Ogoniland is pathetic. It is shamefully paradoxical that the host community of the world richest oil reserve is going through such horror.

Also, asides ecological, economical and health damages, the oil spill may have affected the spirituality of the Ogonis as they practice animism and worship the river as a god.

In an effort to stop the abuse done on their community, the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) was formed with poet Ken Saro-Wiwa as president. The movement demanded environmental justice of Ogoni through a number of peaceful protests. MOSOP succeeded in forcing Shell Company out of Ogoni. This is quite understandable considering the frustration-aggression theory. But even despite the feat the already installed pipes that convey fuel to over one hundred pumping stations across the country and pipelines still crisscrossed Ogoniland. The pipelines run over farms soiling it with oil leaks.

The people of Ogoni are worthy of double honour. Blood have been shed in the struggle to gain restoration for the ecosystem of Ogoniland. What would one say about the fate of the founding fathers of MOSOP like Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others who were guillotined by State instruments of oppression on November 10 1995? The Ogonis are to be saluted for the courage of not abdicating the area for greener pastures somewhere. They are to be hailed for their tenacity and faith that there is light at the end of their tunnel.

The President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration to start-up the clean-up of the area and returning the ecosystem is a welcome development much anticipated. Watching the Minister of Environment, Hajiya Amina Mohammed as she compassionately disclosed the presidency’s commitment and determination in restoring the Ecosystem that evening was impressive – after which was the Vice-President Oshinbajo launching. But the concern now is that after the whole media hype, would this not be one of the easier said than done projects? Would this not be a talk and no work white elephant project like the Goodluck Jonathan’s Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project (HYPREP) established to oversee the clean-up of Ogoniland but which was never flagged off?

The PMB administration has started even though Environmentalists forecast that it may take thirty whooping years to restore the land. One can only hope that this much announced start won’t turn out to be one of the many well-publicized but less-implemented government’s projects. Not only the Ogonis eagerly awaits full implementation of the clean-up, the whole of Nigeria is waiting. We are watching.


Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

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