/ 1 February 2024

The Ogoni victory against Shell in Nigeria is hollow

Gettyimages 1229563760 594x594
Environmental activists from Extinction Rebellion protest using a tripod and noose outside the Shell Centre on the 25th anniversary of the killings of the Ogoni Nine on 10 November 2020 in London, United Kingdom. (Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images)

Over the past 30 years, we have fought for our lives. Like a people pushed to the wall, our fight was for life or death. We recorded victories but we have most certainly not been able to celebrate our successes because they haven’t come with the joy and freedom we seek.

Despite its high cost to human lives and material resources, we defeated the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited (SPDC), significantly halting the rate at which our environment was being polluted, establishing our identity as a distinct ethnic nationality in Nigeria and bringing the plight of our people to the front burner.

These and other milestones are commendable but, more than that, we need to break free and bring to reality the gains of the past three decades. No matter our achievements we, as a people, have been unable to celebrate our bravery because we are like the gallant soldiers trapped in the scene described in Plato’s allegory of the cave.

It describes a people trapped in a dark cave, unable to find their way. Suddenly a light enters the cave and their shadows are cast on the wall. In their excitement, they begin to chase the shadows, thinking they are the way to freedom. Oblivious of the real source of the light, which would get them out of the cave, they struggle in vain chasing shadows while the light and the way to freedom are right behind them.

This is the truth about the Ogoni situation today where, after a 30-year battle with Shell, we are failing to translate our gains into practical benefits that can lead us to our development goals. Instead, we continue to chase shadows that lead us nowhere but to perpetual enslavement in the dark cave. 

The Ogoni struggle came with a set of demands outlined in the Ogoni Bill of Rights. Published in 1990, during the military era, it recognised the ease of getting things done through military decrees. 

Among others, the bill demanded fair and proportionate control of Ogoni resources by the Ogoni people and summed up the demands in a traditional Ogoni economic principle called “Mii Deekor”. Mathematically, Mii Deekor represents 20% of profits, or derivatives, which is paid to the owner of an estate by its managers weekly. This demand is summarised in the bill as the desire of the Ogoni people to control their affairs.

Today, Nigeria is a constitutional democracy. Whether we are getting it right or not, decisions about self-determination for the Ogoni people, resource control and several others are reserved for parliament.

The question is whether the Ogoni can get parliament on their side. The answer may sound pessimistic but the reality is that out of Nigeria’s 109 senators, Ogoni have just one and out of 360 parliamentarians in the Federal House of Representatives, Ogoni have just two. Conclusively, we can say that the Ogoni simply do not have the numbers to have any effect in parliament.

Therefore, pushing for the implementation of the bill in today’s Nigeria is unattainable as our parliamentary representation makes up less than 0.5% of parliamentary votes.

A realistic approach

The limitations on enforcing the bill compelled a rethink. Thirty years have gone by and there is clearly no end to the suffering. Our struggle has been stalemated or diminished into a business which only benefits a few individuals. 

A former president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop) captured this frustration when he declared: “We should be grateful that we got the clean-up out of our struggle.” His dissatisfaction and helplessness reflects the stalemate we have experienced with our struggle which seems to have been reduced to a mere $1 billion cleanup programme.

On assuming office as president of Mosop on 1 January 2019, and understanding that leadership is about solving problems and not escalating them, I commenced consultations on the way forward, focusing on crafting an actionable framework that is enforceable within the context of present Nigerian laws.

On 27 September 2020, after a process of reviews at the chapter, kingdom and national executive levels, the central committee of Mosop agreed on a proposal for the operationalisation of the Ogoni Development Authority as an acceptable path to permanently resolve the Ogoni issue.

Rather than call for the creation of another agency, we sought to achieve our goals by getting a reasonable proportion of Ogoni resources to be committed to Ogoni development and to ensure that the flow of funds into the development process is guaranteed, sustainable and protected from failure.

Mosop has consistently committed to this process. This is our deal and we will defend it in the best way possible.

We solicit the support of the Nigerian state to get this done and to pave the way for us all to celebrate an end to three decades of stagnation, build the future of the Ogoni and boost the Nigerian economy with an estimated $40 billion daily oil production revenue that has been left in the ground of our Ogoni land for the past 30 years because of the mismanagement of the oil conflicts between Shell and the Ogoni people.

Our proposal is a win-win for all parties. But the government and the oil industry need to make the required and expected compromises to drive the sustainable development we envisage in the interest of our country and the Ogoni people. We have paid the price and there can be no justification for denying us the good life we seek.

On the part of the Ogoni people, our travails are a compelling reason to support this honest and genuine initiative to win a better future for our people, our children and our children’s children. Failing to achieve these goals would mean we have chosen to disregard the sacrifices of all those who committed their lives and resources to bring us to where we are today.

We have fought a good, though very costly, fight. We also need to turn away from the shadows and face the realities of today’s Nigeria.

The reasons for which we launched the Ogoni struggle and the development we seek will only be attainable when we are able to get Ogoni resources to drive the process. That has been our ultimate goal and it is time to bring this dream into reality.

Fegalo Nsuke is the president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People.