Ledum Mitee, the outgoing president of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), warns that applying cosmetic measures to resolve longstanding problems of the Niger Delta will only guarantee a renewal of unrest in the near future. Osasu Obayiuwana interviewed him.
Q: Have your people’s long years of campaigning for better treatment from the oil industry brought any meaningful change?
A: There is the nagging sense of disappointment that the fundamentals of the problem have been barely touched. The government and the oil companies seem to focus their attention on the most violent segments of society [which have taken up arms to protest against the exploitation of their resources]. It has led the people, who have pursued the non-violent option, to develop the feeling that nothing can be gained from pursuing a peaceful method of trying to resolve the problems of the Niger Delta.
Q:What is your response to the UNEP report?
A: To the extent that it has vindicated the points and the issues that we have raised, about a degraded environment, about a devastated environment, about the level of oil pollution, we feel great about it. But beyond that, we think it has taken four years and $10m to produce this report. For us, putting that money into a clean-up effort would have been a lot better… It did not take a UNEP report for British Petroleum (BP) to clean up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. So, for us, what would make a lot of difference is the actual clean-up of the environment.
Q:Would you say that the Nigerian situation is made worse because government agencies have failed to effectively poliece the oil companies which operate within its shores?
A: Absolutely. In the Gulf of Mexico, President Obama visited the area several times and put pressure on BP to expedite the clean-up of the area. The head of BP had to resign. In Nigeria, you would not even have a local government chairman visit the area or show convern about the people’s plight. As the UNEP report clearly stated, Shell did not only not adhere to its own standards but also the laws of Nigeria under which it is supposed to operate.
If an oil company is found to have repeatedly violated the laws under which is it supposed to operate, the federal government is supposed to revoke its prospecting licence. That has never happened here.
Q:President Goodluck Jonathan and the oil minister are both from the Niger Delta. Could their presence in government be pivotal on this matter, as they ought to understand the problems of the region better than most?
A: It is an irony that we do have these people in government. I can imagine that some of them have long lived with these levels of injustice and are no longer shocked by it. It may be someone who has not experienced these issues that may be shocked by the situation and take resolute steps to resolve the problems. Beyond that, it is a systemic problem, so it does not matter where those in power come from.
Wikileaks disclosed how Shell has infiltrated the ranks of government and was able to directly influence the decisions made in this country. As you may know, the current minister of petroleum worked for Shell.
Q:You were part of a committee that prepared a government-commissioned report on the state of the Niger Delta, which was released long before the UNEP report. What are your memories of that assignment?
A: Frustrating but also exciting. The idea of the committee came up because of the problems of the Niger Delta. I was unanimously elected as the chair of the committee by the members of the committee. I believe the government did not expect such a show of unanimity by the members. Frankly, we did not get the level of co-operation from the government which was needed to carry out the assignment we were given.
They were unable to give us any of the past reports on the Niger Delta that we needed to examine. We had to find them on our own.
After we had completed our work, we did not have the funds to pring the report. We printed 200 copies with out own money, and as soon as we finished the deliberations, we were looked our of our offices and had to operate from the sitting room of a friend in Abuja. The UNDP also helped us out with some money. Our report is the last bus stop. What they do with it will determine the future of the Niger Delta. The way in which the so-calledo amnesty programme was executed looks like a deal between militants and the federal government, excluding the peace-loving but deprived people of the Niger Delta.
Q:Shell has not drilled for oil in Ogoniland since 1993, so they argue that whatever is happening now has nothing to do with them… They say your people have sabotaged pipelines and engaged in illegal refining activities, contributing to the pollution in the area. Is this true?
A: It is true that pipelines are being vandalised, as well as there being cases of illegal refining of crude oil, but, as I always insist, these are very small issues and are no excuse for Shell’s failure to maintain those pipelines. And who benefits from the pipeline vandalisation? Is it the farmer, who never gets the compensation that makes up for what the oil pollution destroys? Or is it the people whose drinking water is polluted?
Q:The government committee set up to look into the UNEP report had no person from Ogoniland within it. Does that surprise you?
A: The question to ask is, what exactly is the committee supposed to do? UNEP has released a report and made recommendations. The urgency of implementing them is clear. What the government has done is to set up a committee that speaks to itself. The best way to escalate a problem or not resolve it, is to exclude those most affected by the problems, from any discussion concerning such problems.
Q:Is the decision of some Ogoni communities to sue Shell in the UK and US courts (with compensation awarded to the particular Ogoni people that instituted the actions) a reaction to the lack of confidence in the Nigerian judicial system?
A: It is a reaction to acts of racism by the oil companies, who have been doing in Nigeria what they know they can never get away with in their home countries. They are far more sensitive to public opinion and respectful of the judicial systems in their own countries than they are in Nigeria. This has left us with the enticing option of suing them in their countries of origin. The legal system in Nigeria and the room for filibustering can be very frustrating indeed.
In the UK, the Bodo community took Shell to court for equipment failure and Shell has admitted liability but is insisting on paying compensation based on Nigerian law and not British law. So, that is where the matter is. Again, it is racism at play, because if they settle according to British law, they will have to pay heavy damages, whilst under Nigerian law, they will pay peanuts. Is the life of a person in England worth more than that of an Ogoni?
Q:What future do you for the people of Ogoni? Do you think the environment will ever be restored?
A: The protest against the injustice in the Niger Delta will certainly continue and it will force the Nigerian government at some point to deal with these issues. It might not be in our generation, because looking at the type of government that we have now, unless things happen to ensure that the electoral system can produce leaders who are really accountable to the people and are free and fair, a real solution will be difficult to get.