Last week end I was in the Niger Delta. As I drove up from the PH International Airport airport, Omagwa, towards Elele in my attempt to connect the East -West Road to head on to Yenagoa, capital of Bayelsa State, I was startled. First there was this long traffic back up and I was wondering what the matter was. Then I noticed that People were getting down from their buses and cars and moving forward with with their two hands raised. What was the matter? We inched on and I looked on the other side of the Road and saw a sea of people walking down towards where we were also with their hands raised, and then a picture flashed through my mind. The picture of the civil war when people walked through several check points with their hands raised up along this same axis. Is there another war?

We kept moving gradually until we could see the police and military barricades on the highway made with drums and sandbags. I then confirmed that it was indeed the checkpoint on the highway that was causing the traffic jam. But why would everybody get down and raise their hands to walk through the check point? When we drew level with the officers at the checkpoint, they were utterly angry with our driver. They reprimanded him for not dropping us to walk the nearly one kilometer distance with our hands raised in the air. They threatened the driver and the two of us who were passengers in the car. They considered detaining us for failing to come down and walk through the check point with our hands raised. And then my mind flashed again to a similar picture early last year when I visited the North East of Nigeria- Bauchi, Yobe and Borno. We passed through several military checkpoints. We saw people raising  their hands but no one asked us in our private car to step down and raise our hands. I began to imagine what the people of Gbaramatu Kingdom or other areas near the oil installations would be going through . And I then wondered . Is the Niger Delta about to become another war theatre to be ravaged by militancy as the North East was ravaged by insurgency? What is wrong with Nigeria?

Talking about ravage, I realized that the Niger Delta has been ravaged several times over. During the Civil war, the Niger Delta was ravaged. During the first round of Militancy( 2005-2009),the place was ravaged. But apparently the greatest of all the ravages is the one that has resulted from the exploration and production of crude oil from the region. That has occurred through accidents, negligence and outright sabotage. That's why all people of conscience were happy that the Federal Government and Shell Oil company have finally decided to implement the UNEP report. We congratulate the OGONI People for their steadfastness and for not letting the labours of their heroes past go in vain. The zeal of the Hon Minister of Environment to see the implementation launched was palpable. And to God be all the glory.

But I have a few worries. First is to say that what is good for the geese is good for the gander. There are many parts of the Region that are despoiled like OGONI. The FGN needs to reassure everyone that what is about to happen in Ogoni will be extended to all. Often,by government's  acts of omission, we seem to suggest that people must get into one form of struggle or the other, before government pays attention to them. We need a comprehensive and phased implementation plan to ensure total clean up of the Niger Delta. Second is that the clean up can not go hand in hand with the killing of the same people we say we are cleaning their environment. It may not be obvious to many that some of the unarmed civilians killed in cold blood in Onitsha,Asaba and elsewhere in the South East/ South South Regions on the 30th of May during the commemoration  of the Biafra day  were from the Niger Delta. It is tragic that young people who were unarmed and were in peaceful procession would be killed by our security forces while they have been incapable of arresting one of the Avengers who are blowing up pipelines and oil installations. What is the lesson from this? The unarmed killed and the armed untouched. I pray that none of the unarmed protesters will latch on this gross misnomer. We condemn armed or violent protests but democracy allows civil protests for what ever cause. Suppression of open civil protest often leads to violent secret protests.

But truly my greatest worry is that we may bungle this OGONI clean up project and end up creating more unhappiness that we set out to heal. This worry arises from our past history, where we have shown crass inability to handle projects of this size. First worry is, where is the money to do the clean up? Has Shell provided the 1billion dollars? Has it been lodged in our Single treasury account or with the UN? I am asking, because after the fanfare of the launch, the OGONI People will begin to ask, especially as soon as the pace of work slows down. Second, the 25-30 years time period to complete the clean up is rather long.  It will span over several regimes. Who can guarantee continuity and sustainability over different regimes and different parties? New regimes even of the same Party are known to abandon projects of the previous administration. How do we hedge against this likelihood? Third is how far have we aligned this clean up with the real need of the OGONI People which is how to come out of poverty at all levels. If it will take 25 years to clean up, what would the poor folks be doing in the interim? And if the truth must be told, most of the people campaigning for the clean up, actually are asking for economic empowerment. They want money in their pockets. So adequate financial provisions must be made to empower the people, including their leaders. Other wise, sooner than later , the cry may change : Na clean up we go chop?. Then accusations and counter accusations and the blame game which may flare up in another round of struggle. I pray and hope that this does not happen.

  Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa OFR 


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