The news of President Muhammadu Buhar’s visit to Ogoniland elicited much interests far more than any other presidential visit to the area. Expectations were high and the area was agog for the president’s visit. The event was largely seen as a reward for non-violence. It is only unfortunate that it cost the lives of an entire generation of Ogoni leadership for government to pay attention to the Ogoni situation.
The Ogoni people defied the rains and have turned out in their numbers. It was the first time we could see a commitment, though verbal, to address an aspect of the Ogoni problem. The flag-off gave hope that Ken Saro-Wiwa and his compatriots did not die in vain.
The cleanup of Ogoni is seen as an important step for us to achieve a safer society. In as much as we welcome it, we are fully aware that the pollution of our environment was aided by the Nigerian government who went as far as killing our people and leaders to protect the polluters and tied to cover-up their evils in Ogoni. An acknowledgement by those who messed up our lives and are now offering to fix an aspect of it is not enough and isn’t really such an exciting thing for us.
However, as a people whose lives have been completely disoriented by years of state sponsored repression, death and severe violations by those who ironically should protect us, the decision to clean the environment raises the hope that there could be a more people-oriented engagement that will enhance the life of the Ogoni people in a better way. Notwithstanding, our fears cannot be completely allayed by an offer by government to cleanup the mess they put in Ogoniland. Much more than an environmental cleanup will be required to build the people’s confidence in the Nigerian system. Ogoni indeed expected more from a presidential visit to a land whose history had been dominated by repression on the orders of president Buhari’s predecessors.
We and our environment are still sick, very sick from the multifarious injuries they inflicted on us. Our expectation was that the president’s visit will come with some apologies and a pronouncement on how the pains of our dehumanization will be addressed. That was not to be.
The presidential speech came without an ovation – that was because the president had spoken without touching on his plans to address the core issues affecting the Ogoni people which are essentially the conditions that led to the environmental disaster for which his coming sought to remedy.
A high point of the event as the presidential address was been read by Vice President Osinbajo was his commendation of the sacrifices of Ken Saro-Wiwa to bring joy and good life to the Ogoni people. Part of paragraph 10 of the presidential speech read as follows: “The beginning of this clean-up exercise is clear evidence that Ken Saro Wiwa and other sons of Ogoniland who fought hard for environmental justice did not fight in vain. Let this mark the beginning of the restoration not just of the environment of Ogoniland, but of peace and prosperity to the great land and people of Ogoniland.”
At this point, one would have expected the president to apologize for the 1995 hangings and pronounce a presidential pardon for the “Ogoni 9”. The president appeared not to fully understand what Saro-Wiwa, Barinem Kiobel, and the entire leadership that had been lost to the Ogoni struggle mean to us. By not decriminalizing the Ogoni nine on June 2, Vice President Osinbajo left behind an Ogoni people full of consternation while he flew to Abuja in the euphoria of his praise singers.
Also disappointing was the president’s concept of justice for the Ogoni people. In the sixth paragraph of the president’s speech, he said: “Today we are in Ogoniland, in the heart of the Niger Delta, to fulfill our promise to you,and to bring justice and succour to our people”. The president’s idea of justice and succour does not resonate with me given the fact that:
- The Ogoni cleanup is coming without sanctions against the polluters and compensation for the victims.
- Ken Saro-Wiwa and the victims of the 1995 hangings remain criminals despite their innocence even when judged by Nigerian laws. The state murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa should not have been set aside by any president visiting Ogoni with a sincere intention to bring justice and succour to the Ogoni people.
- The pollution of the Ogoni environment and a verbal commitment from the polluters to clean what they messed up does not appear to me as justice.
Nonetheless, the verbal commitment will be basis for continuous engagement to push the government into action. The flag-off is a commendable action which needs to be followed by concrete steps beyond the euphoria of fulfilling an electoral promise.
The stack realities are that the Ogoni people want concrete measures and not fanfare. These will be necessary for us to truly see our president as belonging to nobody and belonging to everybody.
Fegalo Nsuke is the Publicity Secretary of The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). He wrote from Port Harcourt, Nigeria