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Letter from Rivers

The Nigerian community where death reigns

In Goi, a community in Ogoni-land, birds rarely chirp and the smell from rotten oil chases away living things

Chief Eric Barizaa Dooh says no one paid attention to the Ogoni crisis until it was too late.

Chief Eric Barizaa Dooh says no one paid attention to the Ogoni crisis until it was too late.

Original Photo:  George Osodi

Chief Eric Barizaa Dooh is the Lah-Bon, the paramount ruler of Goi, a community in Ogoni-land. But he doesn’t live there. The traditional stool, Gbere Saako, which is one of the few hereditary royal stools in Ogoni-land, now resides in Giokoo, 3.5km away from Goi. Because, in Goi, birds rarely chirp and the soil is soaked in the stench of death. After successive oil spills, the basin-like community, is now a wasteland. Recently, a tiny fish was caught around its shores. The fish’s belly was filled with lumpy substances that had the colour of caked crude oil. Goi’s houses, town-halls, farmlands, have been long abandoned. It is a ghost town.

Chief Dooh lives in Bodo City, a 10 minutes motorcycle ride away from Goi and he teaches at Community Secondary School, Mogho. In 2004, he lost his father’s business – some 20 travel-boats and a bakery – in a fire triggered by a failed pipeline. When he visits Goi, he wears a health mask and grieves at the devastation. The crocodiles, which used to be a symbol of worship for the people, have disappeared. Chief Dooh believes this is a sign that the gods, too, have left.

These days, Chief Dooh is an environmental activist – he is one of the people who have taken the oil companies involved in the desecration of Goi to the International Court in Hague and continues to plead with his ancestors to see him as an innocent man, not one who has collaborated to destroy the community’s ecosystem.

Today, the former inhabitants of Goi are scattered around Ogoni, migrants in their own country. Most do not believe anymore in Goi’s salvation and Chief Dooh fears that the next generation will only be able to know about their ancestral homeland within the pages of history books.

Ogoni-land lies in Rivers’ State eastern corridor. Referred to, by historians, as an almost isolated tribe but for minor trades between its coastal community neighbors, Ogoni-land has become famous for its environmental problems.

Recently, I took a ride on a commercial motorcycle to Tua Bon Goi from Kpopie, a portal into Gokana Local Government Area in Ogoni-land. The route is a lonely one. Unlike other communities in the oil-rich Niger Delta where you find traders and villagers jostling to get home, to meet a need, only foreign observers and journalists remember what Goi looks like. Its calm is built on loss, a long period of suffering with oil spills that have settled in its belly and have silenced life.

Chief Dooh told me that Ogoni-land’s environmental disaster, especially Goi’s, was exacerbated by oil spills from 2005, 2006, 2007 and the three major spills of 2008.

But no one paid any serious attention until, in 2011, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), published an Environmental Assessment on Ogoni-land, confirming the cries of the Ogoni people that their land had been severely despoiled by the merchants of crude. These cries have a long, sordid history. In 1993, oil exploration came to a halt in Ogoni-land, after widespread protests from the Ogoni people, through the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). The Spokesman of the group, writer and activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa was later found guilty by a military court and sentenced to death by hanging with eight other activists. With the prominent activists gone, the oil-spills continued, no thanks to pipeline failures and artisanal hunting by oil bunkers.

According to UNEP, its report was necessary as there had been no comprehensive and independent document that described the situation in Ogoni-land. And the report concluded that “oil pollution in many intertidal creeks has left mangroves denuded of leaves and stems, leaving roots coated in a bitumen-like substance some 1 cm or more thick.”

On aquatic life in the area, the report noted that “the surface water throughout the creeks contain hydrocarbons. Floating layers of oil vary from thick black oil to thin sheens. The highest reading of dissolved hydrocarbon in the water column was detected at Ataba-Otokroma bordering the Gokana and Andoni LGAs.” On public health, it said “Ogoni is exposed to petroleum hydrocarbon in outdoor air and drinking water, sometimes at elevated concentrations. They are also exposed through dermal contacts from contaminated soil, sediments and surface water. Since average life expectancy in Nigeria is less than 50 years, it is fair assumption that most members of the current Ogoni-land community have lived with chronic oil pollution throughout their lives.”

The report said Ogoni’s groundwater contain poisonous substances such as benzene, at high rates.

In response to the UNEP report, the federal government instituted the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP), a structure under the purview of the Federal Ministry of Environment. But it is 2019, eight years since the UNEP Report on Ogoni-land was published and the process of remediation and restoration of the Ogoni environment has been slow. While the UNEP Report noted that remediation process may take up to thirty years to clean up, every delay since the publication of the report has pushed the days of bliss for the Ogoni people further into the future.

Gani Topba, an activist with the Conscience of the Ogoni People (COOP), has criticized the parties involved in the cleanup process for their insincerity. One of his grievances has been in the skipping of remediation steps such as the provision of potable drinking water to the Ogoni people before soil restoration and resistance of the renewed interest in oil exploration before the cleanup is completed.

This January, a forum of Ogoni elders called Gbo Kabaari issued a press statement in Port Harcourt highlighting the communication gap between HYPREP and the Ogoni people. Its chairman, a former Nigerian senator, Ben Birabi said that activities were political and due consultations were skipped. The former president of MOSOP, Ledum Mitee, who is also a member of the group, expressed disappointment in the Ogoni representatives on the board of HYPREP and sensed games since renewed talks about the cleanup come up only close to elections.

But the President Buhari led government has been more proactive in its quest to implement the recommendations of a report that had gathered dust. In 2017, Shell contributed an initial take-off fund of $10 million into a joint fund that was to be complemented by the federal government, leading to the start of preliminary cleanup activities. Currently, work has begun on impacted sites in Tai Local Government Area, one of the four local government areas that make up Ogoni-land. Ueken and Korokoro Tai have been handed over to cleanup contractors, during ceremonies held in the communities.

HYPREP has also been visiting villages and community leaders with messages of the cleanup and dispelling news of compensation. The reason, according to HYPREP, is to prepare the mind of the people for the actual cleanup and not to allow them assume that it meant money-sharing. However, a student body, the Ogoni Youth Federation, has dragged the Coordinator of HYPREP, Dr. Marvin Dekil to court over what it called the misuse of resources for the cleanup. While the case has not been heard, an HYPREP coastal bus was set on fire at Gokana Local Government Area recently, perhaps a message that the locals are dissatisfied with the government body. In his remark on radio, the HYPREP Coordinator insisted that Ogoni youths did not carry out the act. It was done, he said, by an aggrieved individual.

Meanwhile, HYPREP has begun what it calls ‘Restoration of Livelihood’, a programme that is supposed to empower communities that have lost their source of livelihood to the environmental disaster. Goi has not featured on this project despite its huge loss. The people of Onne, in Eleme Local Government Area, are the first to benefit. Eleme has one of the highest levels of devastation too, with groundwater poisoning.

At the junction into Goi, a signage announces that you are entering the first community, Tua Bon, in Gokana Local Government Area called Goi. The area is a shadow. The smell from rotten oil chases away living things; the heat makes breathing unbearable. A HYPREP signpost warns that the site is highly contaminated.

Chief Dooh told me about the warnings for evacuation and how intensely they came. He said it was not to just vacate, but an eviction that came with little alternative. Families that were lucky to have purchased landed properties in other parts of the local government area left to stay there. Others shared spaces with extended families and adjusted their lives. Will they, or their children, return?

While Goi is the most devastated of the despoiled part of Ogoniland that I have seen, the UNEP Report barely captured it. Chief Dooh says that was mere political gimmicks. Born in the late 60s, Chief Dooh is the Lah-Bon of loss, but his eyes are fired up with passion. When I asked him if, one day, he sees a complete restoration of Goi, he answered in the affirmative. He has faith. ✚

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