Mitee: Government playing dangerous politics with our people’s lives
Former President of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), Ledum Mitee, told KELVIN EBIRI, that the purported flag-off of the Ogoni cleanup is a hoax. Mitee who by divine providence escaped the hangman noose under the late Gen. Sani Abacha in 1995, accused the Federal Government of playing dangerous politics with the lives of Ogoni people.
What is your impression of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Report on Ogoni Land six years after it was released?
I am absolutely disappointed. I feel that our people have been deceived and they have used us to play a very dangerous politics as far as I am concerned. As president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), I entered into the initial conversation with the director general of UNEP in Nairobi. That is what led to the UNEP Report, where certain things were agreed. What that report did was just to confirm what we already knew- that our environment was devastated, and our people were dying as a result of oil exploitation. The report stated that people should not be allowed to bath, drink water or fish or eat fishes from certain rivers that are hugely contaminated, some up to about 1, 000 times above acceptable levels anywhere in the world. These are some of the fundamentals things contained in that report, which also talks about the provision of water and alternatives.
What has happened seven years after is that people are still drinking water from those rivers and no effort has being made to give them alternatives. If you go to my community, K- Dere you will see where HYPREP erected a signpost at one river and it says ‘don’t swim here; don’t fish here.’ Now, where should the people fish? Where should people swim? Well, that is where people are swimming, that is where they are still fishing.
For the government, instead of doing something serious, they will come up with some fanfare. After some months, somebody will come and say we are doing flag-off of something in Ogoni, while they take advantage of the visibility of Ogoni.
When I travel abroad, people congratulate me, saying that some of the things that I have been fighting for have now been done. This is because out there, it is projected as if the cleanup has even started, whereas the basic things have not been done. UNEP even said that Shell facilities were not well decommissioned because it (UNEP) recommended decommissioning those things in the proper manner. But as we speak, there are spillages going on. What you see nowadays is that they carry some people to one site and say we are going to test how we will clean up the environment eventually. In doing this, they take pictures and beam them to the world as if they have cleaned up the place. Even UNEP report said the technology that will be used in cleaning up certain places is not universal. What you will use in the river is not what you will use in marshy areas. It also said that there should be another study to determine what appropriate technology can be used for the cleanup.
UNEP has consistently said, ‘we do not clean; we do not have the capacity to clean, but we know those who can clean.’ Right now, I do not know what is going on, except that huge politics is being played with the lives of our people, which is painful. Each day that this thing goes on, people are dying.
What is responsible for the delay?
The Federal Government does not just want to do it. I do not think the government is serious because each day it comes out with one excuse or the other. Even before anything got started, the then Minister of Environment Amina Muhammed, who is now at the United Nations, in a front page report in one of the national dailies said that the reason why the exercise has not started is because there is disagreement among Ogoni elites. And that is why many of us kept quiet. We have not even said anything, and you are already saying that we are disagreeing. So, we didn’t want to be an excuse for their failure because if you criticise them, they will say see, this is what we are saying, especially when some of the organs, which should have spoken for the people became embedded in the system. And so, they could not even speak as umpires for the people, and that has been a sort of concern. After that I heard another excuse, ‘oh, they could not get access into Ogoni.’ Access to where? Even Shell is in Ogoni everyday that it wants to go. After that Shell was blaming the government that it was not bringing money, the government was blaming this other people. In fact, the one I saw in the dailies last week is the Federal Ministry of Environment saying we do not want to be in a hurry because we want to do it right. When people start giving you excuses, you do not need rocket science to tell you that they do not want to do it. If you want to give the people water, which is an emergency issue, you don’t need a committee to do it. They know where to get water from, as they do in Abuja, where water flows to all places. They didn’t need a committee to get water in Abuja. They didn’t need any flag-off to give people water in Abuja. I think this is just huge politics. I am sure before 2019 you will see one other activity that they will do in Ogoni. That is where people go and play politics because of its visibility and it is sad.
But why would the Federal Government play politics with a cleanup that acting President, Yemi Osinbajo personally flagged off?
The government was only trying to do a public relations gimmick to take the publicity. Now, what did Osinbajo come here to do? My understanding of a flag-off is that from the day that happens, you are kick-starting a process. So, if one year after and we have not seen any tipper; we have not seen any bulldozer; the people have not seen anything absolutely, then that is a fraud. And I think that even the person of the vice president, if I am in his shoes, I will say wait a minute, why did you people use me for this sort of a thing. Someone needs to lose his or her job for deceiving me to go there to be a perpetrator of some fraud on a people, especially when lives are involved. Government just wants people to say it is doing things when it is not. Is that not the worse form of politics?
Why the emphasis on Federal Government and not the state and local governments for provision of water and healthcare facilities in impacted communities?
We are talking specifically about the UNEP report. The report is purely on the laps of the Federal Government, so the state and local governments should not be held responsible. That does not mean that their responsibilities are completely extinguished. Let me put it this way, the people say because of the oil exploration their water and livelihoods have been polluted to the extent that people are dying. Who is in charge of oil? It is the Federal Government, and that is why the government got international expert-UNEP to find out the actual position, hence the UNEP report, which told the government the things to do.
Now, part of the problem, from what I have gathered is that the state government, local governments and the communities are not carried along as everything is just projected from Abuja.
The sort of politics the Federal Government plays in this part, it does not play it in other parts of the country. Once elections are finished, partisan politics should give way for governance.
Now, in this particular matter, you will see that the Federal Government, which is APC instead of dealing directly with it counterparts at the state (because he belongs to the PDP), will call a local APC man to say, we are coming on this day. And this local APC man or people will then distribute the invitation card to the governor. What sort of thing is this?
What is the fate of the Centre for Excellence and the Integrated Soil Management Centre?
There is absolutely nothing on ground. Since I left MOSOP I have tried to be down so that I do not take the limelight away from those who are coming after us. But for how long can I keep quiet? I am not sure that there exists now a voice outside this that is speaking on behalf of the people and the concerns of the people. Even MOSOP itself became embedded in HYPREP. If you are a passenger in a car and it breaks down on the road, you cannot stay inside and push that vehicle. Someone outside must be able to push the vehicle. Even if they sometimes accuse us of doing this for a particular reason, but I have every right as someone who almost perished in all these struggle to speak. If not for myself, at least, for the memory of my colleagues, who were executed. We cannot see the lives of our people being toyed with and continue keeping quiet in this sort of situation.
With the fall in oil price, won’t the NNPC and oil companies have difficulties funding the cleanup?
Once there is a will, all those things would be solved. See, when people do not want to do things, they will find excuses. If you want to get Abuja built they will do it without wasting time. It is only when they do not want to do a thing that you hear them saying we do not have money. All over the world, there is the polluter pay principle. If you pollute, you should pay. So, the Federal Government must know where to get the money from. I do not want to get into the dynamics of you bring this, you bring that because they said from the beginning that that will not be a problem.
In my conversation with them during the late President Umaru Yar’Adua’s time, they said funding would not be a problem. Why is it today?
Now, how much are we using to fight Boko Haram? How much are we trying to put into reclaiming Sambisa forest everyday? Is recession playing any role in what we are doing? Once you take something as an emergency, you will do it. Sadly, the Federal Government does not see the Ogoni cleanup as an emergency. Or are we not selling oil? Is it not oil that contaminated that place? So why can’t they get oil money to do what we are supposed to do as a country? The arguments they are advancing are not acceptable to us because by those arguments, they are equating lives with the dollar they are making. The people are dying because they are drinking polluted water, we are living in a polluted environment, and you are saying die more because we do not have money. In other words, the problem can be solved if the whole of Ogoni people die.
Can the UNEP Report still be relied on for the cleanup exercise?
No. Even the report itself admits that there needs to be further reports to do what they are doing. But you see what is more important to me is not so much as about what will now happen there. But, there are some emergency recommendations that deal with the health of the people. These are things that were supposed to have been done the day after the report was published. But as I said, politics is being played here.
Only recently, I spoke with an Ogoni indigene resident in London and she told me something far more disturbing than I ever imagined. She asked whether I knew that they have hired some Yoruba journalists to take care of their publicity. Mind you, the chairman of the governing council is a Yoruba man. Come on! Are there no Ogoni people? Are there no Rivers State people who can take that beat? They have managed to put an Ogoni person as project coordinator and from what I hear, he has no authority as everything is being done from Abuja. So, you just use window dressing to deceive Ogoni people. This is unacceptable and I think that the next stage this thing will get to is that they are going close to provoking an Ogoni reaction in a manner that they will now use as an excuse not to do anything. That is exactly what the game plan seems to be because Ogoni people cannot just sit down and watch.
Did you ever envisaged the inertia that has characterised the implementation of the report?
I didn’t know that we would be where we are. I thought they were serious. By my nature, I like to trust people until they prove themselves otherwise. But now, I have found out that you don’t need to trust any government because their ways are beyond all reasonable understandings. I thought that by now we would have been out of the woods. At least, I thought that those emergency measures would have been done by this time. And MOSOP under me felt some sense of relief that at least one aspect of the Ogoni struggle was going to be dealt with in a manner that it would become a model for some other Niger Delta communities, who were waiting. Now, why should those people continue to be hopeful? They will say look if you want to go that Ogoni way, Ogoni’s case has taken seven years and the Federal Government has not done anything. So forget it, this thing is not going to lead us anywhere. And that also has implications for stability of the Niger Delta.
UNEP had recommended Ogoni Restoration Agency, instead government created HYPREP. Was it a pointer that government will play politics with the cleanup?
Clearly, I told them from the onset that it didn’t make sense to me if you are implementing the UNEP recommendations on Ogoni Land, which government accepted. It is like saying UNEP your report is there, we will do what we want to do. So, why spend $10 million to finance a report in the first place?
What are the likely consequences of further delay in the cleanup of Ogoni?
Quite clearly, when the people get frustrated they will react in the manner that they feel. Two, it has a wider implication for the rest of the Niger Delta. One thing government has done is that many people were already having some sense of relief that well, for the first time the non-violence struggle embarked upon by the Ogoni people might yield some positive results. In other words, it could send a message that non-violence can also bring reward. Now, if we tried non-violence and you kept on killing us by refusing to implement the report, why should the rest of the Niger Delta continue to wait and say let’s try the Ogoni style? This is not what people should opt for. After all, it is the violence that Nigeria as a country seems to support. It is the violence that they have responded to. Any time when there is some violence, that is when government knows that there is problem in the Niger Delta and this is a very sad message the government is sending to the public. And that is one of the things that the late Ken Saro Wiwa, said in his final statement before the tribunal, that whatever happens here will determine what will happen in the future. If the government favours the non-violence stance, which we have done, fine. If it dismisses our non-violence, then it is sending a message out there. And today that is what we have seen. Once people are killed; we blow up pipelines, you will see government respond.
Now, how much are we using to fight Boko Haram? How much are we trying to put into reclaiming Sambisa forest everyday? Is recession playing any role in what we are doing? Once you take something as an emergency, you will do it. Sadly, the Federal Government does not see the Ogoni cleanup as an emergency. Or are we not selling oil? Is it not oil that contaminated that place? So why can’t they get oil money to do what we are supposed to do as a country? The arguments they are advancing are not unacceptable to us because by those arguments, they are equating lives with the dollar they are making