“It’s Ogoniland today, but it could be your home tomorrow”
Lazarus Tamana, the European Coordinator for the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People was recently interviewed by Rowen Siemens, our Communications and Media Intern.
They discussed the continued struggle of his people against environmental and human rights violations due to oil extraction activities devastating the Niger Delta.
His message to the world? We need to work together to raise awareness and combat this crisis; it’s Ogoniland today, but it could be your home tomorrow.
RS: Although there is admittedly a lot of ground to cover on this topic – Can you explain the major threats currently facing the Ogoni people?
LT: The major threat facing the Ogoni people right now is the decree that the Nigerian government promulgated on the 1st of March this year, ordering Shell and some other companies to go back and restart oil exploration in Ogoni.
Apart from this, another threat is the continuous pollution of the Ogoni environment, a threat arising from the devastation of oil spills and other related activities that are driving the Ogoni people to extinction.
There is also a very real threat of violence from oil companies and the Nigerian government in an attempt to force their way into Ogoni. The government and Shell are bent on going back to Ogoni to mine oil, so they have mobilized the military. We are afraid this will lead to more violence in the region as a result. We can’t be 100% sure what will happen. But one of the tenets of our struggle is a peaceful and non-violent approach. We don’t want violence. We don’t want confrontation. We don’t want combat. We just want a peaceful resolution. And the presence of the military doesn’t help this situation. When you are trying to avoid violence, and someone visits you with violence, there is a limit to what you can take. People will eventually have had enough.
These are just some issues that we are extremely worried about.
RS: You’ve been working for the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) for 29 years. Can you tell me about your journey?
LT: In 1990, when the Ogoni people decided that enough was enough –there had been enough continuous pollution of our environment and the taking away of the means of our livelihood – women, the market traders, the farmers, the intellectuals, church people and leaders, Chiefs, we all came together and said “no”. We need to stop this or else we will be facing extinction. So MOSOP was born.
Then, the information about what was happening in the Niger Delta had to get out. But the Nigerian government was threatening dissenting voices in Nigeria and local people were being rounded up and imprisoned. So those of us already out of Nigeria at the time – I was already out of the country, in the UK, studying – we decided to just join in and start the campaign internationally, where the Nigerian government didn’t have much influence over us. That’s when I made this decision and said: “This is what I have to do”. I have not looked back since.
The movement became very successful. We were able to present our case all over the world, at any conferences we could attend (UN and others), and we worked with other groups also under threat, like other minorities and other indigenous peoples around the world. We became a member of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO), for instance. When we started presenting our case literally all over the world, people started admiring our non-violent approach. A lot of people came on board and started supporting us. Amnesty International started taking an interest, Greenpeace and others, including Minority Rights Group International.
When we became successful, we became a threat. The Nigerian government even labelled as a terrorist organisation at one point. They were giving us all kinds of names, saying that we wanted to secede from Nigeria and leave our own country. We don’t want that.
What we wanted – as subsistence farmers and fishermen – all we wanted was to continue to fish, to continue to farm. We don’t want our means of livelihood to be taken away from us. We are not employees of Shell. Very few of our people are employed by the government. So, if we don’t farm and we don’t fish, then we die of hunger. That’s all that we are saying.
RS: Having experienced the situation first-hand, can you describe how the environment has changed in Ogoniland? How have these changes directly affected the Ogoni way of life?
LT: Crude oil is a poisonous substance, anything that it touches … it kills that thing. Either instantly, or it will die a slow death.
When it gets into the rivers, it will kill all the fish, it will kill all the phytoplankton, all the zooplankton, all the fauna that the fish and other living organisms in the water feed on. If it gets into any plant, any crop, it kills that crop.
Beyond that, it goes into our drinking water, and we depend on our streams and rivers – we drink from them all the time. So when it gets into the river, the river is polluted and we can’t drink that contaminated water. When you come across it, it gives you all kinds of diseases … some of which we cannot diagnose because we don’t have experts there to help us do that. It also sinks right into the water that we get from wells and contaminates that as well.
I remember as a child, when we’d come back from primary school, we’d run to the creek which was just about 500m away and, with our bare hands, we’d catch so much fish. Then we’d go back home and would have something to eat and something to keep for our families when they came back from farming. The whole household could eat as a result. Now, this is history. Children that are born now don’t know these things. They don’t exist anymore. Our history has been destroyed as a result. Our heritage is forgotten, it can’t come back.
So, it enters our food chain, it contaminates our water, it pollutes the air – the carbon monoxide that we inhale as a result of gas flaring and other hydro-carbon related air-born diseases – kills our people. Shell has consistently maintained that they are not responsible for all this. They claim to operate with due care. But when our rivers are polluted, our water wells are polluted and our farmlands are polluted… there’s no way they could be operating with due care.
RS: Can you highlight the recent court cases against Shell in Nigeria and the UK?
LT: In 2014, Shell was found culpable of three devastating oil spills that happened in 2008 – these three devastating spills completely destroyed the fishing industry in Ogoni.
Initially, they said they weren’t responsible. They eventually offered financial compensation, but it wasn’t enough. So we took them to court in London, and on the 20th of June 2014, it was pronounced that Shell would be held responsible for the atrocities it had committed.
It was decided that the communities would be paid 55 million in compensation, and there was an agreement with the court that four things would happen: compensation would be paid, the environment would be cleaned, there would be remediation, and then restoration.
In 2015, Shell reluctantly paid the compensation, but after this was paid, and up until now, they were supposed to do the cleanup. They still haven’t gotten near remediation or restoration. Shell is not interested in doing the cleanup, even when we are sitting on an existing court judgement. They feel they are above the law and refuse bluntly to follow the court order.
In 2017, Shell went back to court in an attempt to walk away from the cleanup. And the court still told them to go back and clean, that there was no other way. In 2018, they went back to court again, and the court once again told them to go back and clean. And up until now, we have not seen any meaningful steps made by Shell to do this cleanup.
RS: What is the Nigerian government’s role in the Ogoni peoples’ struggle? How have they responded?
LT: The Nigerian government gave the mining lease to Shell to come and mine on indigenous land because it brings in up to 90 % of Nigeria’s foreign earnings. So, they do that, and then Shell will just turn around and say to them “look, these communities are preventing us from bringing in the money that you need.” Then the mobile police come in and make sure that the people are brutalised, abused in so many ways, and if you are not careful, in some cases, you will be killed. They’ve done it so many times in Ogoni and other areas where they do business.
So the Nigerian government authorizes Shell to do whatever it is they are doing, and they back them with the police and the Nigerian army. The Nigerian government does not act as
though it is responsible for the protection of its own people. They don’t seem to be held accountable. It is the role of government to protect its citizens against aggression. The government coming to our land and doing whatever it likes, leaving us completely poor – this is aggression. We have not seen the Nigerian government stop Shell from committing human rights abuses or environmental destruction and devastation.
Most of the time, the Nigerian government seems powerless to enforce their own laws against Shell. They don’t have the incentive to do that.
Shell was supposed to clean-up of Ogoni as recommended by the UNEP. In 2011 the United Nations did an environmental audit of the Ogoni environment after over 50 years of oil exploration in the Niger Delta. It was a detailed report that confirms what MOSOP and the Ogoni people have been campaigning for – destruction of the Ogoni environment through careless and sometimes deliberate operations, human rights violation by the Nigerian government and Shell. The report was an indictment of Shell and a vindication for MOSOP and the Ogoni people.
I can tell you that nothing is happening currently and nothing will happen in the near future. It’s not the intention of Shell or the Nigeria government to clean the Ogoni environment. They are deceiving the international community by the announcement that they are cleaning Ogoniland.
The emergency measures that UNEP recommended in its report of 2011 have not been carried out, such as:
- Provision of clean drinking water for the communities.
- The integrated soil test centre, where the pollution will be treated has not been built.
- The centre of excellence for the understanding of all Hydrocarbon related technologies, including training is yet to be considered.
The interest of the Nigeria government and Shell is to return to oil exploration in Ogoniland as detailed in the presidential decree of 1st of March 2019.
RS: What do you think still needs to be done at the international level? How can the UN do more to help? Are there other actors who can get involved?
LT: We are calling on our international partners, MRG included, who we have been working with over the years to further put pressure on Shell through campaigns that highlight the situation of the Ogoni people. Shell will just wave these things away otherwise.
Through the UN system and other international systems, Nigeria should be held to account for the atrocities committed against its own people. If the government is not responsible, then there are things that the United Nations and the African Union can do to safeguard the existence of these minority and indigenous peoples. We as the Ogoni people are even planning on taking this to the international court.
RS: What is your message to someone hearing about the situation in Ogoniland for the first time from this interview?
LT: The Ogoni people might not be known to many. We are both a minority and an indigenous people situated in the Niger Delta. We are a small people – less than a million as of now. We are facing extinction.
What we want from other minorities and indigenous people is that they also continue to raise awareness to their governments and to highlight the problems faced by pollution and devastation of the environment – of our land, our water, our atmosphere.
We want our people to be saved. I am sure that without the voices of the world, the aim of the government and Shell is to exterminate us. They are only concerned about making money, and anything they can do to keep that money flowing, they will do it. Even if this means getting rid of the people.
My message is that this problem might be yours tomorrow. What is happening in Ogoni today might be happening in Australia tomorrow. This issue of big business and environmental devastation is not restricted to Nigeria alone. Support from everyone is needed to save the planet. We might all be facing extinction in one way or another sooner or later.
Rowen Siemens is the Communications and Media Intern at Minority Rights Group International. She is currently completing an MSc in Human Rights at the London School of Economics and holds a BA in Philosophy from the University of British Columbia.