GOING TO OGONI LAND
For me this was the highlight of this whole trip. Going to Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Ogoni land. We set out from Port Harcourt around 9am in a bus sent to us by Marvin Yobana. My team was made up of a cameraman, Chuks and the local reporter, Edmund. Chuks was highly excited that we were actually going to do a totally different kind of assignment, but Edmund on the other hand was not too thrilled because, according to him, he didn’t want to be kidnapped. We went from Trans Amadi Road to Trans Woji Road and on to Eleme. That’s where the NNPC refinery is located and there it was, the all too infamous and familiar torch that’s been etched into the minds of many Nigerians, thanks to those old file videos that used to run on NTA but have now made their way to all the TV stations in the country. We went past the Unity Road, which was still under construction as part of the governments Niger Delta Development Commissions’ project to link Ogoni, Andoni and Opobo. We drove into Bori, the main pulse of Ogoni and their business center. We finally made our way into Kpean, which was littered with several mud houses with thatch roofs. I couldn’t help but notice that there were absolutely too many idle young men, clustered up under sheds, some playing Ludo, some Whot and others just chatting in between rides on their motor bikes. Many of them had those, not just for getting around, but as a means of survival, providing transportation for the community. We were supposed to call Mr. Yobana and the MOSOP assigned security officer, once we got to Ogoni, but the network was really bad The only network within range was MTN so all our phones were useless because we were on a different network. We had to keep coming back to the teenage girl who was manning one of a few call centers in Kpaen. Our lead guide Jackson Jaja eventually gets a hold of the security officer and gets a go ahead to proceed to the points of interest. Jackson is a graduate of creative arts from University of Port Harcourt. He had been in and out of jail for petty crimes stemming from youth uprising and agitation. After he got out of jail he decided to channel his anger through a positive means and under the guidance of Yobana he’s become responsible for organizing some of the other jobless local boys to serve as a surveillance team for the villages. According to him, Yobana and some other citizens who contribute to keep the initiative going are paying them. Also in our company was the driver, Emmanuel and another guy, Prince Sunday, who wanted to join in on the tour. As we made our way to one of about 100 oil wells in Ogoni and 25 in Kwawa alone, we drove over the Geawa River. We literarily had our hearts in our mouths because the bridge was beyond being on the verge of collapsing. We turn off a dirt road heading towards the Teeraua (terra-way) Oil well (my note say this is the 1st oil well, but I don’t remember if that means first stop or the first well from which oil was drilled) which used to be owned by Shell (FYI: Shell has not however operated in Ogoniland for 14 years. They were kicked out for obvious reasons and are practically persona non grata so even if they had good intentions of cleaning up, it’s fair to say they’ll face some challenges). At this particular wellhead, there was some major filth in the form of fresh crude oil. Apparently during the Ogoni crisis of the mid-nineties, this wellhead wasn’t shut off completely and so oil spills out when the sun’s heat is intense. The science being that crude congeals in cool temperature and melts in high temperature. So basically this wellhead has oil spilling out into the farmlands everyday, according to Jackson. The next oil well was one in Buan (now I don’t recall if this was the one with the natural gas pipe that flares up at high noon as well and burns for days). At this one there’s a security post, which only had its corrugated iron sheets changed two months prior to that day, but had been corroded beyond recognition. We trucked on and met with a farmer who narrated the ordeal they had to go through on their quest for daily drinking water as well as some women on their way to the next village to find water. The women and children had to trek about 3 kilometers from Teeraua to Kwawa, to a well to fetch water. Many rivers, like the Teeraua River were polluted with films of oil floating on top. The villagers can’t even drink rainwater and only use it for cleaning. We got to a fishing hamlet where Jackson and his friends negotiated permission to film. The fishermen agreed at first but later expressed anger and assumed that our guides had been paid to bring us there. They insisted that we pay them before we do any filming. Now, I didn’t have any money to dash away but I had my camera rolling and so I stole the video instead and we left and headed to another village.
Our next stop was a place called Yorla Well-Location 10. There was a vast opening that seemed like the size of two of UNC’S football field. There were charred palm trees, turned over soil caked together by crude oil. There had been an explosion (in 2006) at the site that resulted in a huge fire, which subsequently devastated adjoining farmlands. That to a villager spells hunger, yearlong hard work toiling to plant yams and cassava and the anticipation of a bountiful harvest, all up in smoke. We took a soil sample from that and other locations to test how potent the soil quality was (result pending).
I had hoped to make it to one of the rivers that had the film of oil, but I didn’t bring a pair of rain boots to navigate the swampy riverbank. It was getting late in the afternoon and we had to head back to Port Harcourt before rush hour traffic in order to meet up with Marvin Yobana. I couldn’t make it to Bane but I’m sure I’ll make it back to Ogoni perhaps when Singto goes to her village for Christmas. On our way out, we stopped at Bori and then Eleme to get beauty shots for the story, and then continued on to PH to the Landmark Hotel.
Marvin Yobana as I said is the leader of the youth wing of MOSOP. He’s a petite man but don’t let his diminutive stature fool you. He looked very important with his native attire and two police escorts. I didn’t trust him at first because I had read some disturbing things about him in a Time magazine article that alleged Mr. Yobana was responsible for inciting many of the youth agitation and was shopping for lucrative clean up deals for the region, which many other leaders are opposed to because many of terms that those deals present would concede certain things to the oil companies. It is fact that some deals have been presented but I am still studying that angle so I cannot speak too much about that. Anyways I re-introduced myself and explained my aim of embarking on this trip. We get to chatting and I tell him about how I wanted to go into the creeks, talk to the villagers who have to deal with militant activity, talk to the militants etc (basically I needed a scoop like Jeff Koinange’s report or even half of it. I needed something) He went into action making calls. First he talked to someone from Shell and then someone from Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. No luck. After a few calls he finally got someone whom he described as ‘one of the militant leaders’. He starts to explain who were and from the response he was giving I could gather that the man on the other side of the phone wanted us to pay some money because he felt that we would go and sell the footage to foreign media (but of course that’s what freelance is about) Yobana pleaded with him and explained the we were Nigerian journalists from a station in Lagos. The man on the other end of the phone asked which station after it seemed like he had assumed we were NTA, the government station. Yobana told him we were not from NTA but rather we were from Silverbird TV. The named rung a bell and it seemed like the man on the other ended relaxed. “Ehen, na dem Ben Bruce people” (Yes, that’s Ben Bruce’s people) For my readers who don’t know, the owners of Silverbird TV etc , Ben Bruce and his family, are from the Niger Delta, Akassa in Bayelsa State and the name is very prominent in the region as it is around the country. The conversation continued, “Make dem come?” (Should they come?) “Ok na you go give them where dem go go” (you’ll tell them where to go) By now my fingers were stiff from crossing them. “Ok make I give dem your number? Ok…you want de girl number?” He signal to me to tell him my phone number, which I proceed to do. “She dey go Lagos on Sunday…Ok bros I go call you later. Thank you.” The intense negotiation-like conversation ended and that was the last we both heard from the ‘militant leader’ for that week. By the time I was done with my interview, my opinion of Mr. Yobana was more different than it was when I walked in. May be not entirely but at least he seemed concerned and dedicated to the interest of his people.
We went to Oyigbo at the invitation of Precious Oforji after we had spent the previous evening trying to catch him in his office at the new State House of Assembly. To say this man is very vocal is an understatement. I only ended up using two or three sound bites from him because he not only indicted the players like the oil companies and military leaders, but he abused and cursed the generations of the then president, Segun Obasanjo, the then governor of Rivers State, Peter Odili, the PDP, local politicians and certain community leaders. My goodness. It made for an interesting listen but I could not use any of it because of lack of evidence over some of the things he said, lack of being able to get Shell’s side and the government too, so I ditched that route. But anyways, there had been a recent oil spill in Oyigbo. It was two weeks old at the time. The oil pipeline that broke was the first one that was laid in 1958 in Oyigbo, which was the second place oil was struck in Nigeria. Apparently the oil kept gushing out of the pipeline for 4 days non-stop and was only put off after several calls to Shell. Imagine that, four days of a River of Oil flowing uncontrollably. Understandable that it was a weekend and that some of these areas are remote, but Oyigbo is just on the outskirt of PH not to far from the Shell Staff Estate. Oforji said that they’d been complaining about the corroded pipes and had been clamoring for them to be excavated and new ones laid, to no avail. In his words, “Shall there be any earthquake or any incidents of thereabouts, the people of Oyigbo ‘suffers’ it….what they want to do is take our blood, mix it with the crude oil, ship it out and make their hell of money.”