Urhobo Historical Society

Vanguard's [Lagos, Nigeria] Interview with

Chieftain of Environmental Rights Action, Nigeria's Frontier Environmental Rights Organization on

 By Dafe Ivwurie

Culled from:
Vanguard, Sunday, May 02, 2004


"Daddy what are you doing at the police station?" That was the question Nnimmo Bassey’s son put to him, just before he was released from detention after he was  intercepted by security agents at the height of the political crisis of 1996. Nnimmo was one of the many activists who were shooting from the trenches after being driven underground by the Sani Abacha junta.

 His experiences before and after his incarceration and as an environmental rights activist have been encapsulated in various collection of poems “Patriots and Cokcroaches”, “Poems on the Run”, “Intercepted”  and the more recent one, “We thought it was oil, but it was blood.”

In the collections, Nnimmo vents his anger, expresses his fears, laments our collective woes. In this interview with Dafe Ivwurie, he puts the Niger-Delta in focus. It is the story of an insider. He also talks about Nigerian prisons, another story of a “been to.” Nnimmo is the Director, Environmental Rights Action (ERA) and Friends of the Earth, Nigeria (FoEN). He combines all that with being an architect.

Just before you were released by  security agents in 1996, your  son asked you “daddy what are you doing in the police station”? You didn’t quite have an answer for him then, have you been able to find an answer for him now?

That is a very interesting question to start with. I believe I’ve not really had any reason to sit him down to explain anything. He is thirteen years and in JS2 and he has come to understand fully what happened then, because he has read collections and he has read the stories and he has come to understand fully what happened then. Today, if you ask him about Nigeria, he will speak to you from the position of the realities we are facing now, so he knows the challenges that we face. But that was a very touchy question to come from a kid.

 These days, whenever I travel with my last born and there are so many check points on the road and he sees one ahead, he would ask, are we going to give them money? We’ve never had to give them money, but then from the car he would see them collecting money from buses and from taxies. So you see, children build up different perception about the security forces that we have. And I think that is very unfortunate.

Let’s talk about your transition from a poet to an activist and then to a church. When did you get born again, was it after you were intercepted? How did all these begin?

Quite often, people use all these titles, but if I was speaking with you, you would note that I will not bring that up at all, because whatever we are in the house of God must be seen in our lives not by announcements and so I still remain simply Nnimmo Bassey. But then, you can’t really stop other people from referring to you with such titles like Rev.

But I was born again before I was intercepted. And whenever I have opportunity, I explain to people that I think they made a mistake intercepting me after I had given my life to Christ. If I had to face some of those challenges as an unbeliever, it would have had a negative effect on me. But since already I had hope, whatever happened, I took it as an opportunity to focus and search the soul of the nation and see more clearly what must be done.

So what did 41 days in prison do to you?

Interesting, I see you have your facts at your finger tips.  You know unless you are inside there, you can not really understand what people are going through inside there. When I see people in police or prison cells, I’m in a better position to appreciate what they are going through. I mean we don’t all have to go there to appreciate it, but then it does help.

Although, you’ll be wondering whether a man like the president of this nation remembers the days he was locked up. Because if he remembers, they should make prison conditions much more better. Still, there is a lot of congestion in our prisons, disease, hunger, starvation. It is like people do not know what should be done. But I think the days I spent in incarceration were the days I could see from the inside that there is a lot of hypocrisy at every level in the society. I also found out that when people are deprived they tend to stick together closer. Besides all the harassments of new comers to the cell, it is essentially a tightly knit community behind bars.

 I went with some brethren to Okoh Prison in Benin on Easter Monday, we were there just to celebrate with them. And one of the things they said when they welcomed us was that they are in a separate republic much better morally than the country Nigeria. And these are convicts for whatever offences they committed. And they said for one, they have presidents, governors, chairmen in the prison yard and these ones are elected democratically and there is no election rigging in prison. And that is a big indictment on society. I mean we put them behind bars saying they are criminals but they are laughing and mocking at the kind of things that we have to tolerate. Because when you compare the crimes these ones committed, to what the political class is committing, it is hundred times worse, and they are free and they are the ones calling the shots.

But then, can we use the indictment from prisoners to judge a ‘sane’ society?

I think it just shows that our leaders will receive harsh judgement by history. And yes, we can use the judgement of these prisoners to judge those who are running this country, the political parties and those in power. Yes, very well.

Recently, your NGO, Environmental Rights Action (ERA) has put out some advertorials in the papers about the “Lies of Shell”, what is the crux of the matter?
If you see some of the papers today (19th April, 2004), they just revealed that our government queried Shell about those figures as far back as sometime last year, but they never made it public, until the matter came up into the public realm through the New York Times article. The fact is that the oil industry in Nigeria is deeply immersed in corruption. The oil industry and those in power are tied together in what I will like to term unholy wedlock. The corruption cuts both ways and because the corruption is coming from both sides,  when the oil companies commit murder, our government can hardly say anything about it.

Those in power benefitting from these companies can’t say anything. Because it is said that he that comes to equity must come with clean hands. And so it is very difficult for those who are supposed to oversee these things to say anything. And so the so called joint venture arrangements that the NNPC has with the transnational companies is arranged in a way that the companies in partnership are credited with whatever oil they are exploiting and the one in the reserve as theirs. And the more they have, the more incentives they get from government, the more tax relief they get from government. And so if Shell releases false, inflated and as they call it, severely optimistic figures, they get more incentives and more allowance and more tax breaks from government.

Secondly, and this is very important, the production figures and whatever figures we receive from the oil companies, we are taking them by faith, because it is what they declare that we take, because they are the ones running the joint-venture, even though NNPC has a higher percentage.

They run it, they call the shots and they take all the day-to-day decisions and it is what they announce that is recorded in our books. So we are using the advertorials to call the attention of the government to the fact that we don’t really know how much oil is produced in this country, neither do we know how much oil we have as reserves. It means if these figures are false, what other figures do we expect to be correct? And it could be that we do not even have much as reserve. And the government officials say that if it is over blown our reserves are still within the range of error, because we have plus or minus within which there could be errors in estimates. But I don’t think that it should be something that should be taken lightly by the government.

The government ought to be embarrassed and they ought to sit up and give clear explanations. Nigerians deserve to know, reasonably, how much crude oil reserve we have, how much gas reserve we have, how much is being exploited everyday and how much is coming and how much is going to each company. Because there is a lot of deceit in the whole business.

 Even the so called community development projects that Shell and the other companies announce, they said that they have spent millions of dollars, it is not their money. By the ratio of the joint venture for community development, the Nigerian people contribute a higher percentage to whatever they are putting back in the communities. I mean if Shell or Mobil say that they are helping the communities, let them bring the money from their profits, they don’t do that. This money is being paid by the Nigerian people and it is now being used as philanthropy. It is not right.

Giving all these scenarios, as a pressure group, have you made any attempt to dialogue with government as well as the oil companies involved?

You know dialogue is good, no doubt about it. But sometimes, you don’t talk to those who would not hear you. But, of course, we have had some kind of dialogue. Some people in our organisation have really sat down with Shell officials in a number of fora and I have had to go with some activists around the world to Shell headquarters in London, although we went there to drop a protest letter, which is also a form of dialogue.

We had an invitation from Shell, for example, to attend stakeholders meeting which they hold in Warri. But why we’ve not attended that meeting not even once, is that the first time we got the invitation, they stated clearly that the outcome will be determined by Shell management, and not by the rubbing of minds of those at the round table at the consultation. That is a useless meeting to attend. We don’t have that kind of time.

 They can afford to waste all the time, but we have little time on our hands and we can not afford to waste it discussing issues that will not have any impact at the end. The other ways by which we engage them is by the advertorial, for example, by our reports and they have the right to reply.

There was also a time in the year 2000 that we had a consultation on West African gas pipeline.

We called the meeting in Warri. We had delegates from all over the Niger-Delta, from Ghana, Togo and from the Republic of Benin and we invited oil companies, Chevron and others, but they did not come. And so it is not for lack of efforts. For things that are yet to happen we are very happy to sit down and intervene. But for things that have already happened, we have to use a difference system to call attention because you find out that you just spend all the time talking and nothing is coming out of it. But we do believe that dialogue is a good thing especially when it can be seen that it is going to bring some benefits.

We send questions to them sometimes and sometimes they reply and most times you can see double speak. There is so much duplicity in what they are saying. So we just have to learn to read between the lines to get what the truth is. Yes dialogue is vital, and dialogue doesn’t have to be without confrontation. I believe that when Shell is sued by a community it is a form of dialogue with the third party to call for arbitration and usually the litigations that the community has against them is after efforts have been made to reach amicable settlement.

You heard recently that a court in San Francisco ruled that a case against Chevron can be heard in the US and that was after Chevron had done everything possible to stop it from being heard on the basis that the offence was committed in Nigeria and, therefore, it should be heard here. They want to usually conduct their businesses with double standards so that they don’t want to open their activities here to scrutiny in their home countries. Because what they do here, they would not dare to do half of it in their home. That is why we are trying to hold them accountable in their home countries where there is space for the truth to be told.

There is so much unrest in the Niger-Delta. To what do we put down the problem? Is it environmental issues? Activities of the oil companies? Activities of the government or some evil machination of outside forces? Why is the problem so overwhelming?

It is a combination of everything, both internal and external.

Let’s take the external first.

There was an external report, that states that if there is peace and stability in the Niger-Delta, then there will be instability in Nigeria. And that is a very intriguing conclusion to reach and then you can make your own projections from there that what that means is that, it is in the interest of the government to keep the Niger-Delta destabilised so that Nigeria can have peace. And how can you keep the place destabilized? It is by making people fight their neighbours so you have ethnic and communal clashes.

By getting some young people agitated, placing arms in their hands first for political thuggery and after winning elections, the people are idle. Now, you don’t put a gun in somebody’s hands and leave him to be idle, he is going to have to use it one way or the other. But apart from this, there are a lot of other provocations going on in the Niger-Delta for one reason or the other, and then, when you provoke the people, you now use the sledge hammer to kill a fly.

 You remember what happened in Odi. Agreed, some policemen were killed, which was a crime, and those who committed it, I believe some of the suspects were known and the idea was to go there and use security men to arrest them, but rather than do that, the whole town was shelled, invaded, destroyed and over two thousand people were killed. Till today, there is no apology from government and nothing to show that there is a semblance of rule of law in terms of holding some people accountable for that.

When you look at a   situation like that, the conclusion that we draw is that the hammer is used to silence the rest of the people, so that it could be shown as an example. And what came out very clearly from the Odi confrontation, from that attack could be read from what the soldiers wrote on the ruins of the building, because they left a whole gamut  of graffiti, some of which we documented. They told the story that they were out  to teach the people a lesson. But was it the people who committed the crime of killing the policemen? No. Was it right for the policemen to be killed? No. What was the right thing to do? Arrest the criminals. You don’t kill a ninety-year old man, you don’t kill a baby because a criminal committed an offence using the community as the base.

The violence in the Niger-Delta has a long history. And when you trace it back, it started from when the first seismic  line was cut, before the first dynamite was detonated  in the ground to test whether there is oil there or not. Because right from when the oil companies moved in the 1930s to begin to test for oil, they had raised the hope of everyone. I understand that what used to be said in the 1950s was ‘Shell go pay’.

 In other words, whatever you need would be paid. Because this people came in with a lot of money and up to the exploitatory  stages, virtually everybody could get a job. You don’t need skill to cut the bush for them to pass, you don’t need skill to trace the line that they want. But soon after that, once the oil starts flowing and they required more skilled workmen and the local communities had no answer, as at then, and now even when you have a local labour force, skilled and technical staff are still being imported; so you have a situation where communities values have been grossly eroded. Morality has gone to the dogs. Rape is not only at knife or gun point. Rape can also be at dollar point. So all kinds of things are being done. A lot of people have lost hope, they’ve lost their land, they lost water, they can not fish, they can’t plant or cultivate their land.

They don’t even have access to land, because of the effect of the land use decree, which is a very violent act also. So when people are so disconnected from their land, disoriented from their culture, separated from what would have ordinarily brought them income, this is serious violence being done on the people’s psyche. And so the response can be unpredictable.

 If a man sits down everyday and he sees so much money flowing, you know, you just see the pipes, and you hear the vibration and you see the gas flares but nothing is coming to you. It is a great violence that is being done to that person’s psyche. So responses have manifested in diverse ways. Also because of the struggle for the ownership on which the resources are found. A community that has had no conflict before, when an oil well is sunk, they suddenly want to lay claim on that particular spot. So communal conflicts erupt. You see, it is a whole matrix of factors working together to create violence.

But again if you look at it from another perspective, the youths of the Niger-Delta are not more restive than youths anywhere else in the country. Where do we really have peace in this nation? Is it in the Middle Belt? Is it in the North? Is it in Lagos? When you have violence in Lagos as an example, they can say it is OPC, but they will not say Yoruba youths. But when it is in the Niger-Delta, you have a kind of demonisation process going on.

The word restive is now used as a synonym for Niger-Delta youths. I think it is not right . You have to look at the whole nation. The whole nation is gripped in the throes of violence. The whole nation is insecure. So we can not isolate the Niger-Delta situation. The Niger -Delta is different only in the sense that violence has been done on the people, their psyche and their environment. The violence between the peoples is just like the violence in other parts between anyone else.

Who authorised the report  you mentioned?

Many countries in the world don’t take things lightly  the way we take them in Nigeria. They have fact sheets, information about the country and when things are going to happen. They are interested in what happens in these places so as to protect their own interest.

Is it available to the government?

The report is such an intriguing report, because they are factual in most of the things they said, about the pollution and about the oil spills and the need to remediate and clean up. But again, to make the statement, that as long as the Niger-Delta is peaceful, Nigeria will be unstable is intriguing. If anybody is working on the basis of that document, that is a big insensitive to keep the Niger-Delta unstable.

But one would have thought that the reverse should be the case.

My reading is that the Niger-Delta will be stable when the people all realise that they ought not to fight one another. And that will only come when they realise that they have a common cause to fight. And that common cause will be that they have to take their resources for themselves and that brings up the issue of resource control. Resource control doesn’t mean that the Niger-Delta takes all the resources and gives nothing back to Nigeria. It only means that nothing is taken out without the communities being consulted. From the late 90s there were some serious moves towards harmonising these positions.

 You had the Kaiama declaration, the Urhobo declaration, the Oron bill of rights and others. By the time all these bills of right and charters are put side-by-side, you’ll find out that each of these people are making the same demands. And if this process had continued, and I believe the process has to resume, the people will now find out, why are we fighting ourselves? Let’s stand together and make cogent demand on the Nigerian nation. If the people stand together, the government will have to accede to their demands and look at the situation objectively. Because what is going on now is gross injustice. Right now the government is supposed to be giving 13% derivation and even this is grudgingly given...

Do you see all these leading to a national conference, sovereign or otherwise?

I believe you have hit the nail on the head. The call for sovereign national conference is the solution to the challenges facing this nation.

Those who are opposed to it are just doing it out of selfish interest. It is better for us to sit down and talk freely about the future of this country rather than think that we can paper over it. We can have a government sponsored national conference. Who elected who in the national assembly? Who elected who at the local government level, judging by the last so called election? How many people in the national assembly have the moral right and can look the people in the eye and say I represent you and believe in their heart that they are saying the truth?

We need to allow representatives of the ethnic nations and various professional and workers’ groups in this nation to sit down on the table and discuss. Discussion won’t kill anybody. It is quite clear that Nigeria should remain as Nigeria, but the mode of relationship is what we must look at. I would advise the government to facilitate the process of Nigerians sitting together and discuss without preconditions and that is by a sovereign national conference.

Who will call the conference?

If I were President  Obasanjo, the only point I will have to prove to Nigerians is the future of this nation. He has been a military head-of-state and he is president for the second term running. Right now, he can subject himself to a sovereign committee that will determine the direction of this nation. And that is the only way he can write his name in gold in the history of this nation. If he goes on the way he has chosen now he may please a few people, but at the end of the day, history will give him very hard knocks.

But he won’t be there to receive the knocks.

I think that any man that thinks of only when he is alive on earth, as being the only time that he has to care about what happens here is a very pitiable person. You have to think about posterity, not to mention the other dimensions.

You worked as an activist during the military regime and now in civilian regime, can you draw similarities and differences in both experiences?

As an activist, it was easier for ERA to work under the military. Because then, you knew where the shots were coming from. You could hit them very hard and everybody would know that yes, they deserve the knocks. But under the semblance of democracy, the situation is different. It took us time. It is a different ball game. I mean, the human rights abuses still continue but in a different way. But on the gross, if you took the Niger-Delta as example, I believe that many people have lost their lives under questionable circumstances under the civilians just like under the military. And the civilians have just been here for just a shorter period of time.

 That is when you factor-in the Odi massacre. But it is a different thing working as an activist in a “democracy”, because now you have the freedom to speak without having to look over your shoulder too much. Under the military you never know when you are going to be picked up. But you could say anything about them and you don’t have to give apologies for it. But under the civilian you have to be a bit more careful about your facts and your strategies.

 It took us as an organisation up to one year to check our strategies and methods. And we have seen clearly that we have to work within the structures on the ground, that is why we started a democracy out-reach project by which we’ve learnt how to work with government agencies, how to reach out to them and how to influence government policies and talk to lawmakers of different shades, just to engage them, hoping that they will help get the environment safer for us and for posterity. And I would say so far this would not have been possible during the military and so that is a big plus for having democracy, no matter the type and by whatever means.