Josyfn Uba and Bianca Iboma
Ibiba Don Pedro is an award-winning journalist from the Niger Delta region. She has been involved in various struggles of the oil-rich region since her days in The Guardian newspaper. She is presently a part of the Amnesty Programme for victims of violence in the region.
In this interview with Daily Sun recently in Lagos, Don Pedro x-rayed the extent of the struggle so far, why the Federal Government’s Amnesty Programme should not be perpetual and why ownership of oil blocks in the Niger Delta by some ex-warlords should stop.
You were among those who championed the Niger Delta struggle, how did you get involved in the campaign and what were the goals?
It is not just the struggle of Ogoniland, it is about the inhumane (treatment) meted on the people of the Niger-Delta as a region. There are several victims and, as a journalist who had reported about general issues, I was called upon. As an Ijaw woman, it was a bit easy penetrating because of the language gift. I am from Ogoni. We all know the Ogoni story. People were being killed and arrested. There was crisis and violence in the area, but I had an attitude of living life without fear. I didn’t imagine that I would be killed. I saw the challenges of their women, children and youths. They had not been treated with respect. That was what Ken Saro Wiwa saw and was fighting against it and he was killed in 1995. The struggle has now shifted to Ijaw territory.
I met some brilliant Ijaw activists like Oronto Douglas, Felix Toudolo, Isaac Osuoka and Jaiye Gaskia and I was amazed about their struggle. It made sense to me. We sat down and discussed intellectual issues about the environment, resource control, rights of women and the communities.
Don’t forget that the oil companies’ major aim was to make profit. They never took care of the environment or the people. They were busy tapping their resources and never had any plan to develop the people. They had their way because the people had been ignorant and it was better for them to exploit.
How would you assess the amnesty programme for the Niger Delta region?
The elite in the communities have decided to hold the oil companies accountable for degrading their environment. As a voice in that region, I was invited to participate in some of the decision-making process. I came up with a concept where people could learn some skills. We set them up to do anything they wanted. It depends on the skills each person chose to acquire. My concept was Amaebi, an empowerment initiative for the Niger Delta people. In my local dialect, Amaebi literally means communal participation. The scheme is structured in stages, from training the delegates to empowerment and setting them up (in business). We call them delegates because they go back to their various communities and replicate whatever they have learnt. We made funds available for them to start the business, rented and equipped the shops.
What are the obstacles for those who have benefitted from the amnesty programme?
Most of the delegates are very young. We had a good number of them that were empowered. Some of the obstacles they faced, especially the females, was having to cater for their families. Some of them had new babies during their training year. They had younger kids to care for and other domestic commitments that weighed them down daily. One of the major challenges that usually affect those engaged in this type of empowerment programme was accessibility to funds but this was different.
Another challenge was that most of the Niger Delta states are typically civil service-oriented states, so it is affecting business, but they are coping. They can now fend for themselves and their families with the skills they acquired, be it fashion designs, barbing or any vocation. With these, they are sure of their daily bread. And we also encourage them to get shops close to their localities.
The empowerment scheme of the Amnesty Programme is not like other empowerment programmes, where the delegates would not have full access to funds or would not be adequately settled to start up their businesses after training. Delegates of the Amnesty Programme were all given funds, provided for and established completely. Today, I am proud that I was part of the initiative.
It was the late President Umaru Yar’Adua who started the Amnesty Programme and former President Goodluck Jonathan continued with it. Although President Muhammadu Buhari initially wanted to end the programme, he later continued with it.
Do you think that the programme is a solution to the challenges of the Niger Delta region or should it be stopped?
The Amnesty Programme should continue for now but we must be realistic that it is not supposed to be a permanent feature for the development of the Niger Delta. The programme should be time-based. Funds should be made available to train the region’s children in areas such as environmental protection, engineering, welding. People should be able to set up farm settlements. We should be able to feed ourselves. Amnesty cannot be forever. The programme was supposed to respond to the realities of violence. The fact remains that late President Yar’Adua made a proclamation in 2009, granting everybody who had been involved in violent activities amnesty because agitators in the Niger Delta were able to bring oil production to almost zero level. It was supposed to last for a few years. Nobody should keep talking about the programme lasting forever. That does not make sense. It is not everybody that was involved in violence.
What then will happen to those Niger Delta children who are today sitting down on bare floors in classrooms, where there are no good facilities, no infrastructure and no teachers?
The Amnesty Programme will definitely have to wind up at a point but we need to get the children of the Niger Delta properly educated so that they can take control of their destiny. The focus at the local, state and federal levels of government should be on giving quality education to the children of the Niger Delta.
Whether anybody admits or not, the Niger Delta is what keeps Nigeria together. Without the Niger Delta, there will be no Nigeria because there is nothing keeping Nigeria together than oil. It is very possible that this oil may just dry up some day. Much as it may sound scary and almost impossible, we have to be very careful. I think the most important thing is to treat the Niger Delta with respect. If people are involved in criminal activities, the police are there to step in.
We need to realise that we are no longer under military rule. There are ways by which things work under a democracy and we should resort to such measures. We always have a situation where, even with the least trouble in the Niger Delta, soldiers are sent in. I think this should stop. My people deserve some respect, too.
Would you say that the struggle has been able to achieve its goals, especially in the area of the environment?
Not exactly, the Niger Delta struggle has only succeeded in drawing attention globally to environmental degradation and violence in the region. A lot of damage has been done to the earth and region, which has affected both the oil-producing and non-oil-producing communities.
Whenever there is a spillage in communities that produce oil, it also flows to the non-oil communities. It is the duty of the federal government to make sure that we hold the oil companies accountable for degrading our environment. But, more than anything else, we are at that point where oil prices have come down and we need to ask ourselves where we are going from now on. In many communities, you discover that the only signs of development are by the oil companies and not government. But we need to move on whether we like it or not.
What is your reaction to the notion that the Niger Delta people are violent?
It is an evil machination by those who do not want this people to speak up. It is a scheme to demoralise the struggle. The Niger Delta people have been victims of squandered resources with no development in their area. The resources from the oil has been explored for 51 years with the spillage affecting their health. They should use the resources and clean up their land. It starts from there.
The damage would take about 200 years before the pollution and oil spillage of the area would be cleaned. The several activities of the 1960s military warlords owning oil blocks in the oil region should stop.
It is sad to say that in the oil-producing communities, it is only one person who owns an oil block there. However, the problems in the Niger Delta are taking on a new dimension, becoming more dangerous for women and children in the area to live and work in peace. Their lives are defined by poverty and from afar they watch as rich expatriates live comfortably from the proceeds of their land. It is a sad story of a forgotten people.
They watch as their village heads collect bribes from both the oil companies and government while they get nothing, not to mention the fund generated from oil that is being used to develop other parts of the country. They watch as their men become militants, kidnapping the rich and making money for the struggle. Again, one would think that the loud national and international outcry as a result of the 1995 execution of the renowned environmentalist and activist Ken Saro Wiwa and eight of his kinsmen by the late military dictator, Sani Abacha, would bring about long- term change. With the state of things in the region, it seems that their extreme sacrifice for the cause of their people was in vain.
Sadly enough, since then, the region has proved to be the sacrificial altar for so many men, women, youths and even children, which is not fair, at all.
What would you say is the major effect of the crisis, since your people live in a land that yields billions of dollars in oil export annually, and the masses wallow in poverty?
The Niger Delta area is one of the locations seriously affected by oil spill in Nigeria for over five decades. There is a need to investigate the effects of the Niger Delta oil crisis on the womenfolk. Oil crisis could lead to adverse effects on humans and animals, which include social, ecological, health, and economic, among others.
The environment (air, water, soil) usually indicates the presence of hydrocarbons and petrogenic pollution and this affects aquatic life and agricultural practices. It results in decrease in fishing resources, damage to marine flora and fauna, loss of biodiversity, deforestation, coastal marine erosion and flooding. The inability of the people to fix these problems and government’s insensitivity have been the cause of persistent conflicts and confrontation with government and oil companies in the area.
Women suffer great hardship in times of conflict and the Niger Delta women are no exception. During the conflicts with oil companies and government, women are subjected to all kinds of violence, physical violence such as beating, maiming, murder, and destruction of property. The effects of these conflicts on the social wellbeing of the womenfolk in this area can be assessed as environmental damage, which in turn affects agriculture. The mainstay of the economy in the region has been a topic very dear to the inhabitants.
Gas flaring, a process whereby crude oil is burnt off, pollutes the Delta’s rivers and streams and emits some 35 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and 12 million tonnes of methane a year. The construction of canals and roads has resulted in extensive environmental degradation in the region, creating stagnant ponds of water, killing forests and flooding fields. Every year, the Delta is polluted by 2.3 billion cubic metres of oil.
The world is moving from its dependence on oil and looking for more sustainable sources of energy; do you think that it is time to diversify, in order to make progress?
Some years ago, there was a huge campaign about the terrible consequences of humanity’s dependence on oil and gas; the truth is that, at conferences, the point was made and attention was drawn to the fact that most of the wars of the 20th and 21st centuries were fought over oil, and people are still fighting over oil. We need to move away from oil because it has caused so much anguish to people.
Unfortunately, because money from oil has come so cheap and plenty, our people have become lazy, but for you to get to a state where you control your development, you must move away from over-dependence on one product.
So, you are of the view that Nigeria must diversify her economy to make progress?
The resources from oil must be effectively used and utilised. There must be a clean-up of the Niger Delta environment so that we can go back to fishing and farming. There must be an end to the pumping of those substances, which cause cancer among our people, into our waters.
I can’t imagine that things people will not tolerate in other countries are being allowed to happen here. This is where we must primarily blame the various successive governments in Nigeria and also the elite in the Niger Delta. So, diversification has become necessary because oil is not going to be available forever, whether we like it or not.
The world is moving gradually from dependence on oil. People are looking for more sustainable sources of energy. People are looking at hydro and solar power. Serious-minded nations are sending astronomers to space to look for resources so that life on earth can continue, but our leaders are here spending oil money, building houses and buying cars, which, ordinarily, they cannot afford if they were not stealing. When we were younger, I remember in school when our teachers said that there are nine planets but today scientists have been able to discover multiples of planets. Things are changing globally. Our people should also move with the times. We must stop over-dependence on one product. We must be serious and stop being lazy.
Since ours is a mono-economy, how do we diversify from oil?
First of all, we must clean-up the Niger Delta and use the resources that are available now to invest in education. The Niger Delta is not all about Ogoniland. Ogoni is a small part of the Niger Delta, though an important part.
They have remained steadfast in the struggle for the protection of their environment and their rights to access the resources in their place. They stopped oil production in Ogoniland since 1993. That’s about 23 years now. They kept the struggle going but, unfortunately, while that was happening, there was a lot of illegal bunkering going on in the Ogoni area, which is destroying the Ogoni environment. Illegal bunkering is the most terrible thing our people are doing to themselves.
What do you make of the suggestion that refineries should be established in the Niger Delta region?
That is a perfect idea. That should be an antidote to the terrible consequences of oil bunkering and all that. People, including women, should be given licenses to build small refineries. People talk about development in the Niger Delta and the major beneficiaries are just the men; meanwhile, the major victims of the terrible things that happen are women. They are the farmers and fisher-women. They are the ones who get raped in the creeks and farms by soldiers and members of violent gangs. Women in the Niger Delta need to be empowered. Bribery and corruption engineered by the multinationals is so common among the chiefs and traditional rulers. In fact, it is called community politics, which is a new game for oil companies. Although their company policies have clearly stated that they cannot be involved in local politics but in its increasing willingness to fill the gap left by the Nigerian government, it is potentially taking on a role of limitless proportions and huge political risks within the villages, especially with the village heads.
Oil companies publicly deny giving ransoms when staff are kidnapped, but some private findings have shown that they do pay, which in turn contributes to ravenous local bribery and corruption. The divide-and-rule politics of the colonial masters is still in vogue. In most cases, this results in tribal disagreement and conflicts.
What is your take on the calls for restructuring, which connotes violence for some people of the region?
The restructuring is not violence; rather, the people want the oil blocks owned by certain powerful Nigerians to return to the communities. They require the communities to have trust funds where a governing body would be established to oversee the resources from the land. It is time to make amends for the injustice meted on the people of the region. We should invest in them because the greatest resources any nation can ever boast of remains the human resources .
What is your position on the obstacles that stop women from achieving leadership positions?
The women are schemed out. A woman politician was killed in Nasarawa State in the 80s. It is a do-or-die thing when a woman is vying for a political position. Yes, it is important for women to participate politically because she has a vital role to play in the development of the society and governance, especially in decision-making process.
All these are key ingredients to building democracy but our system would not permit her the full participation. It is a simple fact that no country can progress or prosper if half of the citizens are left behind. Progress for women and progress for democracy go hand-in-hand.
Today, investing in women should be at the heart of every government. Women are mentally sound. They are better than men because that is the way we were wired. The men can be stronger when you talk about fist and physique but mentally I give it to the women. They are more intelligent, diligent and tough. Women’s participation is essential to address virtually every challenge we face as a nation or community of nations. Let us implement policies that can accommodate women, and grow women’s leadership capacity in all areas of political participation and decision-making. Women are also integral to our national security. They must not only be engaged in governance., they must also be at the table in peace negotiations and work on post-conflict reconstruction. We know that without the voices of women contributing to the delicate process of conflict resolution, peace is less likely to take root.
Would you say that Niger Delta women retain certain economic responsibilities like other women in other parts of the globe?
As with women in other parts of the globe, the Niger Delta women retain certain economic responsibilities within the family as wives, mothers and farmers. First of all, they are the principal care-givers of their children and the aged. Even though they are the “food producers, procurers and preparers,” they are also expected to be significant wage earners.
This is because the intra- household income distribution patterns and the rise of women-headed households in Nigeria, coupled with poverty, often force them to take active financial roles in their families. Since most of them are uneducated and, therefore, unemployed outside the home, their main source of income is agriculture, where they comprise 60 to 80 per cent of the agricultural labour force and account for 90 per cent of family food supply. As a result of these responsibilities, Niger Delta women are always willing to fight any unfavourable condition for the realisation of these duties, hence their struggle against degradation of any sort.
What would be the challenge if the oil blocks are returned to the oil-producing communities?
There have been many contemporary conflicts in the region. History has it that the kings, the Amanayanbo’s of Nembe, the Nana of Itsekiri, King Jaja of Opobo, Oba Ovaranmewn and titled chiefs in that region had always struggled for their freedom. Whatever crisis is on the ground now is a cycle of historical grievance. Although led by modern political entrepreneurs who are also articulating modern grievances, their intensity is related to deep-rooted beliefs in a separate identity that were never completely extinguished.
The severe political and economic discrimination in the Niger Delta have left a legacy of conflict. But again, I ask, why should some people’s village be shared as oil block to certain powerful individuals as oil blocks while the rightful owners are being intimidated and cowed into some obscure corners as if they have no right to existence or even freedom to speak against the injustice meted out to them? It is absolutely inhuman. The ownership of these oil blocks by some ex-warlords in the region must stop. The people must take back what rightfully belongs to them.
An urgent task today is to persuade all stakeholders of the need not to risk the survival of the present and future Niger Delta and for the parties to transform or alter their positions, there is also the need for a more fundamental change in government’s approach. It is glaring that participants in the political space have no protection. The oil boom brought great wealth but greater corruption. Division between rich and poor is growing and subsistence practices are getting weaker.