Ogoni spirits unbroken by new repression

David Orr reports on the Nigerian army's brutal reign in Ken Saro- Wiwa's home territory

A pall of fear hangs over this land, still blighted two years after the departure of Shell by oil spills and the ugliness of rusting pipes criss-crossing the fields.

Repression in Ogoniland has intensified after the execution of the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight fellow Ogoni civil rights activists by the Nigerian military regime.

At military checkpoints along main roads local people are being harassed and money extorted from them. Travel is restricted and public meetings have been banned. Supporters of Ken Saro-Wiwa's Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop) claim that more than 50 teachers, pastors and other prominent community members have been arrested and detained in the past two weeks.

"People here are terribly frightened since the executions," Benjamin, a primary school teacher in the village of Kegbara Dere, known locally as K Dere, said. "The place is now full of the military and we're afraid they could kill us at any time."

This is the heart of Ogoniland, a rural backwater populated by farmers and fishermen. K Dere is one of the main villages in the Gokana area, where the eight men who were hanged alongside Ken Saro-Wiwa came from. It is also the home area of the four Mosop members for whose murder last year the Ogoni Nine were convicted.

"We are suffering a lot now," Lekyee, a teacher colleague of Benjamin and, like him, a supporter of Mosop, said. "The Ogoni people are not free to express their views. Mosop has been driven underground. There are soldiers and government agents all around. In the Gokana area alone there are now 3,000 soldiers. If you say you're a supporter of Ken Saro-Wiwa you will be arrested and jailed. We're not even allowed to mourn his death."

Benjamin is preparing a report after a recent meeting between the headmasters of Ogoni schools and Major Obi Abel Umahi, who in effect rules Ogoniland as head of the Internal Security Force in the region.

Major Obi has issued a directive prohibiting staff meetings and bringing all school activities under the military. Priests have been warned that their sermons are being monitored and that any mention of Saro-Wiwa will be punished.

The military fears that teachers and other educated people in Ogoniland are fomenting unrest. Nuns at one convent were so traumatised following a visit in recent days by the State Security Service that they were too frightened to speak to the Independent.

Major Obi denies that Mosop is being outlawed and said the organisation's claims were propaganda to discredit the Nigerian government.

Ogoniland is a small densely populated region of half a million people on whose behalf an environmental and economic rights campaign was led by Saro-Wiwa. He claimed that more than three decades of oil exploration and drilling by Shell had devastated the land and deprived the people of wealth in which they should have shared. His calls for self-determination and a greater share of oil revenue from the government proved to be his undoing.

Though the environmental degradation is perhaps not as bad as Mosop would like to make out, unwelcome reminders of Shell's operations still litter the lush landscape. At one location on the outskirts of K Dere, hissing gas leaks from a rusted well head. Not far away is another well head which started seeping oil into the ground last year. It stopped suddenly but locals fear it could start again at any time.

Shell said it was too dangerous for its staff to go into Ogoniland for repair work on oil installations. The company said it used contractors for such jobs. Shell admits responsibility for three-quarters of the oil spills in those parts of the Niger delta where it is still operating. But it claims that in the last eight years of its presence in Ogoniland, 69 per cent of oil spills there were caused by sabotage.

"We haven't seen the same level of agitation against Shell and the government as in Ogoniland," Egbert Imomoh, general manager of Shell's eastern division in Nigeria, said. "The Ogonis' demands have gone further than those of other minorities. There was widespread sabotage in Ogoniland and we don't pay compensation in such cases. Our staff and equipment were facing so much danger that in the end we decided to withdraw."

Shell has in recent years mounted a vigorous community aid programme in an effort to win over inhabitants of the oil producing areas. School blocks, health centres and roads have been built. And significant sums of money paid out where oil production operations are taking place. The people of K Dere, however, claim that all they have got out of Shell has been one school block and some classroom equipment. They say that only one local man was employed in a senior staff position by Shell.

"We used no violence against Shell employees," Benjamin insisted. "But if Shell comes back then things could get violent. Mosop has always been a peaceful organisation. Although it's been suppressed, it's still in our minds. We now feel very aggressive towards Shell."

For its part, the world's largest oil company has resolved not to return to Ogoniland without the good will of its inhabitants.

Shell, which operates in the Niger delta as a joint venture partner with the Nigerian government and two other European oil companies, is regarded as a collaborator with successive repressive regimes including that of General Sani Abacha, who has been in power for two years and is set to stay for at least another three.

The Nigerian government is conducting a policy of wilful neglect in Ogoniland. Schools, health centres and roads are in an appalling state of disrepair. Services such as electricity and telephones are largely non- existent.

The people face levels of persecution which are extreme even by the abysmal standards of the current military regime. There is little evidence, however, that the Ogonis have been cowed by the execution of their hero, Ken Saro- Wiwa. If anything, they are more ebullient than ever.

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