Oil spillage fuels Nigerian rivalries

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The Independent Online
JOHN NTORUE padded barefoot across the dirt floor of his one-room palm wine distillery to inspect his dilapidated roof. 'No more bamboo to keep out the rain,' he said.

All around his home the bamboo had become lifeless brown stalks. The palm trees, backbone of his trade, were dying too. Black blobs hung on the plants, and the water of the nearby creek was like grease.

A few yards downstream was the source of the trouble: an oil spill. Mr Ntorue, a 50- year-old father of five, lives next to an oil pipeline that burst two months ago, spraying crude oil from the Korokoro pumping station into the air. Besides the trees and bamboos, 10 of his chickens and dozens of fish died. 'When I first saw it blow, I said that one done bust. I do not know what to do because we have nothing.'

No one had come out to the area, on the oil-rich delta of the Niger River, said Mr Ntorue, since the incident occurred. But that, according to Nnaemeka Achebe, general manager in Nigeria of the petroleum giant Shell, was the fault of local residents who would not permit a clean-up.

What is indisputable is that the damaged pipe is still oozing oil into the water system on which thousands of people depend for drinking water. Like hundreds of other peasants and fisherman, Mr Ntorue has became a virtual refugee in an increasingly bitter clash between the Ogoni people, a fierce and articulate ethnic group in south-eastern Nigeria, and Shell and the Nigerian government.

Led by the author Ken Saro- Wiwa, the 500,000-strong Ogonis are campaigning for the right to more control over oil revenues, to greater compensation for environmental damage and political autonomy. Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni leaders have been waging the battle for the past 25 years. But the drive was stepped up in 1990, after Saro- Wiwa said he heard a voice tell him that Ogoni children should not suffer, and formed the militant Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop). It claims that the Nigerian government and the oil company are waging a war against the Ogonis.

But, says Mr Achebe, 'the Ogonis are trying everything to misrepresent the oil companies'. Not, he adds, because they are really that bad: 'To put a multinational company in a bad light is the easiest way to draw attention.'

While Mosop insists it is non-violent, Shell said it was forced to withdraw staff from the region last January after one of its workers was beaten and his car burned.

Its ranks swelled by unemployed Ogoni youths, Mosop has little time for members of its community who reject its tough stance. Several traditional chiefs have been forced to flee to the city of Port Harcourt for their dissenting views.

Mosop's demands for a greater slice of revenues from oil drilled on the 400 square miles of Ogoni land and for political autonomy have so alarmed Nigeria's military government that security agents have detained Saro-Wiwa four times since April, most recently in June on charges of sedition. He was released a month later, and remains in a hospital bed in Port Harcourt suffering from heart trouble.

But the government's action has helped the cause, says Saro-Wiwa. 'You cannot safeguard the environment if you do not have political power,' he said. 'When we started to make a political case, that began to draw some attention.'

Saro-Wiwa has taken his crusade to the West, securing an audience at the International Court of Justice at The Hague. Mosop was accepted into the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples' Organisation (Unpo), whose former members include the now- independent states of Georgia and Latvia.

The Nigerian government has condemned Mosop for allegedly writing a national anthem, designing a flag and printing its own currency.

The Ogonis are the most militant of a myriad of small ethnic groups along the Niger delta in Nigeria's river and delta states who are sitting on literally billions of dollars of oil but also suffer the brunt of pollution caused by the industry.

All mineral rights in Nigeria belong by law to the national government. Revenues are then distributed throughout the 30-state federation of 90 million people, comprising more than 250 ethnic groups. But, say Ogoni leaders, because the government in Abuja is controlled by the country's three main ethnic groups, the Hausa-Fulani, the Yoruba and the Ibo, they feel that they have become second-class citizens.

'We are all black but we are not one people. We worship different gods, our cultures are different,' said Saro-Wiwa. 'I am prepared to stay in the same country, but it must be on the basis of social justice and equity.'

(Photograph omitted)