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How resilience, resistance rekindled hope of OML 25 host communities

Plundered environment of host communities

Two years after host communities of Oil Mining License (OML) 11 in Rivers State initiated a non-violence resistance against Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), in protest against abysmal living conditions in their domain, a truce has finally been brokered. Expectedly, the people are highly elated.

Oilfields in OML 25 host communities namely Belema, Offoin-Ama, Ngeje, Kilama, Diaba, and Okoama have been producing about 35, 000 barrels of crude oil per day for decades. But while significant revenue has been generated from these oilfields for Shell and the Federal Government, the communities that bear this essential commodity have been living in misery and abject poverty.

For decades, these communities have consistently deplored the squalid conditions that they thrive in, as well as the stark lack of access to basic infrastructure and amenities such as potable water, good roads, hospitals, schools, electricity and so on. Sadly, all their cries were ignored by the powers that be.

Other issues such as environmental pollution and unemployment, which are rife in these communities, and an attempt by Shell to divest its stakes in OML 25 to a non-indigenous company contributed to the anger that culminated in the shut down of the transnational oil firm’s flow station in August 2017.

Quite unlike the violent activism of the past, many communities in the Niger Delta grappling with destructive activities of oil and gas companies in their domain have been learning from the Ogoni non-violence resistance, by forming local, national, and international activist networks.

The Publicity Secretary of the Pan-Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF), Anabs Sara-Igbe, who hails from the area told The Guardian that after years of Shell and Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) treating OML 25 host communities as thrash, and not honouring their corporate social responsibility obligations, the people decided to shut down the flow station first in 2004.

Sara-Igbe, who described the far-flung host communities as some of the poorest areas in the country, with vast population living in extreme poverty, explained that after government intervention in 2004, the companies resumed their lucrative business, while the people’s living conditions deteriorated.

“We have been agitating for long, as the flow station was shut down as far back as 2004. When the government intervened, we let them re-open it. In 2008, the place was again shut down, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed, and we let them resume again. In 2014, the same thing happened, so in 2017, the communities said they have had enough, and that was how they shut down the place.”

He explained that before the August 2017 shutdown, the communities had petitioned President Muhammadu Buhari, and the Group Managing Director of NNPC, complaining that Shell had reneged on the General Memorandum of Understanding it signed with the communities since 2005.

“There was no time Shell provided us water. Electricity was provided from OML 55 communities, and Belemaoil is expanding it. Infrastructure in our communities were poor. It is Belemaoil that is building roads now. The federal and state governments under the military regime gave us water, but the water had a lot of iron and it was not too good for consumption. If you fetch it today, the following day the whole water will be coloured. So, we have not been using the water. Recently, the state government has not done anything for us, but Belemaoil has provided us with a world-class water facility,” he said.

Sara-Igbe added that while the “environmental and humanitarian crimes” leveled against Shell and the government were still unaddressed, in 2014, the communities were hinted that Shell was planning to divest its stakes to Nigerian independent Crestar Integrated Natural Resources Limited, and Canadian outfit, James Bay Resources.

“They would have sold OML 25 in 2014, but the community insisted that if they want to sell it, they should sell it to an indigenous contractor, which Shell declined, and the communities insisted that they would not allow them to operate,” he said.

It would be recalled that the former Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs. Diezani Allison Maduekwe in 2014, thwarted the sale of OML 25 to Crestar for $500m.

Sara-Igbe asserted that considering that the operation of Shell has been inimical, and has brought nothing, but hardship to affected communities, the people felt that selling the stakes in OML 25 to another company not indigenous to the Niger Delta would worsen their plight. So, that was how the agitation for the non-renewal of operating license of Shell peaked.

To demonstrate their resolve to change the OML 25 communities’ narrative, hundreds of infuriated youths from Belema stormed the Shell Flow Station; shut it down and demanded that the oil fields should be given to an indigenous oil company, Belemaoil Producing Limited, founded by their own son, Mr. Jack-Rich Tein Jr, who understands and appreciates their predicament.

One of the leaders of the protesting youths, Mr. Iselema Ekini, had lamented that they were tired of remaining aloof and poor, while people from other parts of the country working with multinational oil companies that are operating in the area live in affluence.

“We have seen how Belemaoil has employed youths, built markets, clinics, in the places they operate. This has proved that an indigenous oil company would look after its host communities better. We therefore urged Shell not to seek renewal of OML-25 license, but allow Belemaoil to take over,” he stated then.

Polluted Pond

The King of Belema, Bourdilon Oko, who during the protest grieved that any semblance of infrastructure in the community before 2017 was put in place by communal efforts, argued that since Shell’s license had expired, their stay in the community was now considered illegal.

“Whatever you see in this community was done by us. Each time we asked Shell to help, it refused. Their license has since expired, so their stay here is now illegal. We object to any attempt to renew the license, but we want it to hand over to Belemaoil for us to see jobs and development, plus empowerment of our youths like others.”

However, while the occupation was ongoing, Shell paid the Federal Government all necessary fees for the renewal of OML 25 in October 2018.

Weeks before the payment was made, precisely in October, the Federal Government and the oil company, which had over the years failed woefully to pay attention to the communities’ needs, deployed five naval gunboats and seven speed boats manned by soldiers to chase away occupiers of the Belema Flow Station. This was in line with the chequered history of crude exploration in the Niger Delta, which has been characterised by conflict, intimidation and human rights abuses. But, the people were not perturbed.

The communities’ resolve to address historical injustices inflicted on them, was interpreted by Shell as “unlawful occupation” of its facility. It also added that all entreaties to resolve these grievances through dialogue were rebuffed.

Shell further accused the communities of demanding the transfer of the ownership and operatorship of the facilities to their preferred indigenous oil firm, under the pretext that it has over the years neglected their interests.

But Mrs. Ogbumate Opumabo, one of the women that occupied the flow station said they were pained that while proceeds from oil was swelling government coffers at all levels, as well as that of the multinational oil companies, the 40 years of oil exploration was yet to reflect on their social welfare and economic status.

“We occupied the flow station for two years because the condition we saw in our community was very pathetic; a community that its natural endowment brings in huge amount of money was perishing in abject poverty. So, we felt it was time to rescue our people. For over 40 years that Shell operated in the area, there was no development, and we were neglected. So, we took the decision that the flow station will not be operated by Shell again.”

She continued: “Since good things don’t come easy, we subjected ourselves to sufferings, endured mosquito bites, and even set up a church where we fasted and prayed to God every Wednesday and Sunday. Some of us gave birth to babies at the facility, where we also had our pots, plates, mats and everything that we needed to facilitate our occupation. Our experience there is unexplainable, but we are happy that at the end, God answered us.”

For Mrs. Dokubo Blekpele, “during our stay at the platform, we were not deterred by anything, even threats by the local council did not shake us. It was the case of Esther in the Bible who said, if I perish, I perish. Even if it was one cup of garri that was available, all of us fed with that and we were satisfied. We sang and prayed with hope that one day, our tears would be wiped away and we are excited that our tears are finally wiped.”

Confronted with allegations of gross neglect of OML 25 host communities in the past 40 years, Shell’s media manager, Mr. Bamidele Odugbesan said the company has gone past that stage.

“We have passed that stage, okay! I don’t have any response to that because we have really passed that stage. This thing started over two years. Now, the matter has been resolved as the NNPC has waded in. The Minister of State for Petroleum also waded in.”

Considering the fact that the country and Shell were losing money, the Rivers State government waded into the matter in 2018, leading to the creation of the Kula Project Implementation and Monitoring Committee (PIMC), to serve as an interim platform for the delivery of social investment initiatives, and GMoU, which had suffered delay in implementation because of in-fighting among the different communities.

On June 22, 2019, Governor Nyesom Wike at a meeting, which had in attendance Shell and representatives of OML 25 host communities, at the Government House, Port Harcourt, directed all parties in the dispute to, within seven days resolve all contending issues and reopen the oil facility.

In attendance were Secretary to the Rivers State Government, Dr Tammy Danagogo; Managing Director of Shell, Mr. Osagie Okunbor; acting Managing Director of Belema Oil, Mr. Mufa Welch; service chiefs, political and traditional leaders, chairmen of community development committees from Kula, Belema, Offoin-Ama, Opu-Kula and Ibiame of Akuku-Toru Local Council.

Wike stressed that the occupation of the flow station had negatively affected federal, state and local government funds saying, “the Federal Government, the state government and local council are all losing funds with the continued closure of the OML 25. If Shell is behaving wrongly, tell them and if Belemaoil is behaving wrongly, tell them. It is wrong for anyone to say that the Federal Government is handling the matter. When conflicts of this nature affect communities, it is for the state and local government area to resolve them.”

On July 1, 2019, Shell signed a MoU with the communities and agreed to pay the sum of N1.36b to OML 25 host communities after they agreed to reopen flow station.

But, the Rivers State government directive, and peace initiative failed to go down well with the host communities. In fact, the Offoin-Ama community spokesperson, Ibiosiya Nath-Sukubo alleged that some community chiefs were deceived by the state government to sign a MoU, which was shrouded in mystery. This led to a protest by members of the host communities a few days later, on the streets of Port Harcourt.

According to the spokesperson of the Supreme Council of Kula Traditional Rulers, Fiala Okoye-Davies, the directives that Shell should resume operation at OML 25 was very unfair to communities that were seeking justice after so many years of injustice done them.

“We remain resolute, we remain united and committed to the dream of economic liberalisation, education of our youths and emancipation from the shackles of slave masters, who have destroyed all our aquatic livelihoods with their oil pollution and wanting to sell their assets and hand us over to an unknown new slave master,” he said.

He stressed that what was in contention was a matter on the exclusive list of the Federal Government, and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation was handling it, hence, the state government should have allowed the Federal Government to resolve the matter.

Also at that time, a group, Conscience of Ogoni People (COOP) petitioned President Buhari to urgently intervene in the dispute to avert a possible deterioration of the conflict.

National Coordinator of COOP, Gani Topba also stated that the agitation of the OML 25 host communities must be seen from the prism of a struggle for the collective liberation of the Niger Delta region from the shackles of decades of exploitation, misery and environmental degradation suffered in the hands of Shell.

Topba noted that Shell had divested its participating interests in OML 18, 24 and 29 within these same communities to foreign companies, leaving the host communities to live with the 40-year-old accumulated environmental pollution caused by the company’s bad oilfield practice.

Following the uprising against the deal brokered by the state government, Belema Community sought the Federal Government’s intervention, through the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources and former governor of Bayelsa State, Timipre Sylva.

Last month, following series of negotiations, it was agreed that Shell should divest 7.7 of its stake in OML 25 to Belemaoil. Part of the agreement centred on the needs of the people, employment, infrastructural development and empowerment. These three components are to be handled by Belemaoil.

The leader of Kengema Unity Forum, Sobomabo Jack Rich, described the feat as a crowning of the hard work and people friendly operation of Belemaoil in OML 55 where over 3,000 people are currently employed.

“I also wish to congratulate the people of Belema, Offoin-Ama and Njege communities for this victory. It is indeed a good fight for their rights. It shows how strong the voice of a united people can be in the pursuit of justice, truth and fairness,” he said.

The amicable resolution of the OML 25 conflict between Shell and its host communities necessitated the visit to the area by Mr. Sylva, the GMD NNPC, Mr. Mele Kyari and several other dignitaries to the host communities penultimate Saturday.

Sylva while addressing the people said the time has come for them and the people of their region to change their strategy to enable them reap the benefits of investments in their domain, assuring that the Federal Government was determined to resolve their age-long grievances.

“It is time for us to change strategy and ensure that we begin to reap the benefits of investments to our community. If we don’t make our communities peaceful, investments cannot come. The investors are ready to come here and without investments, there will be no jobs for our youths. But unfortunately, in some cases, there is no peace. We need to ensure peace in our communities so that these investors can come and create jobs”.

On his part, Kyari said: “We had a shutdown of Belema Flow Station for over two years leading to the loss of over 25, 000 to 35, 000 barrels of oil per day, and the peace of the community and in monetary terms, that is about $ 1.7b. So the re-opening is both for the benefit of the community and the federation. We commend the President, who ensured that the crisis between them and Shell is resolved through community engagement and therefore they have agreed to vacate the facility and allow the oil operations to continue.”

Founder of Belemaoil, Mr Jack-Rich Tein Jr lauded President Buhari, for appreciating the importance of the OML 25 host communities that were once considered less important, irrespective of their immense contributions to the sustenance of the country’s economy.

“If you engage the community and make the community an important element of your business, the communities and you will have mutual values and mutual gains. If the communities are happy, your business can thrive, but if the communities are not happy, then you have lots of operational bottlenecks, sabotage and all that. The most important thing for us today is to see that the resolution, reconciliation has taken place,” he said.

The Chairman of the Bayelsa State Council of Traditional Rulers and Amanyanabo of Twon Brass, Alfred Diete Spiff, expressed optimism that the reopening of the flow station will boost the country’s revenue.

“We are all very happy; the nation needs the oil at this time and it is good that positive decisions are taken, and I commend the government for taking this bold step. We do not need to get red hot, go nuclear before government acts. I am sure that government will meet the requests of the people before situations escalate,” he said.

Former Ijaw Youth Council President, Asari Dokubo, said it was exciting to see that the resilience and an extraordinary resistance of the OML 25 host communities against decades of local and national government negligence, resulting in discontent has paid off.

“Shell said that Niger Deltans are pirates, bad people; that we are saboteurs; we sabotage their facilities and everything. And on their own, they decided that they are going to divest. So, we said if you are divesting, give us the right of first refusal, which they refused. They went and brought their retired staff to come and buy what God has given to us, so we refused. Even when the last government attempted to settle it that they should jointly manage the OML 25, they refused, but after many years of stoppage of production, we have come back to where we were,” he said.

Kalabari National Youth president, Ndume Green, told The Guardian that the resolution of the OML 25 conflict has rekindled the debate concerning the need for development in areas endowed with oil and gas.

“Shell has relinquished some of its shares, and an indigenous company has come in which gives the OML 25 communities an opportunity to benefit from the wealth in their land. I think it is a unique model, which other communities in the Niger Delta can actually adopt in terms of approaching conflict resolution with regards to oil activities in their communities. More employment opportunities will be created,” he added.

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