A Report Back from Ilajeland, Nigeria
By Nnimmo Bassey, Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action based in Nigeria
Originally posted Wednesday, 09 July 2008 go to Environmental Rights Action for original post.
Standing on the shores of the creek at Igbokoda, one is regaled by sounds of laughter and Makosa music and views of roaring boats and silent ones gliding by. But my mind was hooked on far off Awoye as the sun begun the downward slide.
Enraptured by fishes swirling in basins and buckets, traders haggling and making deals, boat boys howling for passengers and fuel dealers waiting idly by their pumps, my eyes were fixed on the boat builders down the creek and the hopes that powered their hammers driving nails that held the wood tightly together even before the tapes, the glues and the tar step in as the final seal. Could these talented guys be remotely related to Noah of old?
Thoughts of the impending boat ride to Ugbo, Bowoto and Awoye evoked deep memories of ruthless responses of oil giants to unrepentantly accommodating villagers in the oil fields of Nigeria. With the best time set for the next morning, there was sufficient time today to look up Igbokoda and see how things had changed over time.
The Igbokoda waterfront remains the centre of activity in this small town. The major road in the town ends here and for many this is the exit point on journeys to the backwoods of their origins. The water has a permanent sheen of waste oil on it and with its generally brackish look any thought of guessing its depth would be nothing but an exercise in futility.
The town boasts of offices for both the NNDC and the OSOPADEC. One of the key projects executed under the NNDC here is a water supply scheme that has remained uncompleted even if it had been commissioned. It stands as a wicked taunt.
Evening came rapidly and reveries set with the setting sun. At the hotel, a sleepy receptionist takes her time to perform the check in rituals. When it is done, one had to struggle to ensure that no so-called air freshener was placed or sprayed in the room. Nothing can replace the natural breeze and the fragrance of the several stews bubbling over firewood fires and gas cookers in the neighbourhood. Electricity would be provided from 7 PM and would stay on for twelve hours. This power is not from the national grid but from the hotel’s private generating set. This, to this writer, is the epitome of privatisation. The government has to get as small as possible and allow private initiative to flourish. In today’s Nigeria most citizens provide their own water, electricity, roads and sometimes education! This is neoliberalism at its best: a case of survival of the most rugged while “fragile” politicians laugh all the way to the bank and leave helpless citizens to swim against the tide of imposed difficulties.
The proprietor of the hotel announces that in the entire 2007 electricity from the national grid winked on 27 days only. He kept the log, he assured me. Sounded cute. 27 days in 2007. Those zeros between the 2 and 7 are appropriate scores for a farsighted government acclaimed to be the best by huge signposts.
Time to sleep. But the door from my hotel room to a balcony does not have any locks. Nothing to worry about? Really? In 2008 Nigeria? In the Niger Delta? Fantastic. I demanded for locks, just to lock my mind off to sleep and soon a chain was procured, a padlock was brought and the burglar proof at the door was held shut.
Early in the morning we were at the waterfront and soon on our way in a quick slash through the waves. A few minutes into the creeks we are welcomed by thick mangrove forests and calm waters. Traders and fisher folks bob on the waves as we trouble the waters with our outboard engine. Soon we are passing by communities still wearing scars of needless communal conflicts of yesteryears.
An hour later we disembark at Ugbo. The quiet town was coming alive with the rising sun. Many of the folks had already gone to eke out a living whichever way they can. Ugbo , the heart of Ilajeland, can equally be accessed by road from Igbokoda, but this would be the much you could go by that means.
Several hectares of wetland here are being sand-filled by a Dutch company for the Ondo State government for urban development. A legal practitioner from the community whom we met informed us that it was doubtful if an Environmental and other Impact Assessment documents for the project were ever published for comments in the community.
As the centre of Ilaje land, it was only right to brook the idea that this was 10 years after Chevron chaperoned Nigerian troops to attack armless Ilaje youths at the Parabe platform off the Awoye coast. We asked a community leader if he was aware that the case was going for trial in San Francisco USA in September. He assented. When asked what he thought the outcome would be and how the oil mogul may defend itself, he responded with questions:
“Will Chevron say our youths were not shot? Will they say that two of youths were not killed? What will they say?”
Our boat ride took us further through Ugbonla, Ilowo, Bowoto and several other communities. Signs of wooden NDDC jetties and reinforced concrete ones built by OSOPADEC dot the shoreline. The NNDC jetties appear to abut locations where there are primary schools and they are also fitted with rest rooms also found at the many petrol stations along the coasts.
At Awoye we went as close as we could to the mouth of the canal from where the open sea beckoned. At the distance gas flares help us to see the Parabe Platform 9 kilometres away; and the Ewan platform a mere 2 kilometres away. As we bobbed on the choppy waves, vivid images of the tale of the chopper assault on Ilaje youths at the Parabe Platform on 28 May 1998 came to mind. The youths had embarked on a peaceful direct action to call leaders of the oil giant to engage in a dialogue with leaders of the community. What they got instead was a murderous attack and a decade of denial.
Today the demands of the people remain unmet.
Life in the communities hangs on a thread. Pent up anger is just being contained by the accommodating disposition of the people who remain hopeful that one day, somehow, their cries will be listened to.
Since the canalisation of the area, salt water from the ocean has completely altered their ecosystem and overturned their means of survival. According to some leaders in Awoye, for healthcare they depend on patent medicine dealers in the community and if anything more serious occurs they must go all the way to Igbokoda, Okitikpukpa and beyond.
The people depend on the rain for potable water. Because of insufficient rainwater harvesting systems, the people depend on wastewater from a Chevron facility for drinking and other domestic uses. The people know that the wastewater from the Chevron facility is toxic and have been told so by officials of the oil mogul. The people insist that although they know that the water is poisoning them, they have no option but to drink it as they could not drink salt water. A glass of this toxic water looks like a glass of tea.
Shockingly, there was no functioning waterworks in Awoye. An effort made by the NDDC is a totem to official sarcasm.
It was quite revealing that the Baale (or royal father) of the community was mending fishing nets when we met him. He would be going out to sea soon and hopefully would make a catch. There were no fishes in the shallow waters and the creeks have all been invaded by salt water. One leader went down memory lane and said that their tradition demanded that visitors to any home in the community should be welcomed with a cup of water. And a fish dish. Fish? Yes. Water? No, thanks. But there was no fish in sight.
One cannot but notice some efforts at improvements in the community by the NDDC and the OSOPADEC. The primary school in the community had been built by NDDC, but stood empty, as the few teachers who agree to live in the community had joined the national teachers strike. Kids were seen casting fishing nets beneath the classroom block in futile hope of catching anything but plastic bags and pieces of wood.
OSOPADEC had built some homes in the community. Judging by the Baale’s residence, which ought to be the best, this is a cheap affair. The houses are built with wooden planks fixed outside the wooden frames. From inside the house, the entire wall frames are exposed making the buildings rather flimsy and just a bit sturdier than those built with raffia palm shards. There is no insulation and sound travel freely through the entire structure. Without mosquito nets and other environmental controls, it is easy to see why malaria is rampant in these parts.
Throughout the community one encountered sighs of justified discontent. Small businesses cry for help. Coastal erosion is receiving some attention from OSOPADEC in a stricture that is neither sturdy nor deep and would itself be washed away. Superstores in canoes move through the creeks paddling and peddling goods brought in from the cities. Water in sachets enjoy quick sales and are prized items here. The children find some education in church halls, some standing by the door, proudly shouting the alphabets to their parents searching for mudskippers nearby. Young men hang around, thoughts and questions filling their heads.
Ten years after the Parabe murders, what has changed for the Ilajes and the oil industry that continues to suck their land dry of life, yet giving nothing in return? These thoughts trailed our boat as the wake behind us broke the serenity of the families paddling firewood and water in kegs, as well as those watching over their fish traps and nets embedded in water hyacinth.