Avoiding the Ogoni Tragedy in Idumuje-Ugboko; By Owei Lakemfa

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I was close to the environmentalist and writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa. We often dicussed the Niger Delta and environmental pollution. At a point, he was made the Spokesperson of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP).

In this position, he campaigned vigorously against the destructive activities of transnational oil corporations in Ogoniland. At a point, whenever he issued press statements, he sent them to me for dissemination in media houses, and publication in the VANGUARD Newspapers where I worked and he was a columnist.

Then disagreements arose within the Ogoni elites which also affected MOSOP. For instance, while Ogoni elites led by Chief Edward Nna Kobani, who was Campaign Director General of Chief Moshood Abiola in the June 12, 1993 presidential election, campaigned that Ogonis vote for him, the MOSOP under Saro-Wiwa and its youth wing, the National Youth Council of Ogoni People (NYCOP), decided that the Ogonis should boycott the election.

Today, 26 years later, another intra-communal crisis is on, this time in Idumuje-Ugboko in Aniocha North Local Government Area of Delta State. As in the Ogoni case, the elites in the town have disagreements that have split them into two antagonistic camps. Like MOSOP, the Idumuje Ugboko Development Union is split into two, and clashes have already occurred, including a serious one in May 2017 in which two persons reportedly died. This is disputed by the other faction.

There were also differences in opinion on how to handle the oil companies operating in Ogoniland. When the internal disagreements continued, the founding MOSOP president, Dr. Garrick Barilee Leton, a former Minister of Education, and his executive resigned and Saro-Wiwa took over.

When in 1994, the Abacha military regime decided to hold a Constitutional Conference which many thought was a disingenuous way of the dictator trying to hold on to power by transforming into a civilian president, Saro-Wiwa disagreed and decided to attend.

I met him a few days before he left Lagos for Ogoniland to campaign to be elected a delegate to the Abacha conference. Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, then President of the anti-military coalition, Campaign for Democracy, CD, and I tried to dissuade Saro-Wiwa from attending the Abacha conference.

MOSOP was one of the affiliates of the CD and since the organisation and other pro-democracy organisations had decided to boycott the conference, we thought it inadvisable for MOSOP to break ranks. But Saro-Wiwa stuck to his guns and went for his campaign rally in Ogoniland which held on May 21, 1994. However, the regime appeared not to want him at its conference either; the junta’s security men escorted him out of Ogoniland.

While the campaign rally was on, Ogoni elites who were not on Saro-Wiwa’s side, were holding a meeting in the Gokana part of Ogoni. This meeting was attacked by some youths and four of the attendees were hacked to death. These were Chief Edward Kobani, former MOSOP Vice President; Albert Tombari Badey, a former Secretary to the Government and Head of Service to the Rivers State government from 1987-1993; Samuel Orage and Theophilus Orage, brothers-in-law of Saro-Wiwa. He and 15 others were accused of masterminding the murders and tried by a tribunal. Six, including then MOSOP Deputy President, Ledum Mitee, were freed, while Saro-Wiwa and eight others were on November10, 1995, hanged for the murders.

Inter-communal conflicts, like those in a family, are unending. They can go on for generations and would potentially cripple development and needed unity. With such conflicts, the community becomes quite vulnerable. It becomes like a body with weak immune system which is susceptible to opportunistic diseases. Africans say it is only when the wall opens itself the lizard can have the opportunity of penetrating it.

The deaths were an unmitigated tragedy from which Ogoniland has not recovered and the country may never be able to wash itself clean.

Today, 26 years later, another intra-communal crisis is on, this time in Idumuje-Ugboko in Aniocha North Local Government Area of Delta State. As in the Ogoni case, the elites in the town have disagreements that have split them into two antagonistic camps. Like MOSOP, the Idumuje Ugboko Development Union is split into two, and clashes have already occurred, including a serious one in May 2017 in which two persons reportedly died. This is disputed by the other faction.

This year has also witnessed skirmishes.

Chief Chris Ogwu, the Iyase (Prime Minister) of the town was my senior in the then University of Ife (Now, Obafemi Awolowo University). In my first year, which was his final year, I stayed four rooms away, while one of my best friends, John Onwah, stayed in the same room with him.

He was a noted footballer. When I went for the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), programme in Kano, Chris was working there as a journalist and he welcomed me with a memorable outing. We later worked together in the GUARDIAN Newspapers where he rose to be Sports Editor. When my maternal grandmother died in 2000 and was buried in Oleh, Delta State, Chris drove all the way from Lagos to attend.

You can imagine how shocked I was when he told me that during the May 2017 disturbances in the town, he was brutalised, his legs dislocated, his cars and house vandalised. On the opposite side of the conflict is Azuka Jebose Molokwu, one of the most conscientious journalists I have ever come across.

He was a very resourceful journalist who carries out campaigns for peoples’ rights, including the right of journalists to receive just wages. Even from his new base in the United States, he waged a war against a powerful media organisation, forcing it to pay staff entitlements, including to those who had disengaged.

I also know a few other persons on both sides of the divide in this potentially debilitating but avoidable war in which princes are digging trenches on opposite sides and the rich and powerful in the town are standing eyeball to eyeball. In the meantime, the contentious issues, like the COVID-19 virus, are mutating. Initially the primary issue appeared to be over land, now the central issue is more of a tussle over succession: which faction wins the traditional crown in succession to the late King Albert Nwoko.

Inter-communal conflicts, like those in a family, are unending. They can go on for generations and would potentially cripple development and needed unity. With such conflicts, the community becomes quite vulnerable. It becomes like a body with weak immune system which is susceptible to opportunistic diseases. Africans say it is only when the wall opens itself the lizard can have the opportunity of penetrating it.

The issue is not what the truth in the conflict is: each side would always have its truths, otherwise they would not have the followers they parade. Also, the important thing is not which side is correct; even if the courts so rule, it may not change the reality on ground which basically is that the people of Idumuje-Ugboko are divided. There can be no ready winners in a fratricidal war; as the reality in Ogoniland shows, there can only be losers and this can go on for generations.

The rest of us do not need to wait for a bloodbath in the town before trying to make peace. The Delta State Government has the duty to bring all sides together, more so when rampaging bandits in the country can build a base there. The National Orientation Agency can also move in; so should organisations interested in peace and conflict resolution. On this score, if anybody is game, so am I.

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