“If you shut up the truth and bury it underground, it will but grow and gather to itself such explosive power, that the day it burst through, it will blow up everything in its way.” – Emile Zola, French author (1840-1920)
I could not find a more apt expression than that of Emile Zola, to portray the recent out of court settlement between the Nigerian subsidiary of Shell (the Anglo Dutch oil conglomerate) and the family of Ken Saro-Wiwa and others. Beyond the rhetoric’s of the $15.5 million paid as compensation to the Ogoni’s, this belated deal only reinforces that truth and justice can be suppressed but never silenced.
The scenario to this judgment, started way back before 1995, when Ken Saro-Wiwa and his companions were sent to their graves by Sani Abacha’s government. Ken dared tell truth to power. His crime was that he said no to the violation of Ogoniland, where the flora and fauna were flayed, where fish had disappeared from their meals because the water was save no longer. He shouted out that the very air that his people breathed was filled with fumes. Instead of correcting their grievances, Shell and Abacha elected to can them forever. Or so they thought.
While I don’t intend to canonise Ken, his tactics were criticised by some as being in most cases high handed. Some actually accused him of having the illusions of grandeur. Nonetheless, the situation in the Niger Delta (including Ogoni) limns the curse of oil. As much as the militancy in the delta has deviated from Ken’s ideals, so also has the inability of government to response to crisis, never have been so glaring. Had the Ogoni’s demand been addressed in years past, perhaps the government would have averted the war there.
It is not so intriguing that oil firms in Nigeria will stop at nothing to prevent exploration. “This giant produces desirable oil,” say Andy Rowel et al in The Next Gulf: London, Washington and Oil Conflict in Nigeria (2005: Constable). Other reasons why the West will stop at nothing (in connivance with the establishment) to ‘flush’ out any resistance in the delta are:
• “First, it is light (in terms of gravity), which means less refining.
• “Secondly, it is known within the industry as ‘sweet’ – its low sulphur content means it is highly desirable by Western refineries.
• “Thirdly, it is closer to the Middle East, to the hungry markets of Western Europe and America, and close to easy shipping lanes. A tanker takes three weeks to reach US from Nigeria, rather than eight weeks it takes from Saudi Arabia.” (Next Gulf: 2005, pg9)
Granted that no group should hold a state to ransom, nor should any government abdicate her responsibilities to anarchy. Nonetheless, violence always begets more violence. As much as I don’t subscribe to the criminal dispositions of Niger Delta militants (kidnapping of people or destroying oil installations), I doubt if a show of force will effect the change we all desire. Unfortunately, it is the voiceless – innocent men, women and children – that are the victims. The vested interests that sponsor and abate these militants will most certainly not be affected.
Besides, on what moral authority does the government hinge its attack on? If the so-called ‘criminals’ in the delta deserve some heat, what about the ‘pen-criminals’ in Abuja? When will government muster the courage to fight corruption within her fold? Or are politicians who rig elections – killing and injuring their fellow citizens in the process – not worse enemies of the state?
“I tell you this, I may be dead but my ideals will not die,” were Ken’s words in the book quoted above. The truth is that the delta crisis will not disappear overnight. It is like a chain reaction, which will only be terminated with concessions from all sides. The government should show more concrete and sincere intentions to develop the region. The deltans should also try to more flexible and accommodating in their demand. While the oil companies should uphold high standards, as they do in other countries, in the communities they operate. If not, I do not see this oil fire ever dying; it will continue to burn all that gets close to it.