His Royal Highness, Chief Timothy Suan Bari Dam, is the Chairman of Ogoni Traditional Rulers Council in Rivers state. In this interview with Austin Oyibode of NAIJ.com he speaks on life in Ogoniland, the living condition of the people, the state of the cleanup exercise and why the federal government should give attention to Ogoniland.
Give us a brief about Ogoniland
Ogoniland is a peaceful place, it is blessed with land and oil. But the oil has not given us any good image because the place has been destroyed because of the oil in it. We are also good at farming and fishing but all these have been destroyed because of pollution by oil. So, basically all our occupation has been destroyed within our area. Ogoni has four local government area in Rivers state. It is one of the largest ethnic groups in the state. We also have one of the best manpower in the state.
Yes, since the murder of Ken Saro Wiwa, what has been the development in the area?
I have not actually seen any difference from what Ken was fighting for because when you talk about the development, we need to start from the issue of cleaning the environment. Since the environment has not been cleaned and that was the reason he was fighting for the Ogoni people, we cannot say we have received any development. We have not received any development in terms of physical infrastructure or whatsoever.
How can you describe life in Ogoniland?
Horrible! Horrible in the sense that the water is contaminated, the same water that is contaminated and declared by World Health Organisation as undrinkable is the same water the people are drinking because they have no alternative. So you find out that in every five Ogoni persons, you have cancer in one of them. That has been the situation over the years. We have recorded a lot of deaths, almost every week. The highest problem in Ogoni now is death. We do burial every time. It’s unfortunate but we have to live by it because we do not have a voice.
Now the representatives of the people, either in the state assembly or National Assembly, what are they doing?
Basically, for now we don’t have any representative both at the state and national assemblies. INEC has denied us of that. Election has been done and cancelled. Up till now, they have not done anything. So, on the issue of representatives, we are completely not represented for now.
So, we are just among the very few people in Nigeria that are not represented at both the National and the State House of Assembly. That’s why we’ve been fighting that INEC should conduct the election, anyone who wins, whether PDP or APC, let us have a representative in the state and national assemblies.
What are the traditional rulers doing from their own end?
Basically, what can we do apart from talking about the issues of peace? What we do as traditional institutions, is to always talk about peace and ask the people to hope on God, believing that one day things are going to be better. So, essentially, what traditional rulers do is to talk about the issues of peace and ensure that the people know their culture and tradition.
I was guided round Ogoniland, we saw the devastation and the oil pollution, what have the oil firms done for the people of Ogoni?
Completely nothing! I was in a stakeholders meeting with Shell and let me tell you what I told them. I told them that many of the pipeline vandalisation that is going on in Ogoniland is caused by them and their contractors. Those contracts are given to their crooks, when that is done, they come in, pay money to some people and allow the destruction unhindered. Basically, the destruction that is going on is caused by Shell. They cannot say they are not because nobody knows the pipeline that carries crude, it is only Shell officials that know.
Their contractors know them. So, once there is destruction, they bring contractors who will now do the work. I must say that they have not helped matters and the last meeting we had with them, we told them to turn a new leaf.
Sorry, but these people accuse your boys of being the ones destroying the pipelines
That’s not true. That is what I’m telling you now. The pipes they say our people are breaking is a lie. They know the people breaking the pipes. The people breaking the pipes are the ones who use contractors to do the jobs. If the boys break the pipe, who do the repair? It’s the contractors of Shell. It is not done by the Ogoni. So, they ask people to break the pipes and give the repair to their contractors, that is where they are getting their money from.
If the breaking of pipe stops their contract will stop. So, it is not the Ogoni people, rather it is the contractors who are working with Shell.
Now that the environment is bad, water polluted, land devastated, how are your boys surviving in the area?
That is why you see that there is a lot of crime rate. What they are doing now is survival of the fittest. As I said before, we do farming and fishing but the place has been destroyed, so what goes on now is that they go to other communities to do menial jobs that will pay them little money just to keep soul and body together.
We saw the water they are drinking, we saw a very small stream full of dirt and we were told that is where they get water for domestic uses. What is the state government on its part doing for the area?
Well, when this report was given, we were told by the former administration that they are going to give water to some places. I think the contractor didn’t do well because many of the places they said they have this water, the water is not flowing. There is no way they can stay without drinking water. So, they go down to drink the same polluted water because they have no alternative.
Let’s look at the clean-up, there was a time the federal government came and flagged off the clean-up exercise. How has it been after then?
Well, it was a kind of exercise which again, some of us were not very pleased about. I think the cleaning should have been done and at the end of the day when they finish we can now celebrate but what they did that day was a mere celebration. But from that time till now they are still talking about structure and structure but nothing has been done. But the issue of the structure has been done, board has been constituted. We will keep watching to see what the federal government has for us.
We understand that most of the people in the board are not people from Ogoni area, whether three or four are from Ogoni. Are you comfortable with that?
Well, we have looked at all those things, despite they are starting the cleaning from Ogoni, it is the issue of Niger Delta, so you don’t expect only Ogoni people to be there. However, the number of Ogoni people is not okay with us but there is nothing we can do about it. We’ve taking note of that but we have quality representatives in the board who can represent us very well.
But since it is a Niger Delta issue, you cannot say it should be only Ogoni people. The best thing they have to do should be done in Ogoni so that the Niger Delta is properly clean.
So, you have confidence in the people selected from the Ogoni axis?
We have confidence in them. They are people we know very well. The MOSOP President is there, some of the very good and respected chiefs are there, we have quality representatives in the board from Ogoni land.
What about the schools in the area? We saw some of them, it’s like the state government is not showing concern about the schools at all.
The state government has its own priority. First of all, the state government is dealing with the issue of roads, after that they will go to schools and health. So every priority of the state government has to go with what the state government wants. But, we believe that things will work well, we have commissioners in this present government, we believe that they are going to work with the Governor of the state to ensure that things that have to do with education are properly taking care off.
How about the youths, is there still violence from the youths in the area?
Violence is part of society, you cannot completely wipe it out. But what the state government has done is to bring the issue of amnesty and which we are encouraging youths to buy into so that incidents of violence will reduce in the area.
Now, it’s like most people of that area live in the city, why?
If you have a job you are doing outside your town, definitely you must go to where you have your work and come back to your city but a place where there is no light, no means of livelihood, how do you expect the people to stay there? So they have to go out of Ogoni, look for place to work and come back to their communities.
What advice do you have for the federal government in relation to cleaning up the place?
The advice I want to give is that the clean-up of Ogoni should not be taken for politics. It should be done professionally and I believe the Minister of Environment is doing her best and I pray that the federal government should give her every co-operation to make the clean-up a success. I think she has the zeal to ensure that Ogoni is cleaned up. My prayer and advice for them is to allow the woman to do her work. We don’t want political interference in the cleanup of Ogoni.