Sunday, 31 July 2011

Oil war -10 chiefs, others die awaiting justice

•Ijaw communities warn Mobil over 13-year spillage
Sunday, July 31, 2011

It has been a long-drawn out battle confined to the realm of the courts. And the bone of contention is the settlement of communal claims in the sum of N980 million and N450 million demanded by the Odimodi Federated Communities and Forcados community respectively.

The two communities in Burutu Local Government Area of Delta State are making the claims over alleged damage to fishing creeks, lakes, ponds, mangrove swamps, farm lands and economic trees by a major oil spill on January 12, 1998 at the Idoho platform of Mobil Producing Nigeria Unlimited (MPNU).

For more than 13 years they have awaited justice in a case they ironically initiated as plaintiffs. But the communities say their patience has been stretched to its limits, and are, therefore, no longer willing to watch helplessly as scores of their leaders at the frontline of the legal battle die one after the other. At least 15 of such persons, among them 10 traditional title holders, have reportedly died while the legal tussle dragged on, eliciting feelings that their action might turn out to be a befuddling steeple chase after all.

Apparently consumed by fear of the unknown, youths of the communities have begun to beat drums of war in preparation for an onslaught on oil facilities within their area.

“We are tired of waiting endlessly for a case which we took to the law court since 2001. We have been in court for this long period in peaceful pursuit of our legitimate rights over an oil spill that occurred 13 years ago. Apart from our chiefs that have died within this period, do you know how many lives have been lost in our communities due to hunger and deprivation from damages caused by the spill to our sources of livelihood? Enough is enough.

“We have been silent all this time because we don’t want our brother, President Goodluck Jonathan to be grappling with too many problems, especially with the Boko Haram in the North, and another Niger Delta uprising. But it seems our position has been taken for granted. Mobil is not bothered because they do not have an operational base in our area. But when we turn on the heat, they will surely feel it,” a youth leader, Boboye Angafa, told Sunday Sun on the telephone.

He said inhabitants of the affected communities, including men and women, youths and the old, would soon embark on a peaceful protest to Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) and other oil companies operating within the Escravos/Forcados axis, as a measure of their desire to resolve the matter amicably. “But we shall be left with no other option than to disrupt oil operations if nothing tangible comes out of our desire for peace.”

Reason: “In continuation of hearing in the case before the Federal High Court in Benin, our lawyer made moves through an application to explore an out of court settlement, which the presiding Judge granted and adjourned the case to July 19. That was on June 21, 2011. But when our lawyer wrote Mobil, the company replied that it was not our prerogative to seek settlement; that they would want the case to continue. And I ask: Continue for how long? Till eternity, when all of us are dead? he queried with a feat of anger.

Investigation revealed that prior to the legal battle between Mobil and the aggrieved communities over payment of communal damages, concern had been raised within top government and security circles on the possibility of a conflagration if the issue was not amicably resolved. This was more so as the communities had earlier in a display of transferred aggression shut down the multi-million naira Forcados Terminal operated by Shell, in protest over their omission by Mobil while paying a N20,000 compensation to individual claimants for damage to fishing nets due to the 1998 Idoho oil spill.
The company eventually paid a total sum of N50million to 5000 omitted individuals of Odimodi, Ogulagha, Okibou, and Okibou Zion communities, all in Delta State. But the bone of contention remained a demand for payment of a cumulative sum of N1.43billion by the Odimodi and Forcados communities as communal damages to their sources of livelihood, including fishing creeks, ponds and farmlands, among others.

Emerging developments appear to give credence to the fact that the authorities in Delta State may have correctly gazed at the crystal ball when it urged Mobil 11 years ago to resolve the issues at stake with the communities. In a letter dated October 10, 1999, with reference TF/MA/C/76/25 and addressed to the Chairman/MD, Mobil, Lagos, the Directorate of Petroleum/Mineral Resources and Related Matters in the office of the Executive Governor of Delta State, stressed the need for the oil firm to urgently address the complaints of the Odimodi Federated Communities.

Part of the letter reads: “Briefly summarized, the community is requesting the sum of N980 million being compensation for general and aggravated damages experienced by the community arising from the Idoho platform oil spillage of January, 1998.The communities acknowledge that they have been paid their individual claims and that you sent two cheques totalling N5,809,500 through the Chairman, Burutu Local Government sometime early in the year (1999). They alleged that the cheques were returned to you on grounds of being insufficient compensation and are demanding the payment of the sum of N980,000.000 as per evaluation undertaken.

“In line with the present stand of government to pursue all communities/oil company rifts through dialogue, His Excellency, the Executive Governor of Delta State, has directed that you urgently look into the issues raised in the letter from the community, especially as they are taking umbrage for your inaction at SPDC. Apart from this situation being unhealthy, there is no doubt that it offends the principle of independence of each of you as corporate bodies – SPDC cannot be vicariously held liable for the actions or inaction of Mobil. Accordingly, it would be appreciated if you could mandate an officer of sufficient seniority to open dialogue with the communities, with officials of this directorate moderating on the side of Government.” The letter was signed by I.E. Agbeyeke (Executive Secretary), for the Special Adviser to the Governor on Petroleum Matters.

Nine months later, precisely on July 12, 2000, the Izon National Security Council (INSEC) also wrote a letter to Mobil’s Chairman/MD on the same issue, pointedly warning on the dangers of allowing the impasse to linger. In the letter, which was signed by Prince K. Pereotubo and Chief Thompson Brisibe, President and Secretary General respectively, the council appealed to Mobil to submit itself to the arbitration of the Delta State governor if it “does not want any further situation to erupt out of this issue.”

The letter reads in part: “About the subject matter under reference, we wish to seize this opportunity to tell you that we are conversant with all the details and your lapses with the issue at stake. We want to warn that the silence of the youths in the Odimodi communities should not be taken too much for granted. The outburst of the youths in the Niger Delta region and their spate of violence, particularly those in and around oil producing communities, could be very devastating and should be deterred by all means... That the youths in Odimodi Federated Communities are silent about this issue is as a result of the appeals made to them by the Executive Governor of Delta State for whom they have a lot of regard and respect to exercise restraint. The question of threat is, therefore, out of context.”

Evidently, INSEC’s position was in reaction to Mobil’s response via a letter dated June 19, 2000, to an earlier correspondence from the office of the state governor on the issue. In affirming the dire consequences of Mobil’s failure to resolve the matter amicably, the Izon Council noted that it was erroneous for the oil firm to assume that it was supportive of the Odimodi Federated Communities with the use of threat.

“We wish to emphasize that the Izon National Security Council is concerned primarily to see that there is peace in all ramifications in the Niger Delta region, particularly in the Ijaw-speaking areas. To this end, we try as much as possible to do a proper investigation of any issue that might spark a problem in the Niger Delta,” the council clarified in the letter, copies of which were sent to the Special Adviser to the President on Petroleum Matters and the Group Managing Director of the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) among others.

However, Mobil appears unruffled regardless of the drums of war sounding louder by the day in the Forcados and Escravos creeks of the Delta, as the company has expressed its resolve to cling to the law courts in the arbitration process. Contacted on the rising tension in the aggrieved communities over the dispute, a spokesman of the firm, Mr. Okordion Ozemoya, demanded for a questionnaire via electronic mail, which was promptly sent and acknowledged by him. But a day after, he responded by telephone and expressed Mobil’s indisposition to comment on the issue since the matter was in court, declaring that, “it is our official position.”

How the raging oil war would end in a matter of days, weeks or years remains to be seen, but a spokesman for the communities, Chief Elex Pukor, said a thick cloud of uncertainty hangs over the air. “We are increasingly getting frustrated with Mobil’s attitude towards this matter and there is pent-up anger everywhere. Imagine our leaders like Chiefs Bekenawei, Olukpa, Ingo, Samuel and Second are all dead in the course of this legal battle for compensation. Among several others who have also passed away seeking justice are Ogini, Musa, Ofoyena, Ebiarede, Boro, Seikorowei and Ikiere. All these persons except one are titled chiefs. In the circumstances, how do you want people to feel happy? It is very provocative,” Pukor, who was the chairman of Odimodi community when the spillage occurred in 1998, asserted in an interview.


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