Existing constraints on grassroots activism and the flow of information

1. Life under the Obasanjo administration

With the election of Olusegun Obasanjo in early 1999, hopes of democracy and freedom spread across the Niger Delta. However, many of these hopes have yet to be realized.

The Obasanjo administration has publicly stated that it intends to carry out a variety of political changes. These include the freedom to organize and demonstrate, a reduction in military presence, strategies to reduce corruption, a renewed mandate for a Human Rights Commission, and the establishment of a new environmental ministry. The Human Rights Commission will investigate cases as far back as 1965 (including Obasanjo's own time as military head of state from 1976 to 1979), but it will have powers only to hear testimo-ny, and not to enforce penalties for legal violations of the human rights of Nigerian citizens.51 At the time we visited Nigeria, 10,000 petitions had already been filed with the Commission, 8,500 of which were from Ogoniland.52

From our conversations with activists in the Delta hub of Port Harcourt, and with people in villages, we got a sense of hopeful confidence that the elections have brought increased freedom to demonstrate, organize and protest. However, recent media reports say this hope is slowly being eroded. On October 11, 1999, Jerry Needam, a reporter for The Ogoni Star, MOSOP's magazine, was detained for publishing a communiqué which claimed that all activists in the Delta were considered enemies of the state.

The Nigerian police continue to operate with impunity. Bribes were openly and repeatedly solicited from members of our delegation who were seeking simple police reports. Members of the delegation witnessed people being beaten with rocks and whips, as well as threatened with automatic weapons when attempting to visit their family members in jail.

2. State of siege in Bayelsa State

Forty percent of Nigerian oil originates in Bayelsa State, yet this state is among the poorest ones in the Niger Delta.53 This provides a strong impetus for popular initiatives on resource control, which inevitably end in military repression. We drove through military roadblocks on highways and in towns throughout the state, witnessing male and female passengers on other vehicles being stripped and searched. In Yenagoa, the capital of Bayelsa State, we saw soldiers lounging and patrolling throughout town with machine guns, their presence being maintained since the crackdown following the Kaiama Declaration in December 1998 and January 1999. This declaration calls for self-determination, and demands an end to oil activities until affected communities are consulted.54

The Ijaw are the predominant ethnic group in the Bayelsa State. Ijaw activists told us they had been suffering from intensified military persecution since October 1998. Media reports and government accounts now portray Ijaw youths as being violent and driven by religious cults and traditions; however the people we met with were well organized and nonviolent, driven by a quest for environmental justice and human rights. In an interview with the delegation, the Bayelsa State governor, Chief DSP Alamie Yeseigha, debunked the myth being promot-ed by the military and federal government that Ijaw youths are "criminal" and "violent", and labeled these myths justification for violence against an entire ethnic group.55

On Sept. 11, 1999, while we were in the area, between 35 and 50 youths were reportedly detained by the military and later shot and killed, their bodies being dumped into the river near Yenagoa.56 Though this is an extraordinary occurrence, arbitrary arrests unfortunately appear common in the state. On two earlier occasions, other youth had been arbitrarily arrested and detained without charges, or under false charges.57

Women have often been the targets of repression by the Nigerian military as well. We heard that rape is a common tool of control and oppression used by the military in the Niger Delta.58

On September 12, 1999, members of our host organization, Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth-Nigeria were held at gun point in Yenagoa by approximately 30 soldiers for 20 minutes without explanation.59 Though our foreign status afforded the delegation special treatment by the military, at a military post on a river crossing in Yenagoa one soldier warned us: "If you snap a photo, I'll blow your head off."

Tensions have escalated in Bayelsa State since we left the Niger Delta in September 1999, to the point that president Obasanjo has threatened to declare a state of emergency. On November 20, 1999 following the killing of policemen in the area several weeks earlier, Nigerian military troops started moving into the state, with naval support, machine guns and heavy artillery aimed at the civilian population. Eyewitness accounts estimat-ed that there were over 1500 troops in the state. As of November 22, journalists were not allowed into the region to investigate military killings and human rights abuses. There were reports of hundreds of civilians killed by the military, mostly women and children, and thousands more displaced from their communities in Odi, Mbiama, Kaiama, and Patani. 60

Words from the frontlines

We need to congratulate ourselves, the peo-ple of Nigeria who were able to fight despite the tyranny of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, Sani Abacha and Abdusalami Abubakar. What we have now, however, can only be descried as dictatorial democra-cy. That's a democracy fashioned by dicta-tors being run by ex-dictator for the benefit of friends, hangers-on and pretenders in our country. Be that as it may, we believe that the best way to go about it right now is to expel dictatorship in our democracy. We can only do this by taking a look at our constitution which contains draconian pro-visions which do not augur well for the dream of our democracy. We also have to look at the relationship and the kind of structure we have on the ground right now that has brought about the state of affairs, I am talking about the not-so-federal nature of the Nigeria federation, the diabolical fed-eration that we have today. The people of the Niger-Delta, as usual, have been in the forefront of the struggle to bring about this democracy...the first step is to allow Nigerians to sit down at a roundtable and discuss. And that discussion should come through a Sovereign National Conference (SNC). Obasanjo needs not be afraid of SNC. We can begin to work towards SNC and the way to do it is, first and foremost to understand that Nigeria as it is now cannot take Nigerians to that dream land to which we are all looking forward. And so, we need to re-organize ourselves; we need to re-structure and the only way we can do all these is through the SNC....These demands are legitimate; they flow from ethnic nations... throughout history, ethnic question never fades away.... I think the beauty of Nigeria or the multiple colored rainbow that brought us together can be built on...We need to go to the dialogue table to discuss the best way, the best structure through which this country can stay together. That can only be done through a Sovereign National Conference. It is the will of the Nigerian people. It can only be done through grassroots work. The conference will be composed of ethnic nationalities, people's and pro-democracy movements, labor etc. We must decide the country we want. It cannot be run through the 1999 constitution which is dictatorial, iniquitous, unjust and must be thrown into the dustbin. The way forward is for us to be consistent and insistent in our agitation— peaceful and non-violent agitation for justice. We cannot be cowed and intimidated. We heard there are plans by the Federal Government to re-introduce the Gestapo squad to go about killing and arresting people of the Niger-Delta. The other day the security seized The News magazine and African Today coming into the country. We seem to be going back to the dark days of Abacha.... But we are committed to defend Nigeria. We will stand firm to defend our territorial integrity as a people. The people of the Niger Delta are committed to Nigeria and to democracy. Our struggle is for a true Nigerian federation. A federation that recognizes the ethnic nationalities; the dignity of the people, a federation that will defend us when we are harassed in any part of the world, a federation that will provide free health, free education, housing, employment opportunities to our people. That is the federation we are asking for....self-determination means I am able to protect my culture, able to transfer what I have today to my children, protect their future. That is self-determination. It is also is the ability to aspire to whatever you want to be. We are saying that the present federation cannot give us that. In the National Assembly today, we are only allowed to speak Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba and English languages. In Nigeria today it is who you know. Positions are based on ethnic nationality. These positions are being cornered by the elites of these three ethnic nationalities. That is why we are saying that if Nigeria is going to move forward it is not going to be the basis of the federation. We want self-determination for ethnic nations. Before Nigeria there were ethnic nationalities. And you cannot say because we have been forced together by transnational companies, we should continue to be perpetual slaves. We will refuse to be that. We will defend our dignity as a people. We shall join forces with all the ethnic nations across the world who are similarly oppressed and that is what we are doing now. The coalition in the Niger Delta today is a coalition for justice, to protect and enhance democracy, to bring about a true Nigerian federation where every citizen, no matter where you are, will be free to say: "I am a Nigerian". Self-determination is the only vehicle through which we can actualize this." Excerpts from writings by Oronto Douglas, Deputy Director of Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth, Nigeria.
3. Existing decrees that discourage protest and muzzle the press.

Many of the people we spoke to in the Niger Delta expressed hope in Nigeria's future, now that military rule has been left behind. However, the fact is that many repressive decrees from previous military regimes haven't been ablolished. The Nigerian constitution, adopted under military rule by former head of state Abdulsalami Abubakar shortly before he handed the presidency to Olusegun Obasanjo, contains over 200 former military decrees, some of which have a direct impact on communities in the Niger Delta.

For example, the State Security Detention of Persons Decree #2 of 1994 empowers the President or Inspector General of Police to arrest and detain any person for a period of three months, renewable on grounds of an ambiguous "in the interest of the state" clause. It has an ouster clause that allows no court in the land to entertain the matter. This decree was used comprehensively under former head of state, General Sani Abacha, and less so under General Abdusalami Abubakar.61

The Special Petroleum Offenses Miscellaneous Decree, instated under the military regime of General Muhammadu Buhari, makes tampering with any oil or gas installation an offense punishable by life imprisonment. This means that anyone who enters an operating area on land or climbs aboard oil platforms in protest can be punished by life in jail, with no option of bail, even if unarmed and nonviolent.

Even more draconian is the Treason and Treasonable Offenses Decree of 1993, which states that any person "who utters any word, displays anything or publishes material which is capable of breaking up Nigeria or part thereof; causing violence or a community or section thereof to engage in violence against that community or against another community, is guilty of treason and liable on conviction to be sentenced to death." This decree is known as the ‘Ken Saro-Wiwa decree' because it was used against the famous writer and Ogoni activist. Saro-Wiwa was hanged by General Abacha in 1995, along with eight other Ogoni activists, after actively championing the cause of the Ogoni people, and making Shell's anti-environmental practices an international issue.

These decrees effectively muzzle the press and disallow civil society to protest, while empowering the police, military and oil companies to ignore concerns from communities, imposing a chilling effect on the system of checks and balances vital for a healthy democracy. They also directly contribute to the further exploitation of the people and land of the Niger Delta by multinational oil corporations.
"The first thing I find it great and I thank these organizations that come here. Especially the American people. Take care of our children in America. My son Ken Saro-Wiwa did not die of hunger. He died for his own human rights and the Ogoni people. He gave his Bill of Rights to the Nigerian Government and Shell Company. The oil on this land was given to us by God our own resources. The crude oil killed every plant and the crops that grow there since Shell came here to dig and destroy the soil and not do anything for us. No hospital, no school, nothing, no lights, no water. If you see water we are drinking—we drink with frogs. This is what Shell did. My son gave them the Bill of Rights. They did nothing or change nothing. Shell send own troops to shoot us, shoot, run over our houses, drive us to the bush, loot our properties, then go from village to village and burn houses, shoot us, kill us...that's the work of Shell, that's what they did. Perhaps...Shell is a competent company they should have advised the Nigerian Government, if they did not know, but they did not. They are the first people that come in to shoot us with an armored car and planes. We have no plane, we have no armored car. Ken Saro-Wiwa does not fight them with gun, he did not fight them with matches, he do not fight them with stick, but he made a Bill of Rights telling them this. This is our thing, give us our rights. Myself was here, Shell came in this town and drove me to the bush. I spent two weeks in the bush. I ate with monkeys, eat with animals in the bush, because I could no make the way to come back again. This was Shell...they did not see me, they come and search for me for two weeks. I was unable to come back to my house. And today we don't want Shell. We don't want Shell to be with us unless they would want to kill all of us. The government of Nigeria is a wicked govern-ment. Shell who stay in Nigeria taking all our properties the are wicked company you see. You see our children here see them...see them for yourself and talk. So many international organizations have been coming there any crime for a man who has the thing to ask, say this is my thing. Let me have it. It that a crime? I ask again to the Global Exchange people who come here is there a crime for a man to ask this is my thing give it to me, do I have any there a reason why this man could be hanged...Ken Saro-Wiwa was not a rogue. He did not commit any offense, but he asked for Human Rights. He died for the survival of the Ogoni People. He did not die as a rogue. He did not die as a thief. As you come today you see things for yourself. If you go to Abuja today you will see their children are very...they are well educated. They are qualified for any position in the government. But you can not see any Ogoni man positioning things in the Nigerian Government. You look at the women, they're holding machete. It's good that you came to see things for yourself. If you go to Lagos or you go to Abuja. Or go to our south side, east side, look at their women. Look at they children. They are rich and the source of their revenue comes form here, the oil—comes from this place, Ogoni. But you look at the children of Ogoni. They are not qualified for education... they don't have anything but machete and oil that come from would please me that you visit and take the time to see me and condemn son Ken Saro-Wiwa has been hanged. I miss him. I will appreciate your visit if you will move and can do something for Ogoni people who are dying. They are dying. Thank you and may God lead you."

Address by Mr. Saro-Wiwa, Ken Saro-Wiwa's father to our delegation, September 10, 1999, Ogoni.