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Page last updated at 07:17 GMT, Monday, 11 August 2008 08:17 UK

Fresh start for Nigerian oil activists?

By Andrew Walker
BBC News, Ogoniland, Nigeria

The Kanaan family in Kdere, Ogoniland
People have moved to within yards of oil wells

Cherie Kanaan's family live only yards away from an oil well in Ogoniland in the heart of Nigeria's troubled Niger Delta.

For the past 13 years, no oil has been pumped out of the ground here after Royal Dutch Shell stopped operations following environmental protests that led to the execution by the military of writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Now the whole of Ogoniland is expecting Shell to be replaced and the drilling to restart.

When that happens the massive machinery of drilling, and its associated fumes and noise will return.

Since moving to the village of Kdere nine years ago, Mrs Kanaan has had four children.

Realistically there is no way her family will be able to stay there if another oil company comes back.

"I am afraid for my children," she says.

Vindication

However, when the Nigerian government announced in June it would replace Shell in Ogoniland, most people were jubilant.

Overgrown pipes at a Shell flow station
Some activists want the wells relocated not the people

It seemed to be a vindication of the 19-year struggle waged by the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop), founded by Ken Saro-Wiwa - a man who had become a thorn in the side of government and the multi-national oil company.

His execution in 1995 drew international condemnation and launched the conflict between people and oil companies in the Niger Delta into the media.

Mosop has since then run a non-violent campaign that has been largely successful in promoting the idea that the Ogoni people should be given a cut of the oil profits.

But since the removal of Shell was announced, uncertainty has crept in over what the future holds.

The government has not made any further announcements and is keeping any plans it has for reforming the way oil companies are allowed to operate very close to its chest.

Shell, even though it has not operated in the area since 1993 and refuses to comment on the subject, is still entitled to extract oil there.

The company says it learned of the government's decision in the pages of the newspapers.

It is likely it will remain in the background, keeping the significant Ogoni reserves on its books - and therefore avoiding a knock in their share price - in return for allowing another operator, government advisers say.

Frog chorus

For the Ogonis, who are poor and struggle to make a living from their farms, it will have to be a matter of trust.

They must hope the government finds a better operator and local representatives cut a good deal that will be administered properly.

A spill at a well head in Ogoniland in June
The people in Ogoniland are dependent on oil companies to clear up the mess

Lush grasses, ferns and mosses may have grown over the pipes, and the bush around the rusting wells may throb with the chorus of frogs, but people are still struggling with environmental damage.

They say the land is still poisoned by the oil and old oil wells are vulnerable to sabotage and leaks.

Last year, a well head exploded, killing two people. It burned for three months before it was put out. In June, a well head in Kpor town sprayed thick yellow-brown crude all over farmlands.

More drilling will mean more environmental damage and the relocation of whole villages from the wells as people have moved into the area.

Activists say the inhabitants will make sacrifices if they are able to negotiate a deal that gives some of the profits from the oil and gas under their feet.

Sofiri Peterside, a lecturer in sociology at Port Harcourt University, says if Ogonis feel they will benefit from the oil they will be willing to relocate themselves.

OGONI TIMELINE
map
1958 Oil struck in Ogoniland
1990 Ogonis form the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop) with Ken Saro-Wiwa as president
1993 300,000 Ogonis protest at their neglect by the government and Shell.
1993 Shell pull out of Ogoniland after an employee is beaten.
1994 A series of conflicts between local communities flares. The government sends the military to restore order. Mosop say the conflicts are being fuelled by the government as a 'divide and rule' tactic.
1994 Four community leaders are killed by a mob of youths. Mosop leaders Ken Saro-Wiwa and Ledum Mitee arrested.
1995 Mr Saro-Wiwa and eight others are tried and executed, the military government receives international condemnation.
2003-2008 International attention switches to armed conflict started by other communities in the Delta.
2007 Leaks from well heads continue. One burns for three months.
2008 Government announces Shell will be removed as an operator in Ogoniland.

"This is going to involve sacrifice, it's a process of negotiation. We should be able to get concrete terms."

Ben Naanen of the Ogoni Contact Group, an umbrella organisation of Ogoni activists, says people have confidence in them to get a good deal.

"People in Ogoni won't allow what has happened in the past to be repeated once they become owners in the process, people will see themselves as part of the establishment."

But other activists see a difficult period ahead.

"It is a serious issue, one that will need to be talked about," says Mosop President Ledum Mitee.

"Rather than relocate people we think that the wells should be relocated. I'm not sure that it will be easy for people to accept that drilling will be in the same areas."

Ogoni activists are pushing for their demands to be included as part of any contract the government draws up with Shell's replacement.

Top of their list is that a share of the profits given directly to the Ogoni people to be managed by a trust fund.

At the very least, activists say, they want oil companies to factor them in as a "cost of production".

But it remains questionable if that kind of deal is realistic.

'Flames of hell'

Activists from all parts of the Delta are looking to see how the government handles this, as it will have implications for the whole region.

Isaac Osuoka, from Social Action in nearby Bayelsa State, is sceptical the government will be able to force any company to agree to the Ogonis' terms.

"I have heard the president say he wants to address these issues, but only in private statements."

Ledor Muu (l)
Farmers say their land has been poisoned and nothing done about it

He says the government would have to do the same for all the other people in the Delta.

"But there's no sign the government is presenting a consistent policy, it's just confusion."

The only thing that is clear is that beneath Ogoniland remains significant reserves of both oil and gas.

And leaving them alone is not an option on the table.

The words of an Ogoni protest song in the 1990s went: "The flames of Shell are the flames of hell."

Ledor Muu, a mother of nine, in Kdere remembers back to that time.

"When Shell came they destroyed our farmlands and crops, didn't employ our people, they didn't help us at all," she says as she and other women walk towards their fields where they plant yams and fruit.

"Provided the next company do what Shell did not and empower the women, who do most of the work, we don't have a problem with them drilling for oil."




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