From Femi Folaranmi, Yenagoa
Penultimate Saturday, many newspapers widely reported the clash between youths from Otuasega community in Ogbia Local Government Area of Balyesa State and security operatives and soldiers manning oil facilities belonging to Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC). The clash followed the protest by the youths over the deteriorating state of the Otuasega-Imiringi road believed to have been caused by heavy-duty trucks and machines belonging to contractors working for Shell that usually ply the road.
“Three Bayelsa Youths Feared Dead as Security Operatives Open Fire on Protesters,” one of the newspaper headlines screamed. “Three shot as youths clash with security personnel in Bayelsa,” said another. Three Balyesa Youths Allegedly Missing After Clash With Security Operatives Over Protest, yet another newspaper announced in its headline.
While accusations and counter-accusations are still going on the actual figures of casualties affected or consumed by the fatal crash, and even as claims and counter-claims still fly about as to whether people were killed or missing, findings by Saturday Sun show that the clash is more than meets the eyes. The issues involved are more than what was reported by the newspapers. In fact, it has been brewing for a long time, only that no one knew that it would blow open on the day it did, and in such an embarrassing manner. What the authorities and stakeholders concerned are now trying to do is, more or less, like trying to put a bandage over a gaping wound.
Anatomy of current crisis
That wound, leaders of thought from the community contend, goes deeper than the deadly clash that took place on Friday, September 3, when youths from the community protested the damage caused on a large portion of the Otuasega-Imiringi Road by a heavy-duty truck conveying a swamp buggy to a Shell company oil facility. The road had been rebuilt by the Federal Government after the 2012 floods.
Some of the youths demanded immediate repairs. But the driver of the truck was said to have offered them N100, 000 for ‘drinks.’ This reportedly angered the youths. But things got worse when soldiers and operatives of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) attached to a facility owned by the oil company were drafted to the scene. It was alleged that in their attempt to disperse the aggrieved youths they fired live bullets at them.
Saturday Sun gathered that many of the youths scampered into the bush to avoid being hit by bullets. But by the time the dust settled, the community claimed that, after conducting a headcount, it discovered two of its youths missing and not three as was reported by some newspapers. This led to another round of protest and occupation of the Shell manifold. But on Wednesday, September 8, one of the missing youths identified as Inemo resurfaced. For now, only the whereabouts of another youth known as Jacob Bright remains unknown.
CDC chairman explains reasons for protest
Speaking on the development, Mr Raniyar Marcus, Chairman of the Community Development Committee (CDC), who led people of the community to barricade the Otuasega-Imiringi Road, vowed that his people would not back down until their demands are met by Shell.
Marcus had led the people who occupied the Shell manifold, and whose protest had denied motorists’ access to other communities in Ogbia, Nembe, and Brass Local Government Areas.
Said he: “We are carrying out a peaceful protest against Shell to tell the world about the intimidation and neglect we have been subjected to.
He confirmed that a swamp buggy being conveyed by some officials of Shell damaged the access road to the community. “I sent representatives there to know what was going on. I later went there myself. The driver of the truck and some people with him offered us N100, 000 for a drink, which we rejected. We pleaded with them to pour chippings and sand on the road to make it motorable. But before we knew what was happening, one of the men went to Shell’s location in the community and called out the soldiers and NSCDC operatives. They opened fire and started shooting indiscriminately. Everybody had to scamper for safety. Up till now, we are still looking for one of our youths who is missing.”
Marcus, who accused the soldiers and NSCDC operatives of removing their nametags to hide their identities, said he believes that the security officers did that to escape punishment for their misconduct. But the security operatives countered the accusation by claiming that the information given to them was that some armed robbers were operating in the area.
Marcus insists that they are being economical with the truth, and has vowed to continue with the protest, with his people, until Shell addresses the demands and grievances of the people. The demands, which now read like some road expansion, have been widened to include power supply, granting of contracts to youths from Otuasega community, among others. “We are protesting not only against Shell’s contractors damage on our roads but also their refusal to give our youths employment. In fact, we are protesting all the neglects we had been subjected to over the years,” he said.
Stern warnings over long-time neglect
He then followed up his threat with a stern warning to all the authorities and stakeholders concerned: “This protest would last for as long as it takes Shell to meet our demands.” On the efforts that have been made to settle the current problem, he said: “I held a discussion with the Chief of Staff, Government House, and Chairman Ogbia Local Government Area. But unfortunately, I could not meet with the governor. They promised that the government was going to do something but nothing tangible has been said to us. We are holding Shell responsible for what the soldiers did because it was the company that brought soldiers to our community to protect their facilities. In Otuasega community, we have suffered for a long time. As an oil-producing community, we have not had electric power for 20 years. And, within those 20 years, Shell has been promising us light without delivering on its promises. And, now they will have to give us water, scholarship and employment, fix our roads and bring back our youths that are missing.”
Mr Isaiah Macnamara, one of the community’s leaders of thought, agreed with Marcus. He admitted that the long neglect of the community actually triggered the current agitation. “We need to state that the neglect of Otuasega community by Shell is out of hand,” he said. “Light is life and for a host community like Otuasega not to have light is unpardonable. Shell came here in the 60s and up till now, we don’t have light. The only time we had light was during the Second Republic when Melford Okilo was the governor. As an Otuasega man who is up to 50 years, I have not seen light from Shell. Look at the activities of Shell in our community; it is telling on us. The pollution has destroyed our farmlands, rivers, livelihood, and even our health.”
When you thought he was through with his complaint, you discovered that he had more to say: “The access road into the community is bad, yet they refused to repair it. They keep saying this area is the most peaceful. Is it because we are not speaking or carrying out violence? They want to poke fingers into our eyes. We will no longer take that. Aside from the road, they must meet our other demands, which include giving us light, otherwise, we would not leave the manifold. This manifold, a major oil-and-gas distributor, is located on our land, yet we have nothing as benefit. Our youths are not employed. It is their action that is supporting youth restiveness and militancy. We are making multiple demands and they must accede to us. The state and federal government, NGOs, should hear our cries. At night, we can’t sleep in the community because of gas emissions. Before now, we used to drink rainwater from the zinc but not so again, because of carbon monoxide. We can’t use the water for anything. What then are they talking about?”
Ateki Godbless, another leader of thought, added that the community could no longer take further ‘nonsense’ from Shell. “We are here to demonstrate against Shell, and for the government and the world to know that we are dissatisfied with the activities of Shell. This road links three local government areas – Ogbia, Nembe and Brass. We are requesting that before we leave this place, Shell should do it. The company has been deceiving us with the promise of giving us electricity; we are suffering as a community.”
Mrs Sarah Austin begged the oil company not to stretch their luck too far, and push them to the point where the community would become too hostile an environment for it to operate from as is the case in some riverine communities where the oil companies took their host communities for granted.
Her submission: “Shell has been here for years and their excuse before was that we don’t have qualified youths. But now that we have, they have refused to employ our youths. You see people from other places in Nigeria working here while our people are ignored. We no longer farm much because our land is no longer fertile due to pollution. Our crops are not growing or doing well. The rainwater is no longer safe for drinking. Many people are now having health issues. It is unfortunate if the company does not like peaceful and peace-loving people. Or do they want a situation where we would begin to disrupt their oil production? And, I think we are gradually getting to that point.”
Governor’s intervention and Shell’s assurances
Saturday Sun gathered that Governor Douye Diri, worried over the crisis, deployed the Chief of Staff, Mr. Benson Agadaga and the Commissioner for Works and Infrastructure, Moses Teibowei, to appeal to the protesters to vacate the road while ordering immediate repair of the damaged portion, pending the response of Shell. The protesters in response have vacated the road to allow traffic flow but they have continued to remain at the premises of Shell manifold, which they have barricaded. In reaction to the allegations, a Shell official who did not want his name mentioned, has assured that the company is working to resolve the issues raised by the community “We are working with the state government and other relevant stakeholders to look into the complaints of the people” he said.