Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah is a Nigerian legend in many ways. Since the dawn of the Fourth Republic, very few private citizens in Nigeria have played such an outsized influential role in the deepening of the nation’s democratic experience and the healing of our multiple wounds. From his membership of the country’s Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission popularly known as the Oputa Panel to his involvement as Secretary of the National Political Reform Conference and his subsequent role as Facilitator of the Ogoni Reconciliation Process, Bishop Kukah has been a measuring rod of the nation’s readiness to confront her troubled past and address the inherent contradictions.
Witness to Reconciliation: My Personal Journey Towards Reconciliation in Ogoniland tells the story of his personal involvement as the Presidential Facilitator of the Ogoni Reconciliation Process with the objective of bringing Shell and the Ogoni together on the one hand and also helping to resolve differences among different factions of Ogoniland as well as the Government of Nigeria, on the other. Father Kukah (as he then was and remains to many of his friends even after his elevation to episcopacy) was appointed by President Obasanjo in May 2005 to facilitate the dialogue because “both sides…can trust you to be independent and neutral”. The Ogoniland crisis has been a long drawn one that came to a head with the gruesome murder of the Ogoni Four and the eventual state murder of writer and minority rights activist, Ken Saro Wiwa and the Ogoni Eight in November 1995 by the Abacha military junta. It was a period of tumultuous political crisis in the country triggered by the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election. The Ogoni killings exacerbated the political tension and increased international opprobrium against the military junta, leading to Nigeria’s suspension from the Commonwealth.
This is a 267 page, ten chapter book with a Foreword from the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Revd Justin Welby. Archbishop Welby could not be described as an accidental choice for this responsibility, given the extensive direct and behind the scene roles he had played on the Ogoni crisis as erstwhile Director of the International Centre for Reconciliation under the Anglican Church at the Coventry Cathedral. True to type, all sides to the Ogoni crisis – Dr Peter Odili, then Governor of Rivers State, Mr Ledum Mitte, then President of MOSOP and Dr Basil Omiyi, CEO of Shell – lauded the choice of Father Kukah and looked forward to “working with Father Kukah… in making the President’s vision of reconciliation a reality.”
Despite the general support received though, Father Kukah also noted that the warning bells were equally sounded early, particularly by the old warhorses of civil society and the environment lobby like Nnimmo Bassey. For example, whilst welcoming his appointment, the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth warned him that there can be “no true reconciliation without justice”. The Ogoni had already defined what justice meant to them when they appeared before the Oputa Panel. These include: Full implementation of the Ogoni Bill of Rights, public apology by Shell to Ogoni people before any discussion between both parties, comprehensive audit and clean up of Shell’s oil spillage and pollution of Ogoniland, adequate financial compensation paid to the Ogoni for the despoiliation of their environment, setting up of a Committee to catalogue and document losses by the Ogoni during the oil inspired, military campaign with a view to bringing relief to victims and their families, a referendum to determine whether Ogoni people want Shell back and total stoppage of gas flaring in Ogoniland. President Obasanjo’s appointment of Father Kukah could be taken as a logical response in pursuit of these conditions for justice for the Ogoni people.
Just as he did in his previous account of the Oputa Panel, Witness to Justice, Father Kukah deals extensively with how he moved from very little by way of a guidebook to conceptualising the approach to the assignment. The Presidential directive was simply to “facilitate the dialogue” because, according to President Obasanjo, “all I want is let there be peace in Ogoniland so that the people can settle, and if possible, Shell can go back to their work”.
Given my own involvement in the early days of the Oputa Panel as Technical Adviser to the Panel and watching him operate in bringing the work of the Panel to reality, I could almost picture how Father Kukah’s extensive network and single minded determination was brought to effective use in this assignment. He elaborated on the critical roles of Archbishop Welby and the Welby Papers, his friendship with Ledum Mitee whose insight on the local dynamics was critical and the extraordinary support of Governor Peter Odili in helping to define the assignment and clarifying roles and responsibilities. He also acknowledged the role of former Head of Shell, Egbert Imomoh and the Centre for Social and Corporate Responsibility led by Rev Fr Kevin O’Hara in those early days.
In all of the ten chapters, he described in great detail how he went about the assignment. Having established the roles and responsibilities in response to the broad objective articulated by President Obasanjo, he went into the various efforts he undertook to build trust among competing interests in Ogoniland, acknowledged the critical role of the Governor in securing the buy in of all segments of the Ogoni society right from the Head of the Traditional Council, Chief Giniwa to other community leaders, religious leaders, MOSOP activists and all those opposed to MOSOP in Ogoniland.
Given the deep seated wounds that had festered over the years without any serious attempt to address unrelenting pains, Father Kukah narrated how he had to negotiate landmines on the path to reconciliation – including threats to his own life – by elements opposed to his open and inclusive approach to reconciliation. Clearly undeterred, he soldiered on with President Obasanjo’s support, who against the run of play, visited Ogoniland twice on account of the reconciliation effort and kept reinforcing Fr Kukah’s confidence even in moments of stress and orchestrated frustrations.
The height of all these efforts was Father Kukah’s epiphany which led him to the involvement of the United Nations Environment Programme – UNEP – as the linchpin for the clean up efforts of the polluted and environmentally degraded Ogoniland. UNEP eventually completed the Ogoni Clean up study in 2011, in which 122 kilometres were surveyed, over 200 locations, 69 sites for groundwater investigations, 4000 samples from 142 drilled wells, 780 boreholes drilled with soil samples extracted and over 5000 medical records examined. In summary, UNEP recommended to the Federal government the setting up of an environmental restoration authority, the establishment of the Ogoni Trust Fund of $1 billion over a ten year period and an improved clean up method and development of an asset integrity management plan for Ogoniland by Shell. The UNEP recommendations of 2011 mirror Father Kukah’s recommendations in the report submitted to President Obasanjo the day he left office on May 29, 2007.(Chapter 9).
Fifteen years after Father Kukah completed his initial assignment, (even though both Presidents Yar’adua and Jonathan asked him to continue in his role as Presidential Facilitator) and twelve years after UNEP submitted their report to the Federal Government, Ogoniland has remained unattended to. Although the Jonathan administration established the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP) in 2012 to undertake UNEP’s recommendations and appointed an Ogoni, Ms Joy Nunieh as the Head, HYPREP more or less soon collapsed and Ms Nunieh stepped aside as its head. When the Buhari administration assumed office in 2015, frantic efforts were made to approach things differently particularly with Ms Amina Mohammed at the helm of the Environment Ministry but eight years after, HYPREP has remained mired in controversy over funds between the supervising Ministry of Environment and the project’s Ogoni head, Dr Ferdinand Giadom and Shell threatening to freeze funds due.
Sadly, Ogoniland continues to suffer the misfortune of governance failure as exemplified by the inability to accomplish President Obasanjo’s broad objective of “peace in Ogoniland so that the people can settle, and if possible, Shell can go back to their work”. As Godwin Ojo of Friends of the Earth wrote “…the Government and Shell have done little more than set up processes that look like action but are just fig leaves for business as usual. The lack of meaningful action in the face of incontrovertible scientific evidence is outrageous. The Nigerian government and Shell are quite simply getting away with environmental and human rights abuses in the Niger Delta.”
While the government must take the larger share of the responsibility for the failure, Father Kukah also found the internal collusion of the local elite with the irresponsible behaviour of the oil multinationals culpable for the parlous state of affairs in Ogoniland. In saner climes, it is clear that Shell could not have gotten away with this blatant neglect. Compare the Ogoni situation with the British Petroleum 2010 spillage in the Gulf of Mexico, United States and the firm manner the Environment Protection Agency handled the matter. BP coughed out $62 billion for the clean up exercise and associated costs. Here, Shell has found it difficult to even contribute a fair share of the clean up expenditure of $1billion in Ogoniland.
This is a very emotional book by a patriotic Nigerian who does not want the search for the perfect to become the enemy of the good. Father Kukah has spoken clearly, indubitably and unequivocally for himself. His pain is palpable and he has used this book to further expose the debilitating contradictions of the Nigerian state and the failure of leadership. For a complete picture, we look forward to other accounts from Presidents Obasanjo and Jonathan, Governor Odili, Ledum Mitee of MOSOP and Shell conglomerate who all had ringside seats in trying to resolve the Ogoni tragedy. Yet a man like Father Kukah who has given freely of his time to serve Nigeria in these various capacities must wonder – what’s the point of this sacrifice if it doesn’t help in building a nation where peace and justice reign?
As a man of faith, it is clear that Bishop Kukah has not given up in his belief in Nigeria’s capacity to better its condition. Right to the last page of the highly readable book, he is still in search of viable options for resolving the conundrum and believes that the pursuit of external legal options might offer some respite to the hapless victims of this serial abuse. Viable as this option may be, it is merely an abdication of the State’s responsibility for the welfare and security of its citizens. As he wrote:
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… the condition of the Ogoni people must be seen as a metaphor for the majority of Nigerians spread across the entire country who continue to live in penury and destitution amidst an ocean of huge oil resources. They watch helplessly as the local and national elite continue to squander the commonwealth. The Ogoni people have come to the conclusion that their non violent struggle, the loss of their prominent sons and the destruction of their environment has yielded almost nothing in return”(p.227)
We must thank Father Kukah for his infinite belief in Nigeria. We must commend him for documenting his experience for posterity. Given the cul de sac we seem to have found ourselves on the Ogoni restoration project, one can only hope that the incoming administration will do justice to UNEP’s report and recommendations and address the problem beyond the Ogoni situation to include the plight of all disadvantaged communities in Nigeria. The alternative is better imagined and the incidence of oil theft in the Niger Delta is but evidence of the people resorting to self help – a situation which will leave the Nigerian state’s economic security significantly threatened.
This book is highly recommended and should be compulsory reading for all development practitioners, conflict resolution specialists, politicians and the general readers.
I thank you for listening.
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