At Uzere, a Delta State community awash with oil, the Ovie (traditional ruler) escapes death by the whiskers as angry youths clash with security agents, shut down Shell operations and sack the palace over oil money and MoU
It was a day of blind rage in the lively oil-producing community of Uzere in Isoko South Local Government, LG area of Delta State when, late last month, what was intended to be a peaceful protest march to the flow station of Shell Petroleum Development Company, SPDC, went awry. By the time the dust settled, two people lay dead while the traditional ruler of the town, His Royal Highness, Isaac Udogri, Ovie of Uzere, narrowly escaped being burnt alive with members of his family. His palace, guesthouse, wife’s supermarket and vehicles were, however, not spared as they were torched and reduced to ashes. The Ovie is now in exile in Warri.
When the magazine visited the embattled community said to be home to some 50 oil wells two Wednesdays ago, tension gripped the land. Shops were under lock and key while the streets and houses were deserted. Apart from a group of youths assembled in front of a house close to the Ovie’s palace, the town was devoid of the usual social and commercial activities. The palace that was easily the pride and symbol of the common ancestry of the people was in ruins. The evidence of the mayhem visited on the hitherto inviting edifice was all over the palace grounds. The palace was apparently ransacked and looted before it was set ablaze. Files and other documents, like the flotsam and jetsam from an angry sea, littered the premises. A huge generator plant, two luxury cars and other appurtenances of a royal lifestyle also fell prey to the raging fires of the angry mob.
At the Shell flow station where the mayhem started, two patrol vehicles belonging to the police were burnt and another vandalised. About 30 charred motorcycles of the protesters, allegedly torched by the security agents in retaliation, were also lying by the roadside near the flow station. The house of a female police officer, an indigene of Uzere, accused of firing the teargas that provoked the violent reaction by the youths, was also vandalised.
Trouble started when the youths staged a protest march to the Shell facility on Tuesday November 29, 2011, to register their displeasure over the company’s perceived clay-footedness in signing a global memorandum of understanding, GMoU, with the community as it had done in other oil-producing communities. Shell had been operating in the area before 1958 but the community claimed they have little to show for its presence. (Uzere is the second community, after Oloibiri in present-day Bayelsa State, to produce oil for export in 1958.) A night earlier, a town crier had gone round the town mobilising the people for the peaceful protest to the flow station. The people were directed not to go to farm but to assemble as early as 6am for the exercise.
The protest march, however, degenerated into a violent clash between the protesters and the mobile policemen on guard at the flow station. One of the youths, Sunday Otor, told the magazine that after staying around from 6am to 2pm without being given attention by Shell workers at the flow station, they got impatient and insisted that the gate be opened for them but the Shell workers refused. There was however commotion when a female deputy superintendent of police, an indigene of Uzere, allegedly fired tear gas to disperse the youths. Provoked by the action, the youths set ablaze two vehicles belonging to the police. The police also retaliated by burning all the motorcycles belonging to the protesters, numbering about 30.
Afraid that the situation could degenerate further, men of the Joint Task Force, JTF, were said to have been called in. It was, however, not clear who invited the soldiers who fired at the protesters, killing two of them and injuring several others. The deceased were identified as Onome Ogbeye, a graduate of Oko Polytechnic, Anambra State, and Senegal Onwu, a businessman. Both were said to be in their early 30s. Otor blames the crisis in the community on the insensitivity of the Ovie to the welfare of the people and failure of Shell to meet their demands. “Since Shell came into our community, we have not benefited (anything). No water, no light, no social amenities. Our graduates are commercial motorcycle (Okada) riders because they are not being employed by Shell. Only the ‘upper’ people (leaders) are enjoying,” he alleged.
According to Otor, “(When) you come to this community, do you expect us to be going to the farm when many of the youths are graduates? Shell bought cutlasses and hoes and distributed to all of us to go to the farm. Do you see the insult? God gave us oil and land so that we will not all be farmers. What we ask is empowerment from Shell.”
Another youth, Lucky Enwenede, accounting for the people’s anger, regrets that “since 1958 when Shell came, we don’t have an indigene as Shell staff, yet we have graduates in petroleum engineering, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, civil engineering and electrical/electronics engineering.”
There is however an official account of the crisis. In a statement, Emeakpo Owhe, the president-general of the community, says the bone of contention was the refusal by Shell to enter into an agreement with the people, stating that “consequent upon the above, we wrote Shell since February 2011 to come to Uzere to discuss and firm up the GMoU with Uzere communities. In October, we reminded Shell on the imperative of putting a framework in place for the GMoU so that we can legally know the basis for our relationship/partnering and cooperation with SPDC. The only hospital Shell managed to build in Uzere is not functional because it (Shell) refused to fund the Health Insurance Scheme that will enable the hospital take off properly.”
While noting that a similar cottage hospital in River State was funded with N24 million, Owhe wondered why the company refused to fund the Uzere Cottage Hospital.
The president-general stated that the ultimatum given to Shell on the issue of GMoU expired months ago “but up till now, Shell has not shown any interest (in having) a GMoU with Uzere kingdom, its host. We have also written to the Delta State government on the refusal by Shell to sign the GMoU. The Uzere community has, therefore, decided that if SPDC still wants to operate in Uzere land, it should come and sign a GMoU with Uzere before carrying out further oil activities with effect from today” (November 29).
As at last week, the flow station was deserted while mobile policemen watched over it. The youths blamed their king for the violence that led to the death of the two persons. They accused him of inviting the JTF. It was in their fury they marched to his palace and burnt it. They also blamed him for having compromised himself as a contractor to Shell, hence his inability to influence the company to accede to their demands of developing the community and the people. The 50-year-old Ovie was also alleged to have kept for himself an unspecified amount of money from Shell meant for the community.
The embattled Ovie, however, denied the allegations. He blamed all his woes on one of his chiefs and former president of the Isoko Development Union, IDU, Iduh Amaidhe. As he told the magazine, “One Chief Iduh, since I was installed in 1984, has been fighting me, using all tactics. Then again, he also fabricated stories that Shell gave me a large amount of money… and that the money was meant for the community but instead, I embezzled it.” Vehemently debunking the claim, he insisted that, “Shell does not give a dime to anybody without reason and documentation. (See box interview)
Apart from the issues of development, there were insinuations that the crisis has political dimensions as well. Among the key actors, it has been accusations and counter-accusations. While the Ovie and Askia Ogie, the immediate past chairman of Isoko South LG, hold this view, Amaidhe contends that it has nothing to do with politics. The Ovie alleged that Amaidhe was holding him responsible for his failure to win election into the Delta State House of Assembly during the April 2011 polls, insisting that he even threatened to kill him if he did not also give him the sum of N5 million he allegedly gave his opponent, Johnson Erijo, to prosecute his case at the tribunal following the former’s petition. According to the Ovie, Amaidhe had defected to the Labour Party from the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, when he couldn’t secure the PDP ticket and he expected the community to follow him and vote for him. The traditional ruler maintains that he is not a politician and as such did not vote during the election and so could not have been responsible for Amaidhe’s political misfortune. He described the former IDU president-general as the leader of a terrorist group in the community.
Amaidhe, however, dismisses as false the Ovie’s allegations, stating that he was disappointed and ashamed that “the Ovie has degenerated to telling lies against his subjects.” He insists that if it was true the Ovie said he has been fighting him since his installation as the traditional ruler, “something is very wrong with him because I contributed to making him.” Amaidhe wonders how he could have masterminded the burning of the Ovie’s palace, recalling that, “I supervised the building of the palace. I was the chairman of the building committee. And if I actually sponsored the burning down of the palace, then I must be insane and I need to have my head examined.” Amaidhe claims not to be at Uzere when the incident occurred. “I was in Akure. If I was around, the palace would not have been burnt and those two souls would not have been lost.”
He says the meeting where the decision to march on the flow station was convened by the Ovie’s in-law, Wilson Oso, who is the chairman of the Oil and Gas Committee in the community. Interestingly, the decision was also supported by the Iletu (the traditional heads of the three quarters in the community), the president-general and his executive members, though with a proviso that Owhe be allowed to conclude the burial of his father. Ogie also fingered Oso as the brain behind the protest.
Amaidhe believes he was deliberately being targeted and framed up by Ogie and the Ovie over a matter he knew nothing about. While recalling that about two months ago they allegedly framed him up for kidnapping, the former IDU president says “since they failed in the kidnap issue, they now want to rope me into the burning of the palace so that it will be a case of arson whereas I was no where near Uzere on that day.” While wondering why the Ovie was not mentioning his in-law in the matter, Amaidhe raises some posers for the Ovie. He asks: “Am I the chairman of oil and gas who convened the meeting? Was I the one who organised the protest? Was I the one who took the people to the flow station to go and demonstrate? I was not even at Uzere. Then why did he not stop his own in-law’s meeting or stop the protest?”
Oso whose younger niece is married to the Ovie, however, vehemently denies being part of the protest, claiming that he was in Warri. He condemns what he called “this wanton destruction” in the community. According to him, “I personally have not been to the village to assess the level of damage due to the nature of my work.” Oso works with Chevron Nigeria Limited. He says the problem has to do with GMoU which has been a problem for some time. He is surprised that he is being linked with a protest that culminated in the attack on the palace of the Ovie “when my own daughter is married to the Ovie and she lives there.” He however throws some light on the crisis. Admitting that he was in Uzere in the weekend before the protest, he was back in Warri on Monday morning for work. He says he was however told that “on Monday, they held a meeting in the Ovie’s palace to brief the Ovie about what they wanted to do the next day and he told them to go ahead, provided it would be peaceful.”
Oso alleged that the protest became violent when Ogie and the Ovie called soldiers who killed two of the youths. According to him, “they have an army captain as a personal friend in Kwale whom they called. Ogie called some of his close persons in the town to leave because soldiers were coming and that was how boys knew that they called the soldiers and marched on the palace.”
Ogie also claims not to have been on ground during the mayhem but describes the development as very unfortunate. Like the Ovie, he believes the people could have exercised more patience since, according to him, “Shell and the community leadership have been in constant meeting and in their last meeting, I understand that both parties agreed to come for a general meeting on the 6th of December to discuss the document. So, if there was an agreement to meet on the 6th of December, I believe that it would have been better for everybody to wait until that day and if any of the parties tries to play funny, then we can say we have a point of disagreement. We are yet to get to this before a protest was organised.” He says it was “criminal” for Oso to have organised a protest “and he went to his office at Chevron to go and stay,” stressing that “if you are organising a protest, you should be there to control it.”
Rising in defence of the Ovie, Ogie, also a former president-general of Uzere community, says “It is not the duty of the Ovie to negotiate or represent the community with the oil company. It is (the duty of) the president-general of the community. It is the traditional/cultural matters that the Ovie handles. The president-general appointed an oil and gas committee headed by a Chevron staff, Mr. Wilson Oso. He organised this protest. So, it is absolutely a lie for anybody to say that the Ovie is not representing them well. Somebody is giving a dog a bad name in order to hang it.”
Prominent and concerned citizens have blamed the ugly turn of event in the community on leadership failure. They believe that the protest was not properly coordinated and monitored. Some leaders of the community were also not pleased with the handling of the protest by the security operatives and the Ovie. A source hinted that “it was wrong for the police to have fired teargas at the people who were on a peaceful protest while the protesters also over-reacted by burning the police vehicles. It also did not show maturity on the part of the police by burning down the motorcycles of the protesters in retaliation. I also believe that it was not proper for the JTF to have shot at them, killing two people.”
Some observers in Oleh, the headquarters of Isoko South LG, who are familiar with the Uzere political terrain, believe the Ovie seems to have lost grip of the leadership of the community and his traditional authority. They point out that in spite of directing that the protest should not hold, the Ovie’s authority was defied, an indication that his subjects have no respect for him. He is also seen as living in awe of some of his “powerful” subjects among whom is Amaidhe who represents the people’s disrespect and dislike for “Ovie’s perceived arrogance and greed.” Some prominent sons of the community have severed relationship with him and no longer visit his palace. They believe he has eroded the dignity and reverence of the traditional stool by scrambling for contracts in oil companies at the expense of his subjects. His critics claim that most of the development projects the Ovie credited to himself were actually attracted to the community as a result of protests by the people.
Right or wrong, what is the way out for his community awash with oil? Joseph Obari, Shell media officer, said the oil giant was already working with the Delta State government to resolve the crisis.
Last Sunday, the community met at Uzere to review the situation and took some far-reaching decisions. The meeting was presided over by the president-general. The community demanded compensation from Shell for the deaths and ordered it to rebuild the palace. However, a pressure group in the community, Uzere Advocacy Group, in an advertorial condemned the role of the leadership of the community in what it called an “act of terrorism.” Signed by Eloho Umukoro, its president, the group accused the community leadership of being the sponsors of the mayhem using the Ajuwawa militants (a coded reference to Iduh Amaidhe’s supporters) as Uzere youths.
As at the time of going to press, no arrests had been made in connection with the violent disturbances. The State House of Assembly has, however, called on the state governor to as a matter of urgency set up a panel of enquiry to investigate the Uzere mayhem and look into its immediate and remote causes and make appropriate recommendations. Moving the motion, Erijo, representing Isoko II Constituency, argued that the urgent intervention of the state government into the crises “will breathe fresh life into the community.”
A concerned Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan of Delta State told the magazine in Asaba last week that as soon as he got wind of the mayhem, he invited the parties involved to a meeting in Asaba. According to him, “What happened at Uzere is very unfortunate. Because people are taking various sides, the stories about what happened are not quite clear, so we have set up a judicial commission of enquiry to look at the matter.”
This is, however, not the first time the Ovie is in conflict with his subjects. It happened in 1994 when he was accused of collecting N56 million from Shell and another company. He said the community apologised to him after finding out the truth. He reportedly spent a few weeks outside his domain. But this situation is definitely different. Embattled and now counting his losses, he may be a long time in the cold. Apart from losing about N3 million in cash, he said all he had ever worked for in his life were gone. He had also recently invested about N30 million on the ongoing renovation of the palace were the disturbances occurred. This should, however, be the least of his problems right now as the prospect of his going back to his throne hangs precariously on the balance. Will the panel of enquiry do the magic? At Uzere itself, far away from the bureaucratese and the politics of Asaba, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (in the manner of the then newly free South Africa) has been set up to resolve the crisis. May be with it, the crown may be reconciled to its people. “When that happens,” says a youth leader who prefers to be anonymous for security reason, “the king would have learnt the lesson of his life. And we hope that, somehow, Shell will learn to respect us and not make the mistake of taking us for granted.”