NIGER DELTA COALITION
IN THE DIASPORA
P. O. Box 1454
Amherst, New York 14226, USA
Fax: 1 (208) 361-9469
May 21, 2001
The Honorable Colin Powell
Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street, N.W., 7th Floor
Washington, DC 20520
Dear Mr. Secretary:
Niger Delta Coalition In the Diaspora represents the interests of Niger Delta, Nigeria’s oil-producing region. The constituent organizations of Niger Delta Coalition In the Diaspora are in Europe, Asia, and North America. Our main focus of interest is the deepening environmental crisis in the Niger Delta and the political actions and inactions that now threaten the survival of this very important region of Africa.
We are therefore pleased to learn that you will include regional problems affecting Nigeria and the West African region in your concerns during your current trip to Africa. We believe the issues of the Niger Delta are of vital interest for peace considerations in the West African region. There are grave matters of humanitarian importance in the relations between the Federal Government of Nigeria, headed by President Olusegun Obasanjo, and the people of the Niger
Delta. In addition, major oil-producing companies operating in the Niger Delta, including Chevron, an American corporation, are doing business in ways that threaten the survival of the people and cultures of the Niger Delta. These are matters that we wish to call to your attention as you plan for discussions with Nigeria’s leaders
While we have no wish to crowd your agenda with only problems relating to the Niger Delta, we certainly hope that in your future discussions with Nigeria’s leaders you will raise the most serious matters on the Niger Delta crisis. We say so because we are persuaded that the grave issues of the Niger Delta are matters that the Federal Government of Nigeria seeks to hide from the international community, even though its vicious actions against the Niger Delta adversely impact on international human rights as well as global peace and security.
We are struck by the position taken by Human Rights Watch regarding Nigeria in its letter to you dated May 18, 2001 on the subject of your forthcoming visit to Africa. We note the following request by Human Rights Watch in its letter to you: “We therefore urge you to call on President Olusegun Obasanjo to carry out thorough and credible investigations and prosecutions for human rights abuses by the Nigerian armed forces in Nigeria as well as in Sierra Leone.” We fully endorse the request that “human rights abuses by the Nigerian armed forces in Nigeria” be investigated and prosecuted. We wish to call your attention to the fact that these abuses were carried out in the Niger Delta. In our considered view, these abuses are as serious as those that the international community is currently examining in Yugoslavia.
In this regard, we wish to underline the facts of President Olusegun Obasanjo’s Federal Government’s invasion and destruction of Odi Town in Niger Delta’s Bayelsa State in November 1999. Human Rights Watch has written a brief on this unprovoked attack on a peace-loving people titled “The Destruction of Odi and Rape in Choba December 22, 1999” (see http://www.hrw.org/press/1999/dec/nibg1299.htm). A fuller report titled “A Documentation of Destruction of Odi Town, Bayelsa State, Niger Delta, By Nigeria's Military Forces, November 20-24, 1999” is available at the following web site: http://waado.org/Environment/FedGovt_NigerDelta/BayelsaInvasion/EntryToDocumentation/Entry.html. In particular, we would like to call to your attention a compilation by Environmental Rights Action of revealing graffiti left behind at Odi Town by the invading soldiers at the following web site: http://waado.org/Environment/FedGovt_NigerDelta/BayelsaInvasion/AssessmentOfInvasion/Graffiti.html
A full review of these sources of information on the destruction of Odi Town will convince you that the conduct of Nigeria’s Federal Government in this matter constituted wanton aggression against a civilian population and therefore warrants international attention. This is more so because President Olusegun Obasanjo’s Federal Government rewarded the military officer who supervised the destruction of Odi Town with promotion shortly after the invasion. In these circumstances, we urge you to request an explanation for the invasion and destruction of Odi Town in the Niger Delta from the Nigerian Government. Furthermore, we would want to know why President Olusegun Obasanjo’s Federal Government has refused to rebuild a town that its military forces had no credible reason for attacking nor any justifiable reason for destroying. At the minimum, we ask that you demand that all military personnel who participated in Odi’s invasion and destruction or in the mass rape at Choba be barred from participating in all international peacekeeping missions.
Such a demand on the Nigerian Government will be appropriate because there is clear evidence of its disregard for the observance of any standards of human rights in the Niger Delta. This failure extends to commitments made by the previous Military Government on which President Olusegun Obasanjo made promises before his election to office. An important example of this conduct is with respect to the commitments of the Federal Government following the finding by a United Nations Committee that the trial and execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others were badly flawed. A report submitted and accepted by Nigeria’s Federal Government, amongst several other recommendations, called for the compensation of the victims of military rampage in Ogoniland. President Olusegun Obasanjo’s Government has ignored this commitment. Moreover, the soldiers who perpetrated grave human rights abuses in Ogoniland are still in active service. Indeed, the military officer who supervised the torture of thousands of Ogoni people and the judicial murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Niger Deltan environmentalist, has been rewarded with rapid promotion. Our request is that you raise these matters with the Nigerian Government and that the military personnel who committed these atrocities in Ogoniland be barred from participation in international peacekeeping missions.
We have three other requests to make on the Niger Delta. First, we ask that you include the Niger Delta in any future visit by you to Nigeria. We do understand that the Nigerian Federal Government does not like foreign dignitaries to visit the enormous filth created for the Niger Delta by the Federal Government of Nigeria and its friends, the multinational oil companies. However, there is a special reason why we press that you visit the Niger Delta. We urge you to visit the Escravos deep in the Niger Delta where Chevron’s reckless oil-prospecting tactics have ruined entire communities, rendering them unlivable. Chevron is an American corporation. Its overseas operations should be of interest to your Government.
Second, we request that you urge President Olusegun Obasanjo to stop the commencement of the "West African Gas Line Project” which he is rushing through without a proper and credible environmental impact study. We fear major disaster for the areas of impact of the projected gas line that is planned to begin in the Escravos in the Niger Delta and run through various territories inside the Niger Delta and through the countries of Benin, Togo, and Ghana. World Bank funding is required for this project.
Third, we strongly urge you to let President Olusegun Obasanjo know of our viewpoint from the Niger Delta that his plans to dredge the River Niger, without any credible impact studies, may prove catastrophic for most areas of the Niger Delta. Among its other ill-consequences, there are low-lying islands in Delta, Bayelsa, and Rivers States of the Niger Delta that may be inundated and wiped out of existence as a result of this project which is being driven by the lure for lucrative contracts to the utter disregard for the welfare and survival of the people of the Niger Delta.
We regret that we have been compelled to appeal for your intervention in these matters instead of talking to the Federal Government of Nigeria. Sadly, however, President Olusegun Obasanjo and his Federal Government do not listen to representations from the Niger Delta whenever such viewpoints will diminish their money-making oil explorations in the Niger Delta. But the people of the Niger Delta are fighting for their survival. The international community is our last resort for appeal for help.
These issues are of grave concern to the people of the Niger Delta and to other Nigerians. We therefore ask for your indulgence and permission to circulate copies of this letter inside and outside Nigeria for the benefit of Niger Deltans and Nigerians generally.
We thank you for your attention to these matters.
Interim Niger Delta Leadership Group in the Diaspora:
|Bawo Ayomike Bawo_Ayomike@freddiemac.com||Ebiamadon Andi Brisibe firstname.lastname@example.org|
|Joseph Ebiware Jebiware@mcla.mass.edu||Goddey Ejuwa email@example.com|
|Peter Ekeh firstname.lastname@example.org||Sokari Ekine email@example.com|
|N. H. Ibanga firstname.lastname@example.org||Michael Ikhariale IKHARIAB@aol.com|
|Clement Ikpatt email@example.com||Uwem Inyang firstname.lastname@example.org|
|Igho Natufe inatufe@NRCan.gc.ca||Steve Nwabuzor email@example.com|
|Peter Nyiam firstname.lastname@example.org||Orevaoghene Charles Obaro email@example.com|
|Benedict Okwumabua firstname.lastname@example.org||Nowa Omoigui email@example.com|
|GBENEWA PHIDO firstname.lastname@example.org||Edemma Udoh email@example.com|
|Benson Uwumarogie firstname.lastname@example.org|
1. Human Rights Watch, “The Destruction of Odi and Rape in Choba.” December 22, 1999.
2. Environmental Rights Action, “A Documentation of Graffitti Left Behind At Odi By Invading Nigerian Soldiers” Compiled on Christmas Day, 1999.
Human Rights Watch:
December 22, 1999
On November 4, 1999, an armed gang killed seven Nigerian policemen in the community of Odi, Bayelsa State, in the oil producing Niger Delta region in the far south east of the country. Five other police were killed in subsequent days. These murders were committed by a group with no apparent political agenda, but took place against a rising clamor from those living in the oil producing areas for a greater share of the oil wealth. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo wrote to the governor of Bayelsa, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, threatening to declare a state of emergency if those responsible for the murders were not apprehended within two weeks. Responsibility for policing is, however, a federal duty in Nigeria. Before the deadline could expire, soldiers from the Nigerian army moved into Odi, a community of perhaps 15,000 people, engaged in a brief exchange of fire with the young men alleged to be responsible for the deaths of the policemen, and proceeded to raze the town. The troops demolished every single building, barring the bank, the Anglican church and the health, and may have killed hundreds of unarmed civilians. While the soldiers reportedly shot and killed some of the armed youths who brought trouble to the town, most of the gang is reported to have fled.
Shortly before the military operation at Odi, Nigerian soldiers were also deployed in the nearby community of Choba, in Rivers State, in order to disperse protesters outside the gates of Willbros Nigeria Ltd, the subsidiary of an American pipeline construction company. Community members reported that the soldiers killed four people, and raped a large number of women. Photographs which appeared to show soldiers in the act of raping several women, were published in the Nigerian press. The Nigerian government instantly dismissed the photographs as staged, and issued an outright denial of any rapes, before any type of inquiry had been undertaken. The government also denied that it had deployed soldiers to the community. While Human Rights Watch cannot explicitly verify the authenticity of the photographs, the dispute over their provenance is essentially irrelevant. Eyewitnesses, including victims, confirmed to Human Rights Watch that soldiers did commit a large number of rapes.
Both these operations indicate a disturbing willingness by the new civilian government in Nigeria to use the same methods as the military governments of the past. They continue a series of federal government actions in the delta that have failed to distinguish between those allegedly responsible for criminal acts, activists making political demands for the peoples of the delta to have greater control over the natural resources found beneath their land, and civilian bystanders who are neither criminals nor activists. Far from quelling protest, this type of brutality is certain to make the situation worse, by undermining those who urge non-violent negotiation and fueling the arguments of those who say there is nothing to be gained by attempting to dialogue with the new civilian government, but that
the delta peoples must take to arms to make their case. Nevertheless, it is still not too late for the federal government to achieve a negotiated solution to the fundamental demands of the peoples who live in the oil producing areas of Nigeria that the oil should only be extracted on terms that are acceptable to the people who face the consequences of oil production. It is the responsibility of a democratic government to attempt to seek such a solution.
Nigeria is the largest oil producer in Africa, and the fifth largest in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Yet, instead of turning Nigeria into one of the most prosperous states on the African continent, these natural resources have enriched a small minority while the vast majority in the oil producing regions have become increasingly impoverished. Anger at the inequities attributed to the oil economy has led increasing numbers of people from the communities in the oil regions to protest the exploitation of what they see as "their" oil--though the constitution provides that all oil is owned by the federal government--without benefit to them or compensation for the damage done to their land and livelihoods.
In recent years, protests aimed at oil production have steadily increased. On December 11, 1998, youths from the Ijaw ethnic group, the largest in the delta, formed the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) and adopted the Kaiama Declaration, which echoed the 1990 Ogoni Bill of Rights adopted by Ken Saro-Wiwa's Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) and resolved that "all land and natural resources (including mineral resources) within the Ijaw territory belong to Ijaw communities and are the basis for our survival." In late December 1998 and January 1999, demonstrations in support of the Kaiama Declaration in Kaiama and Yenagoa were met with indiscriminate force, and soldiers and Mobile Police killed tens of people. Among those involved in these demonstrations and among the casualties were youths from Odi. (1) The IYC has continued to mobilize over the year since its formation. There has also been an increase in criminal activity in the delta, such as kidnapping of oil company staff for ransom. The IYC has condemned hostage taking, but has also called on the oil companies to stop paying ransom money, which provides an incentive for further kidnappings.
Between December 1998 and February 1999, local, state and federal elections were held in Nigeria, which led to the inauguration on May 29, 1999 of the first civilian government in Nigeria for sixteen years. In the Niger Delta region, these elections were marked by such widespread fraud that, though pleased to be rid of military rule, few members of the electorate regard those "elected" as their real representatives. The current problems in the delta are exacerbated, if not partly caused, by these problems in the electoral process.
Local activists and others alleged to Human Rights Watch that Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, the current governor of Bayelsa State, in common with other candidates, hired local youths to work on his behalf during his election campaign. They reported that the youths subsequently causing problems in Odi were among these "campaigners," responsible for hijacking ballot boxes and otherwise fixing results. Such activities were common to all the states in the delta area (and further afield). (2) In an interview with Human Rights Watch, the chief press secretary for the Bayelsa State government denied that the governor had ever paid any such thugs, and that "even if he did" other candidates engaged in similar practices. (3) Following the election, the governor ceased to pay these youths, led by one Ken Niweigha, a son of a former policeman from Odi, which is in Kolokuma/Opokuma local government area, Bayelsa State, not far from Yenagoa, the state capital. They began to terrorize the townspeople of Yenagoa, where they stayed, and in September 1999 there was a confrontation between them and police and soldiers posted in Yenagoa, in which one soldier was reportedly killed. Soldiers and Mobile Police then drove the youths out of Yenagoa, while also carrying out indiscriminate attacks on other residents of the "black market" slum area. In this operation they killed up to several tens of people and razed a large number of shack dwellings to the ground. (4)
After being driven out of Yenagoa, the youths causing the problems there eventually moved to Odi, following their leader Ken Niweigha. Although they used some of the rhetoric of the IYC and other political leaders--including Governor Alamieyeseigha himself--who are attempting to obtain a greater share for the Ijaw people of the revenue from the oil wealth found beneath the land where Ijaws mainly live, it is clear that these youths were essentially criminals engaged in self-enrichment. They soon began to cause problems for the local community, extorting money from market traders, mounting illegal roadblocks, stealing food, commandeering vehicles, and assaulting those who resisted. (5) Since there were maybe twenty to thirty youths, perhaps fifteen or twenty of them armed with automatic rifles, there was little the traditional leader and other authorities in the town could do, though they called the young men into meetings and urged them to cease their activities or leave the town. (6) Both the traditional leader, the amananaowei, King Thunder Efeke Bolou II, and a group of Odi indigenes resident in Port Harcourt wrote to the Governor Alamieyeseigha on November 1, informing him that "the security situation [in Odi] is, to put it mildly, frightening, disturbing and horrifying. Some criminally minded immigrant youths from the neighboring communities and beyond have decided to make Odi their operational base. We hereby suggest an immediate investigation / positive intervention to check the already tension packed community." (7) There was no response to these letters. Eyewitnesses reported to Human Rights Watch that the youths would drive up and down the east-west road, that runs past Odi between Port Harcourt and Warri, openly armed and firing into the air, and that Mobile Police and soldiers posted along the road since the disturbances of December 1998 and January 1999 would let them pass freely, even firing into the air in response.
At around this time, violence between Ijaws and Yorubas led by the Oodua People's Congress (OPC), an ethnic militia, broke out in the Ajegunle slum district of Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital, several hundred kilometers to the west. Niweigha and his gang began to mobilize other Ijaw youths to go to Lagos to assist the Ijaws there. On November 4, seven policemen came to Odi, apparently to look into this mobilization, and were killed under circumstances which remain unclear. According to community members and government statements, the group of three Mobile Police officers and four ordinary police were led by a Yoruba area commander, Thomas Jokotola, who had also been responsible for driving the youths out of the black market area of Yenagoa. The youths reportedly captured them from a bar and ultimately killed them. After they were taken hostage but before they were known to be dead, Governor Alamieyeseigha approached a number of Ijaw leaders, including Felix Tuodolo, president of the IYC, to attempt to secure the policemen's release. A delegation traveled to Odi, but was unsuccessful; it is believed that the policemen had perhaps already been killed. The positive role played by the IYC in attempting to resolve the crisis was later acknowledged by federal vice president, Atiku Abubakar. (8) Over the next few days the same gang reportedly killed five other policemen in two separate confrontations in and around Odi.
Every political leader of the Ijaw people, including the Ijaw Youth Council as well as the governor and other civilian politicians within the federal and state political structures immediately condemned these murders.
On November 10, 1999, President Obasanjo wrote to the governor of Bayelsa State, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, condemning the killing of the policemen, and threatening to declare a state of emergency if they were not arrested within fourteen days. Written in a style which led many to believe at first that it may have been a forgery, the president mistakenly alleged that the Ikwerre community of Choba, in Rivers State, was in predominantly Ijaw Bayelsa State, mis-spelled Governor Alamieyeseigha's name, and accused the governor of failing to take any action against those responsible for killing the policemen following a meeting of the National Security Council on November 9, just the day before. The president did not acknowledge that it was not within the powers of the governor to arrange for any such arrests, given that the Nigerian police and other security agencies are federally controlled. Partly as a consequence of this threat, and in fear of security force reprisals over the killing of the policemen, many Odi residents, especially young men, left the community. Although assurances from the governor that there would be no military crackdown meant that some had returned before the army began its operation, journalists visiting on November 17 found the community mostly deserted but for women, children and old men. (9)
The Assault on Odi
Why would any government use such excessive force and endanger the lives of so many innocent citizens of Nigeria for the sake of arresting between ten and thirty criminals? It makes no sense. -- Odi indigene, interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Port Harcourt, December 4, 1999.
I wish to make it categorically clear that government, by this act, has not violated any internationally acceptable human rights provisions as practiced elsewhere in the developed world. ... How can it be said that a carefully planned and cautiously executed exercise to rid the society of these criminals is a violation of human rights? -- Text of speech given by Dr. Doyin Okupe, special adviser to the president (media and publicity), at a press conference, Abuja, November 29, 1999 (as reported in Punch (Lagos), December 2, 1999).
At around 2 p.m. in the afternoon of Saturday November 20, 1999, four days before the expiry of the fourteen day deadline for the declaration of a state of emergency, and while Governor Alamieyeseigha was attending the Peoples' Democratic Party (PDP) convention in Abuja, a large number of Nigerian soldiers under the command of a lieutenant-colonel approached the town of Odi, a village of perhaps 15,000 people. (10) Eyewitnesses reported to journalists and to Human Rights Watch that they had been transported in more than twenty vehicles, including several armored personnel carriers (APCs) mounted with machine guns. Press reports indicated that approximately 2,000 soldiers had been deployed, though a spokesperson for the Second Amphibious Brigade, which had been involved in the action and is based in Port Harcourt, told the BBC that not more than 300 troops had been engaged. (11) In a subsequent press release on behalf of the community, residents also alleged that three 81 mm mortars and two 105 mm howitzers were used to shell the town, though Human Rights Watch was not able to confirm this report. (12)
While it seems that the armed youths who had been responsible for the deaths of the policemen set an ambush for the troops as they advanced along the one access road to the town, and engaged them in a short-lived firefight, this was soon over. As they heard the soldiers approaching, those residents still present in Odi fled to the bush, most of them with only the clothes they were wearing. Over the next few days the soldiers advanced through the town systematically destroying property. By Monday evening they had reached the far side of the town, where a retired air force officer watched from the bush as soldiers fired a rocket propelled grenade into his house to set it ablaze. (13) Over the next ten days the destruction continued, perhaps guided by a reconnaissance aircraft that flew over on a daily basis for ten days or more. For two weeks, those sheltering in the bush saw smoke rising from the town: by the time the soldiers left, around December 1, every single building in the town except the bank, the Anglican church and the health center had been destroyed, with only walls left standing at best and all items of value looted.
Several older people sheltered in the Anglican church throughout the operation; these and others who saw some of what happened from hiding places in the bush reported to Human Rights Watch that soldiers fired indiscriminately at residents, targeting young men in particular, and taking no care to ensure that buildings were empty before setting fire to them. They uniformly confirmed that there was no question of house-to-house fighting of a kind that might have led to destruction of property in order to "flush out" those who were still resisting. Indeed, the scale of the destruction indicates not that this was a policing operation in which ill-disciplined soldiers got out of hand, but that soldiers were following orders to demolish every building.
It is impossible to estimate the number of people killed at Odi. Government officials acknowledged as early as November 22 that forty-three people had been killed in the operation, eight of them soldiers. It seems likely that the figures are much higher than that, though they will have been limited by the fact that many people had fled the town. (14) Human Rights Watch believes that the soldiers must certainly have killed tens of unarmed civilians and that figures of several hundred dead are entirely plausible. The full tally will likely never be known, unless systematic efforts are made to list all missing persons and try to track them down. Press reports indicated that troops had moved a number of people from Odi, mostly old people, women, and small children, in military vehicles to the Adaka Boro barracks in Elele, Rivers State; though officers at the base denied this to Human Rights Watch. (15)
The governor of Bayelsa State, placed in an impossible position by the action of the federal government, of which he was not informed in advance, attempted to assure Nigerians that the soldiers had been posted to Odi only to "fish out" bandits in the area, and that those harboring the criminals should hand them over to the authorities. Meanwhile, the federal government denied that any military action had been ordered but that, in order "to avert a total breakdown of law and order," security forces had been deployed to the area "under the control of the state governor." Other government statements suggested rather that troops had been deployed to teach the delta peoples the lesson that harboring criminals would have grave consequences. Graffiti in Odi written by soldiers suggests that they also saw the operation as a punitive expedition against people challenging government authority. Another government statement warned hospitals, health centers and herbalists not to treat anyone wounded in Odi without alerting security agents. (16)
Until the end of November, the east-west road between Port Harcourt and Warri remained blocked between Mbiama junction and Patani, close to the borders with Rivers and Delta States. As of December 7, there are still a number of road blocks close to the junction leading to Odi, at which soldiers and Mobile Police were checking all vehicles for young Ijaw men, and allegedly assaulting and in some cases killing those they found with traditional markings. (17) These roadblocks remain as of this writing. The Rivers State commissioner of police, Kieran Dudari, stated at a press conference, that a total of nineteen people had been arrested by the army and handed over to the police. The alleged killers of the twelve policemen, including Ken Niweigha, had escaped and were believed to be in Port Harcourt. (18)
Official Response to Protests at the Military Action in Odi
On November 24, apparently in response to the outcry at the military operation in Odi, the government announced emergency projects worth U.S.$50 million in the Niger Delta region, including technical training for youths, road building and an improved power supply. The federal government also met with the chief executives of the oil companies operating in Nigeria, both national and transnational, and President Obasanjo urged the oil companies "to explore ways of making their host communities stakeholders in the successful operation of the industry." (19) On coming to office, the president had also put forward a bill for the establishment of a Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), to channel development projects to the delta. The bill was heavily criticized by most political leaders from the delta for failing to address the fundamental issues of resource control and revenue allocation: Governor Alamieyeseigha, for example, commented that "for anyone to think that the Niger Delta Development Commission Bill will solve the Bayelsa problem is only plain unintelligent." (20)
Following a Senate resolution on November 25 that the government should withdraw all troops from Odi, the Senate President Chuba Okadigbo led a delegation from Abuja to visit Odi on Tuesday November 30, commenting that "The facts speak for themselves. No need for speech as there is nobody to speak with." (21) Several days later, the speaker of the House of Representatives also visited the community. By the end of the week, the Senate rushed through the government's NDDC Bill, approving it, with substantial amendments, on December 2. The House of Representatives also passed a resolution requesting President Obasanjo to obtain National Assembly consent before deploying troops to quell any civil unrest, but had failed to pass the NDDC bill at this writing. The Bayelsa State government has set up a task force to coordinate relief efforts for Odi, though as of this writing had not provided any concrete assistance.
Rape in Choba
Just a few weeks before the crisis in Odi, the community of Choba, Rivers State, faced its own confrontation with soldiers. Choba is an Ikwerre community which is the site of the federal University of Port Harcourt (UNIPORT), though it is some half an hour's drive from the city of Port Harcourt itself. It is also the site of the Nigeria headquarters of Willbros Nigeria Ltd, a pipeline construction business which is a subsidiary of Willbros Group, Inc., an American company whose "administrative office" is in Oklahoma (though its headquarters is in Panama). For some years, there has been discontent among the people of Choba with Willbros, which has acquired an unenviable reputation as an inconsiderate neighbor little interested in promoting good relations with the community. In particular, Choba representatives have been unhappy at the failure of Willbros to employ more than a handful of Choba indigenes. While it is clearly not possible for the company to employ all those in the community who seek work, Nigerian law does require transnational companies to employ local workers at lower skills levels, where they are suitably qualified. Choba residents allege that Nigerian managers at Willbros who are not from Choba have shown preference for members of their own communities over qualified local staff. The security manager at the Willbros is a retired brigadier-general of the Nigerian army, Sam Oniyide, of Ondo State. (22)
There have been periodic demonstrations at the Willbros gates, in the heart of Choba, over the years. From mid-1999, discontent among Choba residents with Willbros had reached the surface once again, and youth leaders staged several sit-ins to block the entrance to the compound. According to Willbros, Choba residents threatened both Nigerian and expatriate staff during this time, and the company received reports that some Nigerian staff were beaten. (23)
On September 17, 1999, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the Choba community, represented by thirty-four individuals, and Willbros, represented by divisional manager J.B. Brown and systems manager Lloyd Biggers, both expatriates. The agreement was facilitated by the Rivers State government, and signed in the presence of Paworiso Samuel Horsfall, the state commissioner for the environment and natural resources. By the agreement, Willbros agreed, among other things, to build a secondary school on land to be provided by the community; to employ an administrative assistant from Choba who would be responsible for general staff recruitment and to review from time to time the number of Willbros staff from Choba with a view to increasing the number; to repair damaged sections of road near the plant and to provide equipment for construction of a new road; to provide for water distribution; and to remove from employment Chief Nwasuruba, the company's administrative manager, and Sam Oniyide, the security manager, with effect from September 30.
According to Willbros, the company held a further meeting with youth leaders on September 29, at which Willbros expressed concern at lack of cooperation towards implementation of the agreement, which they stated they were attempting to implement in good faith; and on October 7, the commissioner of environment and natural resources called a further meeting, at which the Choba youth leaders demanded the immediate sacking of 600 Willbros employees, to be replaced with Choba residents. (24) On October 8, youths dissatisfied with the speed of implementation of the agreement once again blocked the company gates, completely preventing anyone entering or leaving the Willbros premises. Willbros asserts that the youths "invaded" the company premises, destroyed property, and severely beat several expatriates, holding approximately eighty-five hostage for an undefined period; the company also states that "many of the Nigerian staff disappeared and are feared dead." (25) Community leaders stated that the demonstrators were unarmed, though noisy, since they included drummers and dancers.
On October 9, the representatives of the Choba community who had signed the September 17 agreement were called to the Port Harcourt headquarters of the Rivers State Swift Operation Squad (SOS), a police successor unit to the paramilitary Operation Flush established by the military government. Three of them went to Port Harcourt to find out what the summons was for. At the SOS office they met Willbros manager J.B. Brown, and signed an agreement which committed the company to begin employing one hundred persons from Choba community immediately, and in return the community would remove obstructions from the Willbros gates. The SOS commander, Godwill M. Obielum, and Commissioner Horsfall also signed. The three Choba community members returned to Choba, and reported what had happened; they had not, however, had the authority of the other signatories to the September 17 agreement to modify its terms or to negotiate for the end of the demonstration in this way. The demonstration continued.
Willbros asserts that following a meeting with Choba community representatives on October 25, at which the community reverted to its original position before the agreement was concluded on September 17, youths "stormed through the gate at our yard" on October 27, and sabotaged marine equipment, including a dredge and tugboat. The company also alleges that further assaults on Willbros premises and staff took place on October 28 and 29, and that some of those involved were armed with firearms. (26) Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify these or other allegations by the company.
On October 28, a number of soldiers and mobile police came to Choba and dispersed the demonstrators at the Willbros gates. Community members reported that soldiers killed four people the next day, injured several others, of whom one had his arm amputated, and raped at least sixty-seven women. The soldiers also ransacked several stalls near to the Willbros gates, and reportedly detained twenty-one youths. (27)
In its summary of the events, Willbros does not mention the deployment of troops or police to disperse demonstrators. But in a press release, the company reported that:
On October 28, 1999, Nigerian police dislodged a large group of insurgents [sic] from Willbros Choba Yard facility, that had disrupted traffic and communications, as well as looted facilities and vandalized equipment since October 8. ... The Nigerian police used restrained force in reestablishing control of the facility, and no shots were fired or injuries reported inside the Willbros facility. The following day, several men from the group were reportedly killed, outside of Willbros' Choba Yard facility, at Choba Village where most of the participants live, when police attempted to quell the unrest. We are not able to confirm the number of arrests or the nature of the injuries sustained. ... During the past weeks, several local employees sustained injuries as a result of the ongoing disturbance. All Willbros employees have been accounted for and are safe. While several personnel have been relocated to other sites within the area, progress on some ongoing projects has not been halted. (28)
A spokesperson for Willbros confirmed the content of the press release to Human Rights Watch, in particular that according to her information police and not soldiers had been deployed to disperse the demonstrators. (29)
On Sunday November 7, Lagos based Punch newspaper published an account of the military / police action, including graphic photographs of the rapes, which the paper reported had been taken by a student at UNIPORT. The photographs were so explicit, showing men in uniform forcing women to bend over, or beating them, that many expressed their doubts as to whether they could be authentic. The government immediately asserted that the photographs were staged, but also refused to undertake any investigation of the allegations. In his extraordinary letter of November 10, 1999, to Governor Alamieyeseigha of Bayelsa State, in which he mistakenly assumed that Choba was in Bayelsa and not Rivers State, President Obasanjo stated that :
I note with utter disgust and shock the reported incident of rape in your State by military personnel, which from investigation is said to have been stage-managed and orchestrated to malign and discredit the military, and I know that no soldier would be so beastly as to commit such a criminal act in the full glare of cameramen.
Human Rights Watch visited Choba and spoke to one victim and several eyewitness of the rapes. Most of the women were unwilling to speak to outsiders, having faced extensive inquiries from journalists to whom some have told their stories, but Human Rights Watch also spoke to journalists who had conducted other interviews. (30) Government spokespeople, including those from the police and army, have denied that soldiers were deployed to disperse the demonstrators, though townspeople were able to give Human Rights Watch details of military vehicles, including armored personnel carriers, that were used, as well as descriptions of those in uniform. While Human Rights Watch cannot verify the figure of sixty-seven rapes alleged by the community, it seems certain that soldiers did indeed rape quite a large number of women and killed several people.
The Rivers State House of Assembly has set up a seven-person committee to investigate the incident, and the Rivers State Governor Peter Odili has said he will conduct his own investigation. Community members are not satisfied with these investigations, alleging that Odili has a close relationship with Willbros and lacks impartiality.
In its third quarter results announced on November 8, 1999, Willbros Group, Inc. reported a loss, noting that "Civil unrest in Nigeria has also been a factor in reducing margins as we have not been able to operate at an efficient level due to the frequent interruptions. We are hopeful that the order restored by the government law enforcement agencies at our Eastern Nigeria base will endure and that a normalized operating environment will return." (31)
10. Some reports have put the population of Odi as up to 50,000 people. Human Rights Watch visited the town in February 1999 and believes that 15,000 is a more accurate figure, though it is impossible to be sure.
16. Texts of two reports by Nigerian TV on November 22, 1999, as reported by BBC Summary of World Broadcasts; text of government statement reported in Rotimi Ajayi, "FG denies military action in Bayelsa," Vanguard (Lagos), November 23, 1999; BBC interview with Governor Alamieyeseigha, November 24, 1999.
27. Ikwerre Youth Convention Press Release, November 1, 1999; "Position paper on the annihilation of Choba community by Willbros Nigeria Limited and Governor Peter Odili," November 11, 1999; Human Rights Watch interviews, Port Harcourt and Choba, December 7 and 8, 1999.
Environmental Rights Action
A COMPENDIUM OF GRAFFITI LEFT BEHIND AT ODI BY INVADING NIGERIAN SOLDIERS
Compiled On Christmas Day, 1999
DESPATCHLINE: ODI, BAYELSA STATE, NIGERIA
COMPILED BY VOLUNTEERS FROM:
1. Elimotu movement
2. Environmental Rights Action
3. Civil Liberties Organisation (Rivers & Bayelsa)
5. Odi indigenes
THESE GRAFFITI REMAIN THE STRONGEST INDICATION AS TO WHAT SORT OF PSYCHOLOGY POWERED THE RUTHLESS DESTRUCTION OF ODI IN NOVEMBER 1999. THEY ARE PRESENTED HERE UNEDITED. THEY ARE EITHER WRITTEN WITH CHALK, CHARCOAL OR SCRATCHED WITH SOME HARD OBJECT ON THE BROKEN WALLS OF ODI.
For more information contact:
ENVIRONMENTAL RIGHTS ACTION/ FRIENDS OF THE EARTH (FoE, Nigeria)
+ OILWATCH AFRICA
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