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by Isaac Ombe, first published in The Nation, republished by the Niger Delta Solidarity Group, 14 June 2008

The Nation’s correspondent in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State, Isaac Ombe, moved round the communities that produced the first oil wells in the country and examined the infrastructural development in the area and how the residents fare as a result of neglect over the years.

“For over 20 years, no flash of light in this community where oil was first struck in commercial quantity”, says Otuogidi community.

“This community has not benefited from Shell’s presence here since the past 20 years. It was only in June last year that Shell awarded a one kilometre road contract”, says the traditional ruler of Otabagi community , one of the communities where oil was first struck.

“Infrastructural development by Shell in Oloibiri community is nothing to write home about here.”

These and more were words that came out of residents of three communities where Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) was involved in oil exploration and exploitation activities in the ‘50s through the ‘70s and left the area after milking it dry.

The most common features in the communities are relics of oil activities that left the communities shadows of their former selves. Other common features are distraught old men and women dazed by the damage done to their farmlands by the oil activities. Land and waters of the areas have been destroyed, no more fertile soil; aquatic life too has disappeared.

Residents of these communities now engage in subsistence farming to sustain their families.

Abandoned projects both from government and Shell dot everywhere.

On a visit to Otuogidi community, to cross the river connecting the community with the outside world is a problem as the only available means is a rickety boat that could capsize with the slightest seating adjustment by any of the passengers.

“The problem of this community can’t be overemphasized; it has been the first oil well in West Africa; for over 20 years, no flicker of light, not even a flash of light after series of sacrifices to Nigeria.” These were the pathetic words of the youth leader of the community, Comrade Victor Tari.

Corroborating Tari’s statement on how the community has been despoiled, Mr. Sunday Ofoni, the Community Development Committee (CDC) Vice chairman of Otuogidi community, said: “We are denied the provision of social amenities by both Government and Shell company.”

He pointed out that “it is very shameful that our land was used to construct other access roads to communities but our community is denied a major road that passes through the community.”

According to him, the road which is not up to four kilometres long was among the items included in the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed between Shell and the Otuogidi community in 1999. But the (MOU) was abandoned.

“As an oil producing community, we don’t have any student being trained by Shell even though there were several efforts through letters”, disclosed Ofoni who added that “when we hear that Shell is training youths from other communities, we shed tears.”

Further revealing the neglect of the community by Shell and the state government, they disclosed that even the gas turbine being connected to most communities by the state government , Otuogidi does not enjoy the facility. There are electric poles erected in various parts of the community but no power supply.

The CDC members stated that anytime a resident of the community falls sick, to move the person out of the community for treatment used to be an herculean task.

“You will take your sick person through this river (a river that is less than 100 meters wide) but means to cross it is always a problem”, said Isaac Evans, who is secretary of the CDC.

“The person may even die before you could get him to the other side to look for vehicle again for onward journey to any of the far off clinics. However a less than motorable bridge is being constructed across the river.

“People die of cholera and water borne diseases here,” he noted in agony.

“If Shell failed to assist us let the state government come to our aid because there is not even a clinic in a community where oil was first produced and it is also a host community to the College of Health Technology.”

According to him, Shell’s exploration activities led to a huge oil slick which polluted the river that passes through the community and a MOU was signed in March 2000 for compensation, but it was jettisoned. Shell even refused scholarships for indigenes of the community, he alleged, but noted that “the only thing the community would have gained from Shell was the abandoned water project.”

The only visible project in Otuogidi community is a primary school building, courtesy of the Universal Primary Education Board (UBE).

“This is the only government presence here, if not we are not known, we do not know the problem. Is it because we first produced oil and so we should suffer as such?”, the CDC chairman , Mr. Easter Ofoni asked.

Asked if there was any strained relationship between the community and Shell that may have spurred the company’s actions, the CDC Chairman said: “This was because they have abandoned us pretending that there is no more oil here. It is a lie; there is still oil, so much oil in this community.”

The Nation

was shown an abandoned 33,000-bed hospital project. The community was littered with several abandoned projects.

At the proposed hospital project site where the community provided four hectares of land, only moulded blocks surrounded by thick bush, were seen.

Investigations revealed that the hospital project was awarded by the Federal Government in 2006.

Also drugs and equipment worth five million naira are currently wasting away there as they are kept in containers waiting for when the hospital will be completed. The drugs will expire in few months time.

“The drugs arrangement was that in six months time the hospital would have been completed but surprisingly, nothing was done since the drugs came”, Evans disclosed.

Tired of waiting for the take-off of the long awaited hospital project, the CDC seized a classroom and turned it into a dispensary to treat sick persons in the community.

“Since both government and Shell have turned their backs on us, we just have to save ourselves with what is available,” a member of the CDC noted in anger.

Austin Jacobs, the Vice President of the youths association in the community appealed to Shell to consider scholarship positions for the community’s children, like other communities.

“Our people should be trained in different skills as being done to other communities, Shell should build hospital, roads, provide water, and employment for us too”, he pleaded. “We are suffering, no assistance to farmers, we need assistance.”

Like Otuogidi community, another community where SPDC initially explored for oil but failed to make positive impact was Otabagi (Otuabagi).

Paramount Ruler of Otabagi, Chief Irigha Iworiso, said the community has not benefited from Shell throughout the period of the multinational’s presence there.

He claimed that there are 21 oil wells in his dopmain.

Dilapidated mud houses housing old and drained men and women who expressed tiredness at cultivating infertile farmlands, crops that experience stunted growth and denied of nutrients, are the visible features in this community.

“My mummy told me that before white men came to our land, mamakoko (a yam-like tuber) used to be very big when produced but since oil activities started in this our land, we have been getting tiny yields”, disclosed Anana who is in her ‘50s.

According to her, “We are all poor.

“This community has not benefited from Shell since, except last year June when Shell awarded a road contract of one kilometre round the town (a ring road). In addition, the community and Shell also agreed in an MOU to construct two feeder roads of 500 meters each within the community,” Chief Iworiso revealed.

Feeling is high in the community that Shell’s recent unexpected friendship through the construction of the roads might not be unconnected with the recent discovery of three oil wells in the community.

Iworiso echoed this view: “They have discovered another three oil wells in this community and I believe that they are preparing to come again, this may be the reason why Shell is coming to construct our roads that they have ignored many years ago.”

But for the gas turbine installed in the area during the Second Republic, Otabigi is little different from Otuogidi: both are in total darkness. The turbine is not functioning.

He also hoped that “since other oil producing communities like Otuesega, Imiringi and Elebele in the Ogbia kingdom are enjoying light, we deserve similar provision. After the erection of the poles, we should be connected to Shell light”, the royal father stated.

Shell closed all the oil wells in the area in 1977, it was learnt.

But Chief Iworiso faulted Shell, saying contrary to the firm’s view, there are still large quantities of oil in the abandoned oil wells. “Shell is quite aware that oil is there, they are only ignoring these ones because there are now a lot of oil wells in other parts of the state and the Niger Delta Region. They will still come back to the rejected stone one day.”

Oloibiri was where the first oil explorers settled. Even with its status as the base of the nation’s oil activities, Oloibiri’s infrastructural development is nothing to write home about.

Chief Sunday Forster Nengite-Ikpesu, who is the adviser, Oloibiri Council of Chiefs, told The Nation that in the 1950s: “No development activities for the people such as training programmes, etc. Even at that time, when they were present here, not many indigenes were employed.”

Even though Shell’s presence is not also seen in Oloibiri, the state government’s presence is a bit pronounced there than in the other two communities of Otuogidi and Otabagi. Shell constructed a block of six classrooms in Oloibiri.

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