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“Oil Companies are Not Here to Prove Ownership”

BOOK EXCERPT

By Jide Ajide, John Ashima & Oluwole Agunbiade

It was as if Chevron envisaged trouble.

In July 1993, it hired Chima Nwogu, who was working then with the Rivers State Ministry of Lands and Housing. He started his career with the company as a land representative with the Department of Law and Land.

Two years after Nwogu joined the American major, the land division was merged with the Public Affairs Department. “When I was hired with my colleagues, that was the first time professionals with estate valuation background were coming into the system…and Niger Delta was then relatively safe for everyone”, he recalls. “I could go from one community to another, enter the creeks on a boat and assess whatever is on the land as a land officer without any problem. So, we could work together without any problem. But soon after, there was this scramble by the various communities to be part of what was going on. If they were not part of it, they will press their claims to belong until they get some part of the goodies. So, you would see where communities held out as if they did not know their history, as if they had forgotten who owned the land among them.”

Nwogu cites some examples of where two or more ethnic groups claimed ownership of same land. “In Dibi, we were running the flow lines for the Dibi oilfield initially. When we acquired the first one, we dealt with a group of people, the Itsekiris. They had documents. There were six Itsekiri communities in different areas of Dibi. Then, when we were dredging, we saw a lot of Ijaws who came around, I met them…because they were the ones fishing there (and claimed fishing rights). But when we came to acquire the land and do the necessary survey, they were not there. And as the project went on, more communities started springing up and we found it so difficult to manage. It got to a point that we could not do any project without settling 10, 20, 50 communities. Everybody wants you to negotiate with them as a community.

“Anyway, what we are looking for is the social license to operate (in peace). Achieving this involves a lot of ingenuity and skills. The perfect setting is to be in place where government has tangible presence, be it local or state (government). However, in this case, there was no government presence anywhere. You could move across fifty communities, and you would find no police station anywhere. Even, at some point, some Itsekiri people started questioning the overlordship of the Olu of Warri on land matters. They would say his (Olu’s) lordship does not cover land. It is because land is life; it is tied to people’s existence and heritage. So, people were ready to fight for it to any length.

With heavy toll on lives, livelihoods and property.

At least eight lives were lost, when in March 1997, fight broke out between the Iteskiris and Ijaws over the relocation of the Warri South-West Local Government Area from Ogbe-Ijoh (Ijaw land) to Ogidigben (Itsekiri land), according to a report by the AFP (news agency).

Some other reports said that “hundreds were killed.” Expectedly, multimillion dollar assets of oil companies were targeted and destroyed.

As Nwogu says, “the oil companies are not there to prove ownership to anybody. They are there to do business. Only those who can produce documents to prove ownership gets compensated. One good thing about the area is that there is virtually no land, dating from the 1920s or 1930s, that has not been litigated upon up to the Supreme Court. However, people seem to forget those things. Or those who did not win their cases tend to allege that the other people got the verdict through fraud.”

Things really fell apart when militants came into the scene and the community elders lost their authority and became afraid of interacting with the IOCs as the youth suspected them of undercutting the communities. According to Smart Amola, an Itsekiri leader from Deghele community in Warri South-West Local Government, politics and the influence of the nouveau riche have affected the integrity of the traditional political system in the oil producing communities. Amola, who is an ex-militant, notes that the traditional Council of Elders, the youth groups and other institutions have been subverted and weakened by the oil phenomenon.

Before oil exploration, boundaries in the Niger Delta were relatively fluid in most communities. The land was there for everyone to use for agriculture or for building (homes) without ethnic acrimony.

Boundary adjustments became imperative because of oil, in the view of Collins Oturubo, former Youth Secretary and later Chairman of his Ijaw community at Okerenkoko.  Every community, he explains, did everything to assert itself. If one community went to court and got a favourable judgment, the defeated community would go to another in pursuit of a favourite verdict. “The issue was how to share the benefits from oil. It was just like two brothers fighting over their father’s properties. Each one wants to take everything for himself alone. Each community wanted to be recognized. Each community wanted to see how it could defeat the other. They started piling up arms to confront each other” he stresses.

SOLA OMOLE JOINED CHEVRON AS ADVISOR, PUBLIC COMMUNICATIONS on 18 October 1985, when the company was still Gulf Oil Company of Nigeria (GOCON) Limited. At some point, he became General Manager, Government and Public Affairs. Omole provides first-hand information on land issues and also relationships between the company and its host communities. “Chevron had a very cordial relationship with the host communities in the beginning. The relationship prior to the mid-to-late 1990s consisted largely of payment for land acquired from communities. Gifts to them at that time were small, intangible year-end gifts as well as occasional oneoff assistance. The communities enjoyed some temporary or contract jobs which provided sustenance for them and their families. At the end of each year, the company, led by the managing director and accompanied by all management staff and their spouses, usually flew to Escravos for a date with the Ugborodo community. The date featured a football match between the community and the company as well as food and drink in abundance. It was an impressive social outing to bring down the curtain on the operating year.”

In the beginning, Omole recalls, Chevron “maintained fairly close relationship with Ugborodo in the West, Kula, Idama and Izombe in the East and it bought land on which its oil production and gathering facilities were built from these communities so they were considered primary communities to Gulf Oil.” Soon, things were no longer at ease between company and communities. “As time went on, however, this situation was challenged severely by other adjoining communities which felt that they also deserved attention from the company. Mere office locations attracted so-called community ownership and therefore patronage from the company. When I became manager of the Public Affairs Department, we were receiving letters in droves from communities requesting recognition and therefore relationship/resources from us and I insisted that all letters must receive a response from us to signify our intention to be respectful and polite.” And: do things professionally and legitimately.

Tony Emegere, a retired manager in Chevron, overseeing land and community affairs, says the company always did its homework well. “Normally when you go into land acquisition, you should be able to properly identify the community or communities within the area. Once you have the survey map, it is sent to us (land and estate professionals) and based on the map, we now determine where the land situates. All we need to do is to identify the community or communities within the area.” He admits that “the most difficult land to acquire is the one that falls between two ethnic groups. It could also fall between two communities that are in dispute over land. The land would be difficult to acquire, especially if it falls on lands between Itsekiri and Ijaw.”

Excerpted from No Good Deed Go Unpunished; the Contentious Search for Peace by Niger Delta Stakeholders, authored by Jide Ajide, John Ashima & Oluwole Agunbiade. Published in 2022 by Jijowo Publishers, Nigeria.

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2 comments

  1. Chizor Wisdom Dike says:

    Great book. Please, how and where can l buy a copy of this book ? Treat as urgent and necessary.

  2. Ezekiel Brasana says:

    I am a youth (Ijaw) from Dibi area of your operation. It. Is a clear truth that CNL is faced with delicate, sensitive, and highly demanding challenges concerning the issues you raised. You have done well to a considerable extent by being proactive, neutral and broad-minded in bringing peace to the communities. I know that some of the things you do are not parts of your duties or obligations. You are like in a stranded situation in an ineffective society. The authorities, agencies and groups giving the mandate, jurisdiction and resources, carelessly declined these duties. Sir, we are all victims of these emptiness and nakednes (Chevron and the Host communities). However, do not be weary for there are many more to resolve and achieve. Thanks to the Public Affairs Manager, Oluwole Agunbiade, who adviced me 9 years ago not to be aggressive as it would amount to nothing in life. You might have forgotten but I do not. Pls, I need one of the copies. Best regards!

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