Saturday, March 13, 2010

Peremabiri Crisis

Peremabiri Crisis

Peremabiri is in Southern Ijaw Local Government Area of Bayelsa State. It is a “host community” to the Shell Petroleum Development Company and a “pipeline community” of the Nigerian Agip Oil Company (NAOC, part of the Italian ENI Group). According to the 1991 provisional census figures, Peremabiri has a population of about 9,655 people.

Peremabiri has historically been governed by a monarchical system, in which the king, or Thiebo, is chosen from within the ruling house. King Warisini I was the last of the Peremabiri kings to enjoy relative communal harmony during his reign. After the death of Warisini I in the late 1950s, his son D.I. Warsini became ruler. It was during the reign of D.I. Warisini that Shell arrived at Peremabiri in search of oil in 1963. Warisini II entered into “negotiations” with Shell. The “negotiations” were one sided, given that Shell came to the community waving a piece of paper from the federal government authorizing it to explore and exploit hydrocarbons in its area of concession. This new relationship compromised the kingship and led to the dethronement of the Warisini II by the community’s council of chiefs for corruption involving the sum of six pounds. The dethronement of King Warisini II commenced the free-fall of the traditional governing institutions and other support systems of Peremabiri society.

Chief Andrew Siri, who succeeded D.I. Warisini, was also swiftly dethroned for embezzlement and misconduct. A pattern then seemed to emerge by which the Thiebo title was denigrated via the deliberate “corruption” of the titleholders, leading to subsequent dethronement. This trend was continued with the “corruption” and dethronement of Chiefs D.D. Otokolo and G.S. Obudigha.

As in previous cases, Shell officials were alleged to have introduced their highnesses to the infinite possibilities offered by cooperation, i.e., if they will help hold their constituents down while Shell milked the community of its resources.

By the early 1990s, dethronement was no longer a bloodless affair. According to Patrick Warri, the descent to violence started during the tenure of Gibson Adikah, Thiebo VII: Shell reintroduced their diabolical strategy of divide and rule to cause division, disaffection and hatred amongst inhabitants of the community. Compensation payments were made to the paramount ruler secretly, thereby causing serious unrest and leading to the death of one Lambert Banje and a police officer in 1994.

Gibson Adikah was dethroned soon after this incident, and an interim administration was established in his stead. Mr. M.M.S. Torufa headed the interim administration. The interim administration had a mandate of governing the community.

But as if to prove that corruption was not the exclusive preserve of royalty, the Torufa interim administration bested all previous royal reigns in its joint pursuit of avarice with Shell. To sustain the corrupt system and immunize it from the ever-hovering specter of dethronement or dissolution, the interim administration went one step beyond the previous community governments. According to Patrick Warri “the administration resorted to the use of thugs in Shell–community relations and affairs, and these thugs were used to suppress dissenting voices in the community.” However, in 1996 the community finally enthroned a new ruler, Genesis Oweibo, Thiebo VII, who was even more pliant. According to Ngozi Otokolo,41 King Genesis was accused by the youths of conniving with people (Shell offi cials) to misappropriate community funds, and the matter was resolved before the king of Amabolou,42 and they thereafter worked hand in hand.

Patrick Warri claims that the settlement43 between his faction and Thiebo VII was unstable and finally caved in after the king accepted Naira 5 million ($50,000) compensation from Shell for an oil spill, to the exclusion of individual claims. This meant that the king collected lump sum compensation on behalf of the community, excluding for the moment and perhaps limiting for the future the chances for individuals affected to make successful claims.

Before the king collected the payment (which some community members regarded as an act of betrayal), a delegation from the community and Shell’s representatives, in the presence of the state military administrator, Navy Captain Olubolade, met at government house Yenagoa in 1997and reached an agreement. By the agreement, Shell was to pay the sum of N30 million to the community, individual claims inclusive. Many considered this as a better deal for the community. Shell, however, recanted and pressured the king and his advisers to accept a lesser amount, which Shell was ready to pay. The implicit threat was that if the community insisted on the agreement, payment could be delayed indefi nitely.

Patrick Warri bitterly complained:

To our chagrin, Shell in their characteristic manner cornered the paramount ruler and his cabinet and paid only Naira 5 million, which was fraudulently disbursed among them. All voices of reason were ruthlessly dealt with by the use of thugs, and frivolous allegations were made for the arrest of others. This worked for a while until the power tussle within the diarchy broke into open confrontation.

After the violent confrontation between forces loyal to the king and those loyal to Patrick Warri, the king was exiled and Patrick Warri, who was not physically present during the battle, was recalled to take up the “leadership” of the community.

Felix Tuodolo, a former president of the Ijaw Youth Council who was called upon to intervene in the crisis, reported:44 Sometime in early 1998, Patrick Warri, who is a member of the executive council known as CDC—he was the Financial Controller—led the youths to “keep in safe custody” two vessels belonging to SPDC, another belonging to Agip and another belonging to Niger Delta Basin development Authority. They also “stopped work” at the Peremabiri rice farm, which is operated by the Niger Delta Basin Development Authority. Demands were made of the different bodies before their vessels were released, and agreements signed to develop Peremabiri, which hitherto was neglected by these bodies. This made Patrick Warri very powerful. Before these “operations” were carried, they got spiritual guidance or empowerment from Amabolou.45 My interview with the traditional ruler of Peremabiri [name forgotten] showed that the ruler or king and most chiefs were not in support of what Patrick Warri was doing, as they were sidelined and/or disobeyed by his group—especially as they are spiritually empowered from outside the community.

With his newfound powers, Patrick Warri now announced the dethronement of the king—are you thinking of Nembe?—and installed his uncle…as king. He also…became the alpha and omega of Peremabiri. Patrick Warri’s group apparently did not use its newfound position in an inclusive manner, neither did it recognize and take practical steps to heal the deadly divides in the community. Their victory, however, won them access to Shell patronage. In the ensuing effort to maintain its hold on power the group hastened its downfall in the way most dictatorships do. They set in motion the process of identifying threats, perceived and actual, and all dissent was met with threats and highly intimidating actions.

According to Tuodolo:

Most elders ran away from the community, especially if you [had] opposed the Patrick Warri–led youths in the past. Of course, even bad rulers have supporters. Patrick Warri is only maternally from Peremabiri. There were agitations in some corners that he should go back to his father’s land, Angiama. Barely two months after the commencement of Patrick Warri’s leadership he was ousted along with his uncle, who had been installed chief in the wake of his own ascendancy as de facto community leader. The chairman of the Community Development Committee, Udoji Sokari, was empowered by the new force to take up the running of the community affairs.

The exiles led two separate invasions in an attempt to retrieve power. The first unsuccessful attack was executed on the 9th of October, 2000, leading to the death of one Ingoemi Million-Godo (18), and Mr. Frank Aye (16). On the 9th of February, 2001, a more devastating though also unsuccessful attack was launched. This claimed the life of CDC Chairman Sokari, the de factor leader of the community. Nineteen others were also killed, while properties worth millions of Naira were destroyed. With Sokari’s death, the youth president, Basil Young, became the head of the community. For Felix Tuodolo this had the classic imprimatur of Shell:

Like Nembe, some of the Patrick Warri boys invaded Peremabiri (without the consent of Patrick Warri, as he told me), killed and destroyed; but were overpowered by the home team.

In reprisal, the home team further killed some relatives of the exiles and destroyed houses. The exiles promised to attack again, guided by some unknown oracle.

The federal government deployed the Mobile Police to Peremabiri following the most violent of the incidents, the Bayelsa State government set up a judicial commission of inquiry to look into the remote and immediate causes of the violence, but the report of the commission, like most others, is not yet out. Attempts by the Ijaw Youth Council to mediate, which received the support of all factions, were cut short by the establishment of the commission.

...to be continued...

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