A Courageous Activist from the Niger Delta

Tribute To The Pioneer Director of SACA, Late Abba Ogbopena Ayemi (1957-2024)

By Fr. Kevin O’Hara, SPS

The Niger Delta has produced many remarkable, courageous men and women who lived and died striving to better the oil-rich region for the well-being of its people. The story of King Jaja of Opobo and his epic struggle against the British merchants in the closing decades of the nineteenth century best illustrates the long-standing struggles of the peoples of the Niger Delta to protect their environment and its natural resources from the grasping hands of European mercantilists and their patrons in London, Paris, Hamburg, and Amsterdam. In 1887 King Jaja was deported to the West Indies, and when he was eventually allowed to return to the Niger Delta in 1891, he died on the way, a lonely and broken man. 

In more recent times, Isaac Boro established the Niger Delta force and declared the region an independent republic in 1966. He was sentenced to death for treason. The late Oronto Douglas from Bayelsa state addressed parliaments throughout Europe in the mid 1990’s exposing Shell Oil company for its irresponsible behaviour in his homeland.

It was my utmost privilege to have met and worked with another courageous activist, Abba Ayemi, who hailed from the Ayamasa Town community in Tourakiri, Ekeremor Local Government in Bayelsa state. He was of the Izon tribe in the Niger Delta region. We first met in Port Harcourt in 2002 when he interviewed for employment with the Centre for Social and Corporate Responsibility (CSCR), an NGO engaging Shell and Chevron oil companies in promoting best practices in human and environmental rights. He made an immediate impression with his deep passion for justice and was employed as a staff of the organisation.

Abba was a graduate of Port Harcourt University in the Sociology and Community Development Department. He had vast experience in conflict management, having trained in relevant programmes in Ghana, Kenya, and Cameroon. He participated in the United Nations peacekeeping training under the United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG) in Namibia (1989-1990).

During his years with CSCR, he engaged Shell and Chevron Oil Companies passionately and relentlessly, seeking redress to numerous human and environmental abuses that impacted communities in the Delta. One of the first cases in which he engaged Shell Nigeria was seeking restorative justice for Umuechem community in Rivers State. A massacre of over eighty community members took place in 1990 when Shell Nigeria requested the Nigerian Mobile Police to protect their facilities. A Judicial Commission of Inquiry indicted the Mobile Police but no one was held accountable for the massacre. Shell issued no apology or acknowledgement of liability. Abba felt the pain of the community and spent years knocking on Shell’s administrative doors seeking justice and redress for this traumatized community. Abba met with Shell managers and community leaders on a regular basis, advocating for the company to open for use the community health centre at Umuechem which lay abandoned for years without ever being commissioned. It was one of numerous projects in the community built by Shell but never became functional. His advocacy revealed serious corruption in Shell’s community development projects. Soon thereafter, those responsible for the corruption were removed and it brought about a new approach to community development in the company. Abba and his team became an agent for change.

Abba led the CSCR team to investigate numerous oil spills over the years. A special achievement was the Batan oil spill in Delta State which occurred in 2002. The General Manager of Shell in Warri wrote to the State Governor and blamed seven youths for the sabotage of their pipeline. However, Abba and his team discovered that this accusation was made before the required Joint Investigation Visit (JIV) to determine the cause of the spill took place. CSCR brought the matter to Shell Centre in London after it was discovered that the cause of the spill was production equipment failure – a collapsed gasket between flanges at a 28” pipeline’s tie-in manifold 12 feet underwater, and not sabotage. Shell was unable to acknowledge its failure in due diligence and defamation of the character of the youths. However, they paid funds to the community and pleaded for the community and CSCR to ignore their failings.

Abba worked with Dr. Emmanuel Onuora of CSCR for over three years investigating the failings in Shell’s oil spill clean-up at Ogbodo, Rivers state. Their findings were taken up by the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) which used them to prosecute Shell Nigeria and the Federal Government of Nigeria at the African Court of Human and Environmental Rights in the Gambia. The Federal Government of Nigeria was found guilty of failing to protect its citizens and the environment from Shell’s poor clean-up standards.  

Abba moved to Bayelsa state in 2012 to help establish another organisation, Stakeholders Alliance for Corporate Accountability (SACA) to monitor Shell’s multi-billion dollar Integrated Oil and Gas Gathering Project (IOGP) in his home state. The project impacted 92 communities in the state. Abba focused on these impacts and led the evaluation teams on Shell’s Global Memorandum of Understanding (GMoU) with the impacted communities. These evaluations used Prof. John Ruggie’s criteria for the UN Guiding Principles for Business, Security, and Human Rights. The findings proved Shell failed to measure up to these standards. One particular case highlighted their failings clearly. An oil spill occurred at Oya Lake in Ikarama, Okordia in Yenagoa Local Government Area, and it poured into the local fishing lake for weeks until the lake was swamped in hydrocarbon containing heavy metals. The local fishermen were distraught. It was brought to Shell’s attention that their pipeline was sabotaged. Despite their declared principle of cleaning up oil spills whether due to equipment failure or sabotage, they failed to ensure that the lake was cleaned of their dangerous content. It was four (4) years after this incident that Abba and his team got to know about it and brought the matter to Shell London, providing the laboratory analysis to prove that the lake was still massively polluted and was a serious threat to the health of the local people. Shell Nigeria immediately sent their clean-up team and spent weeks cleaning up their spill of yesteryears. They were afraid of the shareholders’ concern about this massive failure. It was another great achievement for Abba and his team.

Abba lived his life in his native oil-rich land of the Niger Delta. Recently, his tired and sick body gave up, and with his strong faith, he commended his spirit to his God who blessed his lands with oil and gas. He will now meet with the spirits of King Jaja, Isaac Boro, and Oronto Douglas, and they will now see everything in the light of truth. They will see that the Niger Delta is a victim of subtle, false, and treacherous tactics inflicted by strangers and also by their own political elite who have “laid, inductions dangerous, by drunken prophecies, libels and dreams’’ (Shakespeare: Richard 111) to get their hands on the vast riches of the Delta. He will fully understand why it is that his blessed land has become a cursed land. He will see clearly the injustices and the impact of corruption and how his own children may never get employment and experience a decent life despite their education. But I am convinced Abba Ayemi will not give up on his land and his people. He will continue with his passionate spirit to disturb the God of the poor to hear the cry of the poor and rescue his people from the evils of corruption and injustice. Abba will not rest in Paradise so long as this Paradox of Plenty continues in his land. The peoples of the Delta may not realise this, but now they have an advocate who will plead their cause before the Highest Powers in Heaven until justice prevails in the Niger Delta. In life and in death, Abba Ayemi is a true giant of the Izon tribe. May the words of the poet Ben Okri console his family and loved ones:

                                      “ We are the miracles that God made

                                           To taste the bitter fruit of Time.

                                                     We are precious.

                     And one day our suffering will turn into the wonders of the earth’’.

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