I typically try to triangulate my blog posts by checking with several different sources on most things I write. However, for the few posts about my fieldwork in Ogoniland I purposefully won’t be doing that. I am trying to process the data that my subjects have provided me with on its own merit. In trying to solve the puzzle of how and why Niger Deltans choose the mobilization strategies they do, I am trying to view their communities and the state from their perspective. Intentionally, these posts may be biased, but this one is particularly so.
In Ogoniland one of my preferred political events to ask my interview subjects about is the conflict they had with the neighboring Andoni community from 1993-1994. Ogonis had been “looking for trouble” (a common Nigerian term) for a year or two before this, as Ken Saro-Wiwa had returned from abroad to try to mobilize the Ogonis to assert their rights against oil exploitation by Royal Dutch Shell in partnership with the Nigerian state. He had led marches, sit-ins, and rallies. Churches in the area had begun to use services as a time for praying to God to assist the Ogonis in their struggle. In contrast to other groups who sought jobs, social amenities, money or other positive rights from companies and the government, the Ogonis were unique. They were the only group demanding autonomy in the form of their own kingdom. If this could not be realized, then they would settle for their own state within the Nigerian federation. Saro-Wiwa was a learned man who preached to them about the power of the pen. The Ogoni movement was avowedly anti-violence, which made it difficult for the government to find a reason to clamp down on them.
From the perspective of the Ogonis I have spoken with, the Andonis were coerced by the Federal Government (FG) to create violence that would serve as a pretense for a crackdown. Most Ogonis are not clear whether Andonis were fed false information about their neighbors, or whether they were paid by the state to start fighting, or if they were simply armed and that was enough to make Andonis lead the initial attack. Although the Ogonis and the Andonis had lived side-by-side for generations using the same fishing rivers, in mid-1993, probably around September, the Andonis attacked a boat of Ogoni fishermen as they came back from sea. This territorial dispute marked the beginning of the conflict. As Ogonis tell it, Andonis raided the Ogoni villages where I conducted my interviews, with my second site, Kpean, suffering the worst. My respondents were unclear whether it was Andonis or actually federal soldiers who committed the acts, but over the next nine months or so half of Kpean’s homes were burned and much of its property destroyed. Soldiers began inhabiting the houses, as all the residents had fled into the bush. They would sneak back into the village at night or times when they thought the soldiers were gone in order to grab food or personal effects, or to try to sleep. No one agrees on how many people died, as I just repeated heard, “too many” or “uncountable.” My respondents said that they felt the conflict ended because the Andonis depleted their resources and the federal government no longer feared collective action in the area.
Half of those I spoke with felt the war was started by the state in order to excuse their use of violence in stopping Saro-Wiwa’s movement. The other half felt that is was purely territorial, because Andoniland offers prime access into Ogoniland’s oil sites. By paying Andonis with weapons and allowing them to plunder their neighbors, the state was buying geographic access to Ogoni oil. No respondents felt that the Andonis had acted on their own.
I think that conflict has forever shaped the way the people of Kpean view their government. Rightly so, they seem to avoid interaction with the state at any cost. They avoid police, courts, lawyers, soldiers, or national politics. Most feel comfortable with chieftaincy, but increasingly look to church as a means of problem solving. Pastors have become the sole mediators and the guardians of conflict resolution mechanisms for many clans. Although there have been no eruptions of violence between the communities since there, tensions persist, and pastors simply do not have the power to reign in such conflicts if they escalate. When the state feels like an aggressor instead of a protector, and chiefs may be suspicious of other chiefs, it seems difficult for communities like Kpean to remain peaceful.