Ogoni Apex Social Cultural Organizations: Power, Authority and Legitimacy

Categories : Culture , Environment , History

By Apere Nyor-uwe’elomee

In the pre colonial Ogoni, leadership of the villages were in the hands of the Te-erebuen(owner of the village). Although Head of their respective villages, which were independent of one another, they come together in times of disagreements between two or more villages for settlement. Doing this, the Te-erebuen who were Head and traditional rulers of their villages assembled at a designated area with their Council of Chiefs and Elders(Pya Mene le Pya Kabaari) to discussed ways of providing Peace and Security among these villages. Hence a build up for Clan meetings. At a stage in the history of the Ogoni people, Gbenebeka of Gwara wielded enormous powers that persons in grave trouble would seek its assistance and protection. Once having done so, they were bound to attend the annual feast of Gbenebeka for presents. Almost every Ogoni villages would send their representatives and many influential people attended. As such, meeting of the entire Ogoni people occurred there
In the actual sense, this meeting could not be regarded as having any connection with Ogoni Ethnic Organization but it does show a kind of cohesion in Ogoni during the pre colonial times.

During this period, the people were most concerned with their village and Clan identify such as Kana(Khana), Babbe, Tai(Tee), Gokana and Eleme(Leme). So their neighbours has different identities for them such as Nkwuo, Egane, Kana, Mbohia(Mboli or Eleme) and Ikpofia. But the name Ogoni which is a corruption of “Ogonii” that they were later called was their Ethnic name which was made known to the wider world in 1854 by W. B. Baikie. Although few of them especially those of Eleme objected to the name Ogoni on the ground that it seems to be alien but accepted the fact that they are kin and kith. Based on this, W. B. Baikie referred to Ogoni and Eleme in his book but said they are of like propensity.

At the colonial time, Eleme was first administered in the Ahoada Division of the Owerri Province while the rest of Ogoni; Kana(Khana), Babbe, Tai and Gokana were in Opobo Division of Calabar Province. Following the intelligence reports from Mr. Gibbons, Mr. Jeffreys and Mr. Richards to the British Government between 1929-1934 which makes it clear that the Eleme people are Ogoni in language and custom. Eleme was officially excised and joined with the rest of Ogoni in the Ogoni District of Opobo Division of Calabar Province in 1941.

Although the Ogoni had contact with the Europeans through trade at Bonny, Ibibio, Opobo, Egwanga and Andoni while some of the Europeans such as Barbot, Baikie and others including missionaries visited Ogoni before colonial time. The colonial surveillance started in Ogoni in 1900. Later a Protectorate over Ogoni Country was proclaimed at Kono in 1901 and in 1912 the first Court in Ogoni was opened at Sogho(Soo). Over restiveness in the area in 1913, this Court was closed but reopened in 1914. Following protests from some Ogoni people, the Ibibio Court at Egwanga which had been attended by many of the Ogoni Towns near the Imo River was closed, Kono Court was opened in 1926.

At this time, five Ogoni Chiefs, three from the Kana and Babbe Clans and one each from the Gokana and Tai Clans were selected for membership of the Opobo Division Native Administration. This was the beginning of coordinated organization for the Ogoni. In 1927, a detailed Census and Assessment was carried out in Ogoni for the purpose of the establishment of a Native Authority Administration and collection of taxes in Ogoni to take over from the Native Authority Treasury Post established at Bori in 1923 which Mr. Richard Kpai from Bodo was appointed it first Treasurer.

The appointment of Ogoni Chiefs into Native Administration which was later known as the Ogoni Native Authority necessitated the build up for Ogoni Ethnic Organizations. But the various factors that inspired the assessment of freedom which gave raised to Nationalist agitations for independence made some Ogoni leaders to organise the people for the demand for their autonomy. This leadership alignment in Ogoni led to the formation of the first Ogoni Apex Social Cultural Organization known as Ogoni Central Union(OCU) in 1945. Suanu Finimale Nwika was elected the President while F. M. A. Saro-Nwiyor was the Secretary. In organizing the Ogoni for a brighter future, the Ogoni Central Union levies the Ogoni Clans and it members to purchased Lorry for transportation business in 1946. Because of it legitimacy, the Ogoni Central Union was able to levied all the Ogoni Clans and received full payment and cooperation. They joined hands with the Ijaw and Ahoada Chiefs to pressed for the establishment of Rivers Province and Ogoni Division which was achieved in 1947. The Ogoni Central Union also sponsored two Ogoni sons on scholarship to study overseas. Hence Suanu Finimale Nwika, the Union President and Kemte Giadom travelled to the United States of America for studies in 1948.

Following the travel of it President to study overseas, the Ogoni Central Union was then in the hands of it Secretary, Mr. Saro-Nwiyor who organized the reception of Timothy Naakuu Paul-Birabi on behalf of the Union in the end of 1948 to mark the return of Paul-Birabi with a University Degree from the United Kingdom. After discussing for the need for a new Organization to reflect the representation of the cross-section of the whole Ogoni Division to influence the Government. Ogoni Central Union was dissolved and the Ogoni State Representative Assembly(OSRA) was inaugurated in it place in 1950. Paul-Birabi was elected President while Saro-Nwiyor was Secretary. The Ogoni State Representative Assembly had representatives from all the Clans of Ogoni including the Gbenemene Barasi. The representatives were ten from the Kana, Babbe and Gokana and six from Tai and Eleme.

The Ogoni State Representative Assembly as an Ogoni Apex Social Cultural Organization took over the assets and liabilities of the Ogoni Central Union, continued sponsoring S. F. Nwika and Kemte Giadom from the Fund generated by its transport business and levies. Through legitimate tax and levy from the Ogoni people, the Ogoni State Representative Assembly was able to build the Ogoni National College(ONC) now Birabi Memorial Grammar School(BMGS), Bori, building of General Hospital at Bori and the establishment of dispensaries in every Ogoni Clan Headquarters in 1954. Under the Ogoni State Representative Assembly, Ogoni ventured into active politics on the side of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroon(N. C. N. C). Because of the 1951 Constitution of Nigeria which established Regional Houses of Assembly and Federal House of Representatives, Ogoni had two seats in the Eastern House of Assembly with the first elected member in multiple constituency going to the House of Representatives. Paul-Birabi the President of Ogoni State Representative Assembly and Saro-Nwiyor were elected into the Eastern House of Assembly unopposed on the platform of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroon. Paul-Birabi became member of the House of Representatives in Lagos.

Following the demise of Paul-Birabi in 1953, Ogoni gradually lost a coordinated Organization. But the 1953 election into the Eastern House of Assembly after the death of Paul-Birabi that year saw Saro-Nwiyor and Mbaga elected to represent Ogoni. The period from the demise of Paul-Birabi in 1953 to 1966 was described as a very worst in Ogoni history by Ken Saro-Wiwa as a coordinated spirit were lacking then in Ogoni. Although the Ogoni Divisional Union(ODU) was formed, it could not have much positive impact on the Ogoni people. This manifested in the bitter rivalries between the leaders of Ogoni then and little attempt were made to reconcile them and put Ogoni in it proper footing. Based on this and the stand of the Ogoni people in the Constitutional Conference of 1957 and the Willink Commission of Inquiry into the fear of the minorities in Nigeria, the Ogoni demanded for separate state from the Igbo. The Ogoni were molested and ill-treated by the Igbo who were Majority in the Eastern Region of Nigeria. The Ogoni in apparent resentment against the ill-treatment by the Igbo in the N. C. N. C., decided in what appears to be a protest vote, voted against the majority party N. C. N. C. for what was called the inconsequential Action Group in the Eastern region, M. N. Yowika and O. B. Nalelo were elected. Given the winner-take-all mentality of Nigeria politics, according to Ken Saro-Wiwa, Ogoni paid through the nose for it.

The failure of coordinated and proper organization of the Ogoni people were shown up in the Nigerian Civil War as the Ogoni people suffered the worst degradation in their history, a degradation that was capable of obliterating them from the face of the earth. After the Civil war of 1967-1970, to provide a forum for discussion by all cross-sections of Ogoni Ken Saro-Wiwa revived the Ogoni Divisional Union which was later renamed Ogoni Central Union to reflect the old Ogoni Apex Social Cultural Organization. At this time too, Mr. Moses Awi formed the KAGOTEL, an acronym from Khana, Gokana,Tai and Eleme. This KAGOTEL was an elitist organization based at Port Harcourt but later first class Ogoni traditional rulers were co-opted as associate members and it contested with the Ogoni Central Union(OCU) as the Ogoni Apex Social Cultural Organizations.

During the late 1980s, there were coordinations by Ken Saro-Wiwa to join the Ogoni Central Union and the KAGOTEL together to offer great leadership to the Ogoni people. This culminated into the seminar organized by the Ogoni Central Union on August 28, 1989 by Ken Saro-Wiwa it President. The outcome was the drawing of the Ogoni Bill of Rights(OBR) in August 1990 and the birth of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People(MOSOP). Based on this coordination and leadership, Ken Saro-Wiwa was given the first Ogoni Merit Award by the KAGOTEL. By the end of 1992 KAGOTE and the Ogoni Central Union(OCU) were collapsed into the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People(MOSOP) which the President was Dr. Garrick B. Leton, Vice President was Chief Edward N. Kobani while the Spokesman was Ken Saro-Wiwa. On January 4, 1993 MOSOP as the Apex Organization led Ogoni people to situate their struggle against environmental degradation, political marginalisation and economic strangulation in an international milieu when in celebration of the world indigenous populations, over 300, 000 Ogoni men, women and children staged a massive peaceful protest march. This protest led to the sacked of Ogoni villages and killing of Ogoni people by the Nigerian army. The Nigerian Government violence against the Ogoni struggle culminated in the killing of four Ogoni Chiefs and leaders at Giokoo-Gokana on 21st May, 1994 and subsequent hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other patriots on 10th November, 1995. MOSOP also organized a one Naira survival fund where every Ogoni sons and daughters paid one Naira as a dedication and support to the struggle for survival and levies all Ogoni Kingdoms and chapters which Ogoni people paid wholeheartedly.

After this violence and killing of the Ogoni people by the Nigerian-State, Nigeria faced several sanctioned in the world until Democratic rule returned to Nigeria in 1999. Once democracy returned to Nigeria, some Ogoni leaders who were not comfortable with MOSOP revived KAGOTE along side with MOSOP. Dr. Goodluck Diigbo having being unable to succeed to the leadership of MOSOP formed the Ogoni Central Indigenous Authority(OCIA). At a certain stage, another set of Ogoni leaders who were not comfortable with the leadership of MOSOP and KAGOTE formed a group called “Gbo Kabaari”. One achievement from the former presidents of MOSOP and KAGOTE, Legborsi Pyagbara and Dr. Peter Medee was the understanding between the two organizations towards the end of their tenures. Although there are issues hanging on their necks. MOSOP and KAGOTE seems to be legitimate but there are things to be done. There should be genuine Mobilization of the Ogoni people to face the challenges ahead in a single front.

The multiplicity of what are called Ogoni Apex Social Cultural Organizations is not healthy to the development of Ogoni at this time of our history. “A house divided within itself”, as they say, “is bound to fall”. For Ogoni to survive in the politics of Nigeria and Rivers State, there should be a united front. Political parties is not a problem but the disunited leadership and Organizational skills is our damnation. May we see beyond our individual pride and look at the broader pictures ahead. Ogoni ere a kii sin! See Less

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