Coming between a government oil quota of two million barrels per day, five multinationals and countless militiamen in a near-lawless Nigerian region was worth it, says exiled Donny Ohia.
The grim, grey edifice of Rottenburg’s deportation centre was every bit as intimidating as I had expected.
The German prison for asylum seekers was until recently an uneasy halfway home to a little-known Nigerian activist, Donny Ohia.
Seated strategically so the guard would not see my diminutive notebook and cautious scribbling, we began at the beginning: the Niger Delta in the mid-1990’s and an environment utterly devastated by multinational oil companies.
Counted among them were the Dutch-British corporation Royal Dutch/Shell, US-based Chevron and Mobil, France’s Elf Aquitaine and Italy’s Agip.
Official reports record their legacy as including: flooding and coastal erosion, sedimentation and siltation, degradation and depletion of water and coastal resources, land degradation, oil pollution, health problems and low agricultural production, as well as endemic socio-economic problems.
"The Niger Delta has very little arable land,” Ohia explained, his earnest and articulate passion for his homeland undiminished by his detention.
“That which remains has largely been taken over by oil companies," he said.
"Our people are dependant on the region’s waterways and marshland for their living, but these are now so polluted that even the palm trees are dying.
“The companies promised us everything when they moved in: schools, electricity, job opportunities, tarred roads. They have delivered little. Even if a man can produce anything on what is left, there is no tarred road to take it to market."
Simon Buerk, a spokesman for Shell International in London said his company’s $67m community development programme was last year recorded as being 75% successful by the UN Development Programme and World Health Organisations.
Some oil multinationals, eager to access the land’s rich resources, prefer a more direct approach.
"One company paid for a village chief to have his children privately educated and gave him a power generator by way of introduction," Ohia says.
When he gained an audience with the chief to discuss the anomaly, Ohia was robustly accused of impudence and warned off.
In time, popular indignation spread among those who opposed the oil companies’ presence and a rift developed along ethnic lines, he explained.
"A division emerged between us and those who remained loyal to the region’s "chequebook chiefs".
“Some of the Niger Delta’s multinationals employed armed hoodlums – effectively mini-militias – to terrorise opponents,” Ohia said.
A known member of the Ogba movement, Ohia returned home one night to find his home ransacked, but nothing missing.
In the ensuing days, one of his campaign colleagues was found murdered.
Simon Buerk in London says Shell International in no way condones the use of force or violence in Nigeria or anywhere else, adding that strict licensing must first be obtained, even to employ armed security guards to protect its facilities.
But the company’s annual 2002 report states it declined to denounce police action – as it was requested to do by some human rights NGOs – when a number of women protestors were injured outside the gates of one of its Nigerian plants last August, citing "inconclusive evidence."
Fearing for his life after the killing of his friend, Ohia fled to Germany where he founded the campaign group Concerned Nigerians for Democracy and applied for political asylum.
But in rejecting his case, the federal office for the recognition of refugees in Germany, claimed that defending the rights of the Ogba people from multinationals based in the region was merely an "ethnic conflict" and as such did not warrant political asylum.
Kayode Ogundamisi, former Secretary General of the Oodua People’s Congress in Nigeria, was unlawfully detained by armed plainclothes men when he attempted to leave Nigeria for the UK on 11 May, also in fear of his life.
A prominent self-determination activist, Ogundamisi said the Nigerian human rights community and Human Rights Watch in London and New York saved his life by campaigning for his release.
"Lesser-known people just vanish," he said.
"It is unfortunate the German Government could refer to this sort of behaviour as mere "ethnic conflict."
"What we are seeing is an organised collaboration between the oil companies and the Nigerian Government using private militias to stop the genuine democratic yearnings of the people," he added.
"As such, anyone who places themselves in opposition to this process is in potential danger in Nigeria."
Ohia "blotted his copybook" with German authorities when he occupied the office of Germany’s Green Party (Die Grünen) in Cologne to launch a refugee hunger strike directed against the G7 summit that took place there in June 1999.
He accused the party of performing a u-turn on its human rights and foreign investment policies after it gained power within coalition government.
"They were embarrassed and irritated we were highlighting their rhetoric, particularly with reference to Nigeria. But they promised they would not have us arrested," recalls Viraj Mendis, a fellow participant in the hunger strike and chairman of the human rights group, Internationaler Menschenrechtsverien-Bremen (IMRV-Bremen).
On the 11th day of the hunger strike, the Greens reneged on their promise and armed police burst in to haul the protesters away.
Ohia had a price to pay for this protest.
When he reached the southern German town of Tuttlingen to his assigned "refugee accommodation", he found the authorities took a dim view of his activities in Cologne.
|"Despite the welcome reduction in violent crimes, I remain concerned about security in the Niger Delta region."
Ron van den Berg, Chairman of Shell companies in Nigeria
2002 Annual Report
Shell Nigeria statistics (from its 2002 report)
Due to this factor, what had previously been a humiliating life of isolation in one of Germany’s dismal asylum accommodations became "an unbearable existence."
His political activities may have been effective enough to stimulate repression from officials at the centre but it did not stop the German authorities from rejecting his asylum application.
He subsequently left Germany in 2001 to live illegally in the Netherlands where he was able to continue his political activity about Nigeria.
In June 2003, Ohia was arrested by the Dutch police and returned to Germany where he was subsequently arrested again by German immigration and imprisoned in Rottenburg asylum centre where I interviewed him.
He immediately went on hunger strike.
His situation is now more precarious than ever as bizarrely under German law, an asylum applicant can still be deported before a final appeal against the rejection of an asylum application is heard.
As his lawyer prepares his case, authorities continue to claim the Ogba people’s persecution by "anonymous agents" of oil multinationals cannot be characterised as persecution by the government in power.
"It raises serious questions about the quality of life the German authorities believe Africans must lead," says Kayode Ogundamisi.
Ohia says he never hoped for the German authorities to take a stand against the multinationals pillaging his homeland.
"But I did not expect that in a western democracy people like me, who are armed only with the truth, would be treated with such venom. I also did not expect that the asylum authorities in Germany would parrot the same arguments that the military dictators use in Nigeria," he said.
Our allocated 75 minutes were up and Donny Ohia was returned to his large, modified metal container in the midst of this country’s 34-degree heat wave.
Thumbing through my surreptitiously scribbled notes, I reflected gloomily on the dismal treatment of a bright, articulate and compassionate man by the obdurate authorities who will ultimately determine his fate.
Editor’s note: An emergency request by Donny Ohia’s lawyer to suspend deportation was accepted by a judge on 14 August and Donny Ohia was released back into refugee accommodation in Tuttlingen. He is now waiting his asylum appeal to be heard by the courts.