Passage of Omar Bongo
By Sun News Publishing
Wednesday, June 17, 2009

At last, justice is on the way for the late Ken Saro Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders who were executed by the regime of the late General Sani Abacha on November 10, 1995, over controversial murder charges. Multinational oil giant, Royal Dutch Shell, recently announced it has agreed to pay $15.5 to the families of the executed men and some other Ogoni people in settlement of a suit brought against it, its Nigerian subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) and the former head of its Nigerian operation, Mr. Brian Anderson.

Shell had been charged with complicity in the execution, extra-judicial killings, torture and other human rights abuses of Ogoni leaders, including Saro Wiwa, in the 1990s, in a court in New York, United States of America.

SPDC Managing Director, Mr. Mutiu Sunmonu, said Shell will make the payment on humanitarian grounds, in recognition of the fact that the plaintiffs and other Ogonis suffered from the tragic events, even though Shell had nothing to do with the violence that took place, and was well prepared to defend itself against the allegations. He added that the payment is for the benefit of Ogoni people, to help reconciliation and peace, and the return of normalcy to Ogoni land.

The $15.5 million settlement will provide funding for a trust fund to be known as the Kiisi Trust for Ogoni people. It will also provide compassionate payment to the plaintiffs and the estates they represent, including part of their legal costs and fees.

Shell’s decision to settle allegations of complicity in the torture, extra-judicial killing and execution of Ogoni activists with an out-of-court payment, even while maintaining its innocence, is a good gesture. The decision has effectively brought the bravely fought, 13-year battle for compensation for the plaintiffs to an end.
While no amount of money can compensate for lives that were lost in the sad circumstances of the period, the settlement can, at least, go some way in easing the pains of the tragedy and provide some respite for the plaintiffs and other Ogoni victims.

It is good that Shell is willing to compensate the plaintiffs and other Ogoni people. The payment, undoubtedly, is an admission that some wrong had been done to the people, and that they deserve some succour. The gesture from Shell is therefore welcome and commendable. It is one that should be emulated by other oil companies whose operations have also been characterised by degradation of their operating environment and violations of human rights.

The example from Shell should teach them to be alive to their responsibility to the environment and their host communities. It should also send a clear message that companies are liable for any environmental or human rights infractions that arise in the course of their operations, either now or in the future. We hope that this development will herald a change for the better in the attitude of Shell and other companies to their host communities. The government should be in the forefront of the battle to make corporate organisations deal equitably with their host communities, and safeguard their operating environment.

The settlement should also open up opportunities for others whose rights might have been violated by Shell or any other company in the country to seek for justice.
Now that settlement is to be made for the trauma visited on the Ogoni people, especially the execution of the leaders who have since become known as the Ogoni 9, a lot of care should be taken in the disbursement of the funds.

Since the payment is on humanitarian grounds, it will be expedient to ensure that the compensation reaches every family that has lost loved ones and suffered one injury or the other in the Ogoni struggle.
We are happy to note that $8.5m or 55 per cent of the sum has been earmarked for the Kiisi Trust Fund, while the ten plaintiffs will get $700,000 each for their families. The trust fund should be properly managed to ensure that the objectives of reconciliation, peace and progress of the community could be achieved.

One of the plaintiffs in the case, the son of one of the executed leaders, Mr. Ken Saro Wiwa, Jr., has promised that the fund will be used for educational endowments, skills and agricultural development, women’s programmes, literacy and small enterprise support. This plan should be strictly implemented.
The Shell payout should be judiciously used to help the Ogoni put the painful incident behind them and move on with their lives.

Gabonese President and Africa’s longest serving leader, Omar Bongo, passed on recently, aged 73. He died in a Spanish hospital of a heart-related ailment after ruling the oil-rich country for 42 years. He was born on December 30, 1935 as Albert Bernard Bongo to a peasant farming family in the Bateke region of South East Gabon. Though, the deceased lost his father at the age of seven that did not deter his rise to prominence.

According to his official website: “He didn’t come into the world on a hospital bed, and he didn’t have a cot or a nanny.” The diminutive Bongo wore raised platform shoes to augment his height.
He went to school in Brazzaville in Congo before enlisting in the French Air Force, and his journey to power started with early romance with the colonial military. It was from there that he rose to become the first black man to serve in the Force in Chad.

Bongo’s future political career was enhanced after he won the admiration and trust of the father of Gabon’s independence, the then President Leon M’Ba. It was this relationship that later led to his being appointed director in the president’s office in 1962 at the age of 27. He became the president of Gabon in 1967 following the death of M’Ba. In 1973, he changed his name to El Hadji Omar Bongo when he converted to Islam. Later, he added his father’s African traditional name and became Omar Bongo Ondimba.

With his towering stature on Gabon’s political stage, he ruled over a one-party state for 26 years. Critics of his administration had argued that his stay in power was not because of popularity. They alleged that several of his political opponents were killed during the 1970s. For instance, the mysterious death of the opposition leader, Joseph Redjambe, in 1990 sparked riots that rocked the regime for days.
Later, he introduced multi-party elections in 1993 and Gabon held a presidential poll, which he won. However, the poll was marred by allegations of massive rigging.

Despite the shortcomings, Bongo was able to build a powerful dynasty, which benefited from the development of offshore oil production and became so wealthy. The international anti-corruption watchdog, Transparency International, reported that he had created an economy where personal properties are indistinguishable from those of the state. With the opposition virtually in coma, Bongo had appropriated most of the state’s wealth without qualms. There is no doubt that what he lacked in stature, he achieved in infamy.

As the longest serving despot in Africa, he turned Gabon into a mini state of France in order to guarantee his stranglehold on power. During his lifetime, Bongo symbolised the state and upped nepotism to the heights. While his son was in charge of the Defence Ministry, the daughter was in charge of the Foreign Affairs Ministry. He had the nation’s university, hospital and stadium named after him.

There is no doubt that Bongo’s death has brought to an end one of the most inglorious regimes in the continent. The political future of Gabon appears hazy and gloomy as his son is rumoured to be positioning himself to assume power. This affront will not augur well for peace and stability, which the tiny African country needs for now.

Bongo’s legacies are not edifying. He virtually killed democracy in his country. No matter the relative peace and stability, which his reign witnessed in Gabon in the past 42 years, it is never democratic or fair for one man to rule his country for that long. His death is a warning to all despots still parading themselves in Africa as God-sent that history would, indeed, not smile on them should they resist democratic culture and ideals. They should understand that the era of dictatorship, whether benevolent or otherwise, is gone for good, and hasten to return their countries to the path of democracy.

We commiserate with the Gabonese authorities and members of the Bongo family at this moment of national mourning and grief. We urge the new leadership to work tirelessly and return the country to a democratically elected government as soon as possible.



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