On the 1st of November 2017, Social Action joined members of the Umuechem Community in Etche local government area of River State in solemn activities to mark 27 years after what became one of the worst manifestation of oil company and government crimes against the people of Nigeria. November 1, 1990, the community was invaded by members of the Nigeria Mobile Police Force at the behest of Shell, the AngloDutch transnational oil company. In what is referred to as the Umuechem Massacre, the Mobile Police burnt down the entire town and killed everyone they could find.Umuechem community has two oil fields and several oil wells operated by Shell. After three decades of exploitation, the community believed they deserved a better deal from the oil company. They cashed in on the company’s promise to provide roads, hospitals, schools, electricity and employment. Instead, the community was deprived of a good portion of their farmland which became ‘reserved’ for oil extraction activities, significantly limiting their livelihood. After several letters and petitions failed to get the attention of Shell and the Nigerian Government, the community, ignored and frustrated, embarked on a peaceful protest demanding to be heard by Shell.
Community members numbering about 500 consisting of women, the elderly and youths, matched to a major road corner where they reeled out their demands to all gathered and demanded a meeting with a representative of the company.
For a protest that was peaceful and constituted no threat or hindrance to the activities of the company, Shell’s response was shocking. The company got in contact with the Nigeria Mobile Police Force on the 29th of October 1990 with an invitation to intervene in the gathering. A letter from Shell to the Police fraudulently claimed that oil facilities located in the community were under attack by rampaging community people. The claim was false. The peaceful protest had lasted over two weeks with no violence. No facility belonging to Shell had at any time in Umuechem suffered any violence, sabotage or disruption. The location of the community protests- the ‘Y’ Junction- is a distance of about one kilometre from any Shell facility, as such the claim of possible property destruction was patently false.
Without prior investigation or any attempt to validate the claim Shell made, the Nigeria Police Force deployed members of its elite specially trained and armed combat unit into the community. Without notice, the Mobile Police Force descended on the unarmed Umuechem community. The carnage lasted from the 30th of October 1990 to the 1st of November, 1990. The loses and pains the attack brought remains in the memory and records of many as the Umuechem Massacre.
Faced with an unprecedented brutish attack, community members ran into the forests for safety, others completely abandoned the community, while yet others ran into the home of the traditional Chief of Umuechem to seek sanctuary. In their thinking, the Police will not dare attack the residence of a traditional ruler, the custodian of the community. They did. The invading Mobile Police opened fire and threw grenades into the home of Chief A.A Ordu of Igbo Clan comprising Umuechem, Chokocho, Agbara, Okomoko, Oporo, Umu-Anyagu, Okoraagu, Igbo and Egiri. He was killed along with his two sons, stepmother and all community members that took refuge in his house. Several other persons were randomly killed in the community. Livestock were killed and several other properties including buildings were destroyed.
Following the public outcry which followed the sacking of Umuechem, the immediate response of the government of Rivers state was to set up a Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the ‘Umuechem Disturbances’, on the 14th of November 1990, headed by Honourable Justice Opubo Inko-Tariah (retired). After weeks of deliberation, the Commission submitted its reports in March 1991, blaming the Policemen from the Mobile squad which it described as having ‘attacked the Umuechem village like an invading army that had vowed to take the last drop of the enemy’s blood’. It said further that ‘they threw all human reasoning to the wind, shot people and razed down a total of four hundred and ninety five houses in the village with blasts grenades, personal effects in all these houses were consumed by the fires that burn the houses down. The preponderant share of this responsibility rests on the shoulders of the Mobile Police Force men…’.
Surprisingly Shell, which falsely invited the Mobile Policemen to the community under the pretext of an attack, receives no blame or mention.
Based on the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry and guidance from a survey of destroyed properties conducted by the Rivers State Ministry of Housing, monetary compensations were to be paid to members of the Umuechem community who suffered losses. Pan African Bank cheques were issued to members of the community for amounts ranging from N250 to N14,000, depending on the calculation of property lost in the carnage. While some members of the community collected the cheques for fear of being branded belligerent and singled out for further reprisal, others simply refused to accept, and yet others accepted the cheques because they genuinely needed the money to rebuild what was left of their lives. However, none of them was to receive any compensation. On presenting the cheques at the Bank, they were informed that the government had given a ‘counter order’ to halt the payments. That ‘counter order was never lifted. Surviving community members still have the dud cheques issues as compensation for their loses.
In the 27 years following the massacre and destruction at Umuechem, the signs of the carnage remain evident in the many destroyed houses yet to be rebuilt and some completely abandoned by survivors who never returned to the community on account of the trauma. The neglect of Umuechem by the Shell and the government of Nigeria has remained since the 1990 massacre. Throughout the entire episode, the extraction of crude oil by Shell was never halted. Even when all members of the community had gone into exile, it was ‘business as usual’ for Shell.
Cross-sections of Umuechem Community members at the public lecture to commemorate the Massacre of 1990
To mark the 27th year of the MASSACRE, Social Action organized a public lecture in the community on Conflicts, IOCs and Community Rising in the Niger Delta. Patrick Naagbanton, who presented the guest lecture commended the people of Umuechem for their nonviolent approach to seeking justice and their resilience even after 27 years. He reiterated that what Shell and the Nigerian government did in Umeuchem has become a trademark modus operandi. Many communities in the Niger Delta after Umuechem had suffered the same heinous treatment.
In their response, the leadership of the community stated again that they would continue seeking justice over the grave abuse which was meted on them, stating that this was the only way to bring closure to what was the worst episode in the living memory of the Umeuchem people.