Ogoni people



The Ogoni culture (also known as the Ogonis) are people in the region of Southeastern Senatorial district in Rivers State Nigeria. They now number about over two million people and live in a 404-square-mile (1,050 km2) homeland which they also refer to as Ogoni, or Ogoniland. They share common oil-related environmental problems with the Ijaw people of Niger Delta.

The Ogoni rose to international attention after a massive public protest campaign against Shell Oil, led by the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), which is also a member of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO).



The territory is located in Rivers State on the coast of the Gulf of Guinea, east of the city of Port Harcourt. It extends across the Local Government Areas (LGAs) of Khana, Gokana, Eleme and Tai. Traditionally, Ogoniland was divided into the six kingdoms: Babbe, Gokana, Ken-Khana, Nyo-Khana, Eleme and Tai. Nyo-Khana is on the East while Ken-Khana is on the west.



The Ogoni  people speak Ogoni languages, or Kegboid languages. According to Roger Blench "Ogoni languages are considered to be part of Cross River, which in turn is part of Benue-Congo and then Niger-Congo." The Ogoni of River States speak the related, mutually intelligible languages of Khana, Gokana, Tae (Tẹẹ), Eleme, and Ban Ogoi. They fall into two clusters, with a limited degree of mutual intelligibility between members of each cluster. However, the Ogoni think of them as separate languages.

The Eastern languages are Khana and Tẹẹ, with a quarter million or so speakers, and Gokana, with about half that number. The Western languages are Eleme, with about 70,000 speakers, and Baan, with about a tenth that number.

Ogoni language has drawn some attention from general linguists; Hyman (1983) used examples from Gokana in developing his theories of the syllable. More recently, Bond and Anderson (2003) have compared logophoricity in the ‘Ogonoid’ lects. Most striking, however is the presence of a series of numeral classifiers. Typical of many Asian language families, these are extremely rare in Africa, and their evolution therefore typologically extremely unusual.

This monograph has two predecessors. Ikoro (1991) reconstructed ‘Kegboid’ [a name constructed from the initials of the four languages (Kana, Eleme, Gokana, Baan) at the time considered to be part of the group. Vọbnu (2001) is not a reconstruction, but provides some valuable information on each dialect and a short comparative word list (partially tone marked). Vọbnu (op. cit.) also includes some cultural background and information on orthographic systems.



According to oral tradition, the Ogoni people migrated from ancient Ghana down to the Atlantic coast eventually making their way over to the eastern Niger Delta. Linguistic calculations done by Kay Williamson place the Ogoni in the Niger Delta since before 15 BC, making them one of the oldest settlers in the eastern Niger Delta region. Radiocarbon dating taken from sites around Ogoniland and the neighboring communities oral traditions also support this claim. Traditionally, the Ogoni are agricultural, also known for livestock herding, fishing, salt and palm oil cultivation and trade.

Like many peoples on the Guinea coast, the Ogoni have an internal political structure subject to community-by-community arrangement, including appointment of chiefs and community development bodies, some recognized by government and others not. They survived the period of the slave trade in relative isolation, and did not lose any of their members to enslavement. After Nigeria was colonized by the British in 1885, British soldiers arrived in Ogoni by 1901. Major resistance to their presence continued through 1914.

The Ogoni were integrated into a succession of economic systems at a pace that was extremely rapid and exacted a great toll from them. At the turn of the twentieth century, “the world to them did not extend beyond the next three or four villages,” but that soon changed. Ken Saro-Wiwa, the late president of MOSOP, described the transition this way: “if you then think that within the space of seventy years they were struck by the combined forces of modernity, colonialism, the money economy, indigenous colonialism and then the Nigerian Civil War, and that they had to adjust to these forces without adequate preparation or direction, you will appreciate the bafflement of the Ogoni people and the subsequent confusion engendered in the society.”



The Ogoni are an agricultural and fishing society. Yam and cassava farming are important ways of making a living, although the revenues of these products are not very high. The most important export product of Nigeria is oil, but the Ogoni people have never profited from these exports.
Once the 'food basket' for the Niger Delta and beyond, Ogoniland's agricultural production has now been severely reduced. This is partly due to loss of farmlands through oil polution and partly to soil fertility problems arising from acid/alkaline rain caused by gas flaring. Large areas of fresh and salt water resources as fishing grounds have also been rendered useless by oil spills. Food is becoming increasingly expensive and potential farmers are too poor to pay for seeds and labour.

Poverty has worsened in the Ogoni areas during the last years. Nearly all oil workers are people coming from outside the area whom the local people have had to compete with for basic commodities. Besides the oil installations and refineries there are no manufacturing industries in Ogoni to reduce unemployment. This situation increasingly results in psycho-social degradation.

There are no government projects to address the problems of development in Ogoni-land. Health facilities are almost non-existent and school buildings are collapsing with the classrooms and laboratories empty. Attracting foreign aid to Ogoni-land has been difficult and a couple of community self-help initiatives by the people were branded 'MOSOP-inspired' and stopped.

Ogoni-land is in total economic isolation by the government and most roads have been left to wear, making transportation extremely difficult.
The environmental costs of the oil exploration have been and still are, very high. The agricultural and fishing communities experienced huge oil spills and pollution of drinking water, fishing grounds and farmlands. Large flares burnt gas from the oil extraction process, illuminating the sky day and night and polluting the air. The 1970's brought increasing activity from the oil companies, claiming more space in an already crowded territory, and resulting in a deteriorating environment and in decreasing crop yields and fish catches.



The Ogoni people believe and worship a Supreme Deity and creator called Waa Bari. Ogoni people regards Waa Bari as a female God. Her role and position stems from traditional thinking about creativity and motherhood. According to Paul Bedey:

"… the Ogoni people have the implicit belief that this female creator resides in the earth and that man and all animals and plants are created out of the earth. All libations and incarnation to Waa Bari are poured on the earth and it is believed she receives it as the wine or water sinks down into the earth. The dead are buried in the earth to return to Waa Bari Ogoni from where they come. It is clear in the traditional belief of the people that Waa Bari Ogoni is omnipotent and omniscient ."

The land on which they live and the rivers that surround them are very important to the Ogoni people. They not only provided enough food, they are also believed to be a god and are worshiped as such.

This explains why the Ogoni people have so many difficulties with the degradation of the environment as a result of oil pollution.

The fruit of the land, especially yams, are honoured in festivals. The annual festival of the Ogoni people is held during the period of the yam harvest.
The planting season is not just a period of agricultural activity, but it is a spiritual, religious and social occasion. 'Tradition' in Ogoni means in the local tongue (doonu kuneke) the honouring of the land. The Ogoni people believe that the soul of every human being has the ability to leave its human form and enter into that of an animal, taking on the shape of that animal. These characteristics show that nature is very important for the Ogoni people.


Ogoni Festivals

Socially, the Ogoni is endowed with a large variety of cultural practices. These include masks and masquerades, human figure representation of the ancestors, as maybe used in Ka-elu performances and the puppet shows which are performed exclusively by the Amanikpo Society. Majority of these cultural performances in this relatively small region are extraordinarily varied. Most if not all, Ogoni villages have their own festivals, some of long standing, others introduced within living memory. The festivals are mainly held to commemorate the founding of the villages, to pay allegiance to particular ancestral land or water spirits, to mark the planting and harvesting seasons, for the fertility deity, to recognize the taking of titles, to restore peace in troubled community, to maintain cohesion within social groupings and for general entertainment.

The Karikpo Mask / Masquerade
Of all their known festivals and masquerades, the mask style for which the Ogoni are probably most renowned is the one called Karikpo. The Marikpo mask represents animals and is worn on the front of the face by men and boys. It is used for vigorous acrobatic play, performed originally during planting and harvesting seasons for fertility, new yam festivals, and burial ceremonies of members and recently for Christmas and New year celebrations, including reception for a distinguished guest or an illustrious son.

The masquerade
Performance is believed, especially in Khana to have originated in a certain community known as Bien-Gwara. Although there may not be substantial proof to this, but it is believed the community’s interaction with the Ibibios of Akwa Ibom State, where Ekpo mask has its provenance, may have influenced its adaptation and modification hence its name Kari (Carved) Kpo (Ekpo). Membership into the Karikpo Society does not require an elaborate ritual or initiation, but an intending member is made to provide items like a bottle of gin, palm wine, a plate of oiled fish. These would be eaten by the members who then accepts him as one of them.


Human rights violations

The Ogoni people have been victims of human rights violations for many years. In 1956, four years before Nigerian Independence, Royal Dutch/Shell, in collaboration with the British government, found a commercially viable oil field on the Niger Delta and began oil production in 1958. In a 15-year period from 1976 to 1991 there were reportedly 2,976 oil spills of about 2.1 million barrels of oil in Ogoniland, accounting for about 40% of the total oil spills of the Royal Dutch/Shell company worldwide.

In a 2011 assessment of over 200 locations in Ogoniland by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), they found that impacts of the 50 years of oil production in the region extended deeper than previously thought. Because of oil spills, oil flaring, and waste discharge, the alluvial soil of the Niger Delta is no longer viable for agriculture. Furthermore, in many areas that seemed to be unaffected, groundwater was found to have high levels of hydrocarbons or were contaminated with benzene, a carcinogen, at 900 levels above WHO guidelines.

UNEP estimated that it could take up to 30 years to rehabilitate Ogoniland to its full potential and that the first five years of rehabilitation would require funding of about US$1 billion. In 2012, the Nigerian Minister of Petroleum Resources, Deizani Alison-Madueke, announced the establishment of the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project, which intends to follow the UNEP report suggestions of Ogoniland to prevent further degradation.

In 1990, under the leadership of activist and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Movement of the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) planned to take action against the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the oil companies. In October 1990, MOSOP presented The Ogoni Bill of Rights to the government. The Bill hoped to gain political and economic autonomy for the Ogoni people, leaving them in control of the natural resources of Ogoniland protecting against further land degradation. The movement lost steam in 1994 after Saro-Wiwa and several other MOSOP leaders were executed by the Nigerian government

In 1993, following protests that were designed to stop contractors from laying a new pipeline for Shell, the Mobile Police raided the area to quell the unrest. In the chaos that followed, it has been alleged that 27 villages were raided, resulting in the death of 2,000 Ogoni people and displacement of 80,000.