Is the Ogoni clean-up jinxed

Many environmental analysts and the people of the Niger-Delta region heaved a sigh of relief when Vice President Yemi Osinbajo launched the Ogoni clean-up, but three years down the line, it looks like the project has become one of those that might never really take off; Benjamin Umuteme writes.

Since its discovery in Nigeria in 1956 petroleum has been a mixed blessing to the country. It is believed to have generated enormous wealth, but it has also claimed a great number of lives.

Over the years the story of oil spill in the Niger-delta region has continued to draw consternation and anger from a cross section of the people of the region who continue to see the devastation of its environment by multinational oil companies that operate in the region. Most especially Shell and Eni has been fingered in the various cases of oil spill that ravaged and continue to ravage the region which provides the country with the resources that is used to run the economy.

However, with the death of Ogoni Environmental Rights Activist, Ken Saro Wiwa, the agitation for the clean-up of the region by various rights groups gained traction causing many to take to armed agitation to drive their demand.

Pipeline vandalism and oil theft  

Pipeline vandalism refers to the willful or deliberate act of damaging petroleum pipelines with the sole aim of stealing crude oil and association petroleum products. These pipelines are, however, poorly secured thereby making them targets of repetitive attacks by vandals.

The result of these attacks by oil thieves on the pipelines most times are done by those who don’t have knowledge of how the pipelines are managed.

The implication is that the damaged pipelines are not fixed causing crude to be spilled into the environment. With armed agitation by militants who constantly blew up pipelines in the region, cases of oil spill grew from bad to worse, thereby further devastating the environment.

Oil coys negligence

There have been several calls by rights activists and groups for the federal government to prosecute Eni and Shell for unprofessional conduct in the way they have, over time, managed cases of oil spill in Nigeria.

According to Amnesty International both oil companies have deliberately refused to address pervading cases of oil spills in the region as they have been slow in responding at the right time.

The oil-rich region of Nigeria has been an ecological disaster zone, scarred by decades of spills that have killed trees and other plants.

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Amnesty’s report in March last year described the oil giants’ actions as “serious negligence.” The rights group said that oil giants were take weeks to respond to reports of spills and publishing misleading information about the cause and severity of spills, which may result in communities not receiving compensation. Its report noted that Shell had reported 1,010 spills since 2011 while Eni reported 820 since 2014.

It further said that among these 1,830 reports it found 89 “about which there are reasonable doubts surrounding the cause provided by the oil companies.”

However, clean-ups, and the associated compensation have become highly contentious, with some local communities even blocking teams’ access to spill sites, allowing the damage to worsen, in the hope of extracting a bigger pay-out.

In 2010, apologised to all inhabitants of Nigeria’s Niger-delta for the many years of human rights violations taking full responsibility.

The oil major, in years gone by, had been confronted with massive evidence of human rights violations that can only be attributed to its operations in the Niger-delta.

It is still believed among Niger-delta inhabitants that the company had a hand in the death of Ogoni environmental rights activist, Ken Saro Wiwa.

Shell acknowledges that it is responsible for large-scale oil spills, waste dumping and gas flaring. Each year, hundreds of oil spills occur, many of which are caused by corrosion of oil pipes and poor maintenance of infrastructure.

According to Shell’s Vice-President, Bradford Houppe, the company did not know that it action or inaction was bringing impoverishment, conflict, abuse and deprivation to the region’s inhabitants.

“Our failure to deal with these spills swiftly and the lack of effective clean-up greatly exacerbate their human rights and environmental impact. And that is wrong. It’s just really wrong, Houppe said.

More than 60 per cent of the people in the Niger Delta depend on the natural environment for their livelihood. But due to the oil pollution, many of them drink polluted water, use polluted water to cook and wash. They also eat fish contaminated with oil and other toxins. Oil spills and waste dumping have also seriously damaged agricultural land.

The destruction of livelihoods and the lack of redress have led people to steal oil and vandalise oil infrastructure in an attempt to gain compensation or clean-up contracts. Armed groups engage in large-scale theft of oil and the ransoming of oil workers.

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Government reprisals frequently involve excessive force and the collective punishment of communities, thus deepening general anger and resentment. Houppe further said the government “never held us to account for all the wrong we did.”

Apology without action

While many see the apology as a ploy by the oil company to emotionally blackmail Niger-delta inhabitants. Several years after the apology, the company still continues to react slowly to cases of Spill and other environmental challenges that its operation pose to the people.

Not wanting to wait endlessly for the government to help them get redress, some communities in the region took their case to the United Kingdom where they got judgment against Shell.

 For instance, Bodo community in the Niger Delta sued Shell for two oil spills in 2008 and 2009. Thousands of hectares of mangrove were affected in the southern Ogoniland region.

The UNEP report

The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) released its environmental assessment of Ogoniland in August 2011. The report was commissioned by and delivered to the federal government of Nigeria.

The assessment showed that pollution from over 50 years of oil operations in the region has penetrated further and deeper than many may have thought.

The assessment has been unprecedented as the UNEP team over a 14-month period examined more than 200 locations, surveyed 122 kilometres of pipeline rights of way, reviewed more than 5,000 medical records and engaged over 23,000 people at local community meetings.

Detailed soil and groundwater contamination investigations were conducted at 69 sites, which ranged in size from 1,300 square metres (Barabeedom-K.dere, Gokana local government area (LGA) to 79 hectares (Ajeokpori-Akpajo, Eleme LGA).

Altogether more than 4,000 samples were analyzed, including water taken from 142 groundwater monitoring wells drilled specifically for the study and soil extracted from 780 boreholes.

For instance, in at least 10 Ogoni communities where drinking water was said to be contaminated with high levels of hydrocarbons, public health is seriously threatened, according to the assessment that was released today.

In one community, at Nisisioken Ogale, in western Ogoniland, families are drinking water from wells that is contaminated with benzene- a known carcinogen-at levels over 900 times above World Health Organization guidelines. The site is close to a Nigerian National Petroleum Company pipeline.

All talk and no work

The Ogoni clean-up continues to be a sour point in the region which is regarded as the goose which lays the golden egg. When the report was released in 2011, the then President Goodluck Jonathan promised to act on it but till he left office nothing was done. And when Vice President Yemi Osinbajo at the flag-off ceremony in June 2016 said the project would be vigorously pursued and would have sustainable development components which would benefit the people.

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UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, Achim Steiner, noted: “The clean-up of Ogoniland will not only address a tragic legacy but also represents a major ecological restoration enterprise with potentially multiple positive effects ranging from bringing the various stakeholders together in a single concerted cause to achieving lasting improvements for the Ogoni people.”

Political dimension

Some analysts are of the opinion that the environmental restoration of Ogoniland in Nigeria could prove to be the world’s most wide-ranging and long term oil clean-up exercise ever undertaken if contaminated drinking water, land, creeks and important ecosystems such as mangroves are to be brought back to full, productive health.

But the question on the lips of many is whether the government has the will power to see it to its logical conclusion.

There are fears among many in the region that the signs, body language and budgetary allocation by the federal government for the clean-up exercise does not evoke confidence.

For instance, in the 2018 appropriation bill, the sum of N20.226 million was budgeted for the Ogoni clean-up. Oil firms that operate in the region have also raised $180 million as contribution to the clean-up. The money which is in the escrow account with the Standard Chartered Bank of London was contributed by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporations, NNPC, Shell Petroleum Development Companies, SPDC, and other oil ventures. It would be managed by the Board of Trustees of the Ogoni clean-up exercise.

In spite of all this, the exercise continues to be on hold. Ogoni leaders under the aegis of the Ogoni Elders’ Forum have accused the federal government of using the exercise to score cheap public relations benefits.

Even Rivers state government Nyesom Wike said the federal government not serious about the clean-up. According to the governor, “the Ogoni clean-up programme remains a political project aimed at attaining political mileage.

“We are concerned about these issues. We will use face masks when we get to the location. Face masks will draw attention to the message to the world on the essence of the clean-up.”

For economist Friday Efih, the government should quickly mobilize the contractors that were initially pencilled down to enable them move to site. This is just as he added that the utterance of MOSOP executive was not helping the cause of the project.

He is hopeful that with elections and electioneering over, the federal government would do the needful.

The Executive Director of ERA/FoEN, Godwin Ojo, urged the authorities to provide a template for the clean-up and a step by step blueprint on how it would progress.”

For a government that is now being accused of making empty promises in its bid to get to power, the Buhari administration will do well to deliver on the Ogoni clean-up if it is not suffer further reputational damage both locally and internationally.

Credit: BluePrint