The State and the Environmental Clean-Up in Ogoni: Building Peace or the Continuation of Oil Politics in the Niger Delta?

In 2008, the Nigerian government invited the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) to undertake an environmental impact assessment of oil exploitation in Ogoniland. The government’s action was in response to claims by Ogoni people that Shell, the Anglo-Dutch oil company which has been extracting oil from Ogoniland for decades destroyed their ecosystem through gas flaring and oil pollution.1

UNEP concluded its investigations and released a report in 2011 that found Shell responsible for massive and widespread oil pollution that would take about 25 to 30 years to address. The report concluded that a convergence of physical cleaning and the adoption of political measures is necessary for resolving oil-based environmental conflicts in Ogoni.2

This essay critically interrogates the nature of the implementation of the clean-up process by the Nigerian state, the responses to it by the Ogoni, and the implications for sustainable peacebuilding in the region. It argues that Ogoni people view the clean-up project as transcending the Nigerian state’s narrow technical efforts to remediate and restore the polluted and damaged environment. The expectations of the Ogoni people include but are not limited to the resolution of fundamental political grievances relating to the loss of indigenous rights to own, control, and benefit from the oil resources beneath their communal lands. Overall, the contrasting perceptions of the clean-up and the expectations thereof pose a formidable challenge to sustainable peacebuilding in Ogoni.

The Nature of State Implementation of the Clean-up

In 2012, President Goodluck Jonathan’s government began the process of implementing the Ogoni environmental clean-up but did so in ways that also politicized it. First, it established the Hydrocarbon Pollution and Remediation Project (HYPREP) agency. Although HYPREP was given the responsibility of managing the implementation of the Ogoni clean-up, the agency was not adequately funded. For example, members of staff of the agency were hardly paid their salaries.3 Indeed, throughout its troubled existence, HYPREP could not carry out its responsibilities until it finally collapsed in 2015, a replay of the short-lived Niger Delta Development Board of 1961.4

The second issue relates to the failed implementation of an emergency water supply scheme for local communities affected by Benzene contamination. UNEP had recommended that the case of these communities should be treated as an emergency. As UNEP puts it, “This contamination warrants emergency action ahead of all other remediation efforts.”5 The approach adopted by the government in solving the problem, which involved sending in water trucks to these communities in Ogale, was not sustainable, and, therefore, left the people no alternative than resorting to drinking the Benzene contaminated water from 2012 to date. As a result, the Nigerian government was perceived as not taking human security concerns in Ogoniland seriously.

At the outset of President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration in 2010, there was widespread hope in the Niger Delta for an effective clean-up process in Ogoniland. This optimism was premised on the simplistic assumption that since Jonathan was from the Niger Delta region, he would deliver on the promise to clean up the region. On the contrary, Jonathan’s regime ended up being captured by the state and elite politicians with other selfish priorities.

The ascension of Muhammadu Buhari to the presidency in May 2015 brought no radical change in state policy and action with respect to the adoption of pragmatic strategies and holistic approaches to the Ogoni clean-up program. Significantly, the Buhari government resuscitated, reformed, and provided legal backing to HYPREP. The government constituted its new board of trustees and governing council, while also releasing a paltry sum of $10 million (out of an estimated cost of $1 billion) for the clean-up.6 Nevertheless, Buhari’s government recently insisted on the resumption of oil production in concurrence with physical cleaning that is yet to take off, an arrangement the Ogoni people not only rejected but which also generated fresh agitation in Ogoniland.7

It should be noted that oil production in Ogoniland has been shut down since 1993. Given the centrality of oil to the survival of the Nigerian state, the clean-up program is perceived as a pretext for the resumption of oil production in Ogoniland, and one that is also being imposed on the people from above.

Internal dynamics of the Ogoni clean-up: Non-state Actors and the Struggle for Benefit Capture

The Ogoni clean-up project is perceived locally as an opportunity for addressing the age-long agitation for resource control and socioeconomic empowerment of the Ogoni people. Their expectations are not misplaced given that the Ogoni people were dispossessed of resource ownership rights and have experienced endemic poverty. These conditions have characterized oil exploitation in the area since the 1950s. However, the main challenge is the management of these expectations and the contradictions they spawn.8 The recent balkanization of Ogoniland into oil-producing and non-oil-producing communities by some Ogoni chiefs, for example, speaks to responses to the implementation of the clean-up. These underscore the significance of the political economy of oil and oil conflicts in the Niger Delta within the context of elite capture of benefits. Similarly, indigenous oil companies like Robo Michael and Belema Oil, which sponsor youth groups and some chiefs in the struggle to replace Shell in Ogoni, have added a new twist to the competition for benefit capture and their attendant conflicts and polarizations.

Conclusion

The commencement of the environmental clean-up in Ogoniland by the Nigerian state arguably made a significant impact on the hopes of the Ogoni for a sustainable balance between the political economy of oil production and environmental security in the Niger Delta. However, the actual implementation of the clean-up process since 2012 stopped short of ensuring the human security and other aspirations of the Ogoni people, including their expectation that the contestation over ownership of the oil in the region would be resolved in their favor. Given this, the disputes over the clean-up reflect the continuation of oil politics in the Niger Delta, a situation that will continue to pose a threat to sustainable peacebuilding in the region for the foreseeable future.

Referees

1.Ike Okonta, When Citizens Revolt (New Jersey: Africa World Press, 2008), 3.
2.United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Report, Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland (Nairobi: UNEP, 2011), 10.
3.Interview with anonymous respondent (former staff of HYPREP), Port Harcourt, July 2, 2018.
4.Ben Naanen, “State Movements” in E.J. Alagoa and Abi A. Derefaka (eds), The Land and People of Rivers State (Port Harcourt: Onyoma Publications, 2002), 345.
5.United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Report, Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland (Nairobi: UNEP, 2011), 11.
6.Oral interview with Prof. Ben Naanen, founding Secretary of MOSOP, former Chair­man, MOSOP Provisional Ruling Council and Member Governing Council of HYPREP, Choba, Port Harcourt, July 5, 2018.
7.Chukwudi Akasike, “Mitee, others Petition Osibanjo over alleged Plot against Ogoni Clean-up,” Punch, August 5, 2018.
8.Oral interview with Prof. Ben Naanen, July 5, 2018.

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