A report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on the horrors of oil pollution in Nigeria’s Ogoniland, which, in their words, could require “the world’s most wide-ranging and long-term oil clean-up exercise”, needs billions of dollars and 30 years of work to restore the devastated ecosystem and rehabilitate its impoverished inhabitants. But nothing has been done five months after the report. We sent our associate editor, Osasu Obayiuwana, to the area and his special report is downright shocking!
With five decades of oil and gas production bringing close to $500bn in revenue to the Nigerian exchequer, the constant stream of petrodollars ought to have provided the West African country with the financial muscle to transform itself into a global economic powerhouse, in which its citizens, especially those from the oil-producing regions of the Niger Delta, would have been guaranteed a high quality of life. But the ordinary citizens of that region, particularly those from Ogoniland in Rivers State, would find it hard, if not impossible, to do anything else other than to curse the day that oil production by Shell began in their homeland, as they are forced to live with the unending horrors of oil pollution.
New African’s fact-finding trip, setting out from the Rivers State’s capital of Port Harcourt, into Ogoniland, passing Biare but spending considerable time in the Kegbara-Dere (K-Dere) and Kozo communities, all within the Gokana Local Government Area, confirmed the severity of the problems highlighted by the UNEP report. K-Dere and Kozo are two of the communities within the 1,000 sq km that make up Ogoniland.
A two-year study of “the environmental and public health impacts of oil contamination” in the area, which involved 14 months of fieldwork, which UNEP did at the request of the Nigerian federal government, is undoubtedly the most extensive report of its kind in the history of the country’s oil industry.
Following the collection of over 4,000 samples, from 69 sites – for soil, water and air quality analysis, as well as the examination of the medical records of over 5,000 local people, the UNEP team held 264 community meetings with the inhabitants of the area.
Below are some of UNEP’s findings:
“Oil contamination in Ogoniland is widespread and severely impacting many components of the environment… Even though the oil industry is no longer active in Ogoniland, oil spills continue to occur with alarming regularity. The Ogoni people live with this pollution every day.
“At one site, Ejama-Ebubu, the study found heavy contamination present 40 years after an oil spill occurred, despite repeated clean-up attempts.
“As Ogoniland has high rainfall, any delay in cleaning up an oil spill leads to oil being washed away, traversing farmland and almost always ending up in the creeks.
“When oil reaches the root zone, crops and other plants begin to experience stress and can die, and this is a routine observation…”
In nearly 60% of the tested sites, oil pollution levels well exceeded safety limits. Inhabitants of Nisisioken Ogale were found to be drinking water from wells containing benzene, a known carcinogen, at levels over 900 times above the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines.
Such chilling information does not come as a surprise to Amstel Monday Gbarakpor. “The only legacy that oil has brought to this community is death… I am a fisherman but because of the pollution, I am unable to earn a living now”, the 50-year old leader of the Kegbara-Dere community, told New African during our visit to his village. “The only reason we have some vegetation, or an ecosystem of any kind, is because the Shell Petroleum Development Company [which had the prospecting and production rights in Ogoniland] has not operated here since 1993.”
Gbarakpor continued: “As a result of the oil pollution, our youths are unable to fish or engage in farming, which are the main occupations in this area. So, the reality is that they really have nothing to look forward to. That is why they spend time playing board games at a time when they are supposed to be productively engaged in work. We have no tap water to drink and even the borehole that we rely on for water is contaminated.”
A visit to the Kpene stream, which is shared by the K-Dere and Kpor communities (we walked through muddy, unfriendly terrain to reach its banks), revealed the grave consequences that come with untreated oil pollution. The stream, which has turned into a light brown colour, as a result of crude oil seeping into the water, is unfit for swimming or the growth of aquatic life. It has polluted the vegetation – grass and palm trees nearby.
Excavated soil, as well as rocks, obviously removed during a previous clean-up operation, was left there, instead of being disposed according to industry standards.
“I have spent all my life as a fisherman but I have no means of livelihood. What kind of life am I supposed to live now, at my age? I am too old to learn a new trade,” says Monsigia Beh, a 60-year-old resident of K-Dere. “My canoe [stained with crude oil that has seeped into the nearby streams and rivers] is of no use to me now,” he went on.
A subsequent 10-minute drive to the nearby manifold – a series of pipes which transport crude oil to the export terminal in Bonny – told its own story of the woes that oil pollution has brought to the people. Interestingly, whilst prospecting has not taken place in Ogoniland since 1993, the oil export pipes passing through the area have always been operational.
Despite the fact that the land near the still active manifold was clearly polluted, as a result of a previous accident, New African found two women living within 50 metres of it.
Mrs Sunday Baadom is one of the two women – Mrs Kogbaaa Lekie is the other. A resident of the area for 15 years, Baadom was an eyewitness of an oil blowout that took place in 2009.
“I was inside my house and there was something like thunder,” she recounted to New African. “When I came out, there was a fire at the back of the house. We had no choice but to run for our lives.
“I had seven children… One died after the blowout, as a result of gas inhalation… and three others who subsequently died had respiratory problems from continuous inhalation of gas.” The cassava and yam crop grown on the land near her house is clearly unfit for human consumption, but she says her family still eats it. “Yes, we eat it but most of the crop is killed by pollution. What can we do?”
According to her, no offers have been made – by Shell, the company operating the manifold – or the government to relocate her family from the area that is a clear and present danger to her family’s health and wellbeing.
“Our water well was poisoned and we had to fill it up with sand to prevent a fire outbreak… We now have to travel far into the village to buy borehole water. We need to be relocated but we do not have the means to do so. Where else can we go? The government has done nothing for us… No one ever came to speak to us about our plight.”
As bad as the situation was for Mrs Baadom and her family in K-Dere, New African’s challenging journey to Kozo village (no proper road network exists within the areas we visited), the last stop on our tour of Ogoniland, revealed even further horrors.
On arrival in Kozo, after a rather treacherous journey, the toxicity in the air – a direct result of the even higher levels of pollution – hit our nostrils, forcing us to gasp for breath.
Apart from the immediate short-term effects, the long-term negative impact on the lung capacity and overall health of the Kozo villagers, cannot be overestimated.
“The pollution of air is causing many of us to die or become very sick,” said Anthonia Pagbara, an old woman who has lived in the Kozo community for 48 years, and who demanded to speak to New African whilst we were in the village.
“Our husbands cannot provide for us and many young people are forced to work as servants in other towns,” she told us. “I have six children but since the pollution, I have had to send them to other towns to work as house helps. My eldest child is 15 and my youngest is nine… I have no hope and see nothing in the future for them, as nothing has been done to enable us to live a normal life in Kozo.”
Guided on a tour of the village by Monday Kpugita, the chief of the community, to the waterside, we saw the level of destruction that oil blowouts have wrought and continue to produce.
The aquatic life in the fishponds has died. The ponds themselves have been taken over by extremely thick deposits of crude oil. The creek has been turned into a black cesspool, in which it is impossible to swim or paddle a canoe, without it being covered in thick slobs of oil. The grass, palm trees and other forms of vegetation within the village have also suffered the same fate, with all forms of drinking water, normally drawn from the wells, severely poisoned by the high levels of pollution.
“Our source of income has gone and we are at the mercy of God. Poverty is killing us,” cried Michael Lepeni Vikina, a fisherman and one of the owners of the ruined ponds.
“We have been suffering from this problem for the past three years… I was trying to put some fish in the pond but started to see oil seeping into the water and polluting everything… As you can see, the entire ecosystem of our community has been destroyed…
“Ken Saro-Wiwa [the writer and Ogoni environmentalist activist executed by the Sani Abacha junta in 1995 on trumped-up charges of murder], fought a big fight to change our situation. But what he fought for has not has been achieved, even though he shed his blood for it.”
It is a feeling shared by Charles Gbarasung, a fellow Kozo resident, whose fishpond has also been destroyed. “You can see things for yourself… Let Shell and the government do what they are supposed to do,” he said. Kpugita, the community chief, who has lived here for his entire 41 years, talks with an air of resignation concerning the tragedy that has befallen his community.
“We hope that the government will do something for us, as we need so many things. We have no water or food… We try to go as far as Bonny [where the oil export terminal is based] in order to fish and find a way to survive… As for water, we drink from the polluted waters…
“Who can we trust to help us out of our problems? No one has heard us,” Kpugita says. “We are hoping that your magazine will continue to let the world know about our plight, so that our suffering can end.”
Five months after the release of the UNEP report in August last year, in which the urgent implementation of its recommendations was clearly highlighted as being of the utmost importance, the Ogoni people say no concrete action has been taken by the government.
“With the severity of the pollution, one would have expected President Goodluck Jonathan to immediately declare Ogoni a disaster zone and order emergency actions, including the provision of an alternative water supply. But not a whimper has been heard from them,” comments Nnimmo Bassey, the international chair of Friends of the Earth, the environmental NGO. (See interview on pp. 16-17.)
Last November, several hundred demonstrators took to the streets in Port Harcourt in protest against the perceived inaction of the federal government, which set up a committee to examine the UNEP report, without including an Ogoni nominee on it.
“Unfortunately, there is a history of reports, which are supposed to solve critical issues in Nigeria, gathering dust on the shelves,” Ledum Mitee, the outgoing president of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), told New African. “What is required now is the taking of concrete steps to mitigate the severity of the situation that we are facing.”
Mitee, a close associate of the late Ken Saro-Wiwa, was tried alongside him in 1995, when both men, amongst several other Ogoni activists, were arraigned before the quasi-military tribunal led by Justice Ibrahim Auta, whose members were handpicked by the late military ruler, Sani Abacha.
Sixteen years after that close shave with the hangman, the MOSOP president – who was discharged and acquitted during that trial – is critical of the “tactics of appeasement” being employed by the federal government, in a bid to restore calm and unimpeded oil production in the Niger Delta. He says the government’s tactic of entering into a negotiated settlement with the armed groups that blow up oil pipelines and kidnap foreign workers in the region, and subsequently setting up an amnesty programme, is only postponing another round of conflict.
“The amnesty programme is being seen as a stand-alone, final solution… It is not a solution in itself. The militancy is not the problem of the Niger Delta – it is simply an expression of the frustration and the problems we face in the region,” Mitee told New African. (See interview on pp. 20-21.)
“Dealing with the symptoms of the problem, rather than the problem itself, will not bring about any long-term solutions,” he continued. “With each wave of violence that comes, it is worse than what came previously and one does not need to be a prophet to know that if we don’t attend to the real problems, another generation of angry young people will grow, who will feel compelled to escalate the violence in order to be heard,” Mitee warned.
Can a new page be turned?
UNEP’s solutions, which require the active participation of the Nigerian government and Shell, include the setting up of an environmental restoration fund, alongside an accompanying agency, to deal with the ecological and public health problems in Ogoniland and the wider Niger Delta.
US$1bn is required as the take-off grant for a fund, which is vital in implementing a 30-year plan needed to restore the ecosystem and address other problems.
“Failure to begin addressing urgent public health concerns and commence a clean-up will only exacerbate and unnecessarily prolong the Ogoni people’s suffering,” the United Nations body sternly warned. Demonstrable political will, on the part of the federal government, to implement the report and force the hand of Shell and other oil companies operating in the region to change their ways, is a vital component.
The relationship that Shell and the government have with the oil-producing communities is marked by neglect and a series of broken promises. President Jonathan and Diezani Allison-Madueke, the oil minister who the president has asked to head another committee to examine the UNEP report, both hail from the Niger Delta. It is not out of place to presume that both people, with the needed political clout, will be particularly keen to open a refreshing new page in the federal government’s relationship with the region.
But, as the MOSOP president says, the taste of the pudding will be in the eating. “The fact that we have Niger Delta people in government does not necessarily mean that they would be able to respond to the issues of injustice in a more favourable way,” Ledum Mitee observed.
“Some of them have long lived with these levels of injustice and are no longer shocked by it. It may be someone who has not experienced these issues that may be shocked by the situation and take resolute steps to resolve the problems. When you solve the problems of the Niger Delta, you have solved the problems of Nigeria.”
(To read the full UNEP report on Ogoniland, go to http://www.unep.org/nigeria/)