Oil Spill in Ogoni land
Dikachi Obasi, Int'nal vice president of Our Tomorrow NGO inspects oil spill site at Gbeneol, K-Dere community, Gokana LGA on Thursday, January 13, 2022

By OBINNA EZUGWU

The wordings on a project signboard mounted by Nigeria’s federal government at Kegbara Dere (K-Dere) community in Gokana local government area of Rivers State in 2016 to announce the official take off of Ogoni land clean up have faded, riddled with dust over time, and so has the hope of the community and indeed the entire Ogoni nation which must have swelled when the government first installed the signboard.

Everyone has returned to default. The clean up campaign which formed part of the main planks of the President Muhammadu Buhari’s presidential campaign prior to 2015 election, and which was launched with fanfare in 2016, had been a charade, just another avenue, it seems, for the well connected to make money off the system.

“Our people are still suffering,” said Mr. Barigboma Marshall Bie, an indegene of the community. “The government never did any clean up. All our agitations have been ignored. Our lands are polluted. Sometimes, oil would come out from the ground and destroy farmlands.”

On August 7, 2017, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, on behalf of President Buhari, launched a $1billion Ogoni land Clean-up and Restoration Programme, announcing that financial and legislative frameworks had been put in place to begin implementing recommendations made by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) after its report of 2011.

But walking through K-Dere last week, the only visible sign of clean up is the fading project signboard.

“They just put the signboard there and left,” said another resident who gave his name as Michael. “Since then, we have not heard anything. I can confirm that there is no clean up anywhere. But I’m also saying that if the government wants to do clean up, it should do proper clean up, not bringing sand to heap on the ground.”

Our roughly one hour journey to Ogoni from Port Harcourt where we had arrived from Lagos in the morning hours of Thursday, January 13, was seamless. Beyond Eleme, the road became smooth and even some of the inner community roads are well tarred.

The Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) started exploration in Ogoni land – a sparsely populated, vast landscape comprising of agrarian communities surrounded by green vegetation – in 1958, drilling a total of 96 wells to bring nine oil fields on-stream. By the end of 1992, Ogoni production was about 29, 000 barrels of oil a day, which at the time was about 3 percent of SPDC’s total production

But the people, who had been mostly farmers and fishermen, would soon be jolted by what gradually became of their environment. Exploration gave rise to numerous problems such as gas flare, oil well-head blow-out, oil pipe leakage, crude oil spillages, manifold fires explosion and emission of offensive gases with adverse environmental consequences in the area.

This prompted a violent agitation led by the Movement for Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) then headed by the late Ken Saro-Wiwa in the early 90s, which finally brought exploration to a halt in 1993. SPDC stopped production in Ogoni land and withdrew from the area as the activities of MOSOP become more violent.

Although Ogoni land continued to serve as a transit route for pipelines transporting both SPDC and third-party oil production from other areas. The violence, regardless, continued and in May 1994 four prominent Ogoni leaders were murdered by a mob. Saro-Wiwa and eight others, who came to known as the Ogoni Nine, were accused of complicity in the murders, tried by military tribunal in 1995 under General Sani Abacha, found guilty and executed, an event that generated global outrage.

Visible effect of oil spill on cassava farm in Ogoni land
Visible effect of oil spill on cassava farm in Ogoni land

Overtime, the environment seemingly restored itself. Today, grasses have grown, the locals have cultivated their farms, planting mostly cassava and banana, and at first glance, the effect of oil exploration is hardly visible. The people went about their daily lives as in everywhere else, and little children probably fascinated by the sight of police officers, waved and screamed “officer!” at our Hilux security escort as we drove around the communities.

But beneath the surface are lands ruined by oil. This became more visible as we made our journey deep into Gbeneol, to a site where there is an oil spill in Kegbara, an agrarian community with population of about 30,000 which had hosted over 80 percent of all SPDC’s facilities in Bomu oil field, one of the largest manifold in Africa and over 40 oil wells.

Deep into the interior areas, the effect of crude on farmlands became quite clear. Cassava stems had stunted growth and leaves looked yellowish.
“These are all effects of oil,” said Mr. Bie who had accepted to be our guide. “You can see that the grasses have dried up. Sometimes oil comes out from beneath the soil and pour into farmlands. When that happens, there will be no farming on the land for many years.”

At the request of the then government of the late Umaru Musa Ya’Adua, UNEP in 2009 began carrying out a thorough assessment on the impact of oil extraction in Ogoni land. The report found, among other things, that there had been severe and widespread contamination of soil and ground water across Ogoniland. According to it, in a number of locations public health was severely threatened by contaminated drinking water and carcinogens.

The report further noted the Delta ecosystems such as mangroves had been utterly devastated and that institutional control measures in place both in the oil industry and the Government were not implemented adequately.

The report which was released in August 2011, examined over the course of two years the environmental impact of oil industry operations in the area since the late 1950s. It found that oil contamination in Ogoniland is extensive and is having a grave impact on the environment, with pollution penetrating further and deeper than previously thought. It therefore, proposed the establishment of a Restoration Authority with an explicit mandate to clean up Ogoniland and restore the ecosystems.

The report also recommended the establishment of an Ogoniland Environmental Restoration Fund with an initial capitalization of $1 billion to cover the clean-up costs. The government of Goodluck Jonathan, then vice president who had become president after the dead by Yar’Adua in 2010, could not act on the report, and it became part of the APC and Buhari’s campaign promises ahead of the 2015 presidential election which Jonathan lost to Buhari.

But seven years down the road, nothing has been done beyond committees, official launch and press releases. However, in a sense, walking around the communities, it is hard to see how such clean up as recommended by UNEP can be realistically accomplished. The locations where oil spills are very visible are few and far between.

A proper clean up would therefore entail excavating soil from a vast areas of land and importing soil for replacement. The question that then arises is where such amount of soil that would be required will be gotten and how communities would be evaluated and their homes probably demolished for such wholesale clean up to be done. Indeed, going round Ogoni land it’s easy to see that for the foreseeable future, the cleanup will remain a topic for politics and political settlement for the boys.

Perhaps basking on the euphoria of the clean up campaign that never took place, the Buhari government had over the last couple of years, made attempts to resume oil production in Ogoni land, but the attempts had thus far fell through on account of staunch resistance from the people who are ever resolute in their opposition.

Indeed, as our team would learn, accessing the locality was a dangerous undertaking, as armed youths often mounted roadblocks and demanded heavy bribes from anyone who wanted to access the spill sites.
“These boys don’t fear rifle,” one of our police escorts had remarked to emphasis how helpless we all were. “If you fire at them, bullets won’t penetrate. They have defied even the federal government.”

Our concern grew when our guide, unsure of what would come to him for his effort, began to demand that we go through what he called “normal protocol,” which according to him, meant meeting with the community leaders and meeting their demands. In any case, the matter was eventually settled.

We had arrived Port Harcourt at exactly 8:14 am for an on-the-spot assessment of the impact of oil exploration in Ogoni, and indeed Rivers State. The Rivers capital had been in the news for its soot problem, and Mr. Nyesom Wike, governor of the state had declared war against operators of illegal refineries blamed for the soot.

“The soot is a big problem for us,” lamented Clinton, a taxi driver who drove us from the airport. “If you park your vehicle at night, by the time you wake up in the morning, the soot would have covered it completely.”
Clinton further lamented that rain water turn black and accessing potable water is a huge challenge. As we would find out, from Port Harcourt to Ogoni and elsewhere in the state, the people have become accustomed to black rain.

“We are suffering here,” said Mr. Paulinus Nsirim, the state commissioner for information. “The effect of oil exploration is ruining our environment, and our cries have been ignored by the federal government.”
Nsirim regretted that even the Ogoni clean up launched by the Buhari government has failed to take off, while also blaming security agencies who he said are conniving with owners of illegal refineries in the state for the soot pollution.

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