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President Goodluck Jonathan praised his people to the high heavens a few days back. He said they were a peaceful lot because they could have carried placards and protest, but they didn’t. That was after an oil company set the waters around Koluama community in Bayelsa State ablaze. The fire rages on, two month after a gas pipeline exploded under the sea.

But the people of Koluama did protest at the time the president visited them. It might be that he didn’t notice it, and he also might not have thought of the possibility of a more dangerous protest than the carrying of placards, but which might be delayed for the moment. Did any Nigerian see TV footages of the president while he was inside Koluama Community Hall, the unpainted wall behind him with what looked like green moss, moss that appeared like the handiwork of an artist who sprayed water colour on canvass without the slightest care? That is the condition of the hall that the people have, and in it they chose to receive their president and son. It must be a form of protest, isn’t it?

Koluama is a coastal community in the president’s own state of Bayelsa. The people woke up one morning and found hell fire let loose hundreds of metres off their shoreline. The surface of the sea water there has since acquired soap suds, soap suds as in washing palm oil from plates with detergent. And dead fishes floated. It took weeks before the first government agency showed up in Koluama, and much more before a senior official paid a visit, and even longer before any of them made a statement. In this matter, Nigerian government officials are afraid to condemn in strong terms the passivity of oil companies to a massive environmental disaster. Wahala dey for this country. And they are still afraid because rather than come out and take interest in the worsening condition of the area, they sympathized with Chevron, the culprit in this matter which claimed that the fire cannot be stopped. In fact, a Nigerian official made this position known on their behalf, and after paying visits to the site, television camera in tow, for Nigerians to see them, government official folded their arms.

Technical nonsense about gas fire that can not be put out is one thing; the lives of Nigerians who inhale what Chevron pipelines emitted on a daily basis, and whose fishing activities have been jeopardized, is another. Government officials are sold out; they have sold Nigerians out. And nothing better than this should be expected, if, at the time she went visiting the disaster site ahead of the president, the petroleum minister flew in a Chevron helicopter, and accepted a sea ride in their boats. It is the usual practice here, one of the reasons everyone keeps sealed lips.

But the president of the United States of America didn’t have his lips sealed as at the time British Petroleum, BP, spilled crude oil off the coast of his country. He visited the site three times in three weeks, it rammed the company into issuing one apology after another. The president stopped issuing more licenses for oil exploitation on the sea. A senior oil company official had to go because of the manner he handled the situation, and there were the millions in dollars that the government demanded from BP in order to handle the cleaning up process. Before it was asked, BP made billions of dollars available in compensation to those who counted losses in the oil spill.

It is pathetic the manner officials handle threats to the lives of people in Nigeria. The president visited Koluama six weeks after the inferno began, and he sounded like he was pleading with the oil company to do something. Did anyone notice the president’s smile, as if the community was holding a welcome party for a son of the soil? And did some elders present in the hall clap when the president praised them for being so peaceful. Good. But some youth are back in the creeks in that same state. They killed a colonel of the Nigerian army, as well as several other uniformed officers days back, and there was an attack on a ship on the sea in the general area. The ship’s captain was killed, his cargo looted. One of the militant groups in that part of the country has claimed responsibility for at least one of these attacks, and it still talks of launching rocket attacks on oil installations. The group, for some time, has warned that it would go back to the creeks, now it is back in the creeks, for whatever reasons it may have.

But one sure reason any youth would resort to militant agitation again is what is happening in Koluama. The people talk of buying packaged water to drink because they have fresh but polluted water around them. They mention unexplainable ailments in their bodies that were not there before they began to inhale air from gas-induced flame. And their fishermen can not go out to sea and fish. Some nut heads have since said the gas explosion occurs on the sea, and not on land, so there is no reason for the oil company to bother with the people. The spillage that sent heads rolling at BP in the case of the US occurred under the sea. But the effect was felt for hundreds of kilometers in every direction. So far, Chevron would not put out the fire in Koluama, and the simple courtesy of extending hands of sympathy to this community in one form or the other has not even been done. People are angry, youth see and they know, they know more than their elders what oil companies do under such circumstances in some saner climes. Youth were the ones whom the late President Umar Yar’adua granted amnesty. Now that amnesty may become useless if the Koluama type of approach will continue to be government’s reaction to oil exploration that falls short of best practices across the world.

Sometimes, it is not a problem that ensues that inflames anger but the leadership’s approach to the problem. The approach of the nation’s leadership to the suffering of oil communities over the years is scandalous, it led to the murder of Ken Saro Wiwa, the environmental activist; it led to militancy in the Niger Delta region, which was a step away from the amnesty granted to restive youth. If the government must not send the region back into bombings and kidnappings that pervaded the pre-2009 period, and it doesn’t want another intractable problem such as Boko Haram of the North on its hands, it has to do more than visiting disaster sites, but hold oil companies accountable for every act of omission on a day to day basis. Treating irresponsible oil exploitation with kid’s gloves is a sign that a few officials eat from the palms of the hands of oil companies; but in doing so, they would have set up a bush fire that would become an inferno, and from which this country may find it difficult to ever recover.

Written By Tunji Ajibade
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