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World Environment Day and the Wobbly Niger Delta Region

By Jerome-Mario Utomi   
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On Friday 5th June 2020, during the celebration of World Environment Day co-hosted by Colombia and Germany and streamed live online from Bogotá, I listened with real curiousity to Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez and Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), lead other world leaders calls for action to combat the accelerating species loss and degradation of the natural world.

From the United Nations UN Secretary-General António Guterres to Presidents of Colombia, Perú, Chile, Kenya, Ethiopia, Southeast Asia, India and Britain, the message was the same; they endorsed a statement, calling “on all governments around the world to retain our precious intact ecosystems and wilderness, to preserve and effectively manage at least 30% of our planet’s lands and oceans by 2030, and to restore and conserve biodiversity, as a crucial step to help prevent future pandemics and public health emergencies, and lay the foundations for a sustainable, global economy through job creation and human well-being.”

Indeed, I understand the words and position of these world leaders. Their resolve to create a liveable world appears to me a great message of hope for our environment. But, about the same time, it invites some maze of high voltage confusion.

Essentially, this feeling of confusion naturally come flooding when one reflects on the environmental challenge in the Niger Delta region-a region going by reports that is littered with over 139 gas flare locations; where communal rights to a clean environment and access to clean water supplies are being violated without adequate compensation for their loses, where the oil industry by their own admission has abandoned thousands of polluted sites which need to be identified and studied in details, a region where using the minimum components of the right to a healthy environment as a baseline, is qualified as deplorable, and most importantly, a region without good record of survival.

In fact, a visit to the region reveals that the situation in the area is quite opposite and different from what the global leaders advocate. Aside from the fact that for over five decades, when oil was discovered in commercial quantity in the region, ‘a fierce war has been raging between ethnic and social forces in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, and as a direct consequence, a long dark shadow has been cast on the efforts to improve the well-being and economic development of the peoples and community, there are of course, many historical examples and vivid imageries revealing that the region inthe estimation of the successive government and multinationals operating in the region is an endangered species strategically marked for extinction using neglect and abandonment as a formidable tools.

The ordeal suffered by Erovie community in Ozoro, Isoko North Local Government of Delta state, in the hands of oil giant that operated in their locality stands as a telling example of this assertion.

On one side is government’s attitude of listening without being attentive to the hazards (both health and environmental) caused by crude oil exploration and production, especially flaring of gas in the region, their erroneous believe that so far the eggs are secured, the condition of the goose that laid the eggs become secondary, government’s constant expression of more interest in promoting petroleum production, without giving symbolic attention to environmental protection process or any substantial action to environmental issues in the region. And the unwillingness of successive administrations to identify the Niger Delta as a troubled spot, that must be regarded as a special area for purposes of development-as recommended by the colonial government long before independence

The second has to do with the International Oil Companies (IOCs) consideration of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and call for public-private partnership in the area as a dangerous fiction created as an excuse to impose an unfair burden upon the wealthy and powerful’.Their lackadaisical handling of the environment, and lack of compliance with the implementation of the Global Memorandum of Understanding (GMOU) entered with host communities. Equally fueling the discord is a shocking discovery that most of the multinationals find it more convivial getting entangled in legal battles with the host communities as against imbibing good corporate citizens attributes. In the words of the creek dwellers, these operators go to the extent of inciting troubles between the elders and the youths using financial inducement.

In reality, there is no question that the region will continue to face news challenges as there are some sets of abuses and disappointments that did so well to make the people of the region lose interest in whatever form of solution that government may have in stock, and have since resigned to fate while handing over their situation to God almighty

The first and very fundamental issue is the controversy/discordant tones surrounding the Federal Government’s claim that it has Set aside US$170m seed funding for the Ogoni Clean Up, in an Escrow Account established for that purpose of which the Escrow Agreement Signing Ceremony took place in April 2018, and the Clean-Up commenced in January 2019, with the handover of the first batch of sites to the selected remediation firms, after a painstaking procurement process the FG’s non-implementation of the Akure-accord- the 16points development agenda drafted by the Pan Niger Delta Development Forum (PANDEF) and submitted to the FG. in November 2016, Equally fuelling animousity between the people of the region and the Federal Government is Mr. President’s refusal to sign into law the Petroleum Industry Governance Bill (PIGB), passed by the out gone 8th Assembly-a bill which the people of the region believe holds the key to development and peace in the region.

Regardless of what others may say, the Federal Government, in my views, has thousands of opportunities to develop the region. All that keeps them away from utilizing/realizing those opportunities is their inability to apply what they learned abroad- from nation that once faced the challenges we currently grapple with, and lack of a creative way of looking at the environment and the people they want to serve as well as what it will require to improve their life chances.

Take as an illustration, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, on Friday 5th June 2020, announced £10.9 million to protect rare wildlife and habitats, including turtles in the British Virgin Islands, penguins in South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, the coral reefs in the Comoros, and chimpanzees in Uganda.

From the above, the question before us as a nation could be of no greater moment; when will President Buhari set aside a specific amount for, and make development of the Niger Delta region a ‘personal fight’? Or will they continue to live in a degraded and polluted space till eternity? When is he coming up with laws that will help end flaring of gas in the region? Above all, when is he going to sign the PIGB into law?

Finding answer(s) to these questions will definitely help the development conversation of the region gets going.

Jerome-Mario Utomi ([email protected]), is a Lagos-Based Media Consultant.