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NIGER DELTA: A PEOPLE ON DEATH ROW

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REWIND to the period before 1956 when oil was discovered in the Niger Delta. The land was rich in biodiversity, bubbling with diverse species. The people had been thriving and living peacefully on this land, same land they have owned and cultivated for hundreds of years before Nigeria was amalgamated. The region was an aquatic splendor – exotic mollusks, choice crustaceans, and assorted fish species. The people who were predominantly hardworking fishermen and farmers had a guaranteed harvest, only the lazy were poor. Such was the life in Oloibiri and other Niger Delta Communities before the discovery of oil. The events following this have been rather catastrophic and disastrous. I'm sure if given the option, the people would have opted to be left alone in their peaceful abode than the toxic reserve they now inhabit as home.

After Oloibiri, the oil companies raided the length and breadth of Niger Delta, prospecting for oil. Thus, within a short period, the region had been riddled with oil wells and drilling rigs, cheerfully sucking up the land. Aided by the greed of the ruling class, these oil companies forcefully occupied our lands; freely displacing farmers and fishermen without any compensation. They enacted legislations that have proved to be the height of injustice, which forcefully took the land away from the original owners and transferred same to federal government who in turn gave Joint Venture licenses without factoring in the natives as stakeholders. These legislations gave them the right to stay in Abuja and partition our lands remotely and share same to their friends, families and business associates as oil blocks. And so, with their drilling "teeth" buried in our "neck", they have sucked our land dry, like a blood thirsty vampire.

The Nigerian Oil and Gas Sector accounts for over 97% of our foreign income. It is estimated that the sector has accounted for over $600 Billion of Nigeria's income since independence. Sadly, while the nation is smiling to the bank, the host communities are wallowing in their squalor, dying as the clock ticks away. While they are drilling and lifting their oils in their barrels, the host communities are dying in their numbers. They are ravaged with poverty and health challenges. This is in contrast to what is practiced globally. The oil in Texas belongs to the State of Texas, they only pay tax to the Federal Government; the oil in Alaska belongs to the State of Alaska, they drill and pay their taxes; and the oil in New Mexico belongs to the State of New Mexico, they drill and remit their taxes to the centre. In Nigeria, the centre drills and gives back a paltry 13% to the state. Day light robbery!

While I condemn this structure of revenue formula that forcefully transfers ownership of natural resources to the federal government, however the law did make provision for a correction of the anomaly even within the unjust framework. The constitution recommends a derivation of not less than "13% of the revenue accruing the federation account from any natural resources", meaning that 13% was actually a lower bench mark. How then have we decided to tie ourselves to this lower limit when the sky should be our limit? I've written sufficiently on this crass injustice called 13% derivation and I won't tire out, however, that is for another day. Our focus will shift to a more pressing issue: the pollution that is ravaging our land as a result of the reckless activities of these same companies that unjustly took over the land.

Bodo City is a community in Ogoni that once boasted of rich biodiversity. The name Bodo literally translates to "because of the sea (fishing)", with the early settlers choosing to settle there because of the proximity to the sea and the opportunity to earn a living through fishing. The community is also blessed with a large arable land. And so, the people were indeed prosperous. Back then, local fishermen were so rich that the few one storey buildings that dotted the landscape were owned by them. Today, being a farmer or a fisherman can guarantee you only two results – Poverty and health failure! The biodiversity has been badly depleted, the land utterly barren and the sea too toxic for life. On 28th August, 2008, the community woke up to see the creeks submerged in crude oil. The Trans-Niger Pipeline that traverses the terrain had spilled its content – crude oil. Despite promptly reporting this to the operator (Shell) and the concerned authorities, this spill continued unabated for 72 days before it was eventually stopped on the 7th of November, 2008. Experts estimate that the volume of spill was as large as the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989. Shell gave their usual subterfuge, estimating a spilled volume of about 1,640 barrels. However, after careful analyses international experts estimate over 4,000 barrels per day was spilled – multiply this by the 72 days and you'll see what we are talking about. For those who are not familiar with the conversion, one barrel is about 159 litres. Therefore in one day, 636,000 litres (159 x 4000) of crude oil was emptied in the creeks of Bodo. For the 72 days, 45,792,000 litres of crude oil was emptied in the creeks and adjoining lands of Bodo. Tell me what plant or animal can survive in such a toxic land or sea?

If you were thinking that's bad enough, then check this out. On December 7, 2008 there was yet another spill that took place in Bodo, this time the impact was even more devastating. For 77 days, thousands of barrels of crude oil was emptied in the creeks/lands of Bodo. The spill was eventually stopped on February 21, 2009. In both cases, the operator (due to availability of hard evidences against them) admitted that the spill was caused by equipment failure and not sabotage. Four years on, the creeks are still being colonized by oil sheens – no clean up, no remediation, nocompensation (later we will see what the regulations stipulates in cases like this). The lush green mangrove leaves have withered off, the crabs and other crustacean species that loitered by the river banks are all dead, the fishes either all dead or driven farther ashore. There is virtually no life in that river anymore. What you see on the river is a set of moving rainbow colours caused by the sun rays incident on the floating oil sheens. Even the air stinks of a cocktail of fresh crude oil mixed with decaying fishes and lobsters. I'm not telling you what I've been told, I'm telling you what I experienced personally.

I want to give an open invitation to Governor Mu'azu Babangida Aliyu and all the "wailing wailers" who think that the Niger Delta states are receiving far too much from the federation account to visit these communities. We can arrange for a fishing boat and net for him, if he successfully catches a six inch fish of any kind in that river, then we'll declare him the winner. In our usual hospitable manner, we will share with him the water we drink, same one that UNEP reports contains carcinogenic substance (Benzene) 900 times above World Health Organization guidelines; same water with hydrocarbon contamination at levels 1000 times greater than the Nigerian drinking water standard of 3 microgrammes per litre (Just a little caution: he may get high on it, don't say I didn't tell you). I'll love to go swimming with him in the pool of hydrocarbon we now have as river – I can imagine how his ebony skin will glow when laced with crude oil and exposed to a little sun tan. We can even do a little competition to find out who can swim the longest with his eyes wide open in the polluted waters. Oh sorry, I didn't give the warning ahead: Viewer Discretion Advised. Did I hear the sound of an ambulance? Never mind…

The case of Bodo is just one of the many instances of how the host communities have suffered from the activities of oil and gas exploration. A report released by the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) in 2010 states that within the last four years alone a total of 3,203 spills have been recorded in the Niger Delta. It is noteworthy to mention that the region has practically lived with oil spill all these years. In 1978 there was the GOCON Escravos spill that discharged over 300,000 barrels to the environment; the forcados terminal tank failure of 1978 also discharged about 580,000 barrels to the environment; the FUNIWA-5 oil well blow out of 1980 discharged about 400,000 barrels. It is also noteworthy to mention that all these cases, in terms of volume of discharge, the spills were greater than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989, which has been referenced more often. The combine spill in the Region dwarfs the quantity spilled at the gulf of Mexico. Little wonder our Hippos, crocs, Dolphins, Otters, etc are either driven into extinction or seriously endangered.

Only in December last year, over 35,000 barrels of oil was spilled in the bonga oil field, ravaging flora and fauna in the creeks and neighboring communities. Bonga field has a daily production capacity of about 200,000 barrels per day. Going by the benchmark price (according to 2012 budget) of oil at $72 per barrel, it means this oil field potentially produces $14,400,000 or N2.232 Billion per day when operated at full capacity. A community whose land and territorial waters holds such potentials should not be toyed with, but all they get is one spill after another, with no proper clean up, remediation and compensation. On January 16, there was a gas explosion at a Chevron rig in Southern Ijaw LGA. The fire raged on for 46 days, destroying everything that came its way and polluting the ecosystem as well. These raging fire inflicted untold hardship on the people, crippling the local economy and with grave health implications. Last month, there was also a gas leakage reported at a Total gas plant in Obite, Rivers State. Need I mention the devastating effects of the roaring flames that are littered everywhere in the region (Gas flares)?


Worse still is the attitude of these companies responsible for the spill. I remember a particular Post Impact Assessment of an oil spill somewhere in Akwa Ibom state conducted by one of the major oil companies. The name of the project was changed to "PIA of Liquid Release …." instead of "PIA of Oil Spill…", just to down play the weight of the incidence they are supposedly investigating. Their excuse was that it was oil and water that was "released". They did all they could to avoid using the words "spill" and "oil". Don't be surprised to hear titles such as "PIA of well `orgasm' or `ejaculation'…" (excuse my choice of word) just to avoid words that will indict them. They quickly map out imaginary boundaries (containment zone) that will suit them, claiming the oil was promptly contained within that area. Such is their audacity! In the recently announced gas leakage at the Obite gas plant, the company was quick to announce that it was harmless without conducting a thorough Post Impact Assessment. Also, these companies are quick to issue disclaimers, blaming spills on sabotage without thorough investigation. I can go on and on, and yes, they've been having a field day.

These companies have continued to pollute the environment, not minding the necessary statutory and legal regulations. In Nigeria, the Environmental Guidelines and Standards for the Petroleum Industry in Nigeria (EGASPIN) provides the necessary regulations to follow when there is a spill. According to EGASPIN, clean-up is supposed to commence within 24 hours of incidence. The guideline also stipulates that "specific milestones must be met within 30 to 60 days after the spill". It also states that for all waters, "there shall be no visible oil sheen after the first 30 days of the occurrence of the spill no matter the extent of the spill". These regulations are clearly specified yet the companies violate them with impunity. There is a community in Eleme where soil samples still had unacceptable hydrocarbon contents over 30 years after the oil spill occurred. Worse still is the fact that these environmental catastrophes cannot be so easily reversed. The UNEP report estimates that it'll take about 30 years to clean up and restore Ogoniland to her once pristine state.

Finally, for those who think the title of this article is a little too harsh, I'd like you to take a look at the potential impacts of oil spill in the region, as summarized by UNEP:

* High mortality of aquatic animals

* Impairment of human health

* Loss of biodiversity in breeding grounds

* Vegetation destruction and other ecological hazards

* Loss of potable and industrial water resources

* Reduction in fishing activation

* Poverty, rural underdevelopment and bitterness'

To further emphasize on the dangers of exposure to these contaminants, UNEP recommended in their report on Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland that: "Everyone who has consumed water from contaminated sources (most of the groundwater samples had high unaccepted levels of hydrocarbon content) should be requested to undertake a comprehensive medical examination by physicians knowledgeable about the possible adverse health effects of the hydrocarbons detected."

Anyone consistently exposed to the above will surely die faster than he should have. Therefore, it's safe to conclude that we have been systematically sentenced to death by the system. They seem to have concluded on how we will die, it is only a matter of time and the "hangman" will show up. It won't be by firing squad, gas chamber, a guillotine or an electric chair; somehow they know we won't be able to survive the toxins around us, we'll die anyway – gloriously or ingloriously. We are on Death Row, albeit, innocently! We must force an appeal, lest we all die.


Written By Sibe
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