By Nnimmo Bassey
Two whole years after the United Nations Environment Programme released a damning assessment of the Ogoni environment, the Ogoni people are forced to continue wallowing in the toxic broth that their land and waters have been made to become.
Ogoniland was once a land that supported productive farming, fishing and related activities. That was so up till the moment the oil rigs began to puncture holes in the land and crude oil began to be spilled on land, forests and rivers. The air was clean but that changed when gas flares belched like dragons out for the kill.
Today, 20 years after Shell got excommunicated from Ogoniland, thick hydrocarbon fumes from sundry pollutions hang in the air.
From the late 1980s, the Ogoni people raised the alarm over the wholesale destruction of their environment.
With the Ogoni Bill of Rights of 1990, they catalogued their demands for environmental, socio-economic and political justice. Although the Bill of Rights was presented to the Nigerian government, till date there has not been a whisper by way of response to, or engagement with, the document.
The Bill of Rights became an organising document for the Ogoni people and also eventually inspired other ethnic nationalities in the Niger Delta to produce similar charters as a peaceful way of prodding the government into dialogue and action.
The Bill noted that although crude oil had been extracted from Ogoniland from 1958, they had received NOTHING in return. We reproduce articles 15-18 of the Bill to illustrate some of the complaints of the people:
15. That the search for oil has caused severe land and food shortages in Ogoni – one of the most densely populated areas of Africa (average: 1,500 per square mile; national average: 300 per square mile.)
16. That neglectful environmental pollution laws and sub-standard inspection techniques of the federal authorities have led to the complete degradation of the Ogoni environment, turning our homeland into an ecological disaster.
17. That the Ogoni people lack education, health and other social facilities.
18. That it is intolerable that one of the richest areas of Nigeria should wallow in abject poverty and destitution.
This Bill of Rights was the precursor to the Kaiama Declaration of the Ijaw, lkwerre Rescue Charter, Aklaka Declaration for the Egi, the Urhobo Economic Summit Resolution, Oron Bill of Rights and other demands of people’s organisations in the Niger Delta.
The UNEP report presented to the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria on August 4, 2011 completely confirmed the claims of the Ogoni people, “That neglectful environmental pollution laws and sub-standard inspection techniques of the federal authorities have led to the complete degradation of the Ogoni environment, turning our homeland into an ecological disaster.”
The report found that, without exception, all the water bodies in Ogoni were polluted by the activities of oil companies — Shell Petroleum Development Company and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. Indeed, the report stated that some of what the people took as potable water had carcinogens, like benzene, up to 900 times above the World Health Organisation standards. The report also revealed that at some places in Ogoniland, the soil is polluted with hydrocarbons to a depth of five metres.
It revealed that the Ogoni homeland had indeed been turned into an “ecological disaster,” as the Bill of Rights asserted. We remind ourselves that the UNEP report made recommendations that most of us saw as low hanging fruits that government could easily have responded to assuage the pains of the people and commence a process of restoring the territory to an acceptable state. The apparent inaction is nothing but a squandering of opportunities to rescue a people and for impactful political action.
A total clean up of Ogoniland will take a lifetime or about 30 years at the least. That is the length of time the UNEP estimates it would require to clean up the water bodies in the territory. And it would require an additional five years to clean up the land. How is that a lifetime? Well, life expectancy in the Niger Delta stands at approximately 41 years.
At the eve of the first anniversary of the presentation of the report, the Federal Government hurriedly cobbled up an outfit incongruously named Hydrocarbons Pollution Restoration Project. The project was set up basically to hoodwink the Ogoni people into thinking that action was being taken to implement the UNEP report.
A year after the setting up of HYPREP under the Ministry of Petroleum Resources – a major polluter of Ogoniland — the only visible act of implementation of the report has been the planting of sign posts at some places informing the people that their environment is contaminated and that they should keep off.
You could almost laugh, but this is sad and serious. Keep off your environment! No options given. The people still drink the polluted waters and farm the polluted land. Seafood is still being scrounged from the polluted waters and community people still process their foods in the crude-coated creeks.
Two years after, we believe that it is not too late for the government to act. President Goodluck Jonathan can:
• Declare Ogoniland an ecological disaster zone and invest resources to tackle the deep environmental disaster here.
• Urgently provide potable water across Ogoniland
• Commission an assessment of the entire Niger Delta environment. An assessment or audit of the environment of the entire nation should also be on the cards urgently.
• Those found guilty of crimes against the people and the environment should be brought to book and made to pay for their misdeeds. Blame for oil thefts must go beyond the diversionary focus on the miniscule volumes taken up by bush refiners.
• The major crude oil stealing mafias must be uncovered. Crude oil and gas volumes must also be metered as demanded by groups such as the Environmental Rights Action.
• Engage in dialogue with the Ogoni people as to the time-scale and scope of actions to be taken to restore the environment. Issues raised in the Ogoni Bill of Rights and the UNEP report provide good bases for dialogue. Extend this all over the Niger Delta.
• Ensure that the actions to tackle the ecological disaster that the Niger Delta has become are not seen as an opportunity for patronage or jobs for the boys.
• The UNEP should play a key oversight role, to ensure quality and to build confidence in the process.
• The body to tackle the problem should be domiciled in the Ministry of Environment and should not by any means be under the polluting Petroleum Resources Ministry.
• Shell should be ordered to urgently dismantle whatever remains of their facilities in Ogoniland along with toxic waste they dumped in the territory.
• Shell should also be required to replace the Trans Niger Delta pipeline that carries crude oil from other parts of the region across Ogoni territory.
• Clean up the polluted land and waters.
These are just some of the steps that must be taken urgently. The UNEP report gives a good list of several things that need to be done. The time has come to halt the ostrich posture and to face the national environmental challenges squarely. Two years is long enough. Our people have patiently lined up to fall into early graves.
Twenty-three years ago, several Ogoni people were sacrificed because they dared to speak up concerning the state of their homeland.
A stanza of the National Anthem urges, “The labours of our heroes past shall never be in vain.” We cannot continue to sing those lines mindlessly while the ecological disaster in Ogoniland persists and our heroes groan in their graves.
•Nnimmo, an environmentalist, is chair of Friends of the Earth International and Director of Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF).