By Ernest Chinwo in Port Harcourt
After years of delay, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo yesterday launched the implementation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report on the clean-up of Ogoniland and impacted areas of the Niger Delta, but warned that the federal government would no longer tolerate oil theft and illegal refineries in the region.
This is just as the Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike said the state would provide the required platform for the successful clean-up of the area.
Addressing a mammoth crowd at Bodo Town in Gokana Local Government Area of Rivers State, Osinbajo, who represented President Muhammadu Buhari at the event, expressed regrets that oil exploration and production in Ogoniland and the Niger Delta region had negatively affected the ecosystem.
Delivering the president’s speech, Osinbajo, said: “I recall the time as a military Head of State when I visited Bodo Town in Ogoniland. During that visit, I commissioned a large fishpond and planted a tree as a sign of government’s concern for the environment.
“Unfortunately, since then, the degradation of land, water and air has done huge damage to the fragile ecosystem of the Niger Delta, especially Ogoniland.
“Oil exploration and production have been going on in Nigeria for six decades. Oil has given a boost to the Nigerian economy, but the ecosystem of the Niger Delta has been severely damaged. Fishing and agriculture have been badly affected.
“There are Acts, enactment, laws, guidelines and regulations to govern the operators of the oil industry. However, either because of lack of will or willful non-compliance with environmental laws, the environment has been put in jeopardy.”
Giving an insight into what gave rise to militancy in the region, Osinbajo on behalf of Buhari said: “The various communities in the Niger Delta region, noting the negative impact of oil production and lack of consideration for best practices, quite rightly commenced the struggle for justice and fair play in the conduct of business by oil industry operators.
“This, unfortunately, led to the loss of lives and property. International concern was raised while past governments were urged to take decisive steps to address the issue.”
He noted that former President Olusegun Obasanjo engaged UNEP to undertake a mission towards the clean-up of Ogoniland but expressed regrets that the previous administration led by Goodluck Jonathan did not implement the recommendations.
“The report was submitted to my predecessor while still in office in 2011, but the implementation was not accorded the necessary support it required. The people of Ogoniland continued to suffer from pollution of air, land and water,” he said.
Osinbajo recalled that the president promised the people of Ogoni during the 2015 election campaigns that he would implement the clean-up of the area if elected president, adding that the flag-off of the exercise was a fulfillment of that promise.
“We are determined to right the wrongs of the past, where the people of this land were treated unfairly and their environment unduly degraded,” Osinbajo said.
He reiterated: “Today, we are in Ogoniland, in the heart of the Niger Delta to fulfill our promise to you and to bring justice and succour to our people. The clean-up of this land will require change on the part of all those who deal with the Niger Delta environment, particularly the oil companies and our communities. The tempo of this assignment increased when my cabinet was constituted.
“The Honourable Minister of Environment consulted all relevant ministries to actualise the UNEP report. We are therefore laying a solid foundation today for the restoration of the fragile ecosystem of Ogoniland and the rest of the Niger Delta.”
He noted that the UNEP report indicated a timeline of 25 to 30 years to achieve full restoration of the environment of the Niger Delta. “The first step begins with a solid foundation, which would be brought about through consultation, transparency, accountability, investing in the people and the environment,” he said.
He called on all Nigerians irrespective of political affiliation to support the effort of the administration as “our lives to a great extent depend on the quality of our environment”.
He warned: “Let me seize this opportunity to sound a note of warning that the current oil theft and illegal refining will not be tolerated. The regulators of the oil industry must live up to expectations. They must ensure that oil companies carry out their operations in line with universal best practices.”
He said the administration was laying a foundation for change, adding: “The government places a high emphasis on the diversification of our economy. This is to ensure that our economy is strong and capable of supporting our teeming young people through job and wealth creation.”
In his address, Wike said the state would provide the required platform for the successful clean-up of Ogoniland and the implementation of the UNEP report.
He said: “The Rivers State Government will ever be willing to provide the platform for the smooth achievement of this long awaited intervention.
“We acknowledge that this is a federal initiative. The direct impact is borne by our people. We therefore urge all our stakeholders to embrace and support this federal government gesture and ensure a hitch-free exercise.”
The governor commended Buhari for initiating the clean-up, noting that the presence of top officials of the Rivers State Government indicated that the state would fully support the exercise.
“We therefore welcome this initiative wholeheartedly as shown by our enthusiastic presence, believing that the recommendations of UNEP will be systematically executed. This is because we believe that only environmental justice would restore sustainable peace, stability and socio-economic progress in the Niger Delta.
“We therefore commend Mr. President’s determination to close this ugly chapter in our country’s history. Although this has taken long in coming; it is never too late when it comes to the environment. Therefore, Mr. President sir, your presence in Ogoniland today is a testimonial of the long awaited clean-up and remediation exercises of the Niger Delta polluted environment,” the governor stated.
The Minister of Environment, Mrs Amina Muhammed, in her welcome address said the implementation of the UNEP report was a promise that is being kept by Buhari, calling it a collective responsibility.
“It will require the trust that we have lost over the decades; it will require transparency and accountability and it will require proper representation of the people in what we are doing in investing in their future. It will also require that we do things differently. That is why this administration called for change,” she said.
The Executive Director of UNEP, Mr. Achim Steiner, in his remarks, confessed that the task of producing the report was a great risk taken by the UNEP team but thanked the Obasanjo administration for taking the initiative to start the process of cleaning up the devastated Ogoni environment.
He said UNEP was deeply committed to standing by the federal government and the people of Ogoniland to ensure the success of the clean-up process.
The Minister of Transportation Chibuike Amaechi also recalled the efforts he made as the sitting governor in the state, to persuade former President Jonathan to start the process of implementing the UNEP Report, pointing out that the efforts did not yield the desired result.
He however lauded Buhari for taking the bold step to ensure the commencement of the exercise, adding: “He promised and he is keeping with that promise.”
In his address, the President of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), Mr. Legborsi Pyagbara, thanked Buhari and everybody that has supported “the Ogoni cause for the flag-off”.