Monday comment1 

 Caleb Adebayo argues the need to clean-up Ogoniland

A few weeks back, word came from the State House in Abuja that the President had via an official communication mandated that the long-dormant OML 11 Joint Venture should have its operatorship transferred to the government entity, Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC)/Nigerian Petroleum Development Company (NPDC) not later than April 30, 2019. This OML is notably one of Nigeria’s most important oil producing areas and it is operated by Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDCN), a long-standing participant in Nigeria’s oil and gas sector. The news of the directive for change of operatorship from the president (whether in his capacity as President or Minister of Petroleum) has raised a number of questions; some legal, others commercial, and others still environmental.

Ogoniland in Rivers State, home to OML 11, has a very chequered history when it comes to oil and gas exploration and engagement with international oil companies. From 1958, when Shell began oil exploration in Ogoni till date, the community has been at the receiving end of the various environmental hazards that have accompanied the production. Ogoni is a community that has continued to bear the brunt of oil politics over the years, affecting their lives and livelihood and putting the community in jeopardy. We cannot also quickly forget the Ken Saro-Wiwa debacle that shook the community. Since 1993, not much in terms of production has happened there. However, with the falling crude prices and the 2019 budget benchmarked against 2.3 million barrels of oil per day, the government is in a frenzy to ensure maximum production for oilfields. It is estimated that the country has lost an average of $7.01 billion in one year and a total of $177.136 billion in the last 25 years to the lack of production in Ogoni. It is not then entirely shocking that there have been moves to resume production in the same community that mimics a post-war settlement- devastated and in ruins. It is in fact shameful that while Ogoni people are still battling with the ecological disaster that their home has become and the non-implementation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report of 2011 that recommended a clean-up, they are now being confronted with a ploy by the federal government to resume oil exploitation in Ogoni.

Farming and fishing have become a nightmare for residents of Khana, Gokana, Tai and Eleme local government councils in Rivers State due to the activities of exploration in Ogoni. Poor crop yield and animal production, food shortage, death of fish, air pollution, destruction of arable lands and diverse illnesses have been the resultant effect of these production activities in Ogoni. As one of the most polluted communities and one of the most important too for Nigeria in terms of oil production, a restoration/clean-up and positive response to the environmental challenges in Ogoni would be a meaningful sign; hope for other polluted communities that in fact the government is committed to restoring their communities and ensuring environmental compliance. Yet that is not the case. In June last year, the federal government purportedly in line with abiding by the recommendations of the UNEP did a flag-off of the commencement of the Ogoni clean-up exercise under the Hydrocarbons Pollution Restoration Project (HYPREP) programme (as our government is adept at naming programmes). This, certainly was lauded by all and sundry, except that after that, very little else has happened since the photo-ops and press statement in June last year, and as is typical, the government has not been transparent about its plans. Beyond the usual euphoria of fulfilling an electoral promise and mere verbal commitment by the federal government, no concrete steps or actions are being taken on the clean–up exercise since it was flagged-off. As rightly observed by Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria, (ERA/FOEN), apart from the usual fanfare, there was no serious commitment by the government to the exercise. Perhaps it is important to state that UNEP’s very detailed report on Ogoni recommended a clean-up and restoration of Ogoni and cessation of all activities that contaminate the environment. This report, delivered by UNEP in 2011, and presented to the federal government, saw no ilk of implementation until seven years later, and at that, it is still sluggish or perhaps non-existent. The report found that, without exception, all the water bodies in Ogoni were polluted by the activities of oil companies – SPDCN and the NNPC. Indeed the report stated that some of what the people took as potable water had carcinogens, such as benzene, up to 900 times above 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. While the communities are still hopeful that this clean-up programme will be implemented, we hear of a change of operatorship of OML 11, a harbinger of possible production in the region.

A move to re-enter the community and continue production, which is very easily what can be seen from the change of operatorship directive, will be a callous, reckless and thoughtless move and will mean that the government places more value on the politics of oil and money than the lives of its people. It is also very doubtful that such will go down without a fight from civil society, international organisations and the community itself. Countries across the world have met challenges of this kind with deliberate and clear action. It is upsetting why Nigeria seems not to be able to take this environmental challenge seriously, even worse, after ratifying the Paris Agreement. According to the President of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), Legborsi Pyagbara, “There is no doubt that if the Nigerian government fails to protect the Ogoni people, it certainly cannot protect itself. History is replete with the ruins of societies that were built on the sort of injustices that have pervaded Ogoniland over the years.”


 Adebayo, a lawyer and environmental enthusiast, wrote from Lagos