Spurning dialogue with a Commission set up by Governor Seriake Dickson, comprising respected international personalities, signals preference for unchecked environmental impunity by International Oil Companies (IOCs) operating in Bayelsa State, as a seemingly complicit central government watches. Stanley Nkwazema reports
From sickening facts on the ground, fundamental development logic apparently has no place in the oil sector exploration and exploitation practices in Nigeria’s Niger Delta regions where death and environmental despoliation remain grim facts of life as both the national and regional leaderships watch. But one leader decided that life cannot continue on this bestial path for his people and region. He is the governor of Bayelsa State, Seriake Dickson.
Governor Dickson certainly picked the right international personality when he chose Dr. John Sentamu, the fiery Ugandan-born British geologist, who retires as the Archbishop of York, in the United Kingdom, in February next year, to chair an International Commission on Oil Spills in Bayelsa State.
The panel comprising erudite academicians, notable leaders from political and religious realms was charged to assess extant environmental damages and determine responsibility, define oil exploration/extraction modalities in sync with global best practice and more.
The Commission, referred to as the Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission (BSOEC), established on the 26th of March 2019, by Governor Dickson, who incidentally, like Sentamu, leaves office February, 20, 2020. Dickson who finds every little opportunity to explain ‘how my people have been suffering’ equally confirming that he had seen it all growing up in the creeks and eventually being at the helm of the oil rich Bayelsa, hence the need to, gather leaders to assess the impact of oil spills and associated pollution in Bayelsa State and develop recommendations to ensure existing pollution is cleaned up and future pollution is prevented.
In a recent UK House of Lords debate, Baroness Sheehen, a Liberal Democrat and spokesperson for International Development detailed at length the situation in Bayelsa State and the launch of the Interim report, highlighting the injustices suffered by the people of the state.
The International Oil Companies and their Nigerian subsidiaries operating in Bayelsa State turned their backs on the Commission (BSOEC) after invitations were confirmed delivered while newspaper adverts were placed in national dailies by the commission, led by Sentamu.
Despite the invitation, none of the oil companies showed up nor sent any document at the Royal Castle Hotel venue of the sitting, to the dismay of the Commissioners who had sent out the invitation weeks before the November 1, 2019 date.
After waiting for several hours at the venue, Sentamu moved to the Onopa Lodge in Yenagoa, where he launched a blistering indictment of oil companies operating in the Niger Delta, calling their actions “nothing less than environmental genocide.”
Working alongside industry and environmental experts to investigate the impact of oil spills and the environmental and social damage done by International Oil Companies operating in Bayelsa State in the Niger Delta, the Archbishop accused Shell, AGIP and other oil companies of inflicting environmental devastation upon the people of the state and ignoring their pleas for assistance.
He said: “Roughly 40 million litres of oil wind up in the Niger Delta annually, eight times more than is spilled in America, the world’s biggest producer and consumer. Early analysis shows that if Bayelsa’s share of oil spilled is the same as oil pumped, as much as a barrel of oil may have been spilled for every man, woman and child living in Bayelsa today. It is estimated that the consequences of oil spills may kill around 16,000 infants in the Niger Delta annually within their first month of life.
“Our environment knows no bounds. We are all global citizens. It would never be acceptable to cause such environmental devastation in Europe or America, and accordingly it should never be acceptable in Africa or South America. Oil companies today have a moral obligation to uphold the same high environmental standards, wherever they operate, anything less is to knowingly continue an environmental genocide against the people of places like the Niger Delta.”
Governor Dickson, who established the Commission, was emotional when he received the report and glanced through the document. According to the governor, “I am grateful to the Archbishop, the Commissioners and the global community for highlighting this long-held injustice on the world stage. The Commission has finally provided a voice for every man, woman and child in Bayelsa that have struggled for over half a century with what can be deemed as environmental terrorism.
“I established the Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission to hold oil companies to account; to shift the mindset of multinationals operating in Bayelsa and to inspire a global sustainable change. Everyone deserves the same rights, whether you live in Nigeria or in the USA.
“Since the first oil well was drilled in Nigeria by Shell in Bayelsa in 1956, Bayelsan’s have rarely benefitted from oil. We have faced the destruction of our environment, rivers filled with oil, our farmlands destroyed, and a host of health problems including the ongoing deaths of our children.
“I’m grateful to the Archbishop for sharing what he has seen with the world. We, the people of Bayelsa and the world wait to hear the steps the oil companies will take in Nigeria and around the world to address this kind of environmental injustice and we eagerly anticipate the recommendations of the Commission in 2020.”
The Commission has undertaken three visits to Bayelsa State, since its launch in March 2019, to witness first-hand the devastation caused by oil spills and oil pollution. The Commission hosted meetings in all eight districts in the state and spoke to hundreds of Bayelsans about the human and environmental impacts of oil spills and oil pollution.
Alongside these visits the Commission gathered evidence and testimony from Bayelsa State, Nigeria and around the world on the impact of the oil industry in the state. According to the interim report, “It is no longer a story that for over 50 years the oil companies’ activities and the associated impacts have caused untold devastation across Bayelsa
“Hundreds of thousands of people in Bayelsa have been forced to live on contaminated land, drink and fish in contaminated water and breathe contaminated air. Mortality and morbidity rates have risen sharply, as has the incidence of chronic disease in communities without the resources to cope.”
The report also explains: “Countless lives and livelihood are being destroyed. Thousands of communities and tens if not hundreds of thousands of people have seen their land and fishing grounds poisoned. Neo-natal death and child malnutrition has risen, and hundreds of thousands have been forced into abject poverty.
“The problem has been ignored for too long. And even when the world has paid attention, little has happened. Previous reports have merely sat on the shelf, gathering dust. Action is needed and needed now. The oil companies are beginning to divest from onshore projects in favour of offshore deep-water sites where returns are higher, and risks of environmental damage and social unrest are lower. Time is running out to hold them to account for the legacy of pollution and suffering they are leaving behind. But there is an opportunity for real change.”
The Commission will produce its final report in early 2020. This will set out recommendations for a new legal framework that would ensure accountability and an action plan for clean-up. This will include the remediation of impacted sites and the compensation of impacted communities, ensuring they reap the benefits from the production of oil within their communities. It is expected that the full report will include findings on the scope of oil pollution.
Additionally, the Commission will explore actions to develop a global standard of behaviour for international oil companies conducting their operations in Bayelsa, Nigeria or Africa as they would in Norway, Scotland or the USA. Indeed the interim report also highlights how oil company activity fuels internal divisions within communities and the lack of investment in communities despite the vast profits made from extracting millions of litres of oil from the state.
Other members of the Commission are Baroness Valerie Amos, former Under Secretary General at the United Nations; Dr. Kathryn Nwajiaku-Dahou a visiting academic Fellow of the department of Politics and International Relations University of Oxford; Dr. Anna Zalik, an Associate Professor, Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University Canada; Professor Michael Watts, a Professor Emeritus, University of Berkeley Carlifornia; Professor Engobo Emeseh, Head of the School of Law University of Bradford; John Kufuor, former President of Ghana, as well as a number of high-level experts including pre-eminent expert – Roland Hodler, Professor of Public Economics, University of Gallen, Switzerland.
In all the LGs of Ekeremor, Southern Ijaw, Brass, Nembe, Ogbia, Kolokuma, Sagbama, and Yenagoa and communities traversed by the leaders and academic elite that make up the commission, the problems followed a similar pattern of environmental degradation, a silent health crisis, economic devastation, communities destabilized and access to justice cumbersome with odds stacked against the communities.
More so, it may not be out of place to stress that only few countries have suffered more from oil pollution than Nigeria. The report also recalls that over the last half century, as many as ten million barrels of oil have been spilled across the country: “That is equivalent to a spill similar in size to the Exxon Valdez catastrophe – which devastated the coast of Alaska – every single year for the last fifty years”
Only few parts of Nigeria have suffered worse pollution that the state of Bayelsa. The area accounts for almost a quarter of its onshore crude oil production and approximately a third of Nigeria’s oil wealth. It is home to one of Africa’s most diverse ecosystems, a rich but fragile tapestry of wetlands and mangrove swamps.
It is no longer news that despite the immense oil reserves, the people of Bayelsa are poor with the state scoring lower on the United Nations Human Development index than any other state in Nigeria, while three quarters of Bayelsa’s two million people rely on fishing or farming to support themselves.