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Oil explorers must guard against the failings in the Niger Delta

President Muhammadu Buhari was exultant last week at the ground-breaking ceremony of the Kolmani River oil and gas field, straddling Bauchi and Gombe States. This discovery and exploration will be the first in northern Nigeria after an attempt in the Borno region was aborted by insecurity. “We are pleased with the current discovery of over one billion barrels of oil reserves and 500 billion Cubic Feet of Gas within the Kolmani area and the huge potential for more deposits as we intensify exploration efforts”, the president said. “It is good to note that the discovery has now attracted investment for an end-to-end integrated development and monetisation of the hydrocarbon resources.”  

While there are fundamental issues that need to be addressed, the immediate one is the situation in the Niger Delta as underscored by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). Against the background that Nigeria has failed to do the barest of works needed to protect the natural environment of the vastly swampy land of the region from where it had drilled and extracted oil in the past five decades, fears that the Northeast could be the next frontier of degradation are not misplaced. They are grounded on the country’s documented failings in the Niger Delta.   

Since exploration and production began in the late 1950s, with oilfields and accompanying installations dotting the Niger Delta, leaks and spills from multiple factors including a lack of maintenance, and vandalism of facilities have left the natural environment of the region in ruins. We recall that at the request of the federal government, UNEP performed a major scientific assessment of the natural environment of Ogoniland, to find out how much oil production had impacted on the region’s ecosystem. After an assessment lasting 14 months the UNEP report published in 2017 established that pollution from over 50 years of oil production in the region had permeated beyond and deeper than what was thought.  

More than 200 locations were assessed, 122 kilometres of pipeline rights of way surveyed, more than 5,000 medical records reviewed and over 23,000 people engaged at local community meetings to figure out what oil production had done to the region. In summary, UNEP found that the region’s ground water had been contaminated, resulting in an unprecedented public health challenge, dearth of vegetation, fishing, and agriculture. The report underscored the cycle of disdain for environmental processes and laws by oil producers and called for an immediate clean-up campaign to restore the environment, but nothing has happened so far.  

No one, we assume, imagined that Nigeria would make a mess of the Niger Delta the way it has done when oil was first discovered there, and no one seems to be bothered about the possibility of this now that oil is found up north. We see and applaud the widespread euphoric soundbites. But we also think that it will be a joke to simply believe that Niger Delta will not happen again up north. Nigeria’s political elites have shown little or no reasons to be trusted. Their dedication to the country, or sense of judgement is debatable. And we fear that just as it is in the Niger Delta, the oil discovery up north may serve interests other than that of the people and their environment.   

However, beyond words of mouth from the government, we would ask Nigerians to demand for a clear-cut environmental protection and accountability plan from the government and whoever it signs agreement with to drill and extract oil from fields in the north. Such a plan should equally be enforceable in courts of law.Besides, the federal government must take onboard lessons from failing in the Niger Delta as it turns to the Northeast for oil exploration.  

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