A Paradise Lost

In the Niger Delta, there is a paradoxical interplay of daylight and night occasioned by the activities of two types of oil producers with contrasting methodologies and agenda. In some oil-producing communities, daylight appears unusually long and extended. This is because of all round economy-boosting oil production, primarily by legitimate oil companies – both international and indigenous.

Then, there is the illicit production, by oil thieves, who steal crude oil directly from well heads as well as using hot tapping techniques to siphon crude oil from pipelines. Against the backdrop of legal, licensed oil production at night, is the effect of gas flaring, lighting up the skyline from dusk to dawn. For residents with oil-producing facilities in their vicinity, the distinction between day and night seems irrevocably lost – some of the times. In contrast to the brightness of the skyline through legitimate oil production is the contrived darkness emanating from the nocturnal activities of oil thieves, in cahoots with their nondescript customers, engaged in the primitive distillation of crude oil, through a process known in local parlance as “cooking.”

Operating at bases dubbed “illegal refineries” in the inner recesses of the mangrove forest, their activities cast a pall of smoke and soot which blacken the skyline, raining down ash-like debris on everything on the ground, including rooftops, humans and plants. Additionally, the physical environment of illegal refineries is slushy and soggy with residues, discharged with reckless abandon, into the environment, from their notorious crude oil “cooking”.

Oil thieves also constitute a major factor in the environmental challenges of the Niger Delta.

The daily pollution negatively impacts the fauna and flora, taking some toll on the air in the atmosphere and the environment.

Dr. Tolar sums up the situation: ‘’when you wake up in the morning, the whole sky is bleak; you are not likely to see far because the whole place is filled with heavy smoke, acid rain and soot just settling down because of the overnight illegal refining at the numerous creek points. If you come out in the morning wearing white or bright clothes, by 5 pm, they would have become completely black and woe betide you if it rains, and of course, rain is common through all the months of the year in the Niger Delta. Then, your clothes are not only changed to black, you also become pale and haggard.”

Oturubo corroborates Dr Tolar’s viewpoint. He says the illegal oil production points in the Niger Delta “are now very massive.” He alleges that the Nigerian security forces who are posted to the area to stop the illegal activities “have fully moved into the business. They now give cover to the illegal camps, which normally start production by 7pm until 5am every day. The security operatives escort the boats, each with some 200 barrels crude oil. And 40 to 50 of these boats may load from each illegal crude oil bunkering point every day. It is needless to give any information to the security forces as you then become a target of hired killers.”

Ms Briggs, the environmentalist, adds that because of the level of pollution and devastation of the environment in the Niger Delta, she signed up to a programme in the United Kingdom to test her lungs every three months. The first time she was tested, she recalls her doctor asked her where she had been in the previous six months. She said that they asked her if she ate fish in the environment, and that when coming back, she should bring the vegetable and water and that she would be given a device, to capture the air in the place too, so that they could measure and see what the people were inhaling. She notes that her worried doctor insisted: “In future, if the people in the place continued to inhale what he was seeing, they would die early.”

She was advised to remove herself from the environment. For the activist, that is not a piece of advice she would embrace. She loves the Niger Delta, notwithstanding the dangers inherent in living in that environment.

She explains: “The truth is that people are dying of these things here, and they would say ‘Na im brother poison am, na im mama or uncle kill am.’ But it is the oil companies and the Federal Government of Nigeria that are poisoning us. This is the character of our environment.”

No one can continue to pretend about the environmental calamity in the Niger Delta caused mainly by decades of oil exploration and production and made worse by oil spills and gas flaring, as well as the reckless activities of oil thieves and their allies who operate illegal refineries.

MOSOP’s Mitee would rather that the oil companies bear full responsibility for the environmental pollution. He says: “The oil companies say we have the technology, we can exploit oil. So, government say ‘Okay, I cut (allocate) this land, so go and operate on it. We give you a concession.’ They have been doing this, they did it in Holland, they did it in America…. So, the person who says he is doing it, now there is pollution, who will you blame? Is it not the person who says, ’I know how to do it’? It is like you say you are a driver, a professional driver, and we say go and run a taxi, then you hit somebody, who should you blame? Will you go and call the owner?

“In any case, the technical thing is that you are in a joint venture partnership, one is operating, the other one is the dominant partner, and so it is the person I see on my land that I will hold responsible for what is happening. So, that is why people who say ‘Oh, why are you holding the oil company?’ missed the point. Why wouldn’t I hold them? They are the people who say they have the technology to take oil. And they have been doing it in their own countries. Why are you using a substandard means to do it here? Because you feel that our own mechanisms to check you are weak.”

“Spilled oil poses serious threats to fresh water and marine environments,” posits the Environmental Protection Agency of the United States of America. It adds: “It affects surface resources and a wide range of subsurface organisms that are linked in a complex food chain that includes human food resources. Spilled oil can harm the environment in several ways, including the physical damages that directly impact wildlife and their habitats (such as coating birds or mammals with a layer of oil), and the toxicity of the oil itself, which can poison exposed organisms.”[84]

Of course, the advent of oil production in the Niger Delta may have resulted in more sorrow going by the unprecedented oil spill in the region, which made the place one of the most polluted in the world. If there were to be an oil spill capital of the world, it would “inevitably be the Niger Delta. Scarcely would any day pass without an oil spill incident from one or more of the producing and non-producing oil facilities in the region.”[85] Whereas European nations experienced only 10 spills in 40 years,[86] Nigeria’s National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), reports that between 2006 and 2015, “there were over 5,000 spillage sites from the over 9,000 spills.”[87] The spills were specifically put at 9,343.

A more expansive study by  Nwagbo (2017) covering  a 50- year period (1965-2015), shows that 31% of oil spills in the Niger Delta was from unknown causes, 20.74% from third party activities and 17.04% from mechanical failure. The remaining 30.42% was grouped as “minor” requiring no rigorous root cause analysis. [88]

Nwagbo’s study shows that the largest single spill recorded in the Niger Delta occurred in 1979 when 570,000 barrels of crude were spilled out of a storage tank located in a Shell facility in Forcados, a small town in Burutu Local Government Area of Delta State. The following year, a blow-out of Texaco offshore facility resulted in the dumping of 400,000 barrels  of crude oil into the Gulf of Guinea.

These two single largest recorded oil spills in the Niger Delta are worse than the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 – 257,000 barrels  of crude oil – and for which Exxon was slammed $5 billion in damages, which was later reduced to about $507.5 million, following appeals by the company in the United States of American and The Netherlands, and consideration by the court that Exxon had spent an estimated $2 billion in the clean-up of the spill.

Contrasted with the cases in the Niger Delta, the causes of these global oil spills were known, their impacts and consequences – regarding culpability and penalties were duly investigated and properly documented. Judicial awards and payments for environmental and human damages were also appropriately applied.

Comrade Sheriff Mulade, President-General of all youth organisations in Gbaramatu Kingdom, comprising 22 oil communities and a major hub of oil activities in the Niger Delta, and National Coordinator, Centre for Peace and Environmental Justice, a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), explains why the problem of the Niger Delta is beyond pollution. He says that the oil communities sometimes wished that the oil could dry up in the region “so that we can be free; so that our ecosystem can be restored; at least in the next 20 to 30 years, we can again be doing our peasant farming and fishing and have our lives back.” 

Mulade, whose NGO is one of the most active in the Niger Delta, has been seizing every opportunity at conferences abroad to speak up, knowledgeably, about the environmental degradation and squalor in the Niger Delta. He is viewed with suspicion by both the government, which makes huge revenue from legitimate oil production, and the militants, who are siphoning illegal crude. 

The environmentalist says he has never supported militancy as a solution to perceived marginalisation of the Niger Delta region, because he believes that the militants would not be able to withstand any military onslaught not even with any kind of supernatural power at their disposal. He is referring to the militants’ reliance on the Ijaw god of war, Egbesu. So, at the height of militancy, the militants had ample reason to have him as their captive for weeks when they were faced with a massive attack by the Nigerian military from the sky, on the ground and in the waters. They believed erroneously that he was an agent of either the government or the oil companies, or both. But when in 2009, late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua granted unconditional amnesty to Niger Delta militants, he felt somewhat vindicated.

The Niger Delta situation, he insists, is pitiable. He says: “We cannot do anything. We cannot fish, we cannot farm. We –Ilaje, Ijaw and Itsekiri people – now import iced fish from the cities to our communities; whereas we were the ones supplying fresh fish to the cities. This is a bigger challenge than pollution, although it is linked with it.”

He believes that if one ever manages to get fresh fish from the river today, it is contaminated by lead from spilled oil. Mulade says “the immediate result of the environmental and health challenges is lowered life expectancy in the Niger Delta. This is a reason many people in the oil communities are drifting upland and to the cities.”

According to him, the environmental problems of the Niger Delta are not only numerous, but hydra headed. He says, for example, that in his area at the Chaninomi Creek, “the major trunk line from Escravos to Warri Refinery to Kaduna Refinery runs through this place. And there is hardly any day this trunk line is not tampered with by vandals and illegal activists siphoning oil. Of course, when one tampers with the trunk line, the tide is moving, so it would carry the burst products to everywhere in the Niger Delta. The oil keeps moving even when the affected company eventually discovers the burst pipes and shuts them down.” 

Many communities are also facing the problem of ocean surge, which results in the ebbing of the available land area. Most places which were previously land or small creeks have turned into big ocean today. In consequence, most of the communities are, in a literary sense, shifting with the tide.

He adds that one place where this “is worse is Ilaje in Ondo State; from the Benin River, running down. And also at Ugborodo in Delta State, the ocean is encroaching fast and menacingly. In fact, in some of these oil communities, they hardly exist anymore; most parts of the communities are less than half of the land they occupied in the 1960s. They have been cut off by ocean surge which is believed to be compounded by drilling and exploration activities of the oil companies.”

Amid this precarious situation, the stakeholders, including international oil companies, militants, activists, pirates, government and their agencies and the security operatives have continued to operate unfettered, whether for good or for bad, most times oblivious and unmindful of the future of the Niger Delta and its desecrated and deprived communities. Even community and opinion leaders as well as politicians from the Niger Delta are sometimes accused of acting in ways that compound and compromise the overall developmental interest of the region.    

While in some respects, it is argued that the oil economy may have had some beneficial effects in the oil-bearing region, including creating job opportunities and educational and infrastructural development in some places, the overall effects of oil remain ambivalent in the Niger Delta. These are considerably negative for the inhabitants of the oil communities. This is especially because of the damage and loss of the ecosystem. Indeed, the future of the communities are compromised, as land remains an enduring asset handed down from generation to generation. 

• Being excerpts from The Contentious Search for Peace in the Niger Delta, authored by Jide Ajide, John Ashima and Oluwole Agunbiade.

Related Articles