Nnimmo Bassey, Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), in this presentation delivered on Thursday, May 3, 2018 at the Stakeholders’ Dialogue on Building Trust and Common Ground for a Successful Clean-Up Port Harcourt, Rivers State, describes the Ogoniland clean-up exercise as not only a positive alternative vision, but also an opportunity to build and consolidate environmental justice
Pollution is the number one killer in the world today. It is deadlier than the wars in the world today, than smoking, malnutrition and others. This was the finding published by one of the world’s most respected medical journals, on October 19, 2017. The research looked into air and water pollution, among others. We all know that the Niger Delta is classified among the top 10 most polluted places in the world. And we all know some of the key findings of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report on the assessment of the Ogoni environment. All water bodies are polluted with hydrocarbons, soils polluted to a depth of 5 metres at a number of places and benzene is found at levels 900 times above World Health Organisation standards. We all know that the Niger Delta has the lowest life expectancy level in Nigeria. This is why the clamour for a clean-up of the region has been a long-drawn struggle.
The history of the struggle for the clean-up of Ogoni environment is that of the struggle for environmental, socio-economic and political justice. This struggle picked steam in the late 1980s and peaked in the early and mid-1990s. The enterprise can be characterised as a struggle for the right to live in dignity, pursue self-actualisation and build a future for upcoming generations. The bedrock was the demand for justice. This was captured through well-articulated demands for the remediation of the damaged Ogoni environment. With cautious and robustly peaceful organising, the demands were catalogued in a carefully crafted Ogoni Bill of Rights (OBR) of 1990.
The Bill noted that although crude oil had been extracted from Ogoniland from 1958, its inhabitants had received NOTHING in return. Articles 15-18 of the OBR illustrate some of the complaints of the people:
- That the search for oil has caused severe land and food shortages in Ogoni – one of the most densely populated areas of Africa (average: 1,500 per square mile; national average: 300 per square mile).
- That neglectful environmental pollution laws and sub-standard inspection techniques of the Federal authorities have led to the complete degradation of the Ogoni environment, turning our homeland into an ecological disaster.
- That the Ogoni people lack education, health and other social facilities.
- That it is intolerable that one of the richest areas of Nigeria should wallow in abject poverty and destitution.
This Bill of Rights was the precursor to the Kaiama Declaration of the Ijaws, lkwerre Rescue Charter, Aklaka Declaration for the Egi, the Urhobo Economic Summit, Oron Bill of Rights and other demands of peoples’ organisations in the Niger Delta. It became an organising document for the Ogoni people and also eventually inspired other ethnic nationalities in the Niger Delta to produce similar charters as a peaceful way of prodding the government into dialogue and action.
Although the OBR has never been directly addressed by government, the detailed assessment of the Ogoni environment that culminated in the release of the now famous United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report on August 4, 2011 can be said to be a response to some of the demands of the OBR. We note at this point that before the report was released information leaked out that the bulk of the blame for the pollution of Ogoni had been placed on the people. This led to a flurry of protests and by the time the report was eventually released the blame for the massive environmental destruction was more acceptably situated. It could not have been otherwise because the payment for the study was made on the basis of the polluter-pays principle by the lead international oil company (Shell Petroleum Development Company – SPDC) that operated in the area.
Resilient and Successful Struggles
Community organising succeeds where the people have identifiable goals that address their needs or issues. The resilience of a struggle is assured when the people and their leaders have a clear strategy, are able to adapt to unfolding situations, and are willing to change tactics as may be necessary without repudiating the core of what brought them together. This flexibility is possible when the people have a shared understanding of what their collective objectives are and what sacrifices may need to be made to attain the targets. The Ogoni struggle, through the leadership of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), has been an exemplary case study for other nationalities to learn from.
Understanding the depth of the crisis and determining to speak truth to power was aptly captured in one of the last poems, Silence Would be Treason, that Ken Saro-Wiwa wrote while in prison:
But while the land is ravaged
And our pure air poisoned
When streams choke with pollution
Silence would be treason
As we consider the Ogoni clean-up today, we bear in mind that Ogoni has become a global metaphor for resilient community organising against impunity. Saro-Wiwa foresaw this when he wrote in his prison memoir, A Month and A Day:
In virtually every nation state there are several “Ogonis” – despairing and disappearing people suffering the yoke of political marginalisation, economic strangulation and environmental degradation, or a combination of these, unable to lift a finger to save themselves. What is their future?
The global component of the Ogoni situation has important implications for those who see it as a local struggle. It also has implications for those whose geographies are outside the limits of Ogoni. Those within must understand that their success charts the path that would lead to the clean-up of other regions. For those looking in from the outside, the stakes are no less because of the interconnectedness of our environment.
The Ogoni Environment is not isolated from the wider Niger Delta environment. Polluted ground water or polluted air does not obey political or traditional or cultural boundaries. When one part is cleaned up there is the urgent necessity to step to the next spot. Seeing everyplace as discrete and separate would only lead to living in a fool’s paradise believing that the land is clean whereas pollution from elsewhere would be doing its deadly job, unseen, unnoticed except in the festival of funerals that would persist.
Oil Damage Narratives
There was a time when the oil companies operating in the Niger Delta could not boldly claim that the hydrocarbons pollution in the area is caused by local peoples. There was copious evidence of the ill-maintained pipelines and flow stations. Oil spills from equipment failure were the norm. Poorly handled toxic wastes and produced water could not be hidden. And, of course, gas flares continue to stick their sooty fingers in the air as criminal giant cigarettes. The oil companies laboured in vain to shift blames. Reports from communities, the media and environmental justice campaigners continued to pile up evidence of the guilt of the oil companies.
The tide began to change with the rise of violent militancy in the oil fields. Oil infrastructure became targets and the pollution that emanated from the conflicts could neither be hidden nor denied. In fact, the explosions were marked as badges of achievement by the groups that carried out the attacks. Violent militancy achieved aspects of their objectives: gaining attention of the governments that are demonstrably more interested in pipelines and petrodollars than in the peoples and their environment. The militarisation of the Niger Delta rather than bring peace is contributory to the insecurity of lives and infrastructure in the region.
And so the environment suffered and new sources of pollution became entrenched in the region. Oil companies found a plank on which to hang blames for the pervading environmental degradation. They also found excuse in their operational locations being “inaccessible” due to insecurity and with that oil spills could go unchecked for any length of time.
The Amnesty Programme in its first and second coming helped to curtail deliberate tampering with oil facilities. But, a non-violent but equally deadly version of interferences crept in by way of what is generally called illegal refineries, but which we prefer to call bush refineries.
The bush refineries are incredibly polluting. The operators either do not know how toxic the environment in which they work is or they simply do not care. Obviously, the refineries meet the need for petroleum products in zone of perpetual shortages and high costs. Obviously, the operators have economic gains from the enterprise. However, what does it profit a person to make piles of money and not live to enjoy it? What does it benefit a person to accumulate wealth and pollution and sentence entire communities and future generations to death?
Today, when anyone thinks of the pollution of the Niger Delta, decades of incontrovertible pollution by oil companies are now forgotten and all fingers are pointed at the bush refineries.
It is so bad that even when the Port Harcourt refinery continually belches smoke into the atmosphere, fingers are pointed at the bush refineries as the cause of the soot in the atmosphere. The burning, bombing and strafing of bush refineries’ drums and barges of refined or unrefined petroleum products by security forces are accepted as signs of operational successes. We tend to think that pollution does not matter. How wrong can we get!
All the oil companies have to do today to ensure the narrative is shifted away from them is to take some journalists on their choppers for pollution tours, picking out the awful patches destroyed by bush refiners. Who would not do that? The fact that industrial scale oil theft has been going on for decades is hardly spoken of these days because of the visible and graphic horrors of the bush refineries.
The Niger Delta is so scarred, so polluted today that what we have on our hand is an environmental emergency, no less. Our air, water and land are all polluted. We plant crops and end up with poisoned harvests. We cast our nets and hurl in poisoned fish, when we see any. We breathe and our nostrils are blackened by soot. Our rivers, streams, creeks and ponds are clearly polluted, yet we drink the waters for lack of choice. All these have deadly impacts.
Oil pollution causes habitat loses, biodiversity degradation, loss of livelihoods and loss of lives.
The heavy metals extracted along with crude oil include cadmium, lead, mercury, arsenic, copper, iron, barium and many others. These have serious risks to human health and wildlife. Health risks include abdominal pains, kidney diseases, nervous problems, bronchitis, fragility of bones, prostate and lung cancer. They can also cause brain malformations as well as pregnancy and birth complications.
Mercury can rapidly penetrate and accumulate in the food chain. Acute poisoning produces gastroenteritis, inflammation of the gums, vomiting and irritation of the skin with dermatitis which can turn into ulcers.
The flared associated gases cause a cocktail of dangerous health impacts including conjunctivitis, bronchitis, asthma, diarrhoea, headaches, confusion, paralysis and others. Of course, we know of the acid rain that occurs when sulphur and nitrous oxides mix with moisture in the atmosphere.
Poorly handled produced water contaminates creeks, rivers, lakes, aquifers and other water sources. This causes the salination of these waters, soil and associated biodiversity. Salts and metals present can include cyanide which can cause immediate death if ingested. Cyanide in low doses can lead to intense headaches, sour taste, and loss of smell and taste, dizziness, vomiting, difficulty in breathing, anxiety, convulsions, loss of consciousness. In chronic intoxication it can produce goitre.
Clearly, it is extremely unsafe for untrained and unprotected persons to go near crude oil spills and materials used in the extraction processes. Seeing our people literally swim in crude oil and fire in the bush refineries is absolutely appalling.
Cleaning Up Today for Tomorrow
The Ogoni clean-up exercise is an intergenerational investment.
For the short time he was alive and in office, Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso understood that a people that cannot feed themselves are not truly free. He also saw the direct link between environmental sanity and social justice. In analysis of the work of this great son of Africa, Amber Murray states:
Liberation is incomplete when people hunger daily. Environmental protection and sustainability were therefore crucial to Sankara’s strategic thinking. Today, the continent faces serious environmental and climatic challenges that affect food production, access to water and public health. These challenges include water pollution, deforestation, soil erosion, droughts, floods, desertification, insect infestation, and wetland degradation. Environment protection is inextricably linked to social security, poverty eradication, and health.
The clean-up process has many components and many actors. While the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP) and other levels of government have various roles to play, there are also the contractors, consultants and the community leaders and people. We have individual responsibilities as well as collective responsibilities. The federal government and its agencies have responsibilities and so do the state and local governments. The clean-up is a complex social engineering project that goes beyond the technicalities that we will soon be seeing with machines, chemicals and diverse equipment. We refer to this exercise as social engineering because apart from remediation the environment we have to decolonise our thinking and relationships. All these require some work.
First, we have to understand that the clean-up is primarily for the sake of our children and future generations. If this fails we could as well look forward to a future in which the Niger Delta will be a museum with no inhabitants because not just the people, but the ecological systems would all be dead. This places a moral burden on all of us, on policy makers, on leaders and on us the people.
Successful social engineering calls for the spirit of sacrifice. The clean-up will produce new skill sets, new jobs and massive employment that would stretch for several years if we get this first steps right. Again, we emphasize that this will require sacrifice. If anyone approaches this sacred task of building an environment for future generations with the aim of profiteering, thievery or self-aggrandisement, you can be sure that the entire scheme will ship wreck.
No contractor should cut corners. No individual or company should trigger new pollutions. As my friend, Inemo Semiama, says, “You cannot successfully mop the floor with the tap running.”
This epic social engineering will require the wisdom of our peoples. It will require local knowledge. The youths must embrace the spirit of sacrifice for it is the way to build the moral authority that will be needed to question activities and actions that may occur in the process of the clean-up implementation. These could include the calls for transparency, for ensuring the availability of funds and for insisting that delivered jobs match specifications, expectations and set milestones.
This effort will also demand and require collective wisdom through popular consultations. The Ogonis have the critical advantage that makes this possible because of the existence of the mass organ, MOSOP – with its youth, women and other arms. Working organically together, there will be no shortage of diversity of wisdom to tackle even the most intractable problems.
Ogoni is a laboratory, a classroom. A careful implementation of this massive social engineering programme will illustrate how the oppressed can escape from being put down by the wielders of privilege and power.
Halting production never halted pollution. Those responsible must continue to bear the responsibility. Those instigating new sources of pollution must halt such acts for the sake of our children, our tomorrow and for the sake of other beings with which we share the planet. We cannot build a liveable tomorrow on a polluted today.
Our slogan as the exercise takes roots should be: A Clean Ogoni: Zero Tolerance for Old and New Pollution.
We have a right to claim what belongs to us as ours. However, taking steps that end up killing us or destroying our environment for the sake of expressing our right of ownership is both a false reasoning and a false economic move. When we do things that compound our problems we are simply playing into the hands of the forces of exploitation.
This is our opportunity to reclaim our humanity. It is time to reclaim our dignity. It is time for all of us in the Niger Delta, nay, Nigeria to stand together in solidarity. There is no part of this nation that is not crying for environmental remediation. From the polluted creeks of the Niger Delta to the contaminated lagoons of Lagos and the rivers in the north, to the Sambisa Forest polluted with military armaments and erosion ravaged lands of the east, we are united by our ecological challenges.
The clean-up is a positive alternative vision. It is time for vigilance based on knowledge. Not a time for complacency. Not a time to be silent. It is time to hold government and its agencies, oil companies and our leaders accountable. It is time to demand accountability and responsibility of ourselves.
The clean-up is an opportunity to build and consolidate environmental justice. Together we can leverage the opportunity. It is a path we must walk together and not alone. As the African proverb says, you may go fast by going alone, but you can only go far by going together. We are that intertwined and interconnected.