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Unpaid salaries, communal conflict slowing down Ogoni clean-up exercise

Under the federal government’s project to clean up oil spills in Ogoniland, the first 21 locations in four local government areas should have been concluded by December 2020. But two months to the end of the year, only seven sites – one-third – have reached the final stage. ABIOSE ADELAJA ADAMS, a Bertha Fellow, visited some of the remaining 14 sites and found that work has stopped indefinitely

Ogoniland cleanup
Remediation ongoing at a site in Deebon/Mogho, Gokana, River State

Happy Sunday is an unhappy indigene of Kegbara Dere (K-Dere). He claims that he is being owed seven months’ salary – N840,000 – for the work he did on “Lot 13”.

Lot 13 is in K-Dere, a community in Gokana Local Government Area (LGA) of Ogoniland, Rivers State, southern Nigeria. Notably, K-Dere is home to one of Africa’s largest and foremost oil fields – the Bomu manifold. Historically, the 1993 environmental rights protest spearheaded by the late Ken Saro-Wiwa took off from this community.

Sunday, who said he was engaged by Centennial Investment and Development Limited, a federal government contractor in charge of remediating Lot 13, explained that it was agreed that he would be paid N120,000 monthly.

“I work as the community-based health safety and environmental officer for this community. We were engaged in February – more than 30 of us. We have worked, but they have decided to change us without paying us, and HYPREP collaborated with the contractor. I have not been paid since March,” Sunday said.

According to a document, Sunday and about 20 of his other colleagues including a nurse, security guards, a janitor and community youth leaders, are owed varying amounts in salary arrears.

Centennial began work on Lot 13 in February, and the work was supposed to be completed in six months. But as of the time of this report, work has stopped temporarily because the workers were not only owed, they have been replaced by a new set of community members, resulting in conflict.

“The rules of engagement, according to HYPREP, is that for a particular site, the set of trained workers that is engaged for that site will work there till the work at that site is over. But the community chiefs said they should remove us and put another set; they put their own people so that it can be rotational. But that is not our agreement,” Sunday added.

Ogoniland cleanup
A group of workers disengaged without pay, at K-Dere, Gokana, Ogoniland

Protest Marches on Remediation Site

In September, there was a protest march on Lot 13 as the disengaged workers wouldn’t allow the new workers access to the site. A similar scenario played out on Lot 14, a nearby site which is contracted to Navante Group.

Saturday Togborn, the community liaison officer for Navante Group, confirmed that workers were abruptly disengaged on both lots following an order from the traditional council.

“It was the decision of the council of chiefs to change workers and not that of HYPREP, but HYPREP approved it. They have taken the matter to the Rivers state commissioner of police,” Togborn said.

Both representatives of Centennial and Navante Group, when contacted, denied the allegation, despite video evidence. They also said they don’t speak to the press and directed this reporter to the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP).

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One of the objectives of HYPREP, according to the law, is to enhance local capacity – community engagement and local content. Togborn, however, alleged that his community (K-Dere) is suffering because HYPREP has refused to pay a certain fee for local content (mark-up) – for work done on perimeter fencing and daily rent of excavator and payloader. A text message he sent to HYPREP and forwarded to this reporter explains his grievance.

“We the community contact persons in Lot 14 Gokana handled by Navante, we are running out of patience. Three weeks down the line, we are not yet paid the mark-up for the excavators and payloader on site. When asked, they said it is HYPREP that is holding it. Please, we have tried, and we shall be forced to be confrontational if nothing is done by Monday,” the message read.

As of the time of this report, work on the sites run by Navante and Centennial has been temporarily suspended.

Site Contracted to Odun Environmental, Shut Down

On Lot 9 in Mogho, Gokana, awarded to Odun Environmental Services Limited, work stopped since August 2020. On a visit to the lot, the site engineer, who preferred anonymity, cited two major challenges – an unresolved problem relating to evacuation of a heap of dredged sand sitting on the lot they are supposed to remediate, and lack of funds.

“When we began work here in February 2020, we met this sand here,” he said, pointing to a mountain of white, sharp sand. “And this is the land we are supposed to remediate. The community is supposed to come and remove the sand so that we can begin the excavation of the soil beneath it, but they have not.”

Baribuma Bite, the community liaison officer for Lot 9, however, blamed the contractor for not mustering enough will to get the work moving.

“Yes, it is true that there is dredged sand on the place that they are supposed to work on. The issue is that no lorry can access the place where the sand is without passing through Shell’s right of way. And Shell had insisted that no one should go over their right of way. But if the contractor really wants to work, he will know how to write to HYPREP so that HYPREP can intervene,” Bite said.

In October, when a follow-up call was made, the site manager said work has completely stopped and the lot has been shut down until further notice.

“We stopped work in August,” the site engineer said. “What moves work is money; When there is no money to run the site, for instance, no money to buy diesel and pay workers’ salaries, the work cannot move.”

Paucity of Funds Beset Work on Lot 12

When this reporter visited Lot 12 in August, the monotonous roar of the giant excavator and payloader was a clear sign that work was ongoing. But by October, work had stopped.

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Henry Kobol, site engineer of Shamsa Resources Limited, the contractor in charge of remediating Lot 9, told this reporter that the major challenge besetting them is lack of money to pay rent for land used for the storage of treated soil.

“The challenge we have in Gokana is that the land (storage areas where treated soil is kept before its certification) is owned by more than eight landlords and families. By the time you compensate all of them, you would have spent almost N10 million on land rents alone,” Kobol said.

“HYPREP only paid for the biocell area (the place where soil is treated), and not for any other additional storage. After they (HYPREP) paid the first time for the biocell and the office area, till now, we have not received any money from them. And that has been our challenge. So, we have to raise money on our own as a company to pay if we want to use additional storage, which is not in our own budget.”

Lot 12 falls under Deebon, Mogho in Gokana area of the state and Shamsa Resources, the contractor, began work on this lot on September 4, 2019. According to Kobol, its scope of work is to dig up to 4.5 metres deep and excavate about 22,500 cubic metres of contaminated soil, as well as treat about 19,899 within a total area is 5,000 square meters. The implication of this is that since it has insufficient storage areas, the work will be far slower than the original six-month contract it signed with HYPREP.

“Because of the lack of storage area for the volume of sand that we are excavating, we divided our working area into four grids. So, when we have excavated the soil, we treat it in bits,” he said.

Kobol also has a six months’ contract which began in September 2019 and ought to have been completed by March 2020. But as of the time of a follow-up call in October, he said the work at the site has been shut down because their excavator is faulty and under repair.

Work is Going Well on Lot 11

On Lot 11 in Deebon, Gokana handled by Mosvinny, Victor Dugbol, the site engineer, said there are no challenges for now save frequent rains which slow down the pace of work.

“We had communal clashes before, but all that is resolved now. The work is very much on and we are trying our best to finish before December, because the more we dig, the more hydrocarbon we find in the soil. We are digging as far as five metres,” he said.

HYPREP Responds

In the face of worrying reports of issues which could negatively affect the entire project if not addressed, HYPREP maintains that it has financially empowered 582 youth and more communities are cooperating with the project. However, Isa Wasa, the project’s head of communication and community engagement, said via a phone interview that there are a few challenges.

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“We have challenge on Lots 13 and 14. Before the two contractors could even mobilise to site, we were negotiating, discussing with the people, trying to resolve issues. Those two contractors were the last to mobilise to site because of communal issues,” he explained.

On the issue at Lot 9, Wasa said: “HYPREP is aware of this matter. I can attest to the fact that there are disciplinary measures for erring contractors. We’ll look into it.”

Refuting Togborn’s allegation, Wasa said it is not HYPREP’s policy to make payment for mark-up. “We don’t pay mark-up. It is not our policy to pay mark-up for any equipment that is being used on-site, because there is no provision for mark-up in our contract,” he said.

He, however, said the matter would be reviewed in view of the second batch of remediation works, adding that “we have seen that communities use that mark-up to delay work, so we are reviewing how we will start paying that when going for the next batch.”

A Clean-Up in the Eye of the World

The Ogoni clean-up, a flagship oil spill project, has gained global attention. And if it succeeds, it will set a precedence on environmental and climate justice for not only oil producing regions in the Niger Delta, but all over the world.

Following the decade-long oil pollution in Ogoni, Nigeria commissioned the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to conduct an environmental assessment. The report, which was released in 2011, shows that about 67 sites covering an area of 943 hectares, (about 14,145 plots of land) including swamps and mangrove forests – which translates into people’s farmlands, fish ponds and other such sources of livelihood – have been devastated.

Meanwhile, HYPREP, the initiative set up for remediation, divided these 67 sites into three parts, namely category A (complex oil spills), category B (less complex) and category X (“needing further investigation”).

HYPREP began with the less complex sites, also called Phase 1 — the project commenced with Batch 1, with a total of 21 contractors, and an initial 15 percent advance payment of N714.45 million.

On September 24, HYPREP announced on its Twitter handle that, out of 21 sites, it has handed over seven to the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) for pollution-free certification.

With only one-third of the job done so far, and with the remaining 14 sites probably struggling with similar issues, this may be confirming UNEP’s concerns that HYPREP may not be structured to implement a project this complex in nature, and may take 100 years to utilise a five-year budget. The whole environmental restoration is predicted to take 25 to 30 years.

“Ogoni clean-up is a laboratory for learning for the entire Niger Delta region. There is nowhere in the world where you have such a level of pollution from oil. So, it’s a learning process,” Nnimmo Bassey, a member of HYPREP’s board of trustees, added.

This special investigative report on environmental and climate justice is supported by Bertha Foundation

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