Ecocide in the Niger Delta

I was thrown aback when I read that carcinogens like benzene, toluene, ethyl-benzene and xylene – known cancer causing agents and other dangerous polycyclic organic hydrocarbons – are widespread in Ogoni land, 900 times above WHO guidelines. That the community’s people are left with no choice but to depend on water sources laden with these carcinogens for consumption and household uses, warrants a declaration of a state of emergency.

There has been excitement all over the Niger Delta region since President Buhari announced the intention of the federal government to commence implementation of the recommendations of the UNEP report on the clean-up in Ogoni land. This is one high point of the current administration in keeping faith to its electoral promises. Somehow, past efforts to do the same did not manage to take off and so one is optimistic that this fresh resolve will not suffer the same fate. The clean-up exercise goes far beyond the environmental restoration of the impacted communities in Ogoni land or the thousands of employment opportunities it will create or skills transfer it will generate to community people. It is a symbolic opportunity for the region and, indeed, all of us to collective bring that painful history to a closure. For those who are already singing discordant tunes, I hope you realise the cruelty of your mischief, the urgent need to think beyond pecuniary benefits and turn a new leaf.

I think we should also try to review and interrogate the set of challenges often referred to as the Niger Delta question. It will be important to clarify whether it is just one question or a set of questions. Whether it is simply an environmental question, a political or security question, or even a livelihood question. Whose business it is to ask the question and, most importantly, whether some parts of the question have been answered yet. It will also be useful to know whether there is a possibility of answering the question completely or whether there are people who benefit from making the question complicated by the day. It may also be useful to unpack the word ‘stakeholders’ in the region – those who rightly or wrongly define how the region is perceived by others. Can we also peep into the future and visualise what the Niger Delta region will look like when the oil under our feet dries up or when the economic value diminishes?

We can point fingers but the truth is that all those who benefited from the resources extracted from the Niger Delta have a vicarious liability on the devastation in the region. I believe the clean-up exercise is a remedy, which is why we must collectively support it.

I had an opportunity to peruse the UNEP report again. I believe that every Nigerian should read a copy of it. Those who cannot go the whole hog should at least read the executive summary. Perusing that report gave me an insight into the levels of pollution, pain, failed expectations, palpable neglect, abdication of responsibilities, break down of trust, political tensions, insecurity and livelihood decay that construct the unsustainable development in a region so important to the economy of our country. The Niger Delta region remains a sore on the nation called Nigeria. It is a burden on all of us. We can point fingers but the truth is that all those who benefited from the resources extracted from the Niger Delta have a vicarious liability on the devastation in the region. I believe the clean-up exercise is a remedy, which is why we must collectively support it.

I was thrown aback when I read that carcinogens like benzene, toluene, ethyl-benzene and xylene – known cancer causing agents and other dangerous polycyclic organic hydrocarbons – are widespread in Ogoni land, 900 times above WHO guidelines. That the community’s people are left with no choice but to depend on water sources laden with these carcinogens for consumption and household uses, warrants a declaration of a state of emergency. To discover that artisanal refineries, known as ‘kpo fire’, for the makeshift distillation of crude oil and reckless bunkering still proliferate in the area is akin to what President Buhari referred to in his last media chat as the existence of a state within a state. I was not totally surprised to read about the lack of qualified technical experts, overlapping responsibilities, and lack of resources among government regulatory agencies. No wonder the oil companies has had a free hand to operate with minimal standards, and are allowed – literally speaking – to get away with murder in the region. One hopes that such a trend will be reduced by a more focused and coordinated effort under Buhari. The purposeful leadership so far provided by Mrs. Amina Mohammed seems to signify that such a trend is about to stop.

The higher goal of the potential benefits that will accrue to the people must be placed above the interest of a privileged few. We must all come together and get this effort to work for us. This is the right time to make another attempt to bring the Niger Delta question to closure. This region will still remain our home for some time to come.

Beyond the blame game, I still wonder how the nation called Nigeria that has benefitted so much from the region allowed the existent level of decay in the Delta to have happened. It brings to fore the criminal hypocrisy of the multinational oil companies and the laziness of some government agencies who masquerade as regulators, yet who probably collude with the polluters. If you read the report, you could begin to develop a weird Stockholm syndrome that somewhat excuses the level of anger and violence in the region, yet we know that those conflict entrepreneurs who draw benefits from the violence are far away from the impoverished and endangered communities.

Now, the comprehensive clean up prescribed by the UNEP report is potentially able to wipe all of these away. It is expected to take between 25-30 years to achieve. Yet it cannot happen unless concerned stakeholders decide to allow it to. Communities in the Niger Delta, especially Ogoniland, must understand the threat to human health arising from the polluted environment and rally around this well intentioned effort. This is not a time to disagree or allow avoidable conflicts become an encumbrance to an effort that will likely benefit generations yet to be born. Such an elaborate endeavour can only take place under an atmosphere of peace and security. I am aware that representatives may be drawn from the communities to superintend over the clean-up. Let us listen to one another and ensure that grievances that may arise from our choices are resolved amicably. Communities must begin to trust the sincerity of government efforts or at least give them the benefit of doubt. Let us do away with entrenched interests that have no sense of the common good of society. The higher goal of the potential benefits that will accrue to the people must be placed above the interest of a privileged few. We must all come together and get this effort to work for us. This is the right time to make another attempt to bring the Niger Delta question to closure. This region will still remain our home for some time to come.

Uche Igwe is a doctoral researcher at the Department of Politics, University of Sussex, UK.