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‘Failure of Ogoni cleanup is marginalisation, oppression of Nigeria’s minority ethnic groups’

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Godwin Uyi Ojo

The Executive Director, Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN), Dr. Godwin Uyi Ojo, in this interview with EDU ABADE in Benin City, says Federal Government’s failure to cleanup Ogoniland almost three years after President Muhammadu Buhari’s pronouncements amounts to continued marginalisation and oppression of the Niger Delta people. He argues that conflicts of interests, politics and other systemic challenges are responsible for the delay of the exercise, adding that even HYPREP’s August timeline for its commencement should be taken with caution.

Almost three years after President Muhammadu Buhari announced the cleanup of Ogoniland, nothing has happened. What may have caused the delay in your own assessment?

Although political will on the part of the Federal Government is evident in putting the institutional framework such as the governing council to provide oversight functions, yet the technical aspects of engaging in the actual cleanup process are equally lacking.

The Hydrocarbon Remediation Project (HYPREP) or National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) lacks the capacity to coordinate a cleanup of this magnitude, hence we have recommended that the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which played a leading role to conduct the Ogoni assessment study in 2011, should also be invited to assist in technical support and the process.

Shell is a member of the Governing Council and the Board of Trustees (BoT) of institutions providing oversight functions to the cleanup. Shell’s membership of the Council and the BoT was more than conflict of interest and may have compromised the cleanup process as the company seeks to minimise damages and reduce costs to protect its interests.

Up till now, the initial take off grant for the cleanup of US$1 billion recommended by UNEP is still to be provided and the US$200m pledged yearly is still to be realized, as Shell and the Federal Government failed to pay up in 2017.

The amount received so far, including that of 2018, has been shrouded in secrecy.  

The Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) and other groups have constantly reminded government of its promises to cleanup Ogoniland and the Niger Delta, but no concrete action still. Is there a possible conspiracy among the people towards achieving the goal?

The cleanup has been heavily politicised. The failure of the exercise is due to a deep-rooted marginalisation and oppression of the minority ethnic groups in Nigeria.

Although several civil society groups such as ERA/FoEN and MOSOP are championing the cause of the Ogoni cleanup, the focus is also on other pollution sites and communities in the Niger Delta.

The cleanup is not for the Ogoni alone, as the entire Niger Delta is heavily polluted and requires cleanup as well.

The Ogoni exercise, as a starting point, is emblematic of the cleanup of the entire Niger Delta, hence everyone should support the move.  

With regards to the project as recommended by UNEP and to be carried out by HYPREP, local and foreign civil society organisations recently urged the Federal Government to commence the cleanup. How far can this go even with HYPREP’s August timeline?

The August timeline for the commencement of the cleanup should be taken with great caution.

Major local and international civil society groups have monitored the process and given a verdict of failure on the part of Shell, HYPREP and the Federal Government in that over two years after the flag-off of the exercise, not a drop of oil has actually been cleaned up.

That the promise was made as part of electioneering prior to the 2015 presidential election is also noted.

It is worrisome that effective mobilisation has not been done and no technical personnel engaged to conduct an effective cleanup.

From the start, the August commencement date is bound to fail if no competent technical teams are commissioned with international best practices.

In particular, the 26 sites to be cleaned up and the methodology of cleanup have not been disclosed.

UNEP condemned the RENA approach by Shell due to the nature of the soil sediments and possible excavation of soil, but the oil giant is adamant in its continued push for a one-size-fits-all approach in RENA technologies for the cleanup of Ogoni.

Unless they abandon this approach, the project will be ineffective. 

We are aware that Friends of the Earth Netherlands is taking Shell to court for the environmental hazards caused by their operations and for instigating climate crisis.

Before that, they wrote to Shell to stop activities that harm the environment, but Shell was adamant.

What is your take on this?

On global and national levels, court cases against oil companies, particularly Shell, will continue to rise in frequency and magnitude.

Like the Bodo case with 11,500 litigants against Shell seeking compensations, over 11,000 litigants including ERA/FoEN are championing the climate action case against Shell.

The oil firm may be worried about the rising litigations against it in the last decade and is likely to make the wrong choice of increased legal fees and representation to slow down and minimise damages rather than change its behaviour and respect its host communities.

Shell’s abysmal environmental record in their areas of operations globally will worsen, as government’s responses remain feeble and indecisive.

In Nigeria, I reckon that there are over 500 pending cases against the oil major and there are other victims yet to seek justice. 

Shell is the major focus for the outcome of the Global Binding Treaty within the United Nations Intergovernmental Working Groups to hold corporations accountable for their human rights violations and environmental crimes arising from their operations.

The suit in The Netherlands has a lot of public support globally and will likely bring Shell to justice for the climate crisis.

It is worrisome that Nigeria still flares a larger part of its gas and Shell has been indicted as a major culprit. How do we hold the company and others accountable? 

Shell practises environmental racism and uses double standards in its operations.

For example, the standards it uses in managing oil and gas in Europe are different from ones deployed in developing countries, especially Nigeria.

The Groningen gas facility in The Netherlands, in appearance, looks like a tourist attraction centre compared to the ugly situation of frequent fire hazards and gas flaring at vertical and horizontal axes and ground surface levels in the Niger Delta.

Shell and its joint partners’ recent pledge to halt gas production from Groningen after mass protests, dozens of earth tremors and minor earthquakes that have affected hundreds of houses, has no semblance of its commitment to end gas flaring or production in the Niger Delta.

It is by far a worse situation when compared to the frequent oil spills and persistent gas flaring that have reduced farmlands and fish catches, thereby impoverishing the people.

There are no open pits and gas flaring in the Groningen oil fields in The Netherlands.

But Shell continues to disobey court judgments in Nigeria, including the historic 2005 ruling by a High Court in Benin City, which declared gas flaring as illegal and a fundamental violation of the rights of the Iwherekan people to a favourable environment under Article 24 of the African Charter on Peoples and Human rights.

In the last two decades, Shell has made rubbish of the deadlines.

They continue to influence the shift as many as 10 times within this period.

The argument that Shell has not violated national laws is a falsehood, the Oil and Gas Prohibition Act already had declared gas faring illegal since 1984.  

What are current plans to end the menace in the country with over 200 gas flare stacks in the Niger Delta alone. Do you think government’s penalty is enough to end the trend?

Nigeria is still one of the highest gas-flaring countries in the world.

There is absolutely no commitment to stick to any gas flare out deadlines hence the recent gimmick to end the menace by 2030 is a joke aided by the World Bank.

This is no more than a ruse and deceit. In particular, there is no disincentive not to flare gas rather the companies are encouraged to continue in a subtle regime of tokenistic monetary fines and penalties, which Shell and its ilks are only too willing to pay.

But they should also account for the volume of gas flaring and pay the monetary value that runs into millions of dollars.

This way, the end to gas flaring will be pursued with all seriousness.

When it comes to managing oil and gas, the sovereign integrity of Nigeria has been tested with Shell compromising the process and influencing lax environmental laws, weak compliance, as well as enforcing and blocking reforms that favour the government and bastardise environmental protection.

Over the past few years, there has been soot in Port Harcourt and its environs. Do you think oil exploration activities are responsible for the development?

The soot in Port Harcourt is symbolic of government’s failure to monitor and protect the environment and the people.

Soot above and below poses serious risks to the people’s health and their environment, and nothing seems to be done to address the problem.

The soot and particulates require an urgent field research and testing of the atmosphere to determine the sources and level of pollution.   

Last year Okomu Oil Palm Plc. denied ERA’s claims that it expropriated land from its host communities, what is the current position?

About 11,750 hectares of land revoked by the Edo State government through a gazette in 2015 have found their way back to third parties in a shady commercial land deal.

Okomu Oil Palm Plantation Plc. is the beneficiary and has started bulldozing the land for two years before it made any commitment to conduct the mandatory Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

Its expansion drive is leading to land grabbing and displacement of over 60,000 farmers across several communities in four local council areas of the state. Government is ambivalent and even helpless and relies on the oil company to deliver on its electioneering promise of job creation.

The affected communities, Okomu, Odighi, Odiguetue, Uhiere, Sabongida and Uzalla, to name a few, continue to face violent conflicts and rising social crimes. Farmers now hire farmlands for farming amid rising food prices and increasing poverty levels.

It is important that government listens to the people and sets up a standing committee to address their grievances. Land grabbing in the name of job creation can only favour the multinationals at the expense of the poor farmers who are into subsistence farming. 

Recently, a World Bank team visited Nigeria seeking privatisation of public utilities, especially water beginning from Lagos and Edo states. What is ERA’s stance in this regard?

Water is not a commodity for sale but a free good that should be enjoyed freely by all.

We are opposed to water privatisation and commoditisation. Water is a human right and part of the welfare package of citizens to be enjoyed from the social contract.

Water should not be the monopoly of multinationals that are out to milk the people for some nebulous capital-intensive projects that benefit the rich and corporations only.

Rather, it should be a service rendered by municipalities and state water corporations.

The World Bank should steer clear of our water sources. To that extent, our anti-water privatisation campaigns are ongoing.

Given all the environmental challenges locally and internationally, what are ERA and other civil organisations doing to protect mother earth? 

The resilience of mother earth is being tested beyond measures. We will continue to engage and speak the truth to power.

We will continue to fight relentlessly for environmental and social justice struggles using the rights base approaches.

By sensitising the people, organising seminars and training workshops, as well as conducting advocacy and engagement with the relevant government institutions and officials, we hope that a critical mass of informed people would make their voices count in decision-making on environmental protection.

We will continue to fight until victory is achieved. 


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