Thursday, 8th June 2023

Cynicism trails Ogoni cleanup after ceremonial flag off

By Kelvin Ebiri
26 June 2016   |   1:06 am
The optimism raised by the flag off of the implementation of the United Nation Environment Programme (UNEP) report on Ogoniland 24 days ago, might soon be replaced by cynicism.
Polluted Ogoni land PHOTO:Kelvin Ebiri

Polluted Ogoni land PHOTO:Kelvin Ebiri

The optimism raised by the flag off of the implementation of the United Nation Environment Programme (UNEP) report on Ogoniland 24 days ago, might soon be replaced by cynicism. Many in Ogoni and around the world had reckoned that the June 2, 2016 ceremony was to be a major breakthrough in solving one of the most serious environmental crises humanity has faced. But the seeming inability of the Federal Government to constitute the governing council and board of trustees 24 days after is now fuelling a feeling of disappointment that the exercise was perhaps without altruistic motives.

For a people, whose environment has been recklessly treated since the 50s by the activities of oil companies operating there, the thought that the much-anticipated cleanup of their environment is still being delayed for some inexplicable reasons, leaves them with a deep disappointment and pessimism about the whole process.

President Muhammadu Buhari, who was represented by Vice-President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, at the launch of the clean up of Ogoniland and other oil impacted communities in the Niger Delta at Bodo, had affirmed that his administration was determined to put right past wrongs, as the Ogoni people have been unfairly treated and their environment unduly degraded and polluted over the years.

The President, who promised to bring justice and succour to the people, noted that oil exploration and production has been going on in Nigeria for six decades. And while oil has given a boost to the Nigerian economy, the ecosystem of the Niger Delta has been severely damaged, as fishing and agriculture have been badly affected. According to him, there are Acts, enactments’ guidelines and regulations to govern oil industry operators. However, either due to lack of will or wilful non-compliance with environmental laws and regulations, the environment was put in jeopardy.

He recalled that the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo had engaged UNEP to undertake an environment assessment study of Ogoniland and that the report was submitted to President Goodluck Jonathan in 2011, but the implementation was not accorded the necessary support it needed. According to him, the delay to implement the report has resulted in the continual suffering of the Ogoni people through exposure to air, land and water pollution. He explained that with the flag off, the administration was, thereby laying a solid foundation for the restoration of the fragile ecosystem of Ogoniland and the rest of the Niger Delta. He raised the people’s hope, when he declared that he has given directives for the establishment of institutional framework to drive the clean up process.

“I have given approval to the constitution of the necessary institutional framework that will drive a hitch-free implementation of the UNEP Report. Our lives, socio-economic and political interests depend to a great extent on the quality of our environment. The cleanup of Ogoniland has embedded in the programme, livelihood and sustainable development components. A Centre of Excellence that will identify the skill gaps and provide the necessary training will be put in place. The methodology for the cleanup will ensure job creation for the youths. The agro-allied industries required for the processing of the agricultural produce will also be put in place in the course of the clean up project,” he said.

But with no sign in place of the requisite institutional framework to drive the process 24 days after the ceremony, which was characterised by much pomp and pageantry, former chairman of the provisional council of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), Professor Ben Naanen, has expressed that a feeling of disappointment is gradually setting in and might become widespread disillusionment and cynicism.

Naanen told The Guardian that as at press time, there wasn’t any administrative or governance structure on ground to enable the programme takeoff immediately. He explained that Ogoni people are concerned about the seeming long time it has taken to kick off the entire clean up process, which the UNEP said would take between 25 to 30 years.

The university don, who questioned the rationale behind the flag off, when government has not put its acts together, said critics have been saying that the flag off was merely a political activity. And the only way government can disprove this is to move in immediately and commence action on the clean up exercise.

He said: “Government should immediately announce the governing structure, governing council, the fund and the board of trustees for the trust fund and the enabling law. These are critical processes that have to be done immediately to retain public confidence.”

Naanen stated that Shell Petroleum Development Company has repeatedly affirmed that the initial $1billion required for the cleaning is ready. He wondered why government seems to lack the political will for spending the money. The government, according to him, will not be paying for the cleanup exercise because the polluter pay principle is being applied, which means that Shell and its partners are the ones paying.

“We do believe that the cleaning will take place,” he said. “The current government is aware that Jonathan became unpopular in the area because of the non-implementation of the report. And so, it should not risk unpopularity in the area by continuing to delay. For now, there is a big reservoir of goodwill, even though people are cynical about the whole thing. But there is a reservoir of goodwill, which the government should tap into by immediately implementing the cleanup.

“The consequence is clearly disillusionment and the longer the delay continues, the greater the disillusionment. As I said, people will lose interest completely and begin to question government’s integrity. I believe the people trust President Buhari and the minister up till this moment. They still believe they are people of integrity and that the minister means well. But if this delay is allowed to continue, they are creating a difficult situation, whereby it will be difficult to regain public confidence,” he said.

Robinson Tombari Sibe, a geospatial and policy analyst from Bodo community, said based on his understanding of project management, a flag off should have been done only after the enabling framework has been set up and contracts awarded. He argued that a “flag off” without the enabling structures and framework is like putting the cart before the horse.

He recalled that in August 2015, the federal government had approved a set of actions to “fast track” implementation of the UNEP report. But rather than set up the Governing Council and Board of Trustees, as promised, government waited for 10 months and then went ahead to do a widely publicised “flag off”, without setting up the all-important framework.

“Do you now see why people are asking questions,” he queried. “The cleanup process is scientific and not political. Unfortunately, however, the whole process appears to be shrouded in politics, enough to scare away professionals that are not given to politics. As things stand, the Governing Council and Board of HYPREP have not been formally constituted. I’m told that the old HYPREP staff is being owed salaries for over a year, and no definitive position seems to have been made on their employment/contractual status.

Continuing he said: “No contract for the cleanup has been awarded. No verification has been done to ascertain if the things outlined in the report are consistent with what is on ground. No proper delineation exercise has been carried out to establish the actual geographic extent of the process. I’m not aware that any proper scoping of the work has been done. All of the items above will shape the scope and cost of the project. So, even if they are very sincere with their actions, I don’t expect that the actual clean up exercise will start in six months, unless they choose not to be meticulous, and thereby jettison global best practices. It’s important to note that the process does not end with the cleanup alone, there is also remediation and restoration.”

Though Shell has repeatedly affirmed that it has set aside $1bn for the commencement of the cleanup and the Minister of Environment, Amina Mohammed had in a tweet on June 12 2016 affirmed that: “there are resources to cleanup Ogoniland. SPDC will pay $1bn towards clean up,” Sibe argued that the funding arrangement appears to be tightly protected in a “black box.” He stated that for such an ambitious project that will span decades, it is important that the funding arrangement be as transparent as possible.

“The report was specific about a takeoff fund of $1bn, which in view of the recent monetary policy announcement, would almost double in Naira. How much will Shell put on the table? How much will the Federal Government (through NNPC) contribute? Do not forget that by virtue of the Joint-Venture arrangement, both Shell and NNPC are the polluters, and from the Polluter-Pays-Pays principle, they should bear the cost of the cleanup exercise. But this was not captured in the 2016 budget. Is Shell graciously picking up the entire bill, or will the Federal Government capture this in a supplementary budget that is to come? If this is the case, they should say it for all to know. A project like this requires a lot of transparency to build confidence and trust in all the stakeholders,” he said.

From a scientific point of view, Sibe stressed that it is important to point out that the field sampling exercise, which formed the basis of the UNEP report, was undertaken five years ago. And from the environmental perspective, a lot can happen to the environment in five years. He noted that most of the things in that report would have changed, as the biodiversity would have been further depleted. Therefore, it is necessary to do on-the-spot assessment/analysis to establish the current condition of things.

He added: “This will form the basis of a proper scoping of the cleanup programme. All of these ought to have been done before any flag off. Unless they want to tell us that the entire orgasmic razzmatazz was only a flag off of intent. So, we might have to wait for a proper flag off of the project itself, when they have the structures in place and are ready to do the cleanup, remediation and restoration of Ogoniland.”

On his part, Alabo Ross George, a project management expert, told The Guardian that he completely supports the Ogoni cleanup project. He, however, observed that successive administrations have only examined the cleanup project through political lenses and their efforts have not been genuine. George noted that under President Jonathan, the big skew in the project was that HYPREP, the agency established to spearhead the clean up was placed under the Ministry of Petroleum Resources, which apparently does not have the technical capacity to manage such a complex and highly scientific environmental assignment.

He pointed out that the implementation of the UNEP report would be the first major environmental cleanup assignment in the Niger Delta. And curiously, even UNEP has not yet done a comprehensive design and blueprint of the project. So, the scope, methodology, risks, work breakdown and timelines are still sketchy at the moment.

“I commend President Buhari for showing the zeal and for flagging off the cleanup project. However, I consider that exercise as merely ceremonial, just like the MOSOP president clearly pointed out on June 2, and as amplified by Friends of the Earth the next day. In my two decades of professional project management, I am yet to see a project or programme that was flagged off without a project implementation plan, a project manager(s), programme or project structure, and a budget. The ceremony was politically correct, but fell short of best practice. These are the kinds of false starts that indicate major failure related risks at the onset of key projects.”

Another concern raised by George about the cleanup is the pathetic condition of all HYPREP staff, who have been home idling away and are being owed three years’ salary. Some of them were recruited as technical staff from some of the best environmental companies in Europe and United States.

“The Federal Government is broke, and the money for the cleanup exercise is not there. The facilitators will tell you ‘polluter pays’, but the truth is that Shell and it’s OIC partners own less than 50 percent of OML11. The Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation is also part of the ‘polluting’ Joint Venture. With billion in cash calls outstanding already, I’m afraid that Shell will not move until the Federal Government releases its own funding. Shell revenue was down by 89 percent in 2015. Federal Government’s revenue is also down by almost 50 percent. The truth is that the Federal Government is not ready,” he said.

But the convener, Ogoni Solidarity Forum, Celestine Akpobari, who was part of the cleanup negotiation process dismissed insinuation that the flag off was politically motivated. He explained that Ogoni people had expected that by now the governance structure should have been inaugurated and the $10m the president approved would have been given to them to kick-start the exercise.

“The consequence of further delay is that the pollution is spreading everyday,” he explained. “Pollution is not waiting for anybody and won’t stop spreading because there was a launch. Our people’s condition is getting worse, as people are dying everyday. The hope and confidence the people had after June 2 is waning, and they are beginning to say it was a fraud, a jamboree. They are are human beings. The reality is that it’s been over 20 days and we have not seen any concrete action. But those of us that are in direct contact with the minister still believe that the cleanup is for real.

“We will not blame those saying the flag off is a fraud since they are not directly in touch with the minister and so, don’t know who the minister is. They have heard about such cleaning up before. We have been here before. So, people have become very skeptical now. The faith they had on the June 2 has gone down considerably.”

Dr. Peter Medee, president of KAGOTE, has blamed the delay in the commencement of the clean up exercise on federal civil servants, whom he accused of not being proactive.

“When you are working with civil servants, you need to understand that it is characterised by high level of bureaucracy and red tape. We are concerned about the delay, but we also understand that we are working with civil servants and that they are always not proactive,” he said.

Notwithstanding the prevailing cynicism, however, Legborsi Pyagbara, president of MOSOP, remains optimistic that the requisite institutional framework will be put in place and the clean up project will proceed.

Pyagbara explained that MOSOP consented to the flag off because it was a reaffirmation of government’s commitment to oversee the clean up of Ogoniland. He described the flag off as significant in the sense that the federal government has openly dared the world to hold it accountable for its avowed commitment to implement the UNEP report.

He, however, insisted that government needs to expeditiously set up necessary framework such as the constitution of the governing council, the board of trustees and appointment of a project manager that will oversee the exercise.

Said he: “We agreed to the flag off because for us, it was largely a commitment to say we are kick starting this thing. Our thinking was that as soon as the flag off had been concluded, we will be moving quickly to getting the structure in place. It is the governing council that will approve even the building of the centre. It is the governing council that will also approve the integrated soil management centre, as well as approve all relevant trainings.”

The MOSOP President explained that pragmatically, there is no way the cleanup would have commenced immediately after the flag off. He stated that Ogoni currently lacks a pool of manpower to be deployed during the clean up exercise and that it will take some time to train Ogoni youths that will be employed at the various stages of the project. To this end, he urged the people to exert pressure on the government to immediately put up the required institutional framework to oversee the project.

“We need our own people to be deployed during the cleanup, but if we have not trained them properly for the job, there is no way we can expect the exercise to start immediately after the launch held on June 2. I think that the basic thing for us is to demand that those preliminary things that need to be done, such as training of the youths, getting the centre of excellence and integrated soil management centre be put in place. If we don’t do that, then at the end of the day, the transfer of technology we are anticipating to come with the project will not be achieved,” said Pyagbara.

MOSOP has, however, warned that further delay in the implementation of the report will inadvertently lead to greater expansion of the ecological footprint in the area, which will consequently spread the damage the more. To this end, it encouraged the Federal Government to put in place new regulatory framework that will reform extant laws, policies that have failed to prevent assault on the environment of oil producing and bearing communities across the entire Niger Delta.

“The cleanup exercise is not just for the Ogoniland alone, though it was specially developed out of a study done in Ogoni. But I think one good thing about the UNEP report is that it has defined how the whole issue of environmental governance in Nigeria had to be done. UNEP had clearly stated that there is need to reform the entire regulatory framework in this country. There is need for new institutions. If we have strong institutions in Nigeria, there wouldn’t have been need to get HYPREP and the Ogoni environmental authority. ”