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Ogoni tilts on the brink as FG stokes fresh crisis

By Kelvin Ebiri (South-South Bureau Chief)
26 May 2019   |   3:26 am
A fresh crisis is brewing in Ogoni over plans by the Federal Government through the Nigerian Petroleum Development Company (NPDC) to resume crude oil production in the Ogoni area of OML 11 by October. Not minding the chequered history of oil companies’ activities in the Ogoni area, the Federal Government and its corporate partners planned resumption of…

Cleaning up of Ogoni land

A fresh crisis is brewing in Ogoni over plans by the Federal Government through the Nigerian Petroleum Development Company (NPDC) to resume crude oil production in the Ogoni area of OML 11 by October.

Not minding the chequered history of oil companies’ activities in the Ogoni area, the Federal Government and its corporate partners planned resumption of oil production, which is overtly motivated by economic gain, as enunciated in the NPDC Ogoni re-entry project execution plan. It threatens Ogoni social fabric with attendant violence that will certainly erupt with terrible consequences.

The NPDC strategic plan states: “The Korokoro re-entry project will serve as major leap towards maximisation of Nigeria production capacity, especially from the land assets. If properly executed, the project will add significant revenue to the Federal Government and ensure adequate returns to all stakeholders.”

For close to four decades, petroleum, which has been Nigeria’s economic lifeblood and a major source of foreign exchange, was extracted from Ogoni. While billions of dollars flowed into the coffers of government and its transnational oil companies partners, Ogoni communities were left impoverished, without potable drinking water, standard health facilities and bequeathed with an enduring legacy of environmental and social disasters.

When oil exploitation started in Ogoni in 1958, the Federal Government made unilateral decision to grant oil prospecting licences to transnational oil companies to begin drilling without any consideration for communities, whose territory this valuable resources were located.

In most cases, oil producing communities were merely notified by the prospecting oil company that it had Federal Government’s authorisation to exploit the natural resources. With no mechanism for negotiation, the communities merely accepted their fate and surrendered their farmlands and waterways to these companies.

It did not take long before the destructive or better still, detrimental consequences on the environment began to manifest.

By the 1970s, Ogoni, which has one of the world’s most delicate wetlands, started to witness loss of biodiversity, contamination of surface water, ground water, and pollution of farmlands. Gradually, a seed of discord with tremendous consequences was sown.

With no perceptible evidence on ground to suggest that decades of uninterrupted oil exploration in Ogoni has contributed to significant infrastructure development or raised the people’s living standards, around the early 1990s, Ogoni entered a new phase; an era of resistance and beginning of agitation for economic inclusion and environmental justice. This new Ogoni dispensation created a rift between them and an insouciant Federal Government.

As the rift deepened, Ogoni’s quest to freely determine how to use their natural resources, as well as decide their model of development, culture and other aspects of their lives intensified.

After communities’ agitation forced Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) out of Ogoni, the Federal Government beared its repressive fangs, culminating in the death of the late Ken Saro-Wiwa and several others.

Following the internationalisation of the Ogoni struggle and umbrage caused by the killing of Saro-Wiwa and others, the Federal Government succumbed to pressure to undertake an environmental audit of Ogoni.

A damming inventory of the environmental impact of oil activities in Ogoni was released by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2011.

But it was not until this administration that a seemingly unparalleled attention was given to the UNEP Report to clean up polluted sites in Ogoni.

However, with the failure to expeditiously implement the emergency measures recommended by UNEP, which included provision of potable water and health facilities in impacted communities eight years after the report, there is now widespread suspicion that the on-going contentious clean up project was an overall strategy to soften ground for resumption of oil production in Ogoni.

Prior to Shell’s unintended exit, Ogoni fields were producing an average of 130,000 barrels of crude oil per day as at May 1993. Ogoni fields, with an estimated proven reserve of over 2 billion stock tank barrels, were alluring to those at the corridor of power.

Assuming the fields were producing 130,000 barrels per day at $60, the investors would be generating $7,800,000 per day and about $2.8bn per year. Already, NPDC has identified Bomu with 52 oil wells, Ebubu (17 wells), Tai (13 wells), Yorla (14 wells), Bodo West (12 wells) and Korokoro (10 wells) as major fields of interest.

Since the leaked memo by the Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari, Abba Kyari, directing the Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation to take over operatorship of the entire OML 11 from Shell and ensure smooth re-entry into Ogoni, there has been reverberation of voices of resistance.

Concerned that the Ogoni historic struggle ought to hold valuable lessons for government, Ogoni elders, under the aegis of the Gbo Kaabari Ogoni, have warned that NPDC cannot exploit oil in Ogoniland in 2019, with the 1958 predatory mindset.

The chairman and secretary of Gbo Kaabari Ogoni, Senator Bennett Birabi and Dr. Desmond Nbete, have asserted that NPDC procurement preliminaries and timelines for the Ogoni re-entry project to restart oil production without duly engaging the people in a proper and painstaking conversation is a recipe for bloodbath.

Gbo Kaabari Ogoni observed that the planned resumption strategy adopted by NPDC violates industry standard and global best practices in several respects.

“Production activities in OML 11 stopped about 29 years ago, and in line with industries practices, such fields like OML 11 ought to be treated as green fields and not brown fields. It is thus not acceptable to summarily commission an early production facility to start oil production, without the necessary procedures and approvals for a green field development.”

The group accused NPDC of acting contrary to the Department of Petroleum Resources’ guidelines by not carrying an environmental impact assessment requirement for oil and gas field development.

“The Ogoni environment is already severely stressed and dangerously polluted. This is not a speculative statement, as UNEP Report clearly documented the toxic baseline of Ogoniland.

For instance, in Korokoro oilfield, which you have earmarked first oil for quarter two 2019, the UNEP Report noted that the soil and groundwater have been contaminated by Total Petroleum Hydrocarbon, at levels greater than 14,000 mg/kg for top soil and 5000-6000 mg/kg for 4-5 meters depth,” they said.

Gbo Kaabari Ogoni pointed out that UNEP made clear recommendations for the clean up and remediation of contaminated sites in Ogoni, which have not been done. To this end, the Ogoni elders said the planned projected timeline to resume oil production in Korokoro in the second quarter of this year is unscientific, insensitive and inconsistent with all extant regulations and industry best practices.

The elders expressed concern that the process for selection of contractors already shortlisted for well services contract through selective bidding criteria is opaque. According to them, such blackbox secretive procurement process is already a red flag to all stakeholders, whom the Federal Government ought to be taking steps in building trust and confidence.

The group said the planned Ogoni re-entry projects ought to have given NPDC a good opportunity to subject the project to extant regulations in line with industry best practices; and not wave it away to satisfy an unrealistic operational target and unholy craving for first oil in second quarter of 2019.

The body regretted that NPDC has failed to cede certain percentage of the contract to indigenous contractors that had been instead earmarked for grass cutting and other menial jobs.

Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike, has just been notified through a letter from the National Security Adviser of the plan to commence oil production at OML. According to him, he was not duly informed on the process and has admonished federal authorities to dialogue with both the state government and Ogoni people on the OML 11 issue.

He said: “I got a letter from the National Security Adviser. Part of the problem is OML 11. I have written back to them and said you did not inform me when you were going there. If you want to go into a community, you should tell me as the Governor.  But even if there will be action, we need to sit down and resolve issues.

“I have told the Federal Government that they cannot use force in doing everything.  We need to sit down and resolve issues. As a Government, we are losing revenue no doubt, but the people must be involved, so that everyone is part of what is happening. I will not support anything that will make Ogoni people not to benefit from their resources. I will not do anything to betray the people who have given me their mandate. I will never do that.”

NPDC strategic Ogoni-re-entry, which will proceed in a field by field manner and with the most receptive community to benefit from access roads and opportunity to provide security booths, fencing, surveillance and grass cutting contracts.

This has been condemned by former provisional president of MOSOP, Professor Ben Naanen.

He said attempts by NPDC and its transnational corporate partners to divide local communities, cause serious social tensions and sow the seeds for violence will be counter productive.

He said while Ogoni people are not entirely against resumption of oil production, it has to be on agreed terms based on a template Ogoni stakeholders will soon release. According to him, once Ogoni people approve the template, any oil company coming into the area will be presented the conditions, some aspects which are negotiable from the community perspective.

He said: “Ogoni people are asking for participation,  not just as stakeholders but participants, in which they will have a stake. Although we are recommending 15 percent, although it is negotiable, that will be the community stake. They now have to be part of the company; the conventional corporate social responsibility is not really working much. So, this is a new approach to beneficiary in the oil industry. We have already set out that the 15 percent will be distributed and it must be for specific purpose. It is not going to be like what the government is doing with 13 percent derivation. Whatever the community gets must be tied to very specific purposes— education, water, electricity, environmental issues and public sanitation.

“It is not going to be a kind of ATM that the governors have made the 13 percent derivation to be. So, we want to avoid that and also avoid the disaster that Indorama is causing in Eleme. Its MoU with the people was supposed to relieve the people to create prosperity in the area. But a few people have hijacked it and become super rich. That is part of the conflict you have in Eleme over the Indorama issue. We want to avoid all those mistakes. There are very specific provisions on how the 15 percent or whatever we agree on will be spent. That makes the difference.”

While distilling NPDC’s assertion that security mobilisation for the re-entry will be holistic, Naanen pointed out that the most important aspect of security is prevention of issues that could trigger a breach. He warned against government adopting coercive approach to re-enter Ogoni.

“How long will you keep the troops there,” he queried. “If they could not subdue the people in those hey days, it won’t happen now. You don’t say you are going to subdue the people and extract their resources. That is not going to work. It does not work anywhere in the world. In fact, the fundamental thing is the people’s consent, and not government’s. Yes, government has coercive power, violence, but that won’t work. Once you have the people’s consent, then that is it. I don’t think government intends to use force, which could be counter productive.”

Naanen explained that resumption of oil production in Ogoni by October was not feasible. Besides, negotiation with Ogoni stakeholders, he said huge investment would be required to fix corroded pipelines.

MOSOP President, Legborsi Pyagbara, explained that Ogoni people expected this government to de-escalate conflict in the area, by applying some industry best standard to address some of the concerns raised by the people over the years.

He noted that in the 2011 UNEP Report on Ogoniland, the United Nations clearly recommended that in the event there would be future discussion about oil production in Ogoni, the area should be treated like a greenfield area of high ecological importance, while environmental impact assessment must be in place, taking into consideration health and social implications.

Pyagbara said government and the oil companies must provide a framework for management strategies to improve environmental conditions in the drilling sites and adjoining environments.

He said: “The UNEP Report says Ogoni has one of the most fragile wetlands in the world. So, what are you putting in place in terms of environmental management plan, if you want to resume oil production? These are things we felt needed to be discussed before even going to the extent of resumption. Nobody is saying we cannot resume oil production.

The people are saying you can resume, but before you go to that point, the basic thing about securing community confidence and acceptance has to be done. How do you get the community acceptance and buy in is when you deal with these issues and the communities see that their benefits are and interests are protected.

“All we are saying is that we recognise we had this sort of bloody conflict in the area all because of this same oil. If you want to resume now, we need to sit down and talk. We need to sit down and look at the issues raised in the struggle. We are not even looking at the whole political and economic issues that were raised in the Ogoni struggle. We are narrowing our discussion to the issue of the oil industry. What is the benefit sharing arrangement you are putting in place? How is the community going to participate in the entire value chain of the industry and the environmental management plan?”

Pyagbara noted that it is inhumane for government and its oil partners to contemplate riding roughshod over Ogoni in their bid to resume oil production without addressing the critical concerns of a people who lost over 2,000 souls and their communities destroyed during the 1990s Ogoni struggle. He stressed that the era, when people stayed in Abuja and decreed resumption of oil production in an area where there has been bloody conflict is gone.

“What is the benefit sharing arrangement you are putting in place for the Ogoni people? One of the things that led to the struggle was that we were not participating in what was going on in our environment. It is not about giving surveillance contract to the people or doing oil spill clean up. Our people want to be involved in the whole value chain of the industry.”

The MOSOP leader accused government and all those behind the desperate move to resume oil activities of deliberately wanting to create crisis in Ogoni.

“Why has government appeared so helpless in addressing the security challenge in Ogoni? They hear what is going on. Probably what they want to do is allow this to fester till everybody cries to them to send security agencies to Ogoni and under the pretence of quelling the insecurity, they will now have a permanent army of occupation in place,” he said.

The founder of Ogoni Conscience, Mr. Gani Topba, disclosed that foreign embassies and international rights groups have been notified of the desperate attempt to resume oil production in Ogoni, whereas the government and its oil transnational partners have not cleaned up the ecological mess created by over three decades of mindless rape of Ogoni resources.

He said: “You can see what is happening with the clean up exercise. They have not been able to provide common potable water for Ogoni people. Is that the same style they want to use to take Ogoni oil? The majority of Ogoni people within the confine of international and Nigerian law will resist any attempt by any company like NPDC to pass through the back door and enter Ogoni to tap oil. The environmental issues have not been addressed and the company that will drill Ogoni oil must get a social licence from Ogoni people. We withdrew our social licence from Shell.”

Topba wondered why government still finds it difficult to exonerate Ken Saro-Wiwa and others of the false charges that led to their execution in 1995. He said rather than grant the request of Ogoni leaders that Saro-Wiwa be honoured for his non-violence struggle, those that participated in his killing are collaborating to dance on his grave by forcefully taking over Ogoni oil fields.

“Shell has not left Ogoni. In 2012, Shell reached an agreement that they had transferred the asset to NPDC. In 2016, Shell signed a technical partnership agreement with NPDC, and those agreements are standing. What they are trying to do is to get one local company as operator and drill on behalf of Shell. Shell is still in Ogoni. Shell applied to renew the lease for OML 11, while we expected the government to properly revoke that licence, but government has not done that.”

On his part, the secretary of Ogoni oil bearing communities, Mene Sylvester Kogbara, urged Federal Government and the powerful cabal behind the planned resumption of oil exploitation to give Ogoni time to articulate their thoughts in a template that will be presented to oil prospecting companies that want to operate in the area.

He said: “we are pleading with the Federal Government not to toy with Ogoni people. We are human beings. Even with the HYPREP clean up, only one Ogoni person is a contractor. They just stayed in Abuja and awarded everything to themselves. So, how are you going to empower people who have been impoverished by oil production all these years?”

Former MOSOP President, Ledum Mitee, dismissed the illusion that resumption of oil production would create jobs for Ogoni people because oil exploitation projects are highly mechanised operations.

Mitee also said NPDC’s promise of development was misleading   and aimed at generating false expectations of development. 

MOSOP has already presented its petition to President Muhammadu Buhari, titled: “Before Ogoni is Killed Again” to the Secretary-General of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisations (UNPO), Mr. Ralph Bunch and diplomats at the  European Union Secretariat in Brussels.

There are indications that environmental and rights activists will resort to occupation of the oil exploitation sites as events unfold. Also, plans are underway to organise  anti-oil drilling  march in major cities around the world, particularly the home country of the transnational partners.

A resident of Bodo community, who pleaded anonymity, said revelation by a former Shell project director for the restoration of mangroves in the Bodo creeks, Kay Holtzmann, that the medical mass screening of the people there should be conducted, was making him agitated about resumption of oil exploitation in one of the world’s most polluted community.

The Director of Social Development Integrated Centre (Social Action), Dr. Isaac Osuoka, during  the Nigeria Resource Justice conference in Port Harcourt, observed that 20 years ago, when Nigeria was transiting from military dictatorship to civilian rule, the most pressing challenge for the federal administration was the ecological, human rights and livelihood crises in the oil-bearing Niger Delta.  He regretted that 20 years after, these problems still remained unresolved.

He said: “Meanwhile, in 2011, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released a report of its Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland. This report, which confirmed widespread contamination of Ogoniland, made recommendations for immediate environmental and social remediation. The community members hoped the findings would catalyse fast-tracked action towards ameliorating the problems. However, government’s response in Ogoniland has been slow and tardy.”

Osuka said oil companies operating in the area have historically operated most recklessly.

The oil companies, according to him, have spilled more crude oil into the natural environment and flared more associated gas than in any other part of the world, resulting in the destruction and degradation of fishing and farming livelihoods and increase in diseases and deaths.