Mitee: Ogoni cleanup still opaque, recipe for unrest
Former President, Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) and member of Gbo Kabarii (Ogoni Elders Forum) Ledum Mitee, told KELVIN EBIRI that Ogoni cleanup exercise is shrouded in secrecy and in contravention of recommendations of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). He claimed that the rush to award contracts when the emergency measures suggested by UNEP have not been addressed smacks of insensitivity, political gimmick, covetousness and a recipe for unrest.
Why did Ogoni elders describe Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP) cleanup exercise as opaque?
The point is that no one knows what is the scope of what they are doing. There are no engagements with the people who are going to be affected; where are the sites that are going to be cleaned and all that? The community is not made aware of most of the things that are going on, and the cleanup seems to be driven as if it is just a political thing. Therefore, a vast segment of Ogoni Community is secluded from whatever thing that HYPREP is doing. There are even some legal actions that are in Abuja, where some people are contending their contracting process. So, there are competent Ogoni and Niger Delta contractors, who applied for the cleanup contract, but were excluded in the process. I mean which project happens in a place and you do not engage the people of the area?
Now, why do they have to spend so much money in trying to engage the army and other security personnel when you would not have got need for it by just engaging the people properly? The best security is using the people who are going to be affected by what you are doing.So, the bigger picture is that it does not look as if they clearly want or are ready to do the right thing.
It has been alleged that HYPREP is not following UNEP recommendations. Is that the case?
There are certain things that UNEP said should be done first, and these are fundamentals. Number one, people are drinking water that benzene and other carcinogenic substances are 100 times beyond the acceptable minimum anywhere in the world. In 2011 when that report was issued UNEP called these fundamental issues emergency measures. Why do you not do those ones? Why should the so-called cleanup take priority over water that the people are drinking? Should the people continue to drink contaminated water?
In fact, the report says people should not even be allowed to bath in those water and they should not fish in them; it is that bad. The report also said that you cannot even clean when artisanal refining is still ongoing, and it recommended that $10m should be spent to provide alternative occupation for those engaged in this artisanal refining.
Now, what is the engagement? Have there been any engagements with those people who are doing those things?
You need to engage those who are involved in artisanal refining because you cannot be cleaning while the area is still being polluted. One should expect an engagement process that tries to target these people. What can we do so that you people do not continue to pollute the place? That does not require rocket science.
When I was chairman of NEITI, I sat on the National Economic Council Committee on Pipeline Vandalisation and Oil Theft, and I headed the Committee on Community Engagement. We went to communities throughout the Niger Delta and had engagements with these people directly. It was quite revealing and we sent a report to the government. Engaging these people is not anything unusual because they are human beings and we know them. It is the economy that is driving them to the sub-economy that we are seeing. These are some of the fundamentals and we raised them in letters to the Presidency, but we were ignored. It is only those working for them that now constitute Ogoni for the purposes of HYPREP. I don’t think that is how things should be done and we think this is a recipe for trouble.
One thing in this country is that things do not hide. Most members of the team are the people who have the contracts. I am not so much interested in issues like these, but more concerned about the fundamentals, and the emergency measures that UNEP said must be done first.
They were supposed to build an integrated soil centre that should even drive the cleanup. In 2017, then Minister of Environment did the groundbreaking of the structure at Bori. Go to that place now, there is no single block there as we speak. How do you treat people like this? I am sure this is not how things are done in other parts of the country.
Out there, many people have hope that this Ogoni cleanup is going to be a model for other parts of the Niger Delta that are polluted, and if you do it this way in Ogoni, then you are killing the hope not only of our people, but the rest of the region. And as I said, others will draw lessons from it. It is very sad that after so much publicity; after raising people’s hopes, their hopes are eventually dashed in this circumstances. Mind you, when we started this struggle, the lessons learnt from it generated what is happening in the Niger Delta. When we tried to do it peacefully and the government tried to kill people, then the rest of the region felt this is not a thing to be done peacefully, and this is one of the reasons why armed struggle came into this area. The next time you tell a people, ‘we are coming to clean your land,’ they will ask you, ‘have you cleaned Ogoni Land well?’
But an Ogoni person is the HYPREP project coordinator, so why still complain of lack of engagement?
The first thing that you find out is, is he in charge? I don’t think he is in charge; he is merely a figurehead. From the best of my knowledge, even a project account they do not have. This is just a person that they have put down there so that people can say that an Ogoni person is there, but he is not in charge. If you look at the whole of what they call the gazette setting up HYPREP, what is seen there is that everything is being driven by the Minister of Environment, from Abuja. The HYPREP office here in Port Harcourt is just like a site office, and most of the contractors are from northern Nigeria, and what they are doing is to come here and look for fronts. To the best of our knowledge, it is the ministry that is driving the clean up process and not HYPREP. HYPREP as far as I am concerned is just the site office of the Ministry of Environment.
Do you suspect politics at play considering the timing of the award of contracts for the cleanup?
That is exactly why the people are asking the question, ‘Why the rush for these people to give these contracts now when there are some issues to tackle first?’ It seems to me that it will be very difficult to deflate insinuations that this is just a political gimmick. More importantly, when you find all the rush and some of the stories associated with how opaque the process is, then it makes it real that there may not be any other reason for this than politics.
But HYPREP and the Federal Government will disagree with your claim that nothing is going on in Ogoni Land?
I am not even seeing what they are doing in the aspect of provision of potable water; I don’t see what they are doing at the integrated soil management centre; we are not seeing any of such things. As I said in 2017, they went inside a school’s farmland in Bori and dug up a place to say they were doing the foundation laying ceremony for the soil management centre. That is the centre where they were supposed to take the soil from the polluted sites for analysis, which is key to what they want to do.
As we speak there is not a block in that place; they are not even running it currently, but are just doing what they are doing in a rush to award contracts. The whole thing they are doing should not be called the implementation of UNEP’s report. Let them come clear and say that government is doing its own thing the way it is used to, and not use the label of a credible organisation as if they are doing what the organisation recommended.
Did the contract award process contravene the local content principle?
How many Ogoni sons got what? If any, did he not get it by merit? Did he get it by affirmative action? How many contracts were there? If the process were transparent how come they have been trying to contact some members of Gbo Kabarii and saying if you have any interest in contracts lets put your name there. As we speak they are talking to some young men saying, ‘we have some slots to give to you, so the thing is being hawked.
Ok. Now, assuming that Ogoni people are not qualified, what about other Niger Delta people who are here? They should also gain from the experience because they are here. The UNEP report clearly states that the cleanup should also extend to other parts of the Niger Delta. How do you exclude all those people? Is it only people from the North that have knowledge of how to clean up oil spill?
But don’t these contractors have requisite experience to clean up oil spill?
I do not believe that they do. Even if they do, they don’t have any competency better than people from the Niger Delta. If you are talking about local content, there must be an affirmative action; they must try to go a step further and deal with those communities that are directly affected. You don’t exclude people to say because Dangote entered a bid and is more experienced and you give it to him not minding the disposition of the locals. No. There are people from this area and so we must go a step further to ensure that these people gain the requisite skills; get employment, and also be part of the process.
What is your assessment of the health condition of people in Ogoni Land?
There might not be any scientific data, but everybody will tell you that there has been increased deaths, rising cases of respiratory diseases and cancers in young people. Without any scientific touch to it, it is our belief that they are all associated with the kind of contaminated water that people are drinking in Ogoni Land. You need to go and stay in that place to see how it looks like; you need to see what people are drinking. In fact, there are places where even if you dig a well, you will still see oil in the water because of underground pollution.
How bothered are you about government’s seeming insouciance towards the health of Ogoni people?
I am very concerned and all well-meaning people should be very concerned about this development. There is no doubt that the Ogoni issue has profound national and international visibility and this is what they have tried to exploit for goodwill purposes and for public relations purposes. After that flag-off, I know several people in other corners of this country and outside who called me to congratulate me, to say that they heard that government has cleaned up our land. But today, just some weeks to elections there is a spate of award of contracts in the so-called cleanup exercise.
What will you blame for the delay in the holistic clean up of Ogoni?
Sometime ago there was some initiative, and the initiative was that there were some policy documents that came through from the Ministry of Petroleum suggesting that government position was that we should not expect cleanup without allowing oil to flow. They want to tie the cleanup to the resumption of oil exploitation in Ogoni, and they even brought a company of doubtful pedigree. The company has not exploited oil anywhere at all. This is still part of the patronage syndrome. In my view, it is all part of saying, ‘if you don’t allow oil to flow, there will be no cleanup.’ In fact, a representative of that company said to me that the government said where do we expect money to come from for the cleanup. It may interest you to know that none of the contribution for this so-called cleanup has come from the government, they are all contributions from oil companies.
Is government, by your estimation, sincere about the implementation of the cleanup?
I don’t think the government is sincere one bit. Where are emergency measures that are being carried out now? Are they awarding contacts for the water projects as we speak so that one can even say that as they are cleaning the place we will be getting clean water? Are they building the integrated soil management centre as we speak? In so far as I am concerned, there is no credibility in what they are doing. Why the rush now? Why don’t we start with the water projects?