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Ogoni long walk to environmental justice

By Kelvin Ebiri, Port Harcourt
04 June 2016   |   4:00 am
The flag-off of the implementation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report on Ogoniland this week is being seen by many in Ogoni and the Niger Delta ...
Polluted Ogoni land PHOTO:Kelvin Ebiri

Polluted Ogoni land PHOTO:Kelvin Ebiri

The flag-off of the implementation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report on Ogoniland this week is being seen by many in Ogoni and the Niger Delta region as a breakthrough in confronting the most serious environmental crisis humanity has faced in Nigeria.

Since the 1950s, Ogoni environment has suffered its share of environmental assaults occasioned by reckless activities of oil companies operating in the area. The people of Ogoni have for decades contended with environmental degradation that has adversely affected their health, drinking water, farming, hunting and fishing, which are vital aspects of their lives and identity.

Following decades of widespread environmental pollution and degradation arising from poorly regulated oil and gas exploration in the country, the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), a non-political apex organisation of the Ogoni ethnic nationality, was formed in 1990 by the Ogoni elite, with the mandate to campaign non-violently to protect the environment of the Ogoni People, seek social, economic and physical development for the region, protect the cultural rights and practices of the Ogoni people and seek appropriate rights of self-determination for the Ogoni people.

Beginning December 1992, Ogoni elites comprising of late environmental activist, Ken Saro Wiwa, Prof Ben Naanen, Ledum Mitee and others, under the aegis of MOSOP, issued a 30 day demand notice to Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) to end the abuse of their environment. This demand notice was followed almost immediately by series of non-violent activities including the Ogoni protest of January 4, 1993 in what was regarded as the Ogoni Day in commemoration of the declaration of 1993 as the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People.

Due to incessant protest against its operations, by the first quarter of 1993, Shell withdrew from Ogoniland, citing the hostile attitude of the Ogoni community to the company’s activities.

Amid the series of campaign against oil companies operating in Ogoni, tragically on May 21, 1994, four Ogoni leaders were murdered in Gio. Ken Saro-Wiwa, Ledum Mitee and a number of other MOSOP leaders were arrested and accused of involvement in the murders.

In February 1995, after eight months of being detained without charges, Saro-Wiwa and the other Ogoni leaders were brought before a special tribunal, established by the General Sani Abacha- led military government.

On October 31, 1995, Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders were sentenced to death by the Special Tribunal. In blatant defiance of numerous appeals by the international community, Saro-Wiwa and his eight Ogoni colleagues were executed on November 10, 1995.

The killing of the Ogoni nine which was seen as ploy by the government to silence the Ogoni agitation for environmental justice and economic inclusion, triggered an international outrage that further gave impetus to Ogoni demand for environmental justice.

The death of Saro Wiwa, which exposed the unmatched military repression and horrendous human rights abuses in Ogoniland, spurred the United Nations to create the position of the Special Rapporteur on Nigeria in 1997 and appointed Mr. Soli Sorabjee to the position.

Mr. Sorabjee in his report to the 48th session of the then United Nations Commission on Human Rights in March 1998 recommended that the Nigeria, government undertake an independent environmental study of Ogoniland. This was the setting that led to the invitation extended to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in October 2006 by the Federal government within the context of the Ogoni-Shell Reconciliation Process to carry out the environmental assessment of Ogoniland.

In adherence to the United Nation’s demand for environmental audit, the President Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration evoked the polluters pay principle which compelled Shell to cough out $9.5 million for a detailed study of the Ogoni environment and UNEP was contracted to carry out a detailed assessment of the environment.

On August 4, 2011, UNEP representatives presented a detailed report which revealed widespread havoc wreaked on Ogoni environment to then President Goodluck Jonathan, who incidentally hails from the neigbouring Bayelsa State. But for inexplicable reasons, he failed to implement the report despite his administration setting up the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Programme (HYPREP) which is contrary to UNEP recommendations.

But the campaign leading up to the 2015 general elections brought a glimpse of hope to hapless Ogoni, when the then All Progressives Congress presidential candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, promised to address the Ogoni question if he wins the February 2015 presidential election.

As the President eventually began the fulfillment of his promise this week, Gilbert Obari, told The Guardian at Nisisioken Ogale, where UNEP uncovered that families have for years drank from wells contaminated with benzene- a known carcinogen-at levels over 900 times above World Health Organization guidelines, that he was excited.

“The people of our community are excited that the process leading to the restoration of our natural environment has been kick-started. For decades our people have ,irrespective of being major contributors in oil production in Nigeria since 1958, remained the proverbial goose that lays the golden egg. All we have to show for decades of oil exploration and exploitation activities here is a devastated environment. Our traditional occupation of fishing and farming are fast going extinct,” he said.

Similarly, Mrs. Lale Nwosu told The Guardian at Ebubu-Eleme: “I am happy and must commend the President for making conscientious effort to tackle the environmental injustice meted out to the people of Eleme and the oil producing communities in Ogoni. A lot of our people had been dying over the years for unexplainable diseases. Indeed, it was the UNEP report that really exposed the causes of those deaths to our people. Imagine our people drinking cancerous water for decades. Personally, I remain shocked and still cannot fathom why the past administration decided to be insensitive to the plight of our people irrespective of the UNEP report warning that our people were in danger. I pray that President Buhari should push the process to the extent that next administration will have no option than to continue the process to a conclusive end” she said.

Publicity Secretary of MOSOP, Fegalo Nsuke, on his part has pointed out that despite the failure of the previous government, Ogoni expectations have been strengthened by the credibility of President Buhari to implement the UNEP report.

Nsuke noted that Ogoni has contributed an estimated 185,000 barrels of oil daily to the Nigerian treasury for over 30 years. The Nigerian state and its foreign oil partners had turned oil business in Ogoni into plundering and despoliation.  A visit to any of the hospitals in Ogoniland, he argued, will reveal an incredible horde in critical conditions created by the poisonous environment in which they live.   “It is disheartening that not even drinkable water can be found in Ogoni. The entire environment is poisoned and even the air has capacity to send you to death. I had visited Boue in 2012, a small fishing settlement in Khana Local Council where poisonous fumes from across the seas have choked no less than 20 persons to death. No one could be held accountable and efforts to reach out to locate the source from the industrialized neighbouring Bonny Island had failed. The community resorted to burying their dead and avoid the territory that was affected,” he said.

At Bodo, a farmer who identified himself as Nath Barisuka, said the clean up which is intended to restore the nutrient of the soil destroyed by chemicals that have seeped into the aquifers will boost agriculture in the community.

He explained that for centuries, Bodo and the entire Ogoni have been known essentially to be farmers and fishermen. Pointing to the contaminated Bodo creek, he stated that activities of the oil companies and youths involved in artisanal refining has led to adverse destruction of the environment. He urged the government to clampdown on anyone caught involved in crude oil theft in the area to avert further despoliation of the environment.

“ Bodo is one of the communities in Ogoni that is worst hit by the destruction of the environment. Worst still, we have lost some of our illustrious sons due to our demand for environmental justice. The clean-up will remain a reassurance to us that they did not die in vain.  I must confess, Ogoni people are pleased with the clean up programme and we will support it. Ogoni someday will regain its lost glory as the food basket of Rivers State,” he said.

On his part, Kabari Baridam, a resident of K-Dere, expressed delight that after years of massive pollution that has brought unimaginable pressure on the environment of Ogoni and has greatly compromised its ability to sustain healthy life and meaningful livelihoods, government and the oil companies are taking full responsibility for the remediation and restoration of the environment.

“ I will suggest that President Buhari should put in place a mechanism that ensures that the next governments that come after him will pursue the implementation of the report to its conclusive end. Any attempt to abandon the clean up midway will of course be resisted by the people of Ogoni whose livelihood have been destroyed for the sake of feeding the entire nation. Once the clean up is concluded, we will never again allow any corporate interest to destroy our environment. A sustainable environment is the best legacy we can bequeath unborn future generations of Ogoni,” he said.

An environmental and human rights activist and the executive director, Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, Anyankwe Nsirimovu, has advised the government to avoid any delay in full implementation of the UNEP recommendations bothering on bureaucratic bottlenecks that could lead to further enslavement of the people of Ogoni to the poisoned environment.

According to him, there is need to put effective mechanism in place to ensure the coordination of the concerned citizens of the Ogoni to meaningfully participate in the process of the exercise in a most transparent and accountable manner, because environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned.

“The impact of ecological plunder on the peoples of Ogoni as duly recognized and reported by UNEP has been devastating. The people have not only experienced downward spiral of impoverishment and social decline, but also near- genocide where the communities, citizens, everybody and everything was just dying slowly and surely. Environmental damage in Ogoni has direct effect on the enjoyment of a series of human rights, such as the right to life, to health, to a satisfactory standard of living, to sufficient food, to housing, to education, to work, to culture, to non-discrimination, to dignity and the harmonious development, to individual personality, to security of person and family and to peace,” he said.

An independent scientific assessment by UNEP had shown that pollution from over 50 years of oil operations in Ogoni has penetrated further and deeper than many may have supposed. The assessment which is unprecedented and which took over 14-month period to carry out, had UNEP team examining more than 200 locations, and surveyed 122 kilometres of pipeline rights of way, reviewed more than 5,000 medical records.

UNEP said detailed soil and groundwater contamination investigations were conducted at 69 sites, which ranged in size from 1,300 square metres (Barabeedom-K.Dere, Gokana Council Area to 79 hectares in Ajeokpori-Akpajo, Eleme Council Area of Rivers State and altogether more than 4,000 samples were analyzed, including water taken from 142 groundwater monitoring wells drilled specifically for the study and soil extracted from 780 boreholes.

UNEP said its key findings revealed that in at least 10 Ogoni communities, drinking water was contaminated with high levels of hydrocarbons. For instance, in one community, at Nisisioken Ogale, it was discovered that families have been drinking water from wells that is contaminated with benzene- a known carcinogen-at levels over 900 times above World Health Organization guidelines. The site where this was discovered is close to NNPC pipeline.

“While the report provides clear operational recommendations for addressing the widespread oil pollution across Ogoniland, UNEP recommends that the contamination in Nisisioken Ogale warrants emergency action ahead of all other remediation efforts. While some on-the-ground results could be immediate, overall the report estimates that countering and cleaning up the pollution and catalyzing a sustainable recovery of Ogoniland could take 25 to 30 years.”

The UN agency had revealed that Ogoni clean-up will require the deployment of modern technology to clean up contaminated land and water, improved environmental monitoring and regulation and collaborative action between the government, the Ogoni people and the oil industry.

The report recommended establishing three new institutions in Nigeria to support a comprehensive environmental restoration exercise.

It proposed Ogoniland Environmental Restoration Authority to oversee implementation of the study’s recommendations and should be set up during a Transition Phase which UNEP suggests should begin as soon as possible.

Government was asked to set up an Integrated Contaminated Soil Management Centre to be built in Ogoniland and supported by potentially hundreds of mini- treatment centres that would treat contaminated soil and provide hundreds of job opportunities.

Finally, the report also recommends creating a Centre of Excellence in Environmental Restoration in Ogoniland to promote learning and benefit other communities impacted by oil contamination in the Niger Delta and elsewhere in the world.