By Jerome-Mario Utomi
Prior to May 1999, when civil rule returned to Nigeria after decades of successive military dictatorships, fierce wars raged between ethnic and social forces in Nigeria over the ownership and control of oil resources in the Niger Delta. Then, such state of affairs was blamed by political on the military as they were accused of being intolerant, in-mature, corrupt, unserious, unpatriotic and tribalistic.
However, the great effect of such plunder of resources, devastation and the degradation of the environment resulted in a long, dark shadow cast on the region-its peoples, and communities within the Niger Delta region. This harsh development observably became most pronounced among the people of Ogoni land.-a nation of about two million people and lives in a 404-square-mile (1,050 km2). The Ogonis are found in Southeastern Senatorial district in Rivers State Nigeria.
Adding context to this discourse, on November 10, 1995, the Nigerian government going by records executed nine leaders of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), led by Ken Saro-Wiwa on trumped up murder charges. Those killed were at that material time campaigners against the environmental degradation of the land and waters of Ogoniland.
The strategic regret of the occurrence is that despite the wicked killing, available evidence indicates that communities in the Niger Delta continued to have their rights violated in favour of multinational companies which exploit their natural resources even after the nation enthroned democracy in May 1999. Notably, the political class that once criticized the military, manifested similar attributes, in addition to non demonstration of good governance, lack of transparency and accountability and disregard for civil society organizations.
This set the stage for further degradation of the environment which sustained traditional livelihoods not just in Ogoniland but in the entire Niger Delta, Fisheries have been destroyed through the pollution of aquatic habitats and highly persistent contamination of creeks. Land resources have been devastated through oil spills and associated fires which have killed vegetation and left a crust of ash and tar making re-vegetation difficult. As a result, the Niger Deltans are exposed to high concentrations of hydrocarbons in the air, in their water and on their land on a daily basis. The people of Ogoni are therefore paying a high price for the activities of the oil industry in Nigeria.
Acting as a proof to this claim is the independent scientific assessment – carried out by UN Environment and first published in 2011 – which shows that pollution from over 50 years of oil operations in the region has penetrated further and deeper than many may have supposed. The assessment has been unprecedented. Over a 14-month period, the UN Environment team examined more than 200 locations, surveyed 122 kilometers of pipeline rights of way, reviewed more than 5,000 medical records and engaged over 23,000 people at local community meetings.
Apart from the available data, our mind eye also observes that as a nation we have not learned any lesson from the events of these past years. As such appalling episode of pollution and its damaging effects appears unabated.
The 2019 Global Pollution and Health Metrics recently published by Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP), which measured the global impacts of pollution in air, water and workplace, and submitted that Nigeria leads Africa in the total annual number of premature pollution-linked deaths, remains a telling proof. Synoptically, GAHP among other fears noted that a total of 279,318 died in Nigeria in 2017, last year the data published covered: 114,115 died as a result of air pollution while water pollution killed 159,777. Occupational pollution and lead poison were responsible for 2,088 and 3,338 deaths respectively. India and China, with populations in billions, recorded 2.3 million and 1.8 million deaths respectively.
Admittedly, there are appreciable traces of pollution all over the country occasioned by human activities, but using as minimum components of the right to a healthy environment of the people of Ogoni land/the Niger Delta region as a baseline, it will not be out of order to say that if what happened in other parts of the country is a challenge, that of the Niger Delta is a crisis. As the environmental condition of the coastal communities are not only deplorable but graced with non-development, poverty and extreme lack of government presence.This is an unhappy truth which its pains is deepeend by the awareness that was avoidable.
Regardless of what others may, the critical factors fueling pollution in the Niger Delta in my views comes in three folds; the existence of multiple but obsolete regulatory framework which characterizes the oil and gas exploration and production in Nigeria; the Petroleum Ministry’s inability and Environment counterpart to get committed to making International Oil Companies(IOC’s) adhere strictly to the international best practices as it relates to their operational environment; And finally, non-existence of clear responsibility/work details and action plans for agencies and parastatals functioning under the ministry.
As noted in an earlier intervention, the business of crude oil exploration and issues of oil production in the country is regulated by multiple but very weak laws and Acts- of which most of these laws not only complicate enforcement but curiously too old-fashioned for the changing demands of time. Thereby, creates loopholes for operators, especially the International Oil Companies (IOC) to exploit both the government and host communities.
Some of these laws/Acts in question that have been in operation since the 1960s but currently not achieving their purpose includes but not limited to; the Petroleum Act of 1969, The Harmful Waste(Special Criminal Positions etc), Act 1988, Mineral Oil Safety Regulation 1963, Petroleum(Drilling and Production) Regulation 1969 (Subsidiary Legislation to The Petroleum Act), The off-shore Oil Revenue (Registration of Grants)Act 1971, Oil in Navigable Act 1968, Petroleum Production and Distribution(Anti Sabotage) Act 1975, Associated Gas Re-injection Act 1979, Associated Gas Re-injection(continued Flaring of Gas) Regulation, Associated Gas Re-injection(Amendment) Decree 1985, Oil Pipeline Act Chapter(CAP)338, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria(L.F.N.) 1990, and Gas Flare prohibition and punishment) Act 2016 among others.
Using the Harmful Waste (Special Criminal Positions etc), Act 1988, to prove how defective these laws have become, and the urgent need to have the new Petroleum Industry Governance Bill as passed by the outgone 8th National Assembly signed into law, it was described somewhere, as insufficient the definition of harmful waste by the Act based solely on its impact on human beings, and does not include its impacts on the environment and animals.
Detailedly, the Act only focuses on the commission of any action or omission by persons without lawful authority. Thus, where an organization has a license to store waste resulting from production, they are seemingly omitted from the ambit of the Act, but the law failed to take into consideration the inadequate storage or inadequate waste management system by licensed firms or groups.
What about the Gas Flare prohibition and punishment Act 2016?
It is factually supported that while this law against flare of gas is ‘alive and active’,Nigeria presently has about 139 gas flare locations spread across the Niger Delta both in onshore and offshore oil fields where gas which constitutes about 11 percent of the total gas produced are flared.
What an irony.
Apart from signing the new petroleum Industry Governance Bill(PIGB), into law to make all parties and players more responsible and responsive, if the government is desirous of winning the war against pollution challenge in Nigeria, they (FG) must start by implementing the well-considered ruling/directive by African Commission in October 2001, which found the Federal Republic of Nigeria in violations of 2, 4, 14, 16,18(1),21 and 24 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ (ACHPR), and therefore recommended a total clean up of the polluted Ogoni and other adjourning communities in addition to taking preventive remedial and compensatory measures to improve economic and social outcomes for the Ogoni community.
Also, it has become eminently desirable that Nigeria takes ‘a cue from countries like Germany, and Rwanda who are among the world’s leading recyclers of waste and cutting down the use of plastic. They must move from the open landfills in every state of the country that has become eyesores to generating wealth from the recycling of these wastes’.
Jerome-Mario Utomi(email@example.com), writes from Lagos, Nigeria