Niger Delta

Niger Delta: Drowning in Crude Oil Poverty

By Akanimo Sampson  

SINCE the inception of the persisting civil rule in 1999, the reform programmes of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)- beginning with the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo to that of the home boy, Goodluck Jonathan and those of the incumbent All Progressives Congress (APC) under the watch of President Muhammadu Buhari do not appear to be responsive to the plight of the oil-bearing communities of the Niger Delta.

The Nigerian state tends to define energy security primarily as promoting the expansion of oil production in the Niger Delta region.  While this tends to further increase the country’s dependence on oil, it exacerbates environmental injustice, and drives the oil and gas region deeper into poverty.

Conservatively, around two million barrels of oil are pumped out from the bowels of the Niger Delta, and at $60 a barrel, it amounts to $120 million. Interestingly, natural gas is also being exported from the impoverished and environmentally despoiled region adding to the huge petrodollar generated daily.

Previously, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had calculated that Nigeria hauled over $350 billion in oil revenues between 1965 and 2000. This calculation did not seem to capture the soaring oil prices since 2000. However, the peoples of the oil region see this galloping oil wealth only in the high security compounds of the foreign oil workers.

Ironically, Nigeria is among the 15 poorest countries in the world and 70 per cent of the citizenry live below the poverty line. Those who know better say life expectancy is only 51.2 compared to the United Kingdom average of 78. Like in many villages across the country, oil-bearing villages still lack basic amenities.

And for the social formations that are very active in the region, connections between poverty and energy are becoming increasingly clear to them.  But this is yet to be recognised by Abuja .  Since 1956, when oil was discovered in commercial quantity at Oloibiri, Bayelsa State , communities in the Niger Delta have been drowning in poverty.  They are also drowning in oil spills and could be literally drowning in rising seas.

In 2005, Nigeria spent $12 billion in oil reserves, paying off its balance to the Paris Club, a creditor grouping of some rich countries.  Analysts say this money could have been better spent combating poverty and the rampaging environmental terror in the Niger Delta.

To a very large extent, the conflict in the oil and gas region is not political.  It is economic.  It involves the peoples struggle to salvage their environment.  The late Presidential aide and a well-known environmental rights activist, Oronto Douglas, once said, “it is rather very unfortunate that instead of articulating our peoples’ struggle for survival, to safeguard their environment, some section of the media have been portraying a Niger Delta whose youths and communities are at war with themselves.”

There is no gainsaying the fact that there are some interest groups currently promoting the goals of the  petroleum industry who according to the militants, are desperately bent on presenting falsified accounts of events in the region to the world.

Spokesperson for the militants’ Joint Revolutionary Council (JRC), Cynthia Whyte, says they are not eager for a lasting ceasefire insofar human rights abuses in the oil region continued to be ignored.  They are accusing the authorities and the transnational oil corporations of fanning the embers of inter-ethnic conflicts in the region, to the detriment of the overall development of the oil communities.

Over the past years, around five million barrels of crude oil are estimated to have been spilt into the Niger Delta.  But, the frequent internal wrangles over who is responsible for pollution control, tend to show that Abuja is still failing to get to grips with environmental protection in the key oil and gas producing region.

And, as poverty, economic exclusion, environmental degradation and social stagnation become the lot of the oil-bearing communities, they have resorted to accusing Abuja of failing to enforce regulations on effluent emissions, air quality, and water  pollution.

They may be right in their accusation.  For instancne, the Anglo-Dutch supermajor, Shell, in Delta State has a high power facility known as the Ughelli Quality Control Centre (UQCC) sited at Eruemukohwarien Town .  The site abuts a very large swamp that runs through Effurun-Otor, Ughevwughe, and Eruemukohwarien.  Shell promoted the UQCC as the meeting point of various flow lines, pipelines and flow stations.  Its main function was to separate water from oil that are produced from Ughelli East, Ughelli West, Utorgun, Eriemu, Afiesere among other production groupings of the company.

Separated water, which is the major waste product of oil production, is said to contain salt, heavy metals, oil and other substances that are dangerous to the environment.  Findings by this reporter showed that this obnoxious and toxic waste product was continually discharged by Shell, into the swamp for over 30 years.  This allegedly brought into extinct the main source of livelihood of the people which is principally farming and fishing.

David Ekuetafia, a Warri lawyer, once claimed that the operation of Shell at the UQCC site produced a lot of oil sludge which according to him, “are usually discharged on a regular basis into the swamp”, alleging that the oil company also uses various types of chemicals in cleansing their “mighty tanks” at the site.

Adding, he said, “all waste products from these activities are drained by the company into the people swamp that has not been acquired by Shell.”

Going by Ekuetafia’s testimony, these chemicals during the rainy seasons, are washed down into the swamp and in the process, destroy the aqua life in it.  “Besides these dangerous chemicals, there is also a mighty gas flare site located near the UQCC known as the Ughelli Pump Station (UPS)”, the lawyer said.

Apparently irked by the adverse effects of Shell’s activities in their area, the people had demanded that the oil company pay them the sum of N300 million as compensation for environmental pollution and ecological degradation caused by their activities at the UQCC, which allegedly threatened the extinction of three communities.  They were also demanding an additional sum of N150 million as reparation for over 30 years of destroying their environment and cheating them.

Rather than play ball, the oil company resorted to upgrading the UQCC.  The upgrading exercise according to Shell, was aimed at stopping the discharge of effluents and chemical waters into the swamp.,

From the perspective of the foregoing Ughelli communities, it could be rightly argued that the agitation for justice in the Niger Delta is based on the broad and popular civil and economic rights movement with sure tentacles to environmental protection.

As articulated by the late Oronto Douglas, the environmental justice philosophy is dependent on four pillars – truth, harmony, sustainability, and love.  These pillars according to him, are not philosophical abstractions, “they are the live wires of a living society.”

“Truth is the undisguised identification of right and wrong in a moral society.  The struggle to uphold the truth is generally referred to as the struggle for justice”, the late activist said, pointing out that Justice Niki Tobi, in a September 20, 2002 ruling, declared that justice in its total practice al contents, is truth in action.

“Harmony” for Douglas, is simply “the balance we ought to find in relationship across interaction whether between living things, between living and non-living and that between the spiritual and the physical or only between the spiritual and other unknowns, in so far as they impact on our daily existence.”

While claiming that “sustainability” is continuing survival of all life in accordance with natural rules without anthropogenic interference, he said, “love has no other meaning but love.  Love by another name is happiness”.

With these four pillars in view, the late environmental rights activist and lawyer then defined environmental justice as “the activation of truth, aimed at evolving a practical framework for sustainability.”

The way things currently stand in the Niger Delta, the entire social formation and communities will continue to mobilise, calling on the authorities to enact broader anti-poverty initiatives, including the abrogation of all unjust laws that stand in the way of the impoverished region.  There are likely to be intense wild cat strikes by the armed rebels in the future to press for resource ownership and control as a condition for real peace in the oil region.

For now, the revolutionaries have warned those who hold the dance floor today, claiming that those who mete out discomfort would be rewarded in good measure at the appointed time.