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Niger Delta: Nigeria’s sacrificial lamb

By Babatope Babalobi

The Niger Delta is ingloriously described as the oil pollution capital of the world. The region produces Nigeria’s crude oil, about teo million barrels per day in 2019, supplies 95% of Nigeria’s export earnings and 80% of federal government revenue, ironically more than 50% of its youths are believed to be unemployed or underemployed.

‘Where Vultures Feast’, a 2011 epic book cowritten by 1998 Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) prize winner Ike Okonta, and late Environmental Rights activist and presidential aide Oronto Douglas, painted a horrid picture of Niger Delta, where the activities of multinational oil corporations have created an endangered environment. Vultures are still feasting the Niger Delta, leaving behind in the words of the Afro legend Fela Anikulapo Kuti- ‘Sorrows, Tears, and Blood’.

The Niger Delta occupies about 70,000kmsq of the landmass of Nigeria, or about 7.5% of Nigeria’s total land mass, is inhabited by about 25 million people in nine oil producing states;   six states in the South-south – Akwa Ibom, Rivers, Delta, Bayelsa, Cross River and Edo; One from Southwest (Ondo) and two from Southeast (Abia and Imo). The nine states have 185 Local Government Areas.

Oil has also brought a curse, as over 13 million barrels (1.5 million tons) of crude oil has been spilled on surface water, groundwater, land and air environment from terminals, pipelines, and oil platforms.

Specifically, a study conducted by Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in 2011 shows, an estimated 546 million gallons were spilled in Nigeria’s 159 oil fields, (78 of which are in Niger Basin) between 1958–2010.  This averaged 300 spills or nearly 10.8 million/year.

The study also shows 50,000 acres of mangrove forest disappeared between 1986—2003, and 32% of associated gas flared (127 bcf) in the first quarter of 2010 alone.

The major oil spills incidents include the FUNIWA-5 oil blow out in 1980 that released 54,000 tonnes of crude oils to the mangroves; Mobil raptured pipe that released 14,300 tonnes of crude oil in 1998; a spill from a Shell pumping station in Warri that released 2,900 tonnes of crude oil in 1998; Shell OML 118 Bonga deep offshore Oil Spill of December 20, 2011 that spilled over 40,000 barrels to over 20 riverine communities across Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa and Delta State.

The spill occurred when the company’s export line linking their Float Production Storage and Offloading (FPSO) vessel supplying crude oil to a tanker MV Northia, spewed about 40,000 barrels (6.4 million litres) of crude oil into the sea.

The spills continue unabated. Nigeria Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) through its reports that in 2019 for instance, there were 597 oil spills incidents in the Niger Delta region with 35,816.42 barrels of oil reported spilled from activities of oil companies like Shell (Shell Petroleum Development Company, Nigeria, Ltd); Chevron (Chevron Nigeria, Ltd.); ExxonMobil (Mobil Producing Unlimited); Eni (Nigerian Agip Oil Company); and Total (Elf) (Total E&P Nigeria Limited, formerly EPNL)

The two topmost culprits in 2019 were with Nigerian Agip Oil Company (NAOC) with 193 spills involving 5,391.92 barrels, and Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) with 197 spills with 12,078.42 barrels of oil.

The cause of the 2019 Oil spills according to, include corrosion, equipment failure, operation and maintenance error, alleged oil exploitation activities, catchment basin overflow due to 2019 flood, sabotage, and unknown causes.

These oil spills has affected over 1500 communities causing reduction in soil fertility, loss of economic trees and food crops, reduced yield and quality of agricultural products, prevalence of childhood malnutrition, bioaccumulation (increase concentration) like lead and cadmium in vegetables and fisheries, massive water contamination with hydrocarbons and trace metals, child malnutrition, cancer, and several acute and long term effects on  public health.

A landmark report by the  United Nations Environment Programme(UNEP),-  Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland, 2011, found serious cases of groundwater contamination including alarming proportion in Nisisioken Ogale, in Eleme LGA, where an eight centimetres layer of refined oil was observed floating on the groundwater; denudation of mangroves, highest in Bodo West, in Bonny LGA,  where a 10% loss of healthy mangrove cover was recorded; and drinking water contamination, a case study was recorded in  Nisisioken Ogale where benzene, a known carcinogen, at levels over 900 times above the World Health Organization was recorded. The report estimated a successful cleanup of the Niger Delta region to cost $1 billion and take 30 years to complete.

What is the way forward in achieving ecological restoration of the Niger Delta? The federal government should declare ecological emergency in the oil-rich Niger Delta and take immediate steps on its environmental remediation and livelihood restoration.

The federal government should exert pressure on oil companies to maintain the highest possible environmental safeguards, and pay imposed fines as required by the Polluter Pay Principle.

Specifically, government should ensure Shell pays the $3.6b imposed on it by the National Oil Spills Detection and Response Agency NOSDRA and upheld by a Lagos Federal High Court for the 2011 Bonga deep offshore Oil Spill spill of 40,000 litres of crude oil into the Atlantic Ocean.  Its judicious disbursement will no doubt mitigate environmental impacts in the affected communities.

Environmental groups should draw international attention to the ecological genocide in the Niger delta to enable it to attract the same visibility as the Gulf of Mexico.

Government needs to strongly regulate the oil giants to ensure environmental remediation of Niger Delta’s degraded space and reduce its abuse and rape.  Fortunately, there is a light at the tunnel that should empower national authorities to act swiftly and decisively.

In June 2014, the Human Rights Council adopted resolution 26/9, a legally binding instrument that established an intergovernmental working group that would create an instrument for regulating transnational corporations with regard to human rights, and its details are still being discussed.

It is commendable that federal government launched the $1billion Ogoni clean-up exercise on June 2016 and the Hydrocarbon Pollution and Remediation Project (HYPREP) was inaugurated two months later.

Critics, however, argue this is coming too late and too little; a matter made worse by the perceived slow motion of the HYPREP. What the UNEP report recommended was the institution of an Ogoni Restoration Authority (ORA), though government is not bound to accept its recommendations in every material particular.

Be this as it may, the 2011 UNEP report needs to be revisited and implemented holistically rather than its present piecemeal implementation.

The report contained emergency measures, operational recommendations, technical recommendations for environmental restoration, recommendations for public health, recommendations for governments, recommendations for regulators, recommendations on monitoring, and recommendations for operators of oil industry most of which are still largely implemented. The report also needs to be updated to reflect current realities in the Niger delta basin.

As the report noted: ‘Restoring the livelihoods and well being of future Ogoni generations is within reach but timing is crucial. Given the dynamic nature of oil pollution and the extent of contamination revealed in UNEP’s study, failure to begin addressing urgent public health concerns and commencing a cleanup will only exacerbate and unnecessarily prolong the Ogoni people’s suffering’.

Nigeria has missed nine years to act and clean up the Niger Delta. Now is the time to act, further delays will be costly.

Babalobi is a doctorate researcher, Department of Health, University of Bath, UK.

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