Monday, December 08, 2014

The Ogoni Oil Protests

Oil and gas makes up 14% of Nigeria's GDP and Nigeria is Africa's biggest oil producer. Nigeria's oil production hit 2.3 million barrels per day in August 2014, the most since January 2006. An estimated $400 billion has gone missing from oil revenues in Nigeria over the last 50 years. 84% of Nigerians live on less than $2 a day.

The Ogoni ethnic group occupies about 1,000 square kilometres in the eastern Niger Delta region in southern Nigeria. Shell-BP, as it was then known, started oil extraction in Ogoniland in 1957, a year after it sunk its first Nigerian well in Ijawland.

In 2010 the Nigerian government asked the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to carry out an independent assessment of the oil-polluted Ogoni environment. In August 2011 UNEP presented its devastating report, which detailed high levels of contamination throughout the area: ‘The Ogoni community is exposed to hydrocarbons every day through multiple routes. While the impact of individual contaminated land sites tends to be localized, air pollution related to oil-industry operations is all-pervasive and affecting the quality of life of close to one million people.’ After 50 years of oil pollution, UNEP called for ‘the world’s most wide-ranging and long-term oil clean-up exercise ever undertaken’. The $1-billion cost should be borne by the Nigerian government and the oil industry, UNEP declared. When the UNEP report was released in 2011 there was an international outcry. But the Ogoni people themselves were not surprised at its findings. As Rose Zaranen, an Ogoni leader, puts it: ‘The report only confirmed what we had always said. Now they have discovered for themselves that they have been poisoning our land and people. They should come and clean the land as UNEP has asked them to do. Since they don’t want to listen to us they should listen to UNEP.

 ‘Shell, in collusion with a succession of governments in Nigeria, is responsible for the human and environmental tragedy of the Ogoni people,’ says Bariara Kpalap, a leading Ogoni activist. “At the Human Rights Violation and Investigation Commission in 2000, Shell admitted that it was paying the military and sharing intelligence with them about Ogoniland and our people. With that false information, the military killed, maimed and raped in Ogoniland.”

A new wave of anger, manifesting in large protests, is sweeping through Nigeria’s Ogoni region over the refusal of the government to implement the UNEP report two years after it was released. The sense of frustration is articulated by Nnimmo Bassey, local NGO leader, prolific poet and writer, and former chair of Friends of the Earth International. ‘The UNEP report clearly attests to the decades of ecological aggression in Ogoniland. It is scandalous that no real action has been taken. Each passing day of delay places a death sentence on the people.’

‘The discovery that every part of Ogoni territory – water, land and air – is contaminated is terrifying,’ says Dr Nenibarini Zabbey, a hydro-biologist and co-ordinator of the local Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD). ‘It is alarming to have recorded levels that high of BTEX [benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes] in the groundwater people have been relying on over the years. The concentration is about 900 times above the permissible limit set by the World Health Organization.’ This may help explain why life expectancy in the Niger Delta is just 45 years.

In July 2012 the government half-heartedly responded, and set up the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project. Unfortunately, the project is part of the Petroleum Resources Ministry, not the Environment Ministry. Since its formation, its greatest achievement has been putting up warning billboards on polluted sites in Ogoniland, saying: ‘Public notice – prohibition! Contamination area – keep off.’

The clean-up is not just the government’s responsibility, however. Activists are also directing their calls for implementation at Shell, which is responsible for thousands of the spills that are still poisoning the Ogoni people’s land and water today. On 28 August 2008, a new tragedy struck. A fault in the pipeline resulted in a significant oil spill into Bodo Creek in Ogoniland. Shell – now known in Nigeria as Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) – repaired its facility the following November, but didn’t clean up the spill. Oil poured into the swamp and creek for weeks, covering the area in a thick slick and killing the fish that people depend on for their food and livelihood. 2009 saw a second spill. Faced with overwhelming evidence that the pipeline had not been adequately protected or repaired, Shell has been ruled liable for the impacts of the spill – a ground-breaking legal decision that could open the floodgates to other similar cases. The company has offered to pay $51 million to settle, which the Bodo lawyers described as ‘insulting’: it would not remotely cover the costs of what the community members have lost.

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