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SOCIAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL INJUSTICE IN NIGERIA’S NIGER DELTA REGION

*Text of speech delivered by KorneBari Nwike – President, National Union of Ogoni Students (NUOS INTL,USA), to students of Environmental Concern, University of Illinois, Urbana, Champagne, April 16, 2007

All protocols observed:

The theme of this year’s Earth Week,  “Social and Environmental Injustice” not only poses a monumental challenge to those of us in this hall but it resonates with all of human kind. It imposes on us a great responsibility to reassess, re-evaluate our individual and collective commitment to society and the environment. “The environment is man’s first right” were the words of Nigeria’s slain author and renowned environmentalist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, when he received the Goldman Environmental Award in Scotland in 1994.This statement cannot be truer since a denial of equal access to land is the genesis of social injustice. This position will become clearer in the course of our discussion this evening.

Prior to the 1990’s, the world only saw the Niger Delta region as the economic powerhouse of Nigeria. Nigeria today produces 40% of world oil consumption, 95% of which comes from her Niger Delta region.The Niger Delta covers an area of 36,000km and has a high agricultural potential with rich forest and marine resources. Indeed, statistics from the US Energy Information Administration show that the United State’s oil import from Nigeria alone in January 2007 was 35,221 thousand barrels. The question of social and environmental injustice was infinitesimal. Today, the Niger Delta region is the  world’s leading gas flarer. This refers to the burning of natural gas/fossil fuel, which results in emission of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and methane and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Gas flaring costs the Federal government of Nigeria about US $2.5 billion annually in a region that 66% of its inhabitants live on less than a dollar per day.
The corporate oil giant, Shell Oil, has said she is not ready to stop gas flaring in this region until 2009.The result is continued degradation of the ecosystem, which leads to low productivity, poor health and deprivation. It is important to add that burning of fossil fuel sends a cloud of black soot into the atmosphere and whenever it rains, the soot falls as acid rain poisoning the environment. Acid rain is corrosive and, hence, causes a chain of destruction which cuts across the soil, the groundwater, the forests, the animals and humans. Acid rain changes the ecosystem such that mangrove forests (a rich natural habitat for mudskippers, oysters, periwinkles) are now extinct and are being replaced by nippa palm (which are of no significance to the locals or aquatic species). Although business concerns operating in the Niger Delta would carry such signs as: “Ethical, Performance-driven, innovative” in their memoranda of understanding where such are available, they are simply far from being ethical in their real operations, which only motive is profitability and responsibility to shareholders. Such universal and environment-saving ethic as compliance to environmental Acts is not applicable outside of the United States or their home countries. This double standard of operation by the same corporate body is what is termed environmental racism.

Racism is a crime and must not be allowed to operate in any sphere of human existence because it leads to the erosion of human dignity and extinction. Shell Oil, Exxon Mobil, Chevron have impeccable records of compliance with environmental laws in the western nations. This is not the case in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. From 1958 when oil was first discovered in commercial quantity in the Niger Delta region, the area has experienced over 10,000 oil spillages due to leaks, inefficiency and corrosive pipelines. Neither these companies nor the Federal government of Nigeria has any emergency response plan for cleaning up of oil spill sites or regeneration of devastated lands. These incessant spillages constitute a nuisance to both the environment and humans because they transform into serious health crises in the region. This explains why the Federal government of Nigeria, in conjunction with these corporations, must conduct an environmental impact assessment studies in the region to actualize the short- and long-term effects of this environmental degradation.

The Niger Delta is also renowned for its distinct hydrology. It remains the largest discrete mangrove forest in Africa, covering about 5000km.It also contains 60-80 per cent of all Nigerian plants and animal species. According to Environmental Rights Action, the Niger Delta alone has 134 fresh water and blackish water fish species compared with 192 for the entire continent of Europe. It also has an estuary through which the converging waters of the Niger and the Benue Rivers go out. The Niger Delta waters although unique, have a problem. Oil drilling activities have polluted these unique waterways with industrial chemicals such as lead, methyl mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls, arsenic, and toluene. These chemicals are responsible for the extinction of colonies of fishes and also for developmental disorder on many humans in the region. These chemicals are a major threat to life  in this region because in the Niger Delta, fish is the main source of protein. When pregnant mothers, for instance, accidentally eat such poisoned fish, either the life or the normal development of the the fetus is gravely affected, and this commonly results in the many disorders among babies at birth in the region. Ultimately, many of the children who survive emerge as slow learners at school. No laws exist to protect Niger Delta communities against this grave level of injustice. To further the injustice, government and business officials conspire and site toxic facilities or dump toxic waste in the Niger Delta from time to time.

This environmental injustice is inevitably linked to social injustice in the Niger Delta. The Niger Delta is a region of communities – Ogoni, Ijaw, Ikwere, Kalabari, Andoni, Ibeno, Calabar, Eket, Bayelsa state, etc. According to Bailey et al 1995, Novotny 1994, Tesh and William 1996,” A community is a place full of meaning – cultural, religious, and racial, class, and gender, sexual….” The roots of social injustice against the people of the Niger Delta are deep and historical. Injustice against the region is continually reproduced, manipulated to bear new meanings even in this contemporary era. The root of injustice is colonial. There is the absence of legal/political recognition, institutional/civil non- acceptance, poverty, oppression. It is only in the Niger Delta that leaders of communities are coerced, imprisoned and murdered without remorse. It is only in the Niger Delta region that at least 50 communities have been sacked by government within the last 12 years. It is only in the region that democratic citizenship is replaced with formal citizenship where government selects and imposes officers on the people thereby disregarding citizens’ votes.

It is a known fact that the Federal government does not have security guarantees for the 22m inhabitants of the region. The lack of security, basic infrastructures like hospitals, roads, safe drinking water, decent elementary and secondary schools leads to psychological and social trauma which leads to self doubt and declining ambition. Above all, 95% of youths are denied employment. Most are denied education opportunities and healthcare. The resultant effect is extinction, and, in real helpless situations, the victims take to criminality, which, of course, is always overzealously punished by the State. This is the kind of grave social injustice that can succeed only in a helpless, unprotected minority area like Nigeria’s Niger Delta. This is what being a Niger Deltan means. It means living on top of wealth yet in abject poverty; it means accepting greed-crafted uncertainty as a fact of life; it means accepting either to live happily in one’s grave or to live like a slave at the master’s mercy.

In the face of these so many social and environmental injustices, it is our call to the international community to get involved so that Nigeria would recognize the Niger Delta as a part of Nigeria and not as a neo-colonial appendage. The Deltans would be exhilarated to see their region and peoples incorporated as a cosmopolitan democracy instead of a formal democracy. They would be thrilled to see that the current discriminatory economic, political, social and environmental laws are dismantled so that they can flourish in their communities.

For us to enjoy peace on earth, we must all join hands together to speak against environmental injustice, be it injustice in America or elsewhere. Write to your senators to institute legislations aimed at protecting the Niger Delta environment. Write to corporate chief executives of oil corporations to clean up the Niger Delta environment and conduct health and environmental impact assessment studies. Also, boycott Shell Oil.

Thank you very much for your attention and this opportunity to discuss the Nigeria’s Niger Delta environment with you.

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