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Apocalypse Now … Niger Delta’s oil exploitation tragedy

This kind of spill happens all the time in the delta. The oil companies just ignore it. The lawmakers do not care and people must live with pollution daily


From Fred Bridgland in Nigeria: 4 Jul 2010

The delta of the 2,600-mile-long Niger River is one of the richest sources of oil on the planet.

But it has also been dubbed the world capital of pollution with countless thousands of recorded oil leaks in recent decades amounting to at least 15 million barrels spilled, according to best estimates.

Occurring over some 50 years since oil production first began in the 270,000 square mile delta, Nigeria’s environmental tragedy has never received the international attention given to the BP/Transcontinental Deepwater Horizon oil-spill disaster off the coast of the United States in the Gulf of Mexico.

Ken Tebe, Niger Delta representative of Environmental Rights Action, the Nigerian branch of Friends of the Earth, said he was deeply shaken by what he described as the double standards of Obama in his reaction to the Deepwater Horizon spill. Observing the scale of the reaction from Obama, BP and the entire world to events in the Gulf of Mexico, Tebe said: “It’s funny, because we have been dealing with this problem for 50 years. I even heard BP will pay $20 billion in damages [for the Gulf of Mexico calamity]. When will such hope come to the Niger Delta?”

Just days after the Deepwater Horizon rig sank in 5,000 feet of water on April 22, and the first reports of a long oil slick appeared, a pipeline belonging to the US oil giant ExxonMobil ruptured at Ibeno in the Niger Delta state of Akwa Iborn. Environmentalists say more than a million gallons of crude oil poured on to the land before the American company staunched the spill after a week. Community leaders are demanding more than $1bn in compensation for destruction of farmland and fishing grounds, loss of livelihoods and increased illness.

Given the condition of Nigeria’s justice system, no-one believes that they will succeed, and ExxonMobil is now claiming “only” 7,000 gallons of its oil polluted the Ibeno land and waters.

In another recent case, in which a Royal Dutch Shell oil spill destroyed the small fish farm of delta resident Efanga Elani, Friends of the Earth have decided to bypass Nigeria’s courts and sue the company in a test case in The Hague, Shell’s worldwide headquarters.

“We have to go to the homeland of Shell,” said Morris Alogoa, senior representative of Friends of the Earth in Nigeria. “We cannot succeed in Nigeria’s courts, so we have to go to The Netherlands.

“This is a human rights tragedy. The fish creeks are thick with oil. Spills lie uncleared for months on land that also has spiritual significance. It is where our gods are supposed to reside.”

It is estimated that Shell alone spilled nearly 4.5 million gallons of crude oil into the delta last year. The precise scale of cumulative oil spills in the Niger Delta is impossible to gauge.

Most analyses begin with a Nigerian government report that documented 6,817 spills – 300,000 barrels here, 580,000 barrels there, 400,000 barrels elsewhere – between 1976 and 2001, one a day for 25 years. But analysts believe the real number of spills during that period was more like 70,000.

Another rough guide to the scale of the Niger Delta’s problems, with many areas of destruction looking like scenes from Apocalypse Now, is to compare it with the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, in which up to 32 million gallons of crude oil devastated Alaska’s Prince William Sound, eventually covering 1,300 miles of coastline and which continues to contaminate habitats.

According to these guesstimates, Niger Delta oil spills add up each year to the volume gushed by the Exxon Valdez on Alaska’s shores. One fact is sure: the oil pours out almost weekly; fish, crabs and shrimps are dying in the water and crops are dying on the delta’s land.

Although the region generates more than 80% of the Nigerian government’s revenue, the 31 million people of the delta have got more unhealthy and poorer. Five major Big Oil multinationals – ExxonMobil, Shell, America’s Chevron, Italy’s Agip and France’s Total – operate in the delta, the world’s third biggest wetland. Life expectancy in the delta is the lowest in Nigeria, 40 years compared with 45 elsewhere, partly because of the increasing difficulty rural people have in accessing pure water as they wade knee-deep through labyrinths of oily creeks to find patches fit for washing and drinking.

“President Obama is worried about that one [the Gulf of Mexico spill],” said Claytus Kanyie, a local government official in Bodo, just to the west of the delta’s oil hub, Port Harcourt. “Nobody is worried about this one. The water life of our people is dying off. There used to be shrimp. Now there are no shrimp.”

Bodo is a community that has been particularly heavily devastated by years of oil spills. Children emerge from playing in the local creeks with beads of oil on their skin, while unemployed fishermen stare at blackened, oil-dead vegetation lining the shore.

“Two years ago I was fishing every day, but that stopped because of the spillages,” Innocent Tonwee, 46, a father of four, said: “We’re totally frustrated. I don’t know what to do.”

There is no evidence of a clean-up operation at Bodo, according to one reporter: “No robotic submarines to contain the spill, no high profile government investigation into the cause, and no compensation handed out to affected communities.”

John Nyiedah, assistant secretary of Bodo’s main youth organisation, said: “In the US they have a response from the government. But in Nigeria there is no response. … they never come.”

Emman Mbong, a local government official in Eket, near Bodo, said: “We’re sorry for them [the fishermen of Louisiana and Alabama], but it’s what’s been happening to us for 50 years. We don’t have an international media to cover us, so nobody cares about it. Whatever cry we cry is not heard outside of here.”

Some Bodo fishermen say that in order to make a living they have had no choice other than to turn to the lucrative but illegal trade of crude oil theft, known locally as bunkering.

Teenager Daniel Mukoor uses plastic scoops to mop up oil spills in the Bodo creeks. “There are no fish to catch. This is my living now,” said Mukoor. He can sometimes make 10,000 naira (£44) a day collecting oil from the surface water in plastic containers. This is a good wage by Nigeria’s standards, where most of the 140 million people earn less than £1.40 a day.

Mukoor takes his oil haul to one of the many illegal refining sites in the delta, where water is boiled out and the oil sold to fuel cooking appliances and small generators.

Oilwatch International is a New York-based network that monitors the activities of oil companies. It has seized upon the pressure put on BP by the Obama presidency to exert public relations pressure on ExxonMobil and its activities in the Niger Delta.

The group and its African offshoot, Oilwatch Africa, last week called on the Nigerian government to impose immediate sanctions on the American multinational. It said ExxonMobil’s alleged neglect of clear-ups from its oil spills indicates the company’s “disdain not only for the ecosystem, but also for the livelihoods of communities that have been impacted by the spills”. The group added: “We expect the Nigerian government to take a cue from the US government’s response to the Gulf of Mexico incident by instituting criminal charges against individuals and businesses that have destroyed livelihoods, and compel them to pay for what it would cost to restore the ecosystem.”

The Niger Delta has more than 600 oilfields, supplying more than 7% of all the crude that the US imports. Given the vital connection with the US, locals say they find it difficult to believe the contrast between government and oil company neglect of the health of the delta and its peoples with the measures adopted by BP and Obama to plug the Deepwater Horizon oil leak and protect the Gulf of Mexico coast.

“If this Gulf accident had happened in Nigeria, neither the government nor the company would have paid much attention,” said Ben Ikari, a member of the small Ogoni tribe whose lands have been badly affected by oil pollution.

“This kind of spill happens all the time in the delta. The oil companies just ignore it. The lawmakers do not care and people must live with pollution daily. Nothing is changing. When I see the efforts that are being made in the United States, I feel a great sense of sadness at the double standards.”

While tens of thousands of oil spills have wrecked the ways of life of the delta’s fishermen and farmers, the culture in which Big Oil operates is much different than in the Gulf of Mexico region. The Niger Delta is riven by conflict – conflict within and between tribal communities, conflict between communities and the oil companies, and conflict between armed rebel groups and the oil companies and Nigeria’s security forces.

In a recent report, Nigeria: Petroleum, Pollution And Poverty In The Niger Delta, Amnesty International argues that this complexity is too frequently used as an excuse for failure to take action in line with international good practice and standards, to prevent or deal with environmental damage and protect the human rights of communities affected by Big Oil operations.

The United Nations Development Programme describes the delta as suffering from “administrative neglect, crumbling social infrastructure and services, high unemployment, social deprivation, abject poverty, filth and squalor and endemic poverty”.

The poverty of the majority of the delta’s peoples, and its contrast with the huge wealth generated by oil, has become one of the world’s starkest and most disturbing examples of the “resource curse”, it says.

The Amnesty report concludes that because of government corruption, and the collusion of ExxonMobil, Shell and other companies with the central government in Abuja, it will be a long and hard struggle for the Niger Delta people to win the kind of rights and compensation the people of the Mississippi Delta and nearby coastlands will win in a much shorter period of time.

Human rights violations and devastating environmental damage connected to oil exploitation in the Niger Delta will recur again and again “so long as impunity for abuses remain entrenched”, said Amnesty. “So too will the poverty and conflict that has scarred the Niger Delta.

“Only when there is effective accountability, access to justice and when people are given the information and space needed to participate in decisions that affect their lives will the human rights tragedy of the Niger Delta begin to end.”

Ben Ikari, a member of the Ogoni tribe


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