Oil Nigeria: Bothered For Fair Shares

Petroleum is quite old. It has been used, in one form or another, for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks used it to make asphalt. Babylonians used it in the construction of many of their buildings. It was even used by ancient societies to make medicines and weapons. Some historians even speculate that “Greek Fire,” used by the Byzantine Empire, was a petroleum-based product. The ancient Chinese drilled holes for oil as early as 347 AD. They drilled wells as deep as 800 feet using bamboo poles and drill bits. The Chinese and Japanese even used oil for heating and lighting. Marco Polo (13th Century) later described petroleum being sold in Azerbaijan by the shipload!

Later, in America, petroleum was discovered. The first time it was mentioned was by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1595. There were “oil springs” discovered in New York and Pennsylvania. By 1846 petroleum became incredibly important as a process for refining kerosene from coal was discovered. Since then it has grown in importance. James Williams in Oil Springs, Ontario, Canada, dug the first oil well, for commercial use, in 1858. In 1859 the United States petroleum industry began when Seneca Oil began drilling. Their first well was only 69 feet! The industry grew during the 1800s, driven by a demand for kerosene, primarily used in lamps. Of course, the real explosion happened in the 20th century when the internal combustion engine began to provide an exponentially increasing demand for petroleum products. Since that time the fate of the petroleum industry has been linked to the fate of the automotive industry. The vast majority of petroleum products are manufactured for cars, although there are many other uses, including plastics and medical products.

Following the independence, here in our homeland, the federal government passed the Niger Delta Development Act in 1961, establishing a Niger Delta Development Board. The board had powers only to undertake surveys and make recommendations to the federal and regional governments. It was based in Port Harcourt, not itself in the Niger Delta “special area.” Despite this gesture, dissatisfaction among the delta peoples remained. In February 1966, shortly after the first coup, and before the outbreak of the Biafra war, Isaac Boro, Sam Owonaro, and Nottingham Dick, leading a group of about 150 youths known as the Delta Volunteer Service, proclaimed a “Niger Delta Republic” intended to comprise mainly the Ijaw. The “twelve day revolution” was soon crushed by the Nigerian army and the leaders convicted of treason and sentenced to death; but, with the outbreak of the war, Boro, Owonaro, and Dick were released by Gen. Yakubu Gowon and joined many others in the riverine area in opposing what they perceived as the threat of the Igbo domination in the intended Biafra state. In September 1966, a delegation of “Rivers Leaders of Thought” presented a “Rivers State Memorandum” to General Gowon. In 1967, Rivers State was created, though it could only begin to function with the defeat of the secessionists by federal troops in the greater part of the state by September 1968.

During the civil war, the minority groups of the delta were generally sympathetic to the federal cause, fearing domination in an Igbo state; the government of the secessionist Biafra state accordingly treated minority leaders with suspicion, and many were detained, tortured, even executed. With the defeat of Biafra, and reconstruction of the southeastern region, the minorities were once again integrated into a wider federal system, though demands for greater autonomy and recognition of the role played by the economic resources of the Niger Delta in the national economy continued. With each round of state creation, the Ijaws of the riverine areas made their case, though not until October 1996 were these demands answered by the federal government, with the creation of Bayelsa State out of the riverine areas of Rivers State. The Ijaws in Delta State, however, were excluded from the new government unit, which in any event almost totally lacks the infrastructure and personnel necessary to develop and administer policies for the area. The Bayelsa State capital, Yenagoa, was when the state was created little more than a crossroads, bus terminal and landing stage at the junction of the dry land and riverine areas.

The creation of Bayelsa State has not silenced the debate over revenue allocation to the oil producing communities, and petitions to government continue to demand better terms. Manifestoes by groups such as the Southern Minorities Movement and the Ijaw National Congress were submitted to the constitutional conference of 1994 to 1995. A seminar attended by representatives of the oil companies, NNPC, and leaders from oil producing communities in April 1997 issued a statement recommending that the federal government allocate a percentage of royalties on oil to them, suggesting that “the royalties percentage could be withheld as sanctions for acts of vandalism against properties of oil companies.” In March 1998, a meeting called by oil minister Dan Etete among representatives of Royal Dutch/Shell and military administrators of the oil producing states announced the creation of a new body, comprising representatives of government, oil companies and host communities, to coordinate provision of social investment in the oil producing areas. The Department of Petroleum Resources was given three months “to work out strategies for achieving observable results.” Minority resentment of the federal government and of Yoruba and Igbo domination of the oil industry remains a potent force: with the death of General Abacha and the inauguration of a new transition program, demands for greater attention to be paid to the oil producing communities by the federal government and the oil companies have surged once again.

Despite the vast oil wealth of the oil producing areas, the Niger Delta region remains poor—though detailed, accurate data on the economic situation do not exist. GNP per capita is below the estimated national average of U.S.$260, and is lower still in the riverine and coastal areas. Unemployment in Port Harcourt, the capital of the region, is at least 30 percent. Education levels are below the national average, already low: approximately three quarters of Nigerian children are believed to attend primary school, and national adult illiteracy is estimated at 43 percent, but in parts of the delta attendance at primary school drops to less than a third and illiteracy is presumably correspondingly higher (this is by contrast to the position at independence, when the delta still benefitted in terms of western education from its earlier contact with European missionaries).The poverty level is exacerbated by the high cost of living: the influx of people employed in the well-paid energy sector has made Port Harcourt and the other urban areas of the region among the most expensive in Nigeria. The oil sector employs only a small percentage of the workforce: a labor aristocracy of high wages surrounded by a great mass of un- or under-employed.
The pre-spill luxuriant vegetation of the swamp environment show signs of varying degree of oil stressed wilting. Those (plants) at the immediate spill micro-environment are permanently dead. From our physical observation, the plant area affected is put at a mean estimate of 70 metres radius. Atmospheric air in the area and the neighbourhoods is charged with repulsive and suffocating smell of hydrocarbons. Prolonged breathing of such asphyxiating (polluted) air may result in tragic respiratory ailments and put local asthmatic patients on death roll.

Driven by poverty, some residents made soil depressions in the area where oil seeps in. They then fetched the spilled products there from. Being a residential area with a lot of fire related activities, fire outbreak may occur as experienced in other parts of the country. The state governments report that only 20 to 25 percent of rural communities and 45 to 50 percent of urban areas have access to safe drinking water; in all likelihood this is an overestimate. Proper sanitation is available to less than 25percent of the population; in Port Harcourt, the region’s biggest city, there is no citywide sewage system. This situation is common to much of Nigeria but worse in the delta regions, where it is additionally exacerbated in the areas of regular flooding. Water related diseases are widespread and probably the “central health problem in the Niger Delta.” State programs for immunization of children have declined drastically in recent years: in Rivers State 85 percent of children were immunized in 1989, dropping to 15 percent in 1991; in Delta State 80 percent of children were immunized in 1990, dropping to 40 percent in 1993.As in the rest of Nigeria, electricity supply from the national grid is erratic; in any event, most of the riverine and coastal areas are not connected to the grid, and depend on kerosene stoves and lamps or private generators for power.

The most sinister of repression in the Niger Delta is perhaps that of February 1994 when the military troops unleashed terror and pain on the Niger Delta community. Persons were maimed, lives lost and property worth millions of naira were destroyed. The whole region was deserted for days while prominent citizens of the town were kept in detention for months. The deprived peasants currently make demand for social services from the oil companies, than they can make from the often-inaccessible Nigerian State. This has often led to conflict as the oil companies are engaged in the process of collaborating with the Nigerian regime to use violence as a means of pacifying the protesting communities. Oil-bearing people were brutalized by the military is coming at the heels of several repressive actions by the military. The youths are severely tortured and detained at the several Police stations. Women troop out in their numbers to demonstrate against oil firms inhumane activities in numbers where communities were raided by MOPOL (mobile police) to shot and wounded several persons and detained others. The cases of military repression are very many. Some people opine that the whole region is besieged. It is as though the whole of the Niger Delta is besieged by the military as if there is a state of war. All these actions cannot happen without the knowledge of the military government and not civilian as in this case. They collaborate with the oil companies to treat the host communities this way. The host communities become a conquered people in their land despite being peaceful people.

Thousands of oil storage tanks dot the landscape of oil-rich Niger Delta region. Typically 30 feet high and 40 to 50 feet across, they store the crude oil extracted by pumps scattered throughout numerous oil fields that are sometimes as small as a few acres. Drivers on an Oil And Gas Free Zone, one of the state’s most heavily used Port Harcourt-east or west routes, are familiar with some of these tanks, but many more lie unseen in the bye-pass, out of view of the state’s roadways. Various harmful and toxic organic compounds when introduced into the natural environment during oil extraction such as during seismic work, oil spill, gas flares and several other forms of pollution, changes the geo-chemical composition of the soil, river and other components of the environment. This in turn affects agriculture and lead to a drastic decline in output in both fishing and farming activities. The peasants are very reactive to these changes because of the unavailability of modern farming and fishing techniques to meet the challenges of a declining soil and Marine resources. The fall in the agricultural output, lead to intensive exploitation of other fertile land.

Trying to meet the goals of the Healthy Environmental Act in this regions, regulatory agencies like Nigerian Nuclear Regulatory Agency (NNRA), and the Department Of Petroleum Resources(DPR) began to develop rules that would affect heavy oil storage tanks for the first time. However, no one has good measurements of the magnitude of air pollution emissions from these tanks. Reducing storage tank emissions could cost the oil industry tens of billions of naira. Most farmers are concerned with problems of displacement without resettlement during oil spills. Apart from loss of farms, oil spills have led to extensive deforestation with no adequate replanting practices…this in effect has shortened fallow periods, compounded land use degradation and led to a loss of soil fertility and consequently erosion of the top soil. The slash and burn agriculture traditionally practiced by shifting cultivators-up to 10% of the world’s population-is based on ecologically sound principles. It minimizes threats to the forest by leaving land fallow over periods of time long enough for regeneration…. Landless peasants whom have been forced from their own lands, increases the number of people pursuing such a subsistence life style, this contributes to deforestation through further encroachment on forest lands and reductions in fallow times”. The out-migration of the rural displaced farmers in the Niger Delta as a result of environmental degradation caused by oil extraction in the region has led a significant percentage of the local inhabitants to remain in cyclical poverty and penury. This has meant greater environmental degradation as a result of the intensive exploitation of the few remaining fertile land in the region by the residents. It has also led to increasing urban blight in the urban areas in the Niger Delta as more and more displaced rural inhabitant flood the urban areas in search of non-existent jobs.

Written by
L.Chinedu Arizona-Ogwu
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