The Untold Story Of The Niger Delta Agitation

by L.Chinedu Arizona-Ogwu

In Umuakuru, Rivers State, we heard of a similar example of misleading practices by the same company. Residents told us Shell had approached the community to obtain approval to build a recycling plant near the village. The community agreed, and the site was fenced all around; nothing else happened for several years. An independent environmental impact assessment commissioned by residents of Umuakuru later revealed that Shell intended to build an incinerator and a composting unit to process sewage sludge for industrial and medical waste from its employee hospital in Port Harcourt. Despite the community’s efforts to halt the process, community residents fear the construction will proceed. The Niger Delta has the third largest mangrove forest in the world, and the largest in Africa. Mangrove forests are important for sustaining local communities because of the ecological functions they perform and the many essential resources they provide including soil stability, medicines, healthy fisheries, wood for fuel and shelter, tannins and dyes, and critical wildlife habitats. Oil spills are contaminating, degrading, and destroying mangrove forests. Endangered species—including the Delta elephant, the white-crested monkey, the river hippopotamus, and crocodiles—are increasingly threatened by oil exploitation. The construction of infrastructure for oil facilities is done with little or no regard for environmental considerations. To facilitate road construction, waterways are frequently diverted, to the detriment of fish populations.

Sudden and drastic changes to the local environment by oil companies are sometimes accompanied by direct loss of human life. In Eleme, Ogoniland, we saw the site of a pipe blowout and massive oil spill that took place in 1970 and according to Shell has been “cleaned up”. A 6-foot thick crust of carbonized oil material covers the soil, turning the area into a wasteland where only a few plants have been able to survive. Since villagers can’t afford bottled water and often have access to no other water source, they have no option but to drink water that is visibly polluted and slick with oil. In 1984, the community took Shell to court but community members report that no settlement has yet been reached to this date and Shell still has done nothing to clean up water and soil. Even when the oil companies do provide compensation for damage caused by spills and leaks, their system of assessment and payment are often very unsatisfactory. In January 1998, 40,000 barrels of light crude oil (or 1.6 million gallons, according to other estimates) were spilled into the Atlantic Ocean near Mobil’s primary facility in Eket, Akwa Ibom State.32 It was the biggest spill in Nigerian history. Mobil’s reaction to the spill was so slow that the oil reached the shores of Lagos, nearly 500 km to the west. Vast coastal areas were devastated. Mobil agreed to pay compensation to residents in oil-producing communities, but only to those individuals who were able to submit claims, which in many cases required potential claimants to make a long and costly journey to Eket. Given that very few roads reach the villages affected, and people do not own and cannot afford to rent vehicles or bicycles, this proved impossible to many of the potential claimants. Moreover, compensation was only grant-ed to oil-producing communities, whereas many non-oil-producing communities were affected just as much.

A visit to several communities where multinational oil companies make claims of community development projects. In many communities, residents related stories of promises made and broken by multinational oil companies. In Iko the delegation witnessed several cases where PR claims made to unsuspecting Western observers appeared misleading. Iko residents told us how Shell’s nearby facility had greatly degraded surrounding mangrove areas on which the community was dependent. In the late 1980s, after community members noticed a decline in fish stocks, which they attributed to Shell’s oil spills, the community started protesting and requested electricity and clean water.33 Years later Shell promised to provide a “fish processing plant,” an ironic measure considering the impact of oil spills on aquatic life. Oil slicks are visible in some water bodies. Though Shell claims on its website that the company-built facility has been operational since 1996, the facility (an impressive and large building, definitely photo-worthy) stands unfinished, and the community says it has never functioned. A generator was never provided to run it.34 Another example of such a fig-leaf project in Iko is a manual cassava grating unit Shell donated (as a large sign in front of it clearly indicates), but which Iko residents said worked for one week. Given the scarcity of roads throughout the Niger Delta, a common request from oil-producing communities is the development of roads. Reading oil company literature leads one to believe that roads are a large part of development plans for oil-producing communities. However, as we discovered throughout our travels, roads primarily lead to the flow stations and oil facilities, not necessarily serving the communities.

Instead of investing in genuine community development projects, oil companies apparently put their money into dividing communities and destroying effective organizing for human rights.

Animosity between neighbouring communities, may also arise or be fueled by the differential treatment towards one community by oil companies in matters of compensation, reparation, development projects, and employment opportunities. When communities organize to protest against the destruction of their land, homes, and livelihood as a result of the operations of the multinational oil companies, or to campaign for their right to control their own resources, they run the risk of becoming the victims of outright repression and violent acts. While this was more common under previous dictatorial regimes, it is still a reality under ex-President Obasanjo.

While the story told to consumers of Nigerian crude in the United States and the European Union—via ad campaigns and other public relations efforts— is that oil companies are a positive force in Nigeria, providing much needed economic development resources, the reality that confronted our delegation was quite the opposite. Our delegates observed almost every large multinational oil company operating in the Niger Delta employing inadequate environmental standards, public health standards, human rights standards, and relations with affected communities. These corporations’ acts of charity and development are slaps in the face of those they claim to be helping. Far from being a positive force, these oil companies act as a destabilizing force, pitting one community against another, and acting as a catalyst—together with the military with whom they work closely— to some of the violence racking the region today.

Nigeria is the world’s 13th largest oil producer, yet it was until recently chronically short of fuel, having to import it from other oil-producing nations. Though the government is a 55-60% shareholder in oil operations and earns billions in royalties each year, local infrastructure at the source of these billions is in shambles, food shortages abound, malnutrition is common among Niger Delta children, power blackouts regularly occur, and roads are usually in terrible condition. Everywhere we visited we witnessed the destruction of the local environment, and the oppression of communities affected by what can accurately be described as an outlaw oil industry. Under the somber shadow of this industry of wealth, millions of Niger Delta residents try to survive. The tragedy of so much oil being extracted from the same lands where abject poverty has become institutionalized is unbearable. Over the last 40 years, billions of dollars in profits are earned each year, as millions of barrels of oil are extracted. Meanwhile, high unemployment, failing crops, declining wild fisheries, poisoned waters, dying forests and vanishing wildlife are draining the very life blood of the region. Even the rainwater is acidic and poisoned. What else can the oil companies take from the people? And, what should they be required to give back?

It is a sad reality that Nigeria‘s oil helps fuel the industrialized world in its mad rush for “progress,” while the producing nation is left so obviously far behind. Nigeria still needs to recover the nearly $55 billion in oil profits stolen by the military rulers over the last 15 years. Debt relief and poverty alleviation programs are also desperately needed. The Nigerian human rights community, which includes many of the brave NGOs and community leaders whom we met, needs govern-mental protection, not persecution. An open and honest dialogue is called for between the leaders of the oil-producing communities and the oil companies towards resolution of the crisis that meets the needs of both residents and producers. These corporations must adhere to the minimum operational criteria that exist within their own home nations.

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