The Untold Story Of The Niger Delta Agitation

by L.Chinedu Arizona-Ogwu

In every community we visited, we heard people speak about the adverse effects that oil exploration and production has had on their livelihood. People’s food sources depend on the same natural resources that are destroyed by polluting oil operations, and communities claim they commonly receive no compensation when these resources disappear. Land for oil operations can be appropriated for use by multi-national oil corporations with the Land Use Act, a decree established in 1978 under the Obasanjo military regime (which was transformed into an Act of Parliament). This Act enables the state governor to execute the transfer of land ownership by simply claiming that the transfer is “in the public interest.” Where the land is unused, his signature is all that is required. As a result of this act, the interests and concerns of communities are placed beneath those of oil corporations and the Nigerian treasury, which limits communities’ ability to make their own decisions about their surroundings. Having lost their traditional subsistence lifestyle to pollution and other drastic changes in their immediate environment, many oil-producing communities are now forced to buy their food. This puts local people at an immediate disadvantage in comparison to the purchasing power of salaried company employees, many of whom come from other parts of the Nigeria or from abroad. In Eket, Akwa Ibom State, where Mobil’s operations have reportedly led to the loss of fish populations along the coast, fishing is available only to those who can afford large boat engines and trawlers to venture into the high seas. The rest of the population must buy “ice fish” (frozen fish) from commercial fishermen, a practice totally unknown a few years back. Since market prices are constantly on the rise, many villagers have to go without fish. Only a small sector of the local population in Eket finds employment in Mobil’s facilities, and thereby earns money to buy food.

At the mangrove community of Iko in Akwa Ibom State, we heard a similar sad refrain. Where people had previously made a living amid a once healthy and productive mangrove forest by fishing and farming, gathering their wood for building and fuel from the nearby mangroves, they related that they now find it impossible to make a living. Since Shell came to their area in 1974 to establish oil wells, community members explained that repeated oil leaks have coated the breathing roots of the mangroves, killing off parts of the forest and the animal and marine life that depend on it. The diminished productivity and viability of local economies due to the environmental and social degradation caused by oil exploitation has affected the lives of women in unique ways. As Joi Yowika, a Port Harcourt attorney explained, “the rights of women have been violated by the oil companies.” Several women told the delegation that they are no longer able to provide food for their families by performing their traditional roles. They explained that women used to sustain their families through farming, and trading in agricultural and other goods. But each of these is now extremely difficult with the effects of oil industry pollution. Grace Ekanem, a women’s group leader in Eket, Akwa Ibom State, explained that since farms are failing, palm trees are not bearing fruit, and fish are depleted, women are not only unable to feed their families, but cannot earn enough money to send their children to school, or to afford medical treatment. “Women are now redundant,” said she.

Faced by such devastating economic circumstances, many women are forced to turn to prostitution as a means of survival. A victim explained that the sex industry in the Niger Delta is directly linked to the oil industry, since it is oil company employees and the employees of oil-related service companies that patronize the prostitutes. As a result, prostitution is rampant in oil-producing communities and in cities where oil workers reside. Stories of extremely degrading and inhuman treatment of prostitutes by expatriate oil workers are common. Children sired by expatriate oil workers are frequently abandoned. Despite the social mores of a predominantly patriarchal society, and economic difficulties resulting from the oil industry, women in many communities have been very effective in voicing the demands of their communities to the oil companies. The delegation met with two women’s group leaders in the towns of Eket and Egi. Each described strong, well-organized groups, which have been instrumental in their communities’ dealings with multinational oil corporations and the military. They have organized demonstrations and protests that have mobilized entire communities.

So as the secretary of the IYC ;the president of Niger Delta Women for Justice, we have been trying as much as we can by using campaigns in communities and doing our meetings to also mobilize women to also get involved in the process and also take it back home. It’s more or less like training of trainers. They take it back home and they continue the process of reorientation, creating awareness, the reasons why a women should know her rights.

So the Nigerian women, specifically the Delta women mean a lot to our men and they mean a lot to the development of the Delta. And they will also have the contribution of the success of resource control and to the process of self determination. And that is why the women have been mobilized to be involved in the struggle. It’s a very participatory struggle. And I know some day, some day we’ll get hold of it.

In the southern part of Nigeria the women work harder than the men. The women farm, the women fish. And that is the reason why we quarrel so much about the pollution of the waters because when the waters are polluted due to oil spillage and all, whatever we have, drillings, the women suffer so much because there definitely wouldn’t be any food at home. We don’t have land in our communities because Shell and most other oil companies have actually used the process of canalization, you know, to cut up most of the land […] we have lots of erosion problems because of speed boats and all that.

Testimonies to wasteful oil industry operations, gas flares are a distinctive feature of the Niger Delta landscape. Most of these flares burn 24 hours a day and some have been doing so for over 40 years. Communities near these flares are deprived of even the comfort of night’s natural darkness. Natural gas is a by-product of oil extraction; it is removed from the earth’s crust along with the crude oil. Natural gas does not have to be flared off, and in many countries there is little flaring. Other options for managing natural gas include reinjection into the subsoil, storage for use as a source of energy by local communities, and transportation for use in other projects elsewhere. Yet companies in the Delta opt for flaring because, even with the minimal fine per barrel of gas burned that has to be paid to the government, it is by far cheaper than the alternatives. Though these “savings” may appear rational to companies, the reality is that local communities are being forced to pay the very high cost of losing a potential valuable resource, and living with the resulting pollution. Though it hasn’t been fully assessed, the impact of gas flares on the local ecology and climate, as well as people’s health and property, is evident. The extremely high levels of CO 2 and methane gases that are released to the atmosphere also impact climate patterns beyond the local level.

We witnessed many such flares in our visits to communities: their heat was so intense it was impossible to get near them. A constant loud roar accompanied the thick column of smoke emanating from them, fouling the air. The associated gases could be smelled from hundreds of meters away. Yet, the oil industry seems blatantly oblivious to the consequences of this wasteful practice. It could seem denied that communities were harmed by gas flare pollution, and even claimed that local residents benefited from these flares because they could dry their foodstuffs for free by setting them near the burning gases, a visibly ridiculous cost-benefit estimate

Acid rain, a direct result of gas flaring, is taking its toll on the Niger Delta. Acid rain not only deprives people of drinkable rainwater and stunts crop growth (as we found in Eket and other communities in Akwa Ibom State), it is also affecting people’s homes. In Iko, Eket, and Etagberi we were told that zinc roofs, which formerly lasted 7-10 years (and were a good alternative to labor-intensive thatched roofing), are now destroyed within one or two years by acid rain. This has led many home owners to resort to asbestos roofing, which although is more resistant to acid rain, it is also more expensive and hazardous to health.

In addition to the grave problems associated with gas flares, on-site oil leaks and ruptured pipelines are a serious problem in the Niger Delta. Decrepit pipelines, some reportedly over 40 years old, criss-cross villages and land, some of them above the ground. These pipes are rusty and in obvious need of repair. On average, three major oil spills in the Niger Delta are recorded each month. In the first quarter of 1997 alone, Shell recorded 35 incidents of oil spills in its operations.10 In June 1998, it was reported that a leak near the Otuegwe 1 community that had been going on for months had spilled over 800,000 barrels of crude from a 16-inch buried pipeline belonging to Shell. The resulting ecological devastation seriously impacted the residents of Otuegwe 1 community.11 Villages in many areas claimed that when pipelines corrode and leak, oil workers will inspect but not repair the leak. Instead, villagers say, oil companies often claim sabotage.

Under Nigerian law, companies are not obliged to clean up or compensate for the effects of spills caused by sabotage. Incidents have continued into this year. On September 17, 1999 there was an explosion at the fishing and farming community of Ekakpamre, in Delta State. Residents in the Etche area told us about a recent spill that went untended for weeks, even though, villagers said, Shell had been alerted as soon as the leak was discovered. According to the secretary of the local Community Development Committee, Shell’s workers repaired the leak the day before the arrival of our delegation to Etche. In describing Shell’s reported sluggishness to repair leaks, Chief Thankgod Albert of the Etagberi village, where Shell has 44 wells, said: “They [Shell] don’t treat us like humans. They treat us like animals. “The threat of pipeline explosions puts people at risk of death or injury. In October 1998, a pipeline leak that flooded a large region near the village of Jesse exploded, causing the death of over 700 people, mostly women and children. In Ogoni, Rivers State, we saw above-ground pipelines that crossed right in front of people’s homes. In the community of Umuechem, Rivers State, we saw above-ground rusty pipelines that stretched as far as the eye could see. Some of these pipes appear to be greatly corroded, which increases the risk of spills.

The delegation has reason to suspect that serious respiratory problems witnessed in many communities can be linked to environmental pollution. Respiratory problems, coughing up blood, skin rashes, tumors, gastrointestinal problems, different forms of cancer, and malnourishment, were commonly reported ailments in many communities. Many children have distended bellies and light hair, which are evidence of kwashiorkor, a protein-deficiency syndrome. Residents repeatedly attributed the spread of kwashiorkor in their communities and the drastic decline in fish catch and agriculture to the pollution of rivers, ponds, sea waters and land by oil industry operations. Another problem facing the people of the Niger Delta is the illicit use of land by oil companies. In the community of Umuebulu, Etche Rivers State, hardly 50 meters away from its perimeter, there is an unlined chemical waste pit belonging to Shell. The company reportedly acquired this land under the pretense of building a “life camp”—Shell’s lingo for an employee housing complex. We were stunned to see this site through a chain link fence in the concrete wall surrounding the facility. The wall keeps people out but doesn’t serve as a protection against the noxious fumes coming from the site. Some members of our delegation who live near similar waste sites in the United States immediately recognized the smell of industrial waste. The community said that requests for disclosure of information about the source of the smells and their possible effects on health, as well as compensation for already visible symptoms (such as skin rashes) attributed to pollution, have gone unheeded by Shell.

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