Change, Politics

Lessons from Ogoniland

In 1956, Nigeria joined the league of oil producing nations with the drilling of its first commercial oil well at Oloibiri in present-day Bayelsa State. This achievement was the climax of exploratory activities that began about half a century before then. The oil wells gushed out dollar notes for the nation and the oil companies. While the vested interests basked in the euphoria of rapidly swelling bank accounts, no thought was spared for the printing press that continually pumped out the dollars. Now the chickens have come to roost.

On Thursday, 2 June 2016, Nigeria’s vice-president, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, represented his boss at the flag-off of the cleanup of Ogoniland. Flanked by the Minister of Environment, Ms. Amina Mohammed, the Rivers State governor, Barr. Nyesom Wike, and other dignitaries, Osinbajo spoke about the cleanup operation, and how it would send Ogoniland back to a time before environmental degradation.

Before we proceed, a quick look at Ogoniland. The Ogonis are an agrarian tribe domiciled in Rivers State in the oil-soaked Niger Delta. They occupy four local government areas out of the twenty-three in the state. Oil exploration and production in the area, championed by Shell, gradually polluted the lands and waterways. This pollution was worsened by several oil spills, some of which were noted for the large amounts of crude oil spilled. In response, the Ogoni people, led by the literary icon, Ken Saro-Wiwa, began to protest against the destruction of their lands and livelihood. This protest culminated in the scripted murder of Saro-Wiwa by the Abacha junta, triggering international condemnation. The Ogonis did not succeed in getting their land cleaned, but they succeeded in halting production in their area. For about two decades, no oil well in Ogoni has been officially active.

We return to the launched cleanup exercise. The cleanup is based on the recommendations of a UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) report detailing the extent of the damage done to the flora and fauna of Ogoni. It is estimated to last for thirty years, with the first phase requiring about US$1bn. The federal government, under Buhari, has provided $10m as seed money to start the project. This is where the lessons begin.

The first lesson is on sustainability. Sustainability here is with respect to two issues—operations and the environment. For operations, considering the cost of “diligent” cleanup operations, is it sensible to operate haphazardly if such behavior would result in future losses? The total estimated cost of the thirty-year exercise has not been announced. However, we can roughly guess that based on $1bn for the first five years, it may cost around $5bn, allowing for inflation. This money would have to come from somewhere, maybe a blend of the government’s and Shell’s purse. This means that if the cleanup is faithfully executed, for the next three decades, monies have to be set aside to pay for the cleanup in Ogoni. This makes business sense, though unethical, if it can be argued that the cost of cleanup is minute compared to the revenue derived from production in Ogoni. Such argument would however be shamed by the other issue.

Sustainability of the environment. Is it sensible to conduct business activities in such a way that the environment is messed up for many generations? If a capitalist mindset allows it, ethical considerations make it inhumane. Over a million people have had their homeland destroyed. When there is no source of livelihood, why won’t violent acts begin? Although I do not support criminality in any form, a nexus can be drawn between environmental devastation and the militancy in the oil producing areas. A person who feels no productive activities can be carried out in his/her land would easily be attracted to kidnapping, crude oil theft and other vices. Beyond the response of the people, the messed up environment directly causes starvation and illnesses from consuming polluted water. I do hope that the Ogoni fiasco has taught all the players in the oil industry an important lesson on sustainability.

The second lesson is on accountability. Some of the pollution in Ogoni was caused by oil spills that should have never happened or that received slow response. While drinking the swollen oil, did the government consider effective regulation of the industry, especially, the exploration and production aspects? Did Shell have a real policy on regulation, not some fancy document hanging in a glass case on a glossy wall? If federal agencies had done their regulatory work, the pollution would not have been this bad. The same is true for Shell. Some spills resulted from poorly maintained equipment, or equipment that were due for replacement, but were still being used to maximize profits.

Better regulatory policies that are well enforced would have softened the production blows. Learning from Ogoni, I expect that industry stakeholders would implement strategies for spill prevention, and fast response to any spills that may occur. The issue of gas flaring is something that we ought to have concluded by now. The government keeps shifting the goalpost, further providing room for more pollution. Proper accountability would help prevent Ogoni 2.0.

The third lesson is on community support. No business can sustainably thrive without the support of the host community. You can bribe the community leaders all you want, but if the common person on the street does not see any benefit from your operations, someday your illusional peace bubble would burst. Shell and Nigeria have missed two decades of production in Ogoni because the community’s longsuffering expired. Beyond providing an enabling environment for operations, you need the community to serve as extra eyes. You need them to notify you immediately a spill is noticed, and not attempt to endanger themselves and the environment by tapping from the spill. You need them to report bad eggs that try to vandalize your facilities. You need them to guarantee “real” peace and security for you staff.

To achieve real community support, the government and oil companies need to dump the corrupt model of lining the pockets of greedy community leaders. In many instances, oil companies know fully well that these “leaders” are frauds, yet they choose to do business with them in order to save cost, preferring to bribe a worthless leader with ₦5 million, rather than to spend four times that amount to provide amenities that would serve the entire community. No sensible person would hinder operations when he sees good roads, a functioning hospital, schools, potable water, electricity, and sees that he has a chance to be gainfully employed. Let communities see themselves as part of a triad involving the government and the companies. This is a lesson that the Ogonis have taught us.

The devastation in Ogoni is a tip of the iceberg of pollution in the Niger Delta. Imagine having to execute the Ogoni cleanup in many communities in the Niger Delta. Which funds would be left to develop other areas and fix Nigeria’s infrastructural deficit? We cannot fully undo the past, but we can ensure that going forward, the actions and inactions that caused destruction are thrown in the trash. Ogoniland has provided lessons. Are we willing to learn?

Image: Ken Saro-Wiwa

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