Nigeria: Next Step - Clean Up the Niger Delta

Polluted water in Ogoniland.
10 August 2011
guest column

The recommendations of the United Nations Environment Programme's study on oil pollution in Ogoniland point to the need for a genuine shift in the priorities and practices of the oil industry and government regulatory agencies in the Niger Delta, writes AllAfrica guest columnist Deirdre LaPin.

The study makes clear that nothing less than ending pollution and full remediation of Ogoniland and the whole Niger Delta region should be accepted as an end point, she says.

The long-awaited report from the United National Environmental Program (UNEP) on oil damage in the Ogoni area was presented to President Goodluck Jonathan on August 4 in Abuja. This important study, the first of its kind in the Niger Delta, was conceived well before 2006 by the Federal Government as part of the Ogoni reconciliation and peace process led by Father Matthew Kukah (recently named Bishop of Sokoto). Intended as a major assessment of the impacts of oil production in the Ogoni region, UNEP in an early statement described the aim as to "clarify and de-mystify concerns expressed by local communities".

Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) suspended active production in Ogoniland in late 1993 as a response to growing resistance to industry presence led by the martyred freedom fighter and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa. However, the company remained responsible during its withdrawal for monitoring and maintaining its installations, and especially the critical Trans-Niger pipeline serving Bonny Terminal. It also left behind a number of spill sites.

Over the years the Company had mixed success in negotiating with local communities access to spills sites or achieving their complete remediation. The impoverished local population also pursued informal oil production that centered on bunkering (oil pipeline tapping) and bush refining - increasing opportunities for further spills and pollution. In keeping with the "polluter pays" principle, the operator SPDC joint venture funded the U.S. $9.5 million UNEP study.

Last week the press had a field day with the freshly unveiled report.

Journalists whisked together highlights and added spice from the region's contested history. Some articles cooked in the press kitchen missed key ingredients or simply got them mixed up. The best among them focused on the findings from the study's careful scientific analysis, which led UNEP to the conclusion that "pollution has perhaps gone further and penetrated deeper than many may have previously supposed."

This forceful opinion stated in the foreword by UNEP's executive director Achim Steiner represents a long step beyond the study's original technical terms of reference or the limited policy aims supporting reconciliation and "de-mystification."

Now in 2011 UNEP's thoughtful recommendations, while not assigning blame, point clearly to the need for a genuine shift in the priorities and practices of the oil industry and governmental regulatory agencies operating throughout the Niger Delta. The muscular sub-text rippling throughout the report makes clear that nothing less than ending pollution and full remediation of Ogoniland (and indeed the whole Niger Delta region) should be accepted as an end point.

The report offers guidance to address this aim. Steps include (a) a transition phase for detailed remediation and environmental management planning; (b) an immediate end to bunkering and artisanal refining; (c) creation of a Integrated Contaminated Soil Management Center, which could employ hundreds of local youth; (d) improved remediation management and harmonization and strengthening of various regulatory guidelines; and (e) implementation of eight emergency measures to protect the health and well being of residents in Ogoniland.

In an earlier interview, Mr. Steiner vowed, "I can assure you this report will get the world's attention For the first time we can actually begin to build a plan for remediation". It would indeed be a wonderful thing to see future action that goes beyond ink and rhetoric, but the path will not be easy. Its course will require a huge measure of political will.

What the report does not fully reveal are the hazards and missteps that threatened to upend the study itself. President Jonathan rightly notes that "an environmental war" has been waged in the region for 50 years.

Anyone familiar with the long, tortuous history of UNEP study will be moved to commend the agency and the presidential committee under Father Kukah for their perseverance and courage in seeking to bring the truth to light. Their success was no less due to the peaceful and patient support of the long suffering residents of Ogoniland. The technical and political processes driving the study were intrusive, time-consuming, and at times unclear. For more than four years many strangers were welcomed into Ogoniland and facilitated by men and women in countless ways, despite deep felt grievances born of repeated past injustices from both public and private authorities.

Mr. Steiner has described UNEP's decision to undertake the study a "calculated risk" in the hope of spurring action to rectify what he perceives as a "scandal." Aware that they were entering a "contested area," the project team from UNEP's Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch in Geneva packed its toolkit of technical acumen and good intentions and walked, somewhat naively, straight into a minefield.

The polemical dimension of the environmental war had created a seasoned cadre of Ogoni activists wary of good intentions. Past experience made them quick to see a hidden agenda behind nearly every initiative. They had also become masters of the message, raising their suspicions in public statements and in the press.

Field-level preparations in the first phase of the environmental study gained some momentum in late 2006. Almost immediately, it proved to be a false start. At a stakeholder engagement meeting in Gokana in November 2006, Rivers State Governor Peter Odili alluded to a lingering problem when he noted that "the exercise had nothing to do with Shell's re-entry into Ogoni."

For some years a rumor had circulated throughout the area that the reconciliation sought by Father Kukah's committee was in fact meant to pave the way for SPDC to resume production in the area. Adding to this suspicion was the discovery that the UNEP Project Coordinator based in Geneva was an environmental assessment specialist who had previously been employed in Oman by a national oil company advised by Shell. For these and other reasons, the study was temporarily suspended until a revised agreement was signed with the Federal Government on November 5, 2007.

By October 2009 UNEP opened a project office in Port Harcourt for its second phase under the direction of a field project coordinator, Mike Cowing. He was assisted by 23 international, national and local staff. A spirit of goodwill and transparency seemed to infuse the project. A web page at the UNEP site offered regular "field news updates" and reported the official "relaunch" of UNEP's environmental assessment in Ogoniland in November 2009. By May 2010 the scientific sampling of oil contaminated sites had begun in collaboration with the Rivers State University of Science and Technology.

In early August 2010 Mr. Cowing shared preliminary results from the field study at a UNEP press conference. His comments, among others, observed that 10 percent of oil spills at the sites studied could be attributed to SPDC, implying that the others were related to the illicit local oil activity.

This assessment was not inconceivable for a region that had no formal oil production since 1993 but which did have an active ongoing informal oil bunkering and refining. However, given that the study had not been completed, the comment was premature. It was also unwise because it failed to underscore the significance of industry responsibility for its ageing infrastructure and slow remediation. Instead it appeared to blame the victim. On August 23 2010 UNEP apologized for the statement.

MOSOP withdrew its support for the study and complained of inadequate stakeholder engagement. (The report, however, says that 264 meetings attended by 23,000 people were held.) Nevertheless, the project continued undeterred. Its team studied over 4,000 samples of sediments from creeks, surface water, rainwater, fish and air - including 142 samples from groundwater wells drilled specifically for the project and soil samples from 780 boreholes. In addition, over 5,000 medical records were examined.

Last week both MOSOP and Amnesty International voiced reservations about the study (which they had not yet seen) on the eve of its submission to the Nigerian president. Overall, the report seems to have won over most skeptics. Its scientific grounding is unprecedented for the Niger Delta and its careful wording reflects a desire to avoid blame and serve as a force for good. Shell announced that it welcomed the study.

What Shell did not welcome was the (perhaps) coincidental timing of a judgment. In a British High Court on the day before the release of the UNEP report, SPDC was ordered to pay compensation of about $410 million to the Bodo community in Ogoniland for two large operational spills in 2008. They resulted in water and soil contamination from 4,000 barrels spilled.

In an open letter, the SPDC managing director Mutiu Sunmonu called the spills a "tragedy," saying that SPDC had always accepted responsibility for paying compensation for spills when they occur as a result of operational failure. At the same time he reminded his audience of the damage to the environment being done by the illegal oil economy.

Remediation of Ogoniland must be the next step. President Jonathan has made muscular statements about the government's position. In accepting the report he vowed it would "not be put in a drawer." But faced with an estimated $1 billion price tag for what may become the world's "most wide-ranging and long-term oil clean-up," he has also requested UN and industry support in pursuing the remediation plan proposed.

It will take more than money. The president will need to firmly demonstrate his political will. UNEP's call to improve government regulations and oversight will require honest effort and continuous monitoring, ideally with some external involvement.

Its eight "emergency" recommendations - to ensure safe water supply, signpost unsafe polluted areas, and mobilize the community to halt bunkering and artisanal refining - will require swift and concerted government effort at all levels. Ending bunkering and refining in the well developed informal oil industry will present a special challenge.

The report notes that these activities are typically conducted in collusion with government, current or former industry staff, and security forces.

Persuading youth into the legitimate economy could be significantly helped by UNEP's proposal for establishing an Integrated Contaminated Soil Management Center. Run properly on a commercial basis, this business could employ large numbers of local workers, especially the young unemployed men most likely to be attracted by the illicit oil economy. The center represents a huge opportunity, as treatment of contaminated soil, bioremediation, and protecting ground water is needed throughout the Niger Delta, well beyond the Ogoni region.

Last week the Minister of the Environment, Hajiya Hadiza Mailafiya, assured reporters that the government was prepared to implement the report and that the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) would be responsible for cleaning up Ogoniland.

If NOSDRA were to take on such a complex technical and political exercise, it will need to make sharp improvements over its past performance. Instead, the report proposes the creation of an Ogoniland Environmental Restoration Authority, supported by an extrabudgetary Restoration Fund, to oversee the implementation of its recommendations over the next ten years.

Perhaps the first step the government needs to take is to read, digest, and carefully plan its response to the report. The time of vague assurances has long passed.

Dr. Deirdre LaPin is a senior fellow at the African Studies Center of the University of Pennsylvania and a consultant on development and corporate responsibility. She was previously a research associate and lecturer at the University of Ife, Nigeria, and served with Shell from 1997 to 2003 in helping establish sustainable community development programs.

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