Against the backdrop of curious procrastination of the Ogoniland cleanup project by the Federal Government, announcement by the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo that International Oil Companies (IOCs) have contributed the sum of $180 million towards the exercise is heart-warming. That gesture should be followed with immediate action.
President Muhammadu Buhari had flagged off the exercise more than 25 months ago but unexpectedly, rising expectation turned to anxiety and eventual frustration.
Coming more than seven years after the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released the "Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland," during which nothing concrete was done, this development should signify a departure from the years of foot dragging by government over the matter.
Certainly, it should be a human development and governance issue that even the elections politics should not relegate.
It is now time to act and the Ogoni and entire Niger Delta people should not be disappointed again.
Though, it is too late, however, it is better to be late than never. A project that would take 30 years to complete is not a child's play.
We hope this is not a political gimmick designed to woo the people as elections draw nearer. We also hope that the fund is not meant for election campaigns through the back door.
May the day never come when someone will suggest an investigation panel into where the Ogoni cleanup fund has gone!
If the fund disappears, the authorities should know that the restless stakeholders in the Niger Delta area are sensitive. They are waiting and will react instantly to delayed justice this time. They have a history of agitation and holding government to account.
Meanwhile, we commend the government for pushing for the implementation of this critical project that has exposed the unbridled environmental degradation and destruction of livelihood systems of Ogoni people as a result of crude oil exploitation.
The Federal Government had in August this year launched a $1 Billion Ogoniland Cleanup and Restoration Programme.
Osinbajo, who presided over the event on behalf of Buhari, said that financial and legislative frameworks had been put in place to begin implementing the recommendations made by the UNEP. The $1 billion was to be raised over a period of five years.
Before the IOCs made their contribution, the Federal Government announced that it had raised the sum of $177 million out of the $1 billion required for the cleanup.
Minister for Environment, Ibrahim Jubril (who just resigned from the cabinet) who made the disclosure at a meeting with the Deputy High Commissioner of the British Embassy in Abuja, noted then that while $177 million had been raised for the cleanup, about $23 million was expected from refineries.
While briefing State House Correspondents after the weekly Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting, the minister stated that 21 companies had been selected to commence work shortly. This is cheering.
The minister assured the cynical nation that the fund contributed so far had been kept in an escrow account with the Standard Chartered Bank of London and the contributors were the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and Shell Petroleum Development Companies (SPDC).
The other oil firms should identify with the project by making their own contributions.
It is good that for the first time, government has done something.
The Ogoni people have on several occasions expressed outrage over the apparent neglect of the report, which Buhari reactivated soon after he assumed office about three and half years ago.
The president had then approved the setting up of a board of trustees to commence the process of implementing the report and also a trust fund to finance the programme. Stakeholders were expected to contribute N2 billion.
Besides, Buhari approved the amendment of the Official Gazette establishing the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project (HYPREP), to reflect a new governance framework.
A new implementation template was developed at the instance of the same president. That is one other reason the executive procrastination that has since trailed this project remains inexplicable.
The environmental clean-up of Ogoniland was expected to commence as soon as Buhari inaugurated the HYPREP Governing Council and the Board of Trustees for the Trust Fund.
But all of that enthusiasm had ebbed as nothing more was heard about whether those actions were completed and the next step taken.
It is this lull and apparent in-action that triggered mass discontent in Ogoniland. Different groups have expressed dismay and warned of dire consequences should government abdicate its responsibility in Ogoniland.
Not long ago, an environmental rights group, Social Action, expressed doubts over the Federal Government's preparedness to commence the Ogoniland cleanup nearly three years after the Buhari administration launched the project.
Similarly, the Ogoni youths, under the aegis of the National Youth Council of Ogoni People (NYCOP), had issued a 21-day ultimatum to the Federal Government demanding mobilisation of workers to the site and commencement of the cleanup of their polluted land.
The group threatened to drag the Federal Government into a fresh legal battle as well as internationally recognised opposition should it fail to heed the warning.
President of NYCOP, Dr. Young Npkah, had expressed worry on insecurity, pipeline laying/oil resumption and delay in the cleanup process.
What is more, while speaking at the 23rd anniversary of the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other eight Ogoni martyrs, President, Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), Legborsi Saro Pyagbara, lamented what he called "the ongoing environmental terrorism in Ogoni and the Niger Delta."
According to him, the environmental restoration of polluted oil sites remains central to Ogoni struggle.
That is also why the authorities should note that while the people appreciate government's efforts to end environmental nightmare in Ogoni, the slow pace of these efforts have become more frustrating and could ignite a new round of conflict in Ogoniland if nothing concrete is done soon.
There has been intense pressure by government and international oil companies to re-enter Ogoni for oil production.
But there has also been concomitant warning that Ogoni people have long declared that oil assets in their land cannot be partitioned and allocated to investors without free, prior and informed consent of Ogoni people as guaranteed under the international human rights law, particularly, the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
In the main, the Federal Government should not lose steam of this momentum by the tone the IOCs have specifically set to begin the cleanup. They should organise the matching grants needed from federal agencies to complement the IOCs'. That step will show that Abuja is not just engaging in rhetoric and shenanigans for electoral advantage at this time.