In the heady days of fiery quest for independence from the colonial masters spearheaded by the founding fathers; the late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe in defiance of the ‘Cant and hypocrisy of contemporary times’ wrote, “To be or not to be that’s the question, whether it’s nobler for the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or take up arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.”
Later on in the struggle, a more matured Azikiwe concluded thus: “Philippics do not solve common practical problems.”
In the case of pollution in the oil rich Niger Delta region, some analysts believe in the label ‘outrageous fortune’ while others with more damning conclusions call it ‘man’s inhumanity to man.’ Whichever way, the question for the locals since 1958 has been ‘To be or not to be’ and with the benefit of conviction some of the youths have at various times taken up arms against ‘a sea of troubles’ with unpalatable consequences. What is debatable is whether by taking up arms the troubles ended.
Beyond rhetoric, the country has watched for decades the slow poisoning of the waters of the Niger Delta region and the destruction of vegetation and agricultural land by oil spills which occur during petroleum operation. Since then, there has been no concerned and effective effort on the part of the government or the oil operators, to control environmental problems associated with the industry.
The degree of devastation in the region varies and the media has been accused of under-reporting the level of spills. Some released reports dates back in time. A United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report shows that there have been a total of 6,817 oil spills between 1976 and 2001, which account for a loss of three million barrels of oil, of which more than 70% was not recovered; 69% of these spills occurred offshore, a quarter which was in swamps and 6% spilled on land.
The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) places the quantity of petroleum jettisoned into the environment yearly at 2,300 cubic metres with an average of 300 individual spills annually. However, because this amount does not take into account “minor” spills, the World Bank argues that the true quantity of petroleum spilled into the environment could be as much as ten times the officially claimed amount.
The largest individual spills include the blowout of a Texaco offshore station which in 1980 dumped an estimated 400,000 barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Guinea and Royal Dutch Shell’s Forcados Terminal tank failure which produced a spillage estimated at 580,000 barrels.
In 2010, an environmental expert, Robin Baird, reported that between 9 million and 13 million barrels of crude oil had been spilled in the Niger Delta since 1958. Another source estimated the spill at 100 million barrels over a 50-year period.
Precisely one year ago, Acting President Yemi Osinbajo flagged off the cleanup of Ogoniland in the Niger Delta region to achieve “sustainable development components that will benefit the people.” Early this month, Nigeria’s Senate said it will probe the implementation of the Ogoni cleanup project. Senator Oluremi Tinubu who moved the motion lamented that despite the recent launch of the Ogoni Cleanup Campaign, it does appear that work had not commenced on site.
The cleanup of the heavily polluted Ogoni land was recommended by the United Nation Environmental Programme (UNEP) in its report in 2011.
UNEP said that devastating oil spills in the Niger Delta over the past five decades will cost $1bn to rectify and may take up to 30 years to clean up.
It also reveals that Shell and other oil firms systematically contaminated a 1,000 sq km area of Ogoniland, in the Niger delta, with disastrous consequences for human health and wildlife.
A three-year investigation by UNEP discovered heavy contamination of land and underground watercourses sometimes more than 40 years after oil was spilled; community drinking water with dangerous concentrations of benzene and other pollutants; soil contamination more than five metres deep in many areas studied.
Also, most of the spill sites oil firms claim to have cleaned are still highly contaminated; there are evidence of oil firms dumping contaminated soil in unlined pits, among others.
Now that the cleanup exercise has been flagged off, it will amount to great disservice to the people if the whole exercise is abandoned in the usual Nigerian government business-as-usual style. The motion to probe the implementation by the Senate should be followed up with patriotic fervor before it is thrown into the dustbin of history.
While violence by militants in the oil-bearing communities of the Niger Delta must not be condoned, government can no longer afford to treat matters concerning the region with levity. The time to address pollution, and other environmental challenges in the region is now.