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Emmanuel Addeh writes that to champion the fresh agitation for environmental justice in the Niger Delta, the Bayelsa State Government eight-man commission recently visited some affected communities in a bid to come up with solutions to ameliorate the effects of decades of devastation in the region
Generally speaking, Nigeria is a poor country. In fact, a report by the World Poverty Clock in 2018, revealed that Nigeria had successfully overtaken India as the universal capital of extreme poverty.
But in the creeks of the Niger Delta where Nigeria gets most of its revenue through oil, poverty, desperation and hopelessness walk on all fours.
In the Niger Delta, the state of dolour and squalor is so palpable, a knife could easily sear through it. It’s a story of contrasts and contradictions, a tale of endless woes for a people so blessed, yet so cursed.
These narratives are not new. The struggle for a decent living by those mostly affected by oil exploration and exploitation, by those who bear the brunt of the destructive spillages and same people who can no longer differentiate the nights from the days due to persistent gas flaring, has been that of sorrow, tears and blood.
Many in the struggle have paid with their gore, some have been maimed, as a few others teamed with the so-called oppressors and reaped bountifully from their people’s mischance.
Yet the cry for environmental justice has refused to abate. Like a cat with nine lives, those who are mostly affected by the despoliation of the Niger Delta environment, have refused to be silenced.
Against this backdrop, the recent resurgence of fresh agitations, essentially from Bayelsa, spearheaded this time by the leaders of the state for a new and better deal, has received some accolades.
All the inhabitants of the most devastated areas want, it seems, is a pact leading to a liveable environment and for the authorities both in Nigeria and home countries where these oil companies come from, to seize the gauntlet and do the right thing for the people, given the many years of unbridled destruction occasioned by their activities.
So, it was protest, shock and lamentations when the newly established Bayelsa State Commission of Inquiry on Environmental Degradation, headed by Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamuled an eight-member commission to some areas ravaged by the activities of the oil companies.
Among the areas visited were Egbebiri and Ikarama communities in Yenagoa Local Government Area as well as Azuzuama community in Southern Ijaw Local Government Area.
In addition, the commission held sessions with representatives of over 35 communities, traditional rulers, environmentalists and civil society organisations to garner evidence against the renewed fight against what Governor Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa has always described as ‘environmental terrorism”.
Recent Spill in Egbebiri
In Egbebiri, chairman of the community development committee (CDC), Mr. Godspower Worikumo, told members of the commission that the last spill caused by equipment failure occurred in the community in October 2018.
“Our river, ponds and farmlands were destroyed by the spillage, which lasted about 11 days before Agip responded. Since then, our community has suffered terrible devastation and our means of livelihood affected as a result of the spillage,” Worikumo said.
The new commission’s members expressed shock that an attempt to clean up the spills even resulted in further pollution.
Indeed, what easily drew attention to one of the affected areas, was a pit of fire where crude excavated from the soil was still burning and the smoke bellowing therefrom.
Archbishop Sentamu described the situation as shocking and totally unacceptable, lamenting as he scooped raw crude from a pond using a plastic bucket.
Lamentations in Ikarama
The lamentations continued in Ikarama community as an Environmental Monitor for Amnesty International and youth President of the community, Comrade Warder Benjamin, informed the commission that it takes a minimum of two weeks for some of the oil companies to respond to the several incidents of oil spills in the community.
He said: “It takes the SPDC about 12 days to start evacuation of spills whenever it occurs, leaving the community to suffer the effects.”
According to him, the youths were employed only on part-time basis as monitor personnel for oil spills, but added that when such incidents were reported to the facility owners, there was little or no action.
Azuzuama was not different. Youths were already protesting the devastating effects of oil spills and exploration in their community when the team got there. On their banners were inscriptions like ‘Our common sicknesses are cancer, kidney failure and difficult child-bearing’, ‘Crude oil is a curse rather than a blessing, decades of oil spillage, no proper clean up’.
In the about four hours round trip by boat to and from Azuzuama community, the investigative team saw firsthand, the helplessness faced by the residents on a daily basis. They witnessed the evidence of the devastation caused by spillages on the rivers and mangrove stilts, which had been blackened by crude seeping off oil facilities.
Renown environmentalist and King of Ekpetiama Kingdom, Bubaraye Dakolo, after the session, accused top personnel of the International Oil Companies (IOCs) of complicity in the racketeering of products. He laid the blame squarely on the feet of the oil companies, stressing that the authorities must have the strong will to enforce the law.
“No oil firm can accuse the youths of the Niger Delta before me because they are the cause of the violence we are experiencing in the Niger Delta. Prior to oil exploitation and exploration, the Niger Delta man lived in a pristine environment with tranquility. Time and time again, ocean liners and ships that have the capacity of picking up at once the entire crude oil that comes from Nigeria berth at the Gulf of Guinea. They anchor there and wait. They sponsor young men to go and bring crude from everywhere around.
“Sometimes the oil workers will open the valves and release crude to the barges in the night and these barges bring crude to the big ocean liners at the Gulf of Guinea. Ocean liners are not tiny drops; they are not canoes. They are boats that are so large that an entire kingdom can get into them. And then they collect sufficient crude that they take to Europe and America to sell.
“So, who is profiting? Is it the man that is sent to go and do some menial, dangerous job? Or it is the main man that sponsors all of these? , he asked rhetorically, not expecting a response.
He continued: “You and I do not have the expertise to burst the pipes. For you to burst pipe, you must have the expertise. And where do you get expertise of that type if not in the oil industry? So, the sabotage that they accuse us of is caused by the oil industry. They are the experts.”
Demand for Results
However, residents applauded the setting up of the commission of inquiry to investigate the years of negative impact of oil exploration, but maintained that this time, it must be followed up to a logical conclusion.
Chief Otubo Jonathan-kpeli, traditional ruler of Azuzuama Community,Southern Ijaw Local government area, said the spillage had caused damage to the source of livelihood of the people.
“The source of water, which is the rivers has been polluted, no potable water to drink except only when we buy water from the city. This is suffering and smiling and it is unacceptable” he said.
One of the scientific officers on the team, Mr. Bob Keniyinboh of the Bayelsa Ministry of Environment said that the cause of spillage was mainly equipment failure of the oil companies and not by the residents.
To draw the attention of the international community, foreign experts, diplomats and forensic experts were also part of the team to investigate and report on ways of ameliorating the decades of of devastation.
Aside Bishop Sentamu, Chairman, who was headhunted by the Bayelsa government to head the panel, former President of Ghana, John Kufuor; a former member of the British Cabinet and House of Lords, Baroness Valerie Brondesbury and a Principal at the Fydow Forensics, Daniel Onifade are members of the team.
As the investigators and environmental experts left the scene and headed back to Yenagoa, the state capital, they must have felt the weight of the job they had just been assigned; to attempt to salvage a future which for now looks very bleak.