Oct 15, 2010

Ogoni: The Bomb Culture


Author examines how minority rights are still not protected in oil-rich regions of Nigeria. Oil companies and the national government could contribute to improving infrastructure and services for communities that are paying the environmental and social price of oil extraction


Below is an article published by Pambazuka News:


The Willink Commission Report of 1958, which examined the fears of minorities and proposed ways to allay them in the fledgling nation, painted a graphic picture of the gross neglect of the Niger Delta. This was the same year that commercial exploitation of oil took root in Nigeria.

When the first oil well was drilled at Oloibiri, the people celebrated with the assurance that their fortunes would take an upward swing and their backwaters would become a symbol of transformation to be envied by others across the nation. Oloibiri was a symbol of hope.

Today, Oloibiri is a metaphor of neglect that has befallen the Niger Delta. The first oil well itself stands forlorn and has become a home for wasps and possibly scorpions. With polluted streams, land, and air, and with a dearth of social amenities, Oloibiri is a blight on the conscience of a nation that squanders its resources.

When the Willink Commission spoke of the neglect of the region, it referred to the infrastructure and its abandonment as the nation marched into independence. Today the situation remains the same despite the several billions of Naira budgeted, and disbursed for the purpose of bridging the development gaps.

The trouble is that things have not changed in the trajectory of the expectations built by oil companies and the governments who have held sway here. When Bayelsa State was created, there was less than 20km of paved roads in that area. The communities made do with roads raised on wooden stilts and occasionally, you would find concrete paved village streets, mainly products of communal efforts. Although the major means of transportation here includes motorised boats, there could not have been more than a handful of petrol stations in the area. Today, that is changing.

Move from Bayelsa to Akwa Ibom State. Visit Ibeno where Exxon's export terminal and other facilities are located and you see a clear picture of what neglect meant and still means. The link road from Eket to Ibeno is in such a sorry state you would wonder whether you were actually on the right track. Here and elsewhere, glittering oil company quarters, offices and other installations have paved roads within fenced and heavily barricaded compounds. In many of the cases, the only benefit that escapes their enclosures is the gas flares that spew poison into the poor communities.

In Egi, Rivers State, communities are in tussles with Total over the land grabs that go on there without consent from some of the land owners. Move westward to Ondo State, a boat ride to Awoye beyond Igbokoda brings you to a community on the Atlantic coast that used to be beautiful. Today, the activities of Chevron, through canalisation, have damaged their freshwater ecosystem by bringing in salt water from the sea. Their fisheries have been shattered and as is the case in most Niger Delta communities, the people have to depend on imported frozen fish. Though evidence of water supply contracts awarded by NNDC and the local wing exist, the water works at Igbokoda and Awoye are insults to the people as their taps are dry and Awoye people make do with wastewaters from oil company facilities.

Over the years, the people struggle, from the well-articulated stance of the Ogoni to the calm litigation efforts of communities, the path has been that of non-violence and the demand for basic environmental human rights. The demand for schools, health clinics and paved roads are not extraordinary requests to make of any local, state or national government. These are things that oil companies can equally do with a fraction of their massive profits.

It is time for government to address the environmental situation with the seriousness it requires. The oil spills, gas flares, and dumping of hazardous waste into the pristine ecosystems of the region, by oil companies, require the declaration of environmental state of emergency and action.

Bombs must not be allowed to blow up the needed focus if the socio-cultural as well as economic health of the region – and by extension the nation –is to be secured. The biggest bombs exploding daily in the region are the environmental pollution bombs and the oil thefts perpetuated by well-oiled and connected rogues.