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Towards A Permanent Resolution Of Ogoni Eco-Crisis

By Senator Mpigi Barinada

Stirred by the outcry of my people of Ogoni against environmental pollution and degradation in our region, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was called upon by the Chief Olusegun Obasanjo led federal Government to investigate the level of degradation of the Ogoni environment. In its 2011 assessment of locations in Ogoniland, it was discovered that negative impacts of the earlier 50 years of oil production in the region surpassed initial estimation.

By Senator Mpigi Barinada

Stirred by the outcry of my people of Ogoni against environmental pollution and degradation in our region, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was called upon by the Chief Olusegun Obasanjo led federal Government to investigate the level of degradation of the Ogoni environment. In its 2011 assessment of locations in Ogoniland, it was discovered that negative impacts of the earlier 50 years of oil production in the region surpassed initial estimation.

In the comprehensive assessment that covered 14 months, the UNEP team examined more than 200 locations, surveyed 122 kilometres of pipeline rights of way, reviewed more than 5,000 medical records and engaged over 23,000 people at local community meetings to be able to get detailed and accurate first-hand information regarding the ecological crisis in Ogoniland.

Comprehensive soil and groundwater contamination investigations were conducted at 69 sites, ranging in size from 1,300 square metres to 79 hectares.  In total, more than 4,000 samples were analysed, including water taken from 142 groundwater-monitoring wells drilled specifically for the study and soil extracted from 780 boreholes.

The assessment confirmed that as a result of oil spills, gas-flaring and waste discharge, the alluvial soil of the Ogonis and Niger Delta at large is no longer viable for agriculture. In many areas that had earlier seemed not to be affected, groundwater was discovered to have high levels of hydrocarbons or contaminated with benzene, a carcinogen, at 900 levels above WHO guidelines. For instance, close to a Nigerian National Petroleum Company pipeline at Nisisioken Ogale, in Eleme LGA (western Ogoniland), families discovered to have been drinking water from wells contaminated with benzene.

UNEP scientists discovered an 8 cm layer of refined oil floating on the groundwater which serves the wells. This was reportedly linked to an oil spill which occurred more than thirty years ago.

UNEP said the remediation work will require the deployment of modern technology to clean up contaminated land and water, better environmental monitoring and regulation as well as collaborative actions among the government, the Ogoni people and the oil companies.

According to Achim Steiner, the then UNEP Executive Director and who is now Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the report provides the scientific basis on which a long overdue and concerted environmental restoration of Ogoniland could commence. In Steiner's words during the presentation of the report to former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan while in office, "The oil industry has been a key sector of the Nigerian economy for over 50 years, but many Nigerians have paid a high price, as this assessment underlines. It is UNEP's hope that the findings can break the decades of deadlock in the region and provide the foundation upon which trust can be built and action undertaken to remedy the multiple health and sustainable development issues facing people in Ogoniland.

“The clean-up of Ogoniland will not only address a tragic legacy but also represents a major ecological restoration enterprise with potentially multiple positive effects ranging from bringing the various stakeholders together in a single concerted cause to achieving lasting improvements for the Ogoni people."

The UNEP report specified that the rehabilitation of Ogoniland for full restoration might take up to 30 years while the first five years of rehabilitation would require funding of about $1 billion.

Consequent upon the UNEP report, in 2012 Mrs Deizani Alison-Madueke, the then Nigerian Minister of Petroleum Resources on behalf of the Federal Government, announced the establishment of the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project (HYPREP) as part of UNEP's recommendations on ways to restore Ogoniland and prevent further degradation.

The Mohammadu Buhari led Federal Government which started what could be seen as the actual implementation of the UNEP report, has repeatedly renewed its resolve to clean up the Ogoni environment. This is indeed commendable as it confirmed government's responsiveness to the plight of the Ogoni people. However several Ogoni leaders have condemned what they described as  “flawed implementation of the United Nations Environmental Programme. The UNEP report for the clean-up of oil pollution in Ogoniland”, over perceived compromise of the process as gazetted by Federal Government.

The Ogoni Elders Forum expressed their displeasure in Port Harcourt, Rivers State on January14, 2019 after the Federal Government handed over the polluted sites to various companies for commencement of the clean-up exercise. According to Senator Bennett Birabi, Chairman of the Elders Forum, “More than two years after its flag-off, the manner and process for implementation of recommendations run completely contrary to assurances by Federal Government, to the detriment of the Ogoni people.

He said “Rather than commence implementation with the proposed emergency measures, we have come to observe that after each tranche of funds released by the oil companies on the clean-up, the expenditure pattern has not only been opaque, but completely out of sync with the UNEP recommendations.”  It is instructive that the UNEP advised in its report that treating the problem of environmental contamination within Ogoniland merely as a technical clean-up exercise will ultimately lead to failure. UNEP said therefore, ensuring long-term sustainability is a much bigger challenge, one that will require coordinated and collaborative action from all stakeholders.

 Ledum Mitee, former leader of MOSOP, has also alleged that even with the award of contracts so far, implementing the project by the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project board, has come to the alienation of the community stakeholders. In Mitee's words, “You won't imagine that one of those who got contract was asking what the direction to Ogoni is. He has not been here, he knows nothing about Ogoni. They said they spent N1 billion on communications, if this is true, then all stakeholders including the communities should be on the same page and one accord, but that is not the case.”

But reacting to the allegations, the Federal Government said it had followed due process in the award of contracts for the remediation work on polluted sites in Ogoniland. Both the Federal Ministry of Environment and the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project said due process was followed in awarding the said contracts. For instance, in the official press statements issued on behalf of the ministry by the Director of Press, Saghir el Mohammed and another sent by the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project's Media Director, Ekaete Umo, the two officers explained that the choice of the companies “complied with the Federal Government Executive Order 5.” They claimed that the order was aimed at growing the local capacity of Nigerian companies ”by encouraging them to partner remediation technical companies with proven track records”.

In the midst of the raging controversy over the implementation process, the Federal Government of Nigeria on May 24, 2019  said it had handed over four additional oil-spill-impacted sites to contractors for the clean-up of polluted Ogoni communities.

Dr Marvin Dekil, Project Coordinator, Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project, under the Ministry of Environment, disclosed this at the hand-over ceremony at Alode Eleme and Eleme communities in Rivers State. Dekil listed the companies to handle the projects as R.D.K Environmental Ecological Solutions Ltd, Avondale Services and Supplies Ltd, Giolee Global Resources and New Line West African Ltd. He added that no fewer than 21 oil-impacted sites had so far been handed over to contractors in the first phase of the clean-up. In his words, “The contractors went through rigorous screening before they were selected having met the entire requirement, including the needed experience for the project. We expect the contractors to bring their experiences to bear on the project by delivering the Ogoni people a fertile and clean land. The four out of five sites approved by the Federal Executive Council (FEC) are located in Eleme community.

The sites include, Lots 4, 7, 8 and 16.” Dekil added that a fifth site endorsed by the Federal Executive Council would be handed over to another contractor on a later date. He said the approval of the five sites by government was a clear indication of President Muhammadu Buhari's commitment and passion for speedy and full implementation of the UNEP Report. Dekil said, “Similarly, all necessary structures have been put in place to ensure the successful implementation of the clean-up project for restoration of livelihood of Ogonis. He said this project brings great economic opportunities to the people of Ogoniland and we urge Ogonis to take full advantage of the opportunities and remain peaceful.”

The assurances by Dr Dekil however seems not to have convinced Ogoni youths on the mode of implementation of the projects. Some Ogoni youths have persistently berated the remediation method employed by the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project in cleaning some polluted sites in Ogoniland.

According to a statement jointly signed by the National Youth Councilof Ogoni People, Ogoni Youth Federation and Ogoni Youth Coalition Movement, “It is worthy of note that HYPREP, an agency established specifically for Ogoni clean-up pursuant to the UNEP recommendations, part of which was to carry out emergency measures like the construction of a centre of excellence and integrated contaminated soil management centre, provision of potable water in communities, establishment of health registry and provision of alternative livelihood for those involved in artisanal refining has not been met. "The report strongly condemned the remediation by enhanced natural attenuation, but this is what we have observed at the ongoing clean-up sites at Ebubu and Korokoro communities in Eleme and Tai LGAs respectively, despite the fact that Ebubu community records very high in surface and underground water contamination with hydrocarbon substances.”

The youth group also condemned the communication strategy of the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project with the Ogoni people. In their words, “Again, the communication strategy adopted by HYPREP is unknown to even the custodians of Ogoni nation. NYCOP demands to know key performance indicators (KPI) set out by HYPREP for the clean-up to enable her to measure milestones and relevant outcomes and further demand that such KPI be made public and accessible to all.”

These allegations and counter reactions are capable of throwing the people into more confusion as to what is actually happening to the implementation of the UNEP report. It is also more baffling to note that “PREMIUM TIMES” in a report in its May 8, 2019 edition confirmed that it identified contradictions in the statements made by Federal Ministry of Environment and the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project, especially on the five-year experience required of the interested companies to handle the clean-up projects.

I strongly feel at this point to state that it is necessary to implore all stakeholders in the Ogoni restoration projects to work harmoniously and transparently together so that success can be achieved eventually. I see it as absolutely unnecessary for stakeholders to engage in bickering over the project as such actions would be counterproductive.

If the $1billion earmarked for the remedition projects in Ogoniland for the first 5 years is judiciously utilised and government continues to show commitment, especially through conscientious implementation of the recommendations of the UNEP Report, it is certain that the lingering ecological crisis and persistent agitation in Ogoniland will be over and normalcy will return to the land. The attendant benefit is that this will surely prepare the ground for peaceful dialogue/negotiation, resumption of oil exploration and production in Ogoniland after 28 years of break.

Distinguished Senator Mpigi Barinada, representing Rivers South-East Senatorial District, writes from Abuja.