Six decades on, the resource curse continues to wreak destruction in the Niger Delta.
STANDING by the River Goi, Eric Dooh's face shines with sweat. It is wet season in the Niger Delta's Ogoniland region and the humidity is brutal. The surface of the river shines as well - with a veil of slick crude oil. 'My parents were great farmers,' Dooh says, pointing towards the large swath of land, now overgrown with weeds, by the edge of the river where he once worked with his parents to produce yam, water yam, maize, cassava and groundnuts. 'Whenever the farm was harvested we had enough to eat, sell and store in the barn for another planting season.'
Dooh grew up in Goi - a tiny traditional village in this tidal region, named after the river it is located by. Like most other communities in the 404-square-mile area that the half-a-million-strong Ogoni ethnic group calls home, the residents of Goi were mostly smallholder farmers and fishermen who depended mainly on their immediate environment for subsistence. He recalls life in the village before the Anglo-Dutch oil giant Royal Dutch Shell first discovered oil in the 1950s, roughly 70 miles from his village. Back then 'the land was rich and farmers were never poor,' he says. Apart from their farm, which had been in the family for several generations, Dooh's father, Barrisa Tete Dooh, who used to be Goi's chief, had also set up a small fishery, a poultry farm, a bakery and a vocational training centre in the village. These endeavours employed nearly 80 people.
'I had a lot of hope about life. My father had a lot of investments . But in the early 1980s we started seeing oil on our lands,' he says. 'We did not know what it meant. Nobody complained because the decline in yield was small and slow.'
But as Shell expanded drilling in the region, it became impossible to ignore the growing impact of the frequent oil spills from its network of pipelines that criss-cross the Delta, and corrosive fumes from gas flaring at wellheads. (According to independent records, from 1982 to 1992 alone, 1,626,000 gallons of oil were spilled from Shell's operations in Nigeria.) Eric says birds in the poultry operation started dying, as did the fish in the ponds and rivers.
Meanwhile, the Nigerian government began forcing Delta residents to abandon their land, turning it over to oil companies without consultation and offering negligible compensation. They based this takeover on the Land Use Act adopted in 1979, which gave it full ownership and rights to all Nigerian territory and also declared that eminent domain compensation for seized land would 'be based on the value of the crops on the land at the time of its acquisition, not on the value of the land itself'.
In March 1993, villagers from Goi were among the 300,000 Ogoni who, led by well-known writer and leader Ken Saro-Wiwa, staged a peaceful mass protest against Shell's widespread pollution, forcing it to shut down 30 wells in the area. The protests would spur the Nigerian government to unleash a campaign of appalling violence against the Ogoni, the impact of which resonates in the region to this day. (Saro-Wiwa and eight Ogoni leaders of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People were tried on a trumped-up murder charge and executed in 1995, causing international outcry.) The Ogoni never allowed Shell to resume drilling in their lands, but many of the company's pipelines still run across their territory. These pipelines often leak or are vandalized, causing oil spills.
In 2004 and 2005, massive oil spills from Shell's Trans-Niger pipeline caught fire, incinerating some 15 hectares of mangrove forest. The fires, which lasted for days, spread into Goi where they burned down farmlands and contaminated fisheries and creeks. In 2007, a new spill occurred, further escalating damage to the waterways and the mangrove.
The village had gradually emptied out by this time. With no fish left in the creeks or fishponds and no land left fit for farming, villagers had no way to make a living. Those who could afford it, like Dooh's family, moved to neighbouring villages that were in a relatively better state, or to Port Harcourt, the capital of River State. Others, who lacked resources, lingered on as long as they could even though it cost them their health. Dooh says many villagers started dying of mysterious coughs, cancers and lung diseases, and suffered blindness and strange illnesses.
In 2009, yet another large spill forced the last remaining families to flee. 'There is only one home and that is Goi, but it is death to stay back,' says Dooh, who now lives in the neighbouring village of Mogho with his wife and four children and earns a living teaching at a secondary school there.
Goi is a ghost village now. The bakery-cum-training centre that was once the pride of the village is now a rundown building with a government-issued signboard outside that reads: 'Prohibition! Contaminated Area. Please Keep Off'. But former residents like Dooh continue to visit the area from time to time, to show reporters and researchers around, or even to try their luck casting a net in the fishponds.
Despite six decades of environmental destruction that set off a cycle of poverty, corruption, citizen's uprisings and violence in the Niger Delta, many locals still hold out hope that they will be able to return to their homes one day. Currently, this hope is pinned on a billion-dollar Ogoniland cleanup project announced by the Nigerian government in 2016. But two years on, as of November 2018, the so-called Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project was yet to kick off.
The Niger Delta is the third largest wetland in the world and the largest river delta and mangrove ecosystem in Africa. Spread over 30,000 square miles, the Delta's network of islands, mangroves, freshwater swamps and rainforests, along with the rich coastal waters it merges into, once made it among the most biodiverse regions on Earth. It is home to several International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List species including some endemic or near-endemic animals, such as Home's hinge-back tortoise, the Niger Delta red colobus monkey and the Niger Delta or Heslop's pygmy hippopotamus. It is also home to nearly 30 million people of more than 40 ethnic groups, including the Ogoni, making it one of the most densely populated regions of Nigeria. Sixty percent of the Delta residents are subsistence farmers and fishermen.
Oil was first discovered in the Niger Delta in the small community of Oloibiri in Bayelsa State in 1956 by a joint Shell-British Petroleum operation. (Nigeria was a British protectorate at the time.) Nigeria joined the ranks of oil producers in 1958 when its first oil field in Oloibiri began pumping out 5,100 barrels of oil per day. Soon other international oil companies, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, Elf from France, Agip Group from Italy and the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), joined the fray. Today, the Delta is pockmarked with over 600 oil fields. With some 28.2 billion barrels of crude reserves and a production capacity of 2.5 million barrels per day, the Delta's oil makes Nigeria one of the largest oil producers in Africa and the sixth largest in the world. According to NNPC, oil production and export accounts for 90% of Nigeria's gross earnings of $375.8 billion (as of 2017).
But as the fate of Goi shows, this oil money - which has long flowed into the coffers of multinationals and the Nigerian government, but rarely into local Delta communities - has come at a heavy ecological and social cost. More than half a century of poorly regulated extraction has left the Delta's waterways, land, vegetation and air so polluted with crude oil, drilling wastes and noxious gases that the Niger Delta is now considered one of the most severely oil-damaged environments in the world.
In 2011, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released the first (and to date, only) large-scale scientific study of pollution in the Delta. And even that study, which identified 41 sites where oil had entered wells and underground water supplies, focused only on Ogoniland, though many other areas across the vast region have been severely impacted as well. Based on a two-year investigation, the report found widespread soil and water contamination, sometimes more than 40 years after oil was spilled.
Recurrent oil spills - due to leaks during processing, from corroded transport pipelines, poor maintenance of infrastructure, and from vandalism and widespread oil theft known locally as 'bunkering' - are the main drivers of this pollution. While there are no consistent figures available, in 2013 researchers estimated that nearly 546 million gallons of oil spilled into the Niger Delta over five decades, equivalent to nearly 11 million gallons every year, of which only a negligible amount was ever cleaned up. This estimate does not include many other spills that have gone unreported. By comparison, BP's 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, which made headlines across the world for months, spilled 2.10 million gallons into the Gulf of Mexico.
The UNEP report said the Ogoniland spills alone would take up to 30 years and $1 billion to clean up. But that assessment is already seven years old, and spills continue to occur at alarming rates in the Delta to this day. A 2018 Amnesty International report shows that two of the largest companies operating in the Delta, Shell and Eni of Italy, reported over 1,800 oil spills in the region between 2011 and 2017. And rising rates of bunkering - which involves breaking into a pipeline, causing oil to spew out under pressure - and 'artisanal' backyard refining by locals to turn the crude into cheap diesel and kerosene have further despoiled an already degraded environment. The refining process leaves a residual toxic sludge that is usually dumped into the creeks. Accidental fires in bunkered areas often incinerate vast areas of forest and mangrove, while the military's tactic of blowing up the informal refineries it finds creates yet more damage.
Stealing crude, however, is now a complex $9 billion business that employs around 26,000 people and involves armed militia, international cartels and payoffs to the security forces, says a report by the Niger Delta Environment and Relief Foundation. The report found that only 20% of the stolen oil goes into local illegal refining; the rest is exported. 'Those who export 80% of the stolen oil are not poor people, they are connected to the political and military establishment as well as the oil bureaucracy,' it notes. According to 2018 estimates, Nigeria loses about 10-15% of its oil, about 200,000 barrels per day, to theft each year.
Meanwhile, gas flaring from production wells - a cheap method of burning off natural gas, which is a byproduct of drilling - spews millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the air and brings about acid rain. Though flaring was made illegal in Nigeria in 1984, there are still about 100 continuously burning flares in the Delta, according to Friends of the Earth Netherlands. Some of these flares have been burning since the 1960s. According to Nigeria's environment ministry, oil companies in Nigeria flare over 313 million standard cubic feet of gas annually, which results in the emission of 16.5 million tons of carbon dioxide. As a result of industry pressure, the federal government has continued to push back the deadline for an end to gas flaring.
The impact of this hellish pollution has been devastating on wildlife and local communities that can no longer depend on the land to sustain them or even keep them healthy. Alagoa Morris of Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria says the loss of arable land and clean water has escalated hunger, deprivation and poverty, and contributed to high rates of disease and physical, mental and social malaise among Delta communities.
In a textbook example of the resource curse, more than 70% of the Delta people live below the poverty line. Less than 50% of the communities here have electricity, running water, clean drinking water, sanitation, or access to healthcare and schools. Per capita income in the Delta is far below the national average of $1,661.41, with nearly half of the population here making between $0.20 and $4 a day.
The pollution has also had acute and long-term effects on human health. Illnesses ranging from skin diseases to asthma to cancer are common. And studies have shown a significant drop in farm yields. The crops that do grow absorb some of the crude oil, and the small number of fish that remain in these oil-slicked waters smell of crude as well. Still, people feed on these crops and fish, and drink the contaminated water, because they have no other alternative.
'Anybody that lives in those deeply polluted Niger Delta communities can be sure that at least 20 years have dropped from their lifespan. The hazard is great,' says Best Ordinoha, professor of community medicine and public health at the University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Average life expectancy in the Delta is 40 to 43 years, way below the national average of mid-60s.
The unborn and infants haven't been spared either. A 2017 study found that infants born to women who lived within six miles of oil spills were twice as likely to die early, and the ones who survived were more likely to have impaired health. The researchers found that even spills that had happened five years before conception doubled the neonatal mortality rate from 38 deaths to 76 deaths for every 1,000 births.
For Friday Belief of Bodo, one of the largest villages in Ogoniland, these numbers are more than statistics. When the 30-year-old - who makes a living gathering and selling periwinkle snails from the local creeks - got pregnant in 2016, she feared her baby would die. 'There were many other women also in our job who have lost many of their babies that way,' she says. Many of the women, including Belief, who wade through the creeks in search of the snails suffer from various ailments including rashes, itchy eyes, breathing issues, coughs, fevers and severe stomach aches. Concerned about the health of her baby, Belief went to a doctor, who warned her to stay away from the creeks. With several mouths to feed at home, including her older children, that wasn't an option. Even the doctor requires money from you, she says. On 20 April 2017, Belief gave birth to an underweight boy who died within six hours. 'The doctor told me . he could not cope with all I have been inhaling from the creek,' she says, her eyes brimming up.
'I was told by a doctor that a lot of people in the area are dying of oil pollution,' says Hilde Brontsema, communications officer of Friends of the Earth Netherlands, who visited the Delta in September. 'First, because they are drinking polluted water, eating polluted food, and everything is toxic. But it's not just that. It's also because there is no free healthcare and they have no money to buy medicines. So if people fall ill, they just lie at home quietly and hope it will pass.'
Since the early 1990s, many Delta communities, especially the Ogoni and the Ijaw, have tried time and again to push back against the exploitation of their land by the government and the oil companies and demand a cleanup of the land and more equitable distribution of oil revenues. These protests, which were at times violent, were brutally suppressed by state security forces. By 2006, these tensions led to armed revolt and the militarisation of nearly the entire region as ethnic militias - loosely grouped together as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta - fought against Nigerian military and police forces.
In 2009, the Nigerian government reached a ceasefire with the militant groups demanding resource control and environmental justice. The peace deal included monthly stipends for some 30,000 former fighters, job training and lucrative security contracts to protect pipelines. But environmental and human rights groups allege that the true aim of the deal was to coopt the young militia leaders. It has had little trickle-down effect and has ended up creating a new class of wealthy young men who have captured the development schemes. Meanwhile, the stipends have turned into an unsustainable cash-for-peace bargain. In 2016, when stipends were not paid for several months due to a recession following a crash in global oil prices, and Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari hinted at winding the scheme down, many of the ex-rebels began to reassemble in new groups, such as the Niger Delta Avengers, Red Scorpions and the Niger Delta Greenland Justice Movement, and resumed their attacks on oil installations. The groups scaled back their activities after the government granted arrears and resumed payments.
More than a decade of militancy in the region, though born of the genuine suffering of the people, has done little to improve the lives of the general populace. In fact, the state of the environment as well as that of the people is worse than before. 'It's certainly not a place that's moving forward in a good way,' says Scott Pegg, a politics professor at Indiana University who has been following the Ogoni rights movement for 20 years. 'A lot of kids are being born and have nothing much to look forward to.'
The courts have offered some recourse, but not much. Hundreds of minor cases regarding oil spills and pollution are brought each year in Nigerian courts. More than 1,000 court cases have been filed against Shell alone since the 1980s, since it is the largest oil and gas company in Nigeria. But almost all these cases are either thrown out, settled for small sums or remain stuck in the legal system for years. Even when the courts rule against the companies and order hefty fines, the companies file appeals that can drag on and on, and more often than not, the compensation money never reaches the impacted communities.
Dooh's father took Shell to a Nigerian court in 1997 to demand compensation and a cleanup of Goi's farms and rivers. Much like other cases, that one has been dragging on for 21 years. Meanwhile, the spills got worse and the family business collapsed. In 2012, Dooh's father and three other Ogoni villagers, together with Friends of the Earth Netherlands, filed a separate suit against Shell for the damage caused by the Trans-Niger pipeline spills between 2004 and 2009 at a civil court in The Hague, where the company has its joint global headquarters. A few months later, troubled by blindness, a persistent cough and lung diseases - illnesses that had become common in the region - Dooh's father passed away and Dooh took up his father's role in the appeal.
In January 2013, the court found Shell guilty of causing pollution on the land of one plaintiff, Friday Alfred Akpan, and rejected the demands of the remaining three farmers. Shell appealed this decision, while Friends of the Earth Netherlands and the Nigerians appealed the rejection of the demands of the remaining three farmers. The ruling for Akpan was unique, and Friends of the Earth hopes the case will open the door to more compensation claims against multinational corporations. In December 2015, the appeals court in The Hague rejected Shell's appeal and allowed Friends of the Earth and the four villagers to proceed with their suit.
'The case is starting again in 2019, maybe sometime in April,' says Brontsema of Friends of the Earth Netherlands, explaining that the delays were caused by the deaths of two of the plaintiffs, including Dooh's father, and a report the environmental group was writing about the state of Shell's pipelines in Ogoniland.
Friends of the Earth expects Shell to make its usual argument that most of the spills are caused by sabotage and oil thieves and that cleanups are hindered by violence in the region. 'For us it doesn't really matter if the spills are caused directly by Shell or not,' Brontsema says. 'We think that the fact that the rebels are there is also the fault of the oil industry. If you take away the people's land, if you take away their fish, they have no income anymore. Can you really blame them for doing anything to keep their family alive? We don't approve of violence, but Shell should accept the fact that this is the result of their own doing.'
The case against Shell in The Hague received an additional boost in 2015 when the company accepted liability in a separate lawsuit filed in London in 2011 by 15,000 Ogoni villagers from the Bodo community. That case involved oil spills from the same pipeline that caused over 100,000 barrels of crude oil to spill into Bodo's creeks and surrounding swamps in 2008. Shell agreed to pay the Bodo villagers $83 million to clean up their lands and creeks. After years of delays, the cleanup is currently underway, under the auspices of the internationally recognised Bodo Mediation Initiative (BMI). The Bodo cleanup, however, covers only about four square miles of Ogoniland. A larger, one-billion-dollar Ogoniland-wide cleanup, based on the recommendations of the 2011 UNEP report, was officially launched by President Buhari in 2016 and, after years of delay, was scheduled to begin in August 2018. At the time of writing, it has been pushed back to December, and it isn't clear yet whether work will actually begin then.
The Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP) in Ogoniland, devised by UN engineers, oil companies and the Nigerian government, and paid for by the shareholders of the Shell Petroleum Development Corporation Joint Venture, will involve mopping oil up from water bodies, building a soil management centre to process and clean tens of thousands of tons of contaminated soil, and replanting mangroves. The project, which will take about three decades to complete, is supposed to serve as a blueprint for remediating other oil-damaged areas in the Delta and to kickstart development in the region by creating a trained cleanup taskforce comprising Ogoni people.
However, implementing the project has proved politically, fiscally and administratively challenging for the Nigerian government. Human and environmental rights groups say that seven years after publication of UNEP's report, very little meaningful progress has been made to improve the situation on the ground. Even the few immediate emergency measures that UNEP had recommended - such as providing clean and safe drinking water for the Ogale people who have been consuming water with benzene at more than 900 times the World Health Organisation guidelines, and conducting a comprehensive medical examination of everyone who has consumed contaminated water - have not yet been implemented.
'It's a large-scale, complicated endeavour,' says Pegg. The delay 'could be because there are many bidders offering very different bids, it could be due to political infighting within Shell or the Nigerian government, or within the communities, or probably all of the above. There are a lot of people who want a piece of the action. More generally, Nigeria is not the easiest environment to do anything in.'
Like many others, Pegg is sceptical that HYPREP will achieve its intended goals. 'I'm relatively confident that some contracts will be awarded and some money will be spent. I think what is extremely highly in question is how good a job [will be] done, and how close to anything like international standards it will be,' he says. 'The political leadership of the Niger Delta are culpable: very selfish, busy expanding their private estates at the expense of the people, communities, region and environment,' adds Morris of Environmental Rights Action.
Back in Goi, Dooh is gearing up for the next round of his legal battle with Shell in The Hague. He says he's fighting not just for his family but for all the people of the Delta.
'Look at me: The son of a wealthy man has now inherited poverty. A job creator turned a job seeker. I find it very difficult sending the kids to school and feeding my family,' he says, standing inside his abandoned bakery, tapping the rusted dough mixer. 'My father fought for this all his life but he died without seeing justice. I have been on this fight after him and I won't lose hope. Even if I die, my children would take up the fight.'
Orji Sunday, who contributes to Al Jazeera, The Guardian and many other local and international publications, is a Nigeria-based freelance journalist who covers global health, the environment, development and politics. This article was first published in Earth Island Journal (Winter 2019).
*Third World Resurgence No. 335/336, 2018, pp 2-6