For six hours, Arinze CHIJIOKE travelled on water from Sapele to Opuama, a community in Delta State, to report the impact of an oil spillage that left many families in tears.
THE time was 10am in late March. Over 60 women, old and young, gathered outside the house of 90-year-old Julius Loboh, the oldest man in Opuama, a community in Egbema Kingdom, Warri North local government in Delta State.
“We are dying. There is no food. Our fishes are dead. Our trees are dead. We can’t take it any longer,” the women cried as they got ready to protest the latest oil spill that left one dead and many, especially children, suffering from varying kinds of sicknesses.
Their men had gathered earlier to continue discussions on what to do next after the spill.
Soon, the women got on boats and headed towards the Opuama flow station operated by the Nigeria Petroleum Development Company, NPDC, and Elcrest Exploration and Production, E&P Joint Venture, the companies said to be responsible for the spill.
This is the third time Opuama is experiencing oil spillage; the first happened in 2002 while the second was in 2009. But the latest spillage has proven to be the most devastating in terms of its spread and impact. In its aftermath, children were stooling and vomiting, severe headaches, stomach pain and cough.
Endless spills in the Niger Delta
Nigeria is said to be the largest exporter of oil in Africa and these exports account for at least 90% of the country’s foreign exchange and more than half of government revenue.
A report by the Nigeria Bureau of Statistics (NBS) showed that crude oil export accounted for N3.74 trillion or 70.84 per cent of total exports in the third quarter of 2019, while its contribution to the Gross Domestic Products (GDP) stood at 9.77%.
This makes it the most exported product in Nigeria, with bulk crude oil lying beneath farmlands and rivers in the Niger Delta region.
Sadly, more than six decades of oil spills and gas flaring have transformed the region, home to over 6.5 million local people whose livelihoods depend on fishing and farming, into one of the most polluted places on earth. These spills have left fishing habitat, swamps, agricultural land, groundwater, waterways, and more in ruins.
Nnimmo Bassey, an environmental rights activist, says the Niger Delta is where oil spills occur virtually every day.
After Shell discovered and first pumped oil in Bayelsa in the late 1950s, several international oil companies have exploited Nigeria’s oil reserve from across the Niger Delta.
While over two million barrels of oil have polluted the region in 2,976 separate oil spills since 1976, about 300 oil spills occur in the region every year. In 2011, a spill at Shell’s Bonga oil fields released 40,000 barrels.
Over 350 farming communities were affected, and 30,000 fishermen were forced to abandon their livelihoods.
The people of the Niger Delta have practically watched their future drain away as a result of oil spillage.
How it all happened
At exactly 4 am on Sunday, March 14, while families were still asleep, the major crude oil pipeline from the Opuama flow station under oil mining lease (OML) 40 and operated by the NPDC and Elcrest E&P Joint Venture ruptured, spilling gas over the community.
Immediately, the news went round that no one should light up a fire, else the entire community would go up in flames.
The entire Opuama River turned green.
The Public Relations Officer, PRO of Opuama Oil and Gas Committee set up to look into cases of oil spillage, Kintein Chico, said the spill was reported to the company and they immediately shut down the operation and gave instruction that nobody should tamper with the spill.
“But a lot of damage had been done by the spill. It covered the whole river so much that you cannot even stand at the river bank. We couldn’t even come out of our houses till the next day,” he explained.
The worse hit was the family of Anthony Ebiogbo, a member of the community who died a day after the spill. He had inhaled the gas.
He was said to have complained that he had a headache and that his eyes were itchy that Sunday while he was inside his tent.
Community members quickly got medication for him. But he died on Monday and was buried the same day.
He had only returned from Lagos, where he was selling Timber six months ago.
The spill inflicted different kinds of illnesses on children in the community. After inhaling the gas, they began to have severe headache, stomach pain, and cough, stooling and vomiting.
They were taken to Cottage Hospital owned by the NPDC and Elcrest and Alekoromoh, another privately owned hospital, where they were treated.
It has been endless tears for David Ebiogbo
At the entrance to the tent, just by the door side, where late Anthony Ebiogbo would normally sit and discuss with his friends, David Ebiogbo (Anthony’s younger brother) reminisced about the times they shared.
David said his brother would not have died if not for the oil spillage that ravaged his community. He said his late brother inhaled the gas after coming out that Sunday morning and couldn’t breathe.
“He held his head and was shouting. We tried to save his life. But he later died, he died,” he said.
Since then, David has not stopped grieving. He misses his brother with much pain in his heart and wishes he were still alive.
“I never imagined that Anthony would die because of the spill that covered our community, “he said, tears welling up in his tired eyes.
What is also worrying for David is that his elder brother had 13 children with two wives before he died. Although some of them have left home, he said it would not be easy for the family to cope without their father.
“If we knew he would come back and die, we would have asked him to stay back. But he is gone now,” he said, trying to hold back tears.
Economic impact of the spill
The Opuama spill polluted water bodies and slums, killing a lot of fishes and damaging the ecosystem.
This is highly worrying for members of the community who mostly depend on fishing and timber from their forests for survival.
Before the spill, members of the community only had to walk up to the river, cast their nets and come back for a full harvest of fish the next day. It was a huge source of income for many families.
But now, there is nothing to harvest. There is nothing to sell. There is nothing to eat. Families who can afford it have to wait for boats coming from Sapele before getting fish or travel to buy.
There is the cost of transportation. There is the risk involved in travelling on the water for hours. There is the stress.
Anytime there is no boat, there is no fish.
Oghene Ovo has been married in this community for over 40 years now. But she plans to return to Okpe in Sapele, where she comes from. She said she could no longer bear the hardship inflicted by the spill anymore.
The day it happened, she was fast asleep, and when she perceived the smell of gas, she thought it was an electrical fault.
After some time, she found it difficult to turn her body and breath. She quickly woke up.
“That was when my neighbour came into my tent to tell me that gas had spilt in the community. I had to go and get drugs,” she explained.
When the day finally broke, and Ovo and other community members came out of their tents, they could not see water, and gas had covered everywhere.
“Our fishes died. The spill flowed into our creeks and killed a lot of them. Our nets were empty”. Now, we are suffering to get fish”. We now have to pay N1,500 to get a carton of fish from Sapele. We are hungry. From morning till night, there is nothing to chew,” she lamented.
Hannah didn’t know her son would survive the spill
When 24-year- old Hannah Uwale perceived the smell of gas at exactly 4 am that Sunday, she quickly ran out of her bed. Her 6-month-old son, Ayibasinla Uwale, had already started coughing.
Her mother, Tennade Omoko, ignorant of what was going on, had woken up to lit up fire and boil water as she was wont to do.
“When my uncle, Godffrey Omoke, heard her trying to put fire, he quickly called from his room and asked her not to put fire as gas had covered up the entire community, “she said.
At 7 am, the cough had become severe, and she quickly ran to a chemist shop to buy him some cough syrup.
By Monday, the cough reduced and Uwale, who teaches in a private school, left her son with her mother. It was her turn to conduct the morning assembly that Monday.
But she had only finished saying the morning prayer and was about to take the national anthem when her cousin ran to where she was standing and said her mom was calling her.
“I thought she just wanted to see me and asked my cousin to go and that I would join them later,” she said.
Unknown to her, her son had started coughing again. “When we started the matching song, my mom came with my child. He was coughing hard. His eyes were closed, and my mom was crying,” she explained.
Immediately, Uwale took her son from her mother and ran to the chemist, where he was given several drips before his eyes opened. He only recovered after one week.
Ishmael fell at his school’ assembly ground
On Monday, a day after the spillage that ravaged his community, 10-year-old Goodluck Ishmael went to school, like every other child. He attends Stanley Dickson Samuel Devine nursery and primary school, Opuama.
While they were at the assembly ground and getting ready to go into their classes, Ishmael fell to the ground. He had inhaled the gas and become dizzy, losing control of himself.
Ishmael’s mom, Maria Ishmael, 35, said her son’s school had to go on break after he fell. She said she and her husband were surprised when they heard that their son had fallen in school because he wasn’t sick before he left home that Monday morning.
“When he fell, his teachers helped him up and one of them quickly called and said my child had fainted. Before my husband and I got to his school, we saw them carrying him and we rushed him to Akekoromoh clinic,” Ishmael’s mom said.
Ishmael was given some medication at the clinic, and the doctor confirmed that he had inhaled the gas.
He became well again. But weeks later, while his mother and other women had gone to protest at the flow station of the NPDC and Elcrest E&P, he started throwing up and stooling.
“My husband called to tell me that he had taken my son to the hospital and that I should come back. He was stooling and vomiting. At the clinic, we were told that he still had the gas in his system,” she explained.
Oil Spills and increased newborn mortality
A study by the University of Sankt Gallen in Switzerland, “The Effect of Oil Spills on Infant Mortality: Evidence from Nigeria,” has found that oil spills that occur within this 10-kilometre radius of human habitation increase the neonatal mortality rate by 38 deaths per 100,000 live births.
Using spatial data from the Nigerian Oil Spill Monitor and the Demographic and Health Surveys and relying on the comparison of siblings conceived before and after nearby oil spills, the study found that the chemicals can also be dangerous for unborn children in the region if their mothers live too close to an oil spill before the pregnancy begins.
The same study also estimated that in 2012 alone, 16,000 babies died within the first month of life because of oil pollution in the Niger Delta. Generally, children in this region grow up drinking, cooking and washing with polluted water.
Companies could be held responsible, but they don’t care
In 2008, four farmers from Oruma, Goi, and Ikot Ada Udo villages in Rivers and Bayelsa states, with backing from Friends of the Earth Netherlands, an environmental campaign group, instituted lawsuits against Shells Nigerian subsidiary, the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC) in a Dutch court.
This was after leaks from underground oil pipelines cost them their livelihoods by contaminating land and waterways between 2004 and 2007.
On Friday, January 29, 13 years after, the court ordered the SPDC to pay a yet-to-be-established compensation, faulting the company for the environmental destruction caused by pipeline leaks in the affected villages.
While Shell said the leaks resulted from “sabotage” and criminal activities, the court said it could not establish beyond a reasonable doubt that saboteurs were to blame for leaks that spewed oil over an area of a total of about 60 football pitches in Oruma and Goi.
It, however, ruled that sabotage was to blame for an oil leak in the village of Ikot Ada Udo but insisted that the case over whether Shell was liable would continue.
Although the victory meant that farmers and others who have watched their livelihoods slip away in the Niger Delta could get justice, “getting the companies to behave better is an ongoing battle “Bassy, the Director Health of Mother Earth Foundation, HOMEF said.
He said the judgment at The Hague should be a signal to Nigerian and Transnational Oil Corporations to stop their misbehaviour in the Niger Delta.
“It is not like the people of Niger Delta are always looking for cases to take to court to get compensation. They want a clean environment. With the judgement, it was hoped that companies would behave better. But we are yet to see that happen”.
Alagba purged endlessly
Mathew Alagba is the prophet in charge of the Celestial Church of Christ in Opuama. He spoke of how he purged endlessly after he inhaled gas that Sunday Morning.
He said he would have died if he had not been taken to a hospital outside the community to receive medical attention.
“I started purging from 9 pm on Sunday till Monday morning. It was more than nine times. I had a Cold that Sunday night, and that got my wife worried. She had to go and call some elders in the church,” he said.
When the elders got to his house and saw him lying down helplessly, they quickly sent for a community doctor who came and ran some tests on him. His blood pressure had gone up as a result.
“He started administering treatment on me. He gave me injections and other medications from that Sunday through Wednesday. On Thursday morning, he gave me the last injection and left,” he said.
Five minutes after the doctor left, Alagba began to shiver again. He was all alone this time. His wife had gone out. After boiling and taking warm water, he called one of his members, who ran down immediately.
“Other members came too. I asked them to take me to Warri that Thursday. They quickly went and got a speedboat, bought fuel and rushed me to Warri. When we got to the clinic, where I would always go for treatment, they said my temperature was very high.
Alagba was told that gas had occupied his entire system. His legs were shaking. He had to receive further treatment. The doctor said he needed to be admitted for seven days.
“They started to flush my system. At a point, my temperature calmed down a little. Every five minutes, I was releasing gas because of the treatment they were giving me. I received an injection through my veins. The stooling reduced, and they told me I had Malaria and Typhoid,” he explained.
Alagba is better now.
Accusations and denials
It is almost one month after the spill in Opuama. But there has not been effort by the companies who own the ruptured pipeline to clean up the environment.
The PRO of Opuama Oil and Gas Committee, Chico, said the companies recently brought food items to help them deal with hunger.
When this reporter visited, the spills were still floating on top of the water as community members watched helplessly.
But while they blamed the companies for the spill during a joint Inspection visit, which usually happens after incidents of oil spillage, the companies blamed it on saboteurs.
“The companies have not done anything to help deal with the effects of the spill. They said they could not pay since there was a third party,” Chico said, adding that they asked the community to sign the JIV report after blaming the spill on the third party. But the people refused.
When travelling to the community, boats are subjected to security checks by soldiers at least three military checkpoints who ensure that no boat carrying anything incriminating is allowed to pass.
Chico says this is enough to prove that the spillage resulted from equipment failure and not sabotage as claimed by the companies. “If it was sabotage, how did those responsible pass the checkpoints with whatever materials they used to destroy the pipeline,” he asked.
“This is usually the outcome of JIV visits. They would always blame the spills on criminal activities, “Bassy said.
He added that the most solid effort that has been made in terms of clean up in the Niger Delta was through the Hydrocarbon Pollution and Remediation Project (HYPREP) set up by the Federal government in 2016 to restore the environment and restore the livelihood of the people.
This was after the United Nations Environmental Programme, UNEP, commissioned by the government, conducted an assessment on the impact of oil extraction in Ogoni Land and made recommendations in 2011.
The report found that both soil and groundwater across Ogoniland have been severely contaminated even as public health was threatened by contaminated drinking water and carcinogens. It also found out that Delta ecosystems such as mangroves had been utterly devastated.
“That is the only comprehensive effort that is made. It is still ongoing and happening slowly”. Whenever there is an oil spill, the corporations will tell you they have done the cleanup, “he explained.
He noted the emerging trend of companies giving the jobs of environmental clean up to local companies who do not have the competence.
“These days, they use the crudest methods, with buckets and shovels and hoes. We have not had adequate clean up anywhere in the Niger Delta operations of Oil extraction commenced”.
Rising in arms
This is not the first time companies are being accused of contaminating the Niger Delta region through leaks from oil exploration and failing to compensate families and clean up the environment.
Persistent spills in the oil-rich region had grown into a major source of nightmare.
On November 10, 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders were hanged by the military regime of late General Sani Abacha.
Their crime was fighting against oil pollution, which devastated their environment and inflicted poverty and disease on the people.
In 1990, Saro-Wiwa had co-founded the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), which launched mass campaigns to win compensation for environmental damages and demand that the region is given a fair share of oil profits.
25 years later, the killing of Wiwa and other leaders has watered the seeds of revolution against the Nigerian government and oil companies, leading to the rise of militant groups that attack and burn oil facilities and cause huge revenue losses.
Young men in the Niger Delta are demanding improved regulations and campaigning to restore their polluted land.
NPDC refuses to react to the spill
When contacted for comments on the Opuama Oil spill on March 6, the Manager, Community Relations of the NPDC, Dahiru Abubakar, refused to speak and asked this reporter to direct the questions to the External Relations Department. He could not provide the reporter with any contact details.
This reporter also contacted the Community Liaison Officer for the NPDC, Mr. Tom Abarigho, through a phone call on April 15. But he said he was not in the position to speak on the matter.
He, however, said that the company had given its position on the spill during the Joint Inspection Visit.
“I am not in the position to answer any question concerning the spill. If you want to ask those questions, you can channel it to the management of the NPDC,” he said.
Efforts to get through to the management of Elcrest could not yield any result as there was no access to the company’s contact.
The people of Opuama will not forget the month of March in a hurry. It will go down in history as the period when they lost a life to oil spillage.