IN SPITE of the overwhelming proportions of damages to farmlands, air, and water resources observed in Ogoniland by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the international organisation concluded in its 2011 report that all hope was not lost.
Though it may take between 25 and 30 years, “environmental restoration of Ogoniland is possible”, the report says. UNEP explains that, “the report contains numerous recommendations that, once implemented, will have an immediate and positive impact on Ogoniland”.
What UNEP recommended
Among the actions recommended by the United Nations agency are what they call emergency measures. These are eight in number and “from a duty of care point of view, warrant immediate action”. The government, it says, should ensure all drinking wells contaminated by hydrocarbons are marked to prevent further use, and provide adequate sources of drinking water to affected communities.
It also recommends signs are posted around all sites with contamination beyond intervention levels and around contaminated surface waters to prevent fishing and bathing. There should be a public awareness campaign against artisanal refining, and families whose rainwater samples tested positive to hydrocarbons should be discouraged from drinking from it.
The report further advises for the curbing of all sources of ongoing contamination, including artisanal refining in the creeks, before cleanup of the creeks, sediments, and mangroves can start. The swamplands and groundwater should be restored; and the government should set up an Integrated Contaminated Soil Management Centre in Ogoni, to create jobs for hundreds, as well as a Centre for Excellence for Environmental Restoration.
Then again, there should be a comprehensive medical examination and treatment of community members and a public health registry should be established for the entire Ogoniland to monitor health trends.
UNEP recommends for the government to set up an Ogoniland Environmental Restoration Authority (today known as the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project, HYPREP) with an initial capital injection of $1 billion.
“The Ogoni community should take full advantage of the employment, skills development and other opportunities that will be created by the clean-up operation which is aimed at improving their living conditions and livelihoods,” it says.
“Restoring the livelihoods and well being of future Ogoni generations is within reach,” it concludes, “but timing is crucial.”
Recommendation vs. implementation: two parallel lines?
The implementation of the report has not gone without great challenges. Top stakeholders in the kingdom continuously protest such shortcomings as the failure of HYPREP to consult the communities and carry them along, siting of cleanup projects (such as the Integrated Soil Management Centre) far away from the heavily affected communities, failure to execute the emergency measures bordering on empowerment, medical assistance and water provision, as well as perceived politicisation and marginalisation in the award of contracts.
A recent investigation, in fact, showed that a great number of the contractors have no remediation experience whatsoever. Some of the companies were set up for totally unrelated tasks such as “poultry farming, cars sales, textile dealership and fashion, palm-oil production, building design, and construction”.
The exercise has been described as slow, owing to tedious bureaucratic processes. There are also those who consider the UNEP report outdated since the condition of Ogoniland, between 2011 and the present time, must have worsened with oil spills and unregulated artisanal mining endlessly taking place.
“You are coming to start cleanup on oil that was found eight years ago,” observes Erabanabari Kobah, environmental scientist and chief executive officer of Citizens Resource Services. “I think there should be further studies to determine the extent of contamination at this point so you can effectively cater for it. If HYPREP did not go about any research, I wonder what baseline information they will hinge their activities upon.”
Summarising the key setbacks, former information officer of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), Bara-ara Kpalap, notes: “The UNEP report recommended what we call emergency measures. That is, before the remediation starts proper, there has to be some transitional measures like provision of alternative drinking water, health assessment of the people, placing of signposts at the areas that are badly contaminated and so on.”
“Currently, those transitional measures, nothing has happened to them. They have not been done till date,” he adds.
“Now, the communication linkage between HYPREP and the people is so poor, and because of that the people, particularly the rural dwellers, are in the dark about what is happening. They are not involved, they are not participating, and the people feel they are being excluded from the entire process. And, as a result of that, anger has risen in the area.”
He says even MOSOP, said to be the leading mass-based social movement of the indigenous people of Ogoni, has not been properly carried along by the project handlers.
NGOs to the rescue
Because of HYPREP’s inadequacy in fulfilling its mandate, a number of non-governmental organisations have had to fill what they can in the communication gap. One of them is the Kebetkache Women Development and Resource Centre, which creates awareness especially among women on what the cleanup is truly about.
“If you have gone to some communities, particularly in Eleme, Isisionken, those specifically mentioned in the UNEP report as having all their water bodies polluted, they turn up boreholes and then you can actually perceive diesel or kerosene from the water,” the founder, Emem Okon says. “Some of those communities claim HYPREP has not visited them, they have not been consulted, they don’t know what is going on.
“So that is why we, NGOs, take it upon ourselves, and also to campaign for peace because we know if there is no enabling environment for HYPREP to do what they are supposed to do, then the government will say community members did not give them access to implement the programme.”
Paramount rulers grumble
Traditional rulers in Ogoniland have also echoed many of the said challenges. Barisi Kpaama, the paramount ruler of Bara community and chairman of both the Gokana and Ogoni Councils of Paramount Rulers, observes that no proper HYPREP-led sensitisation has taken place at the grassroots, and says he doesn’t think the government is either ready or sincere.
If the cleanup isn’t done effectively, he warns, then it will lead to the gradual extinction of the entire Ogoni.
“The things that were required for the start of the clean-up appear to have been abandoned,” says the high chief. “We are fully informed that the UNEP recommended potable water for the Ogoni communities. But today that is not visible. The Centre of Excellence that was supposed to be built, we are not seeing it. And the world is hearing that UNEP Ogoni cleanup has commenced. It is funny to hear that.”
He adds: “They have actually entered into some communities, hoping to commence work. The paramount rulers are not aware. The youth are not aware. The people are not aware. So we see it as a calculated attempt to undermine the people of the Ogoni. And we also see that as a ploy, that maybe when there is a reaction the government will latch on that and say the place is not hospitable or conducive enough for them to carry on that job.”
Mene Fabian Gbelesu, the paramount ruler of Keedere, similarly complains of HYPREP never reaching out to him. He says he even does not fully understand the implications of the cleanup. “I understand that if you enter your house, when you talk of cleaning, it is to make your environment clean. That is what I understand by it. But no person ever told me the details or the implications of it.”
He also says contractors will not be allowed into his community unless at least one or two of their conditions are met, including providing scholarship grants to students, youth empowerment, medical care, power supply, water supply, road networks, and so on.
“How do you think that we will be hungry and they will come to our community where they’ve never done anything?” he asks. “The whole community will vex for them … If they cannot do at least some of those things, they should not bother to come to our own community.”
We deserve some applause, says HYPREP
The various complaints nonetheless, Marvin Dekil, HYPREP’s project coordinator, insists the body deserves credit for its numerous successes. For starters, he says, HYPREP has introduced 16 companies for the carrying out of on-site remediation in the four local governments.
“I’m also happy to announce to you that I just came back from IITA, where we trained the first set of companies… youths, on their livelihood scheme in a partnership, tripartite arrangement between HYPREP, IITA, and SDA. So we have 15 Ogoni youth now undergoing training at IITA centre in Onne,” he reveals.
Since its project coordination office was set up in April 2017, HYPREP has organised training for 45 scientists from Ogoniland who take care of the bulk of the project’s technical work, he says.
It also plans to train 400 Ogoni women on agro-based livelihood schemes, in collaboration with the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR). Dekil added that the project officers have continued to engage with the communities and robust sensitisation has taken place in different places in all four local governments.
The path to progress
Kabari Sam, head of Environment and Conservation at the Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD), believes the first step towards having an effective cleanup project is for HYPREP to immediately improve its communication strategy and mode of engagement. It also needs to vigorously strive for independence such that it is immune from the shock of administration changes, and as well work on a sustainable funding blueprint.
“We don’t have any document so to say that says that by August next year, NNPC, Shell, the refineries are going to contribute this amount of money for the next 25 years,” he laments. “There is no such document anywhere. And so Shell can decide to say, ‘Okay, this year we have not made that much profit so we do not have money to contribute to the clean-up process.’
“If we do not have that in place, we could have a sort of non-commitment in terms of finances from the government because up till now that we are speaking, the refineries have not contributed their part of the annual 200 million USD. So we are short of 200 million USD.”
He also recommends the drafting of Key Performance Indicators to be decided at a roundtable of all stakeholders and the setting up of an independent technical working group to monitor HYPREP’s activities and the performance of contractors. He stresses that everyone, including media organisations, civil society groups and community members have roles to play to ensure the project’s success.
Ken Ebiaridor, a project officer with Environmental Rights Action, an advocacy group, is confident that, with the right mentality, the cleanup can work. He believes the costs of failing are simply too enormous.
“If we don’t make this work,” he says, “then it may be that the Niger Delta will never be cleaned because this is a golden opportunity and we must put all hands on deck and ensure that it works.
“Let’s forget about the politics that people keep talking about, let’s forget that people have interests left and right, let’s forget that maybe the contractors may not suit one or two people’s profile or may not reach maybe those international standards we want; but we must make it work… it has to work.”
This report was developed using resources for a documentary produced by Oak TV.
'Kunle works with The ICIR as an investigative reporter and fact-checker. You can shoot him an email via firstname.lastname@example.org or, if you're feeling particularly generous, follow him on Twitter @KunleBajo.