Written by the Editorial Bard of The Guardian Newspaper
The consistent lamentations by various civil society groups over the plight of fishermen and peasant farmers in the oil-rich Niger Delta who have deserted their long-established fishing and farming occupations due to pollution of their environment appropriately capture the pains of the devastation of the ecosystem of the oil bearing communities.
Non-governmental organisations (NGO) have over the years appealed to pipeline vandals, militants, illegal oil bunkerers and indigenous and multinational oil companies to halt the destruction of the environment in the region through their activities, a position shared by all Nigerians and even the international community.
Vandalism of oil facilities by oil bunkerers and destruction of oil installations by aggrieved militants, no doubt, are impacting negatively on the environment and living standards.
The failure of multinational oil companies to adhere strictly to environmental best practices in the Niger Delta region coupled with the activities of pipeline vandals stealing oil are also affecting the region’s environment, with the result that fishermen and farmers are being forced out of their occupations.
The destruction of the once fertile Niger Delta and the negative impacts of that on people’s livelihood system are at the root of restiveness in the region. Added to this is the failure of the Federal Government to adequately address the plight of the ravaged communities, an inaction that has persisted for decades and given rise to militancy and vandalisation of oil pipelines.
A couple of weeks ago, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, expressed similar sentiments over the woes of the oil communities.
Different communities in the region have over the years registered their anger over the degradation of their environment. Many court cases have been instituted against the oil companies in an attempt to seek redress.
The verdict given not long ago by the Supreme Court against Shell for oil spills it caused in four Niger Delta communities of Obotobo, Sokebolo, Ofogbene (Enzon Brutu) and Ekeremor Zion (Ezon Ase) in which the company was ordered to pay some money was a typical example of the legal battles.
The horrible state of the oil communities is well known and has been at the root of armed agitations. The injustice to the people has drawn international attention. Decades of oil prospecting and exploitation have blighted the communities, leaving the inhabitants in pitiable condition with their livelihood systems devastated.
Oil pollution and gas flaring have degraded both land and water surfaces, thereby rendering fishing and farming impracticable.
Although, the Muhammadu Buhari administration recently launched the Ogoniland cleanup programme, as prescribed by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), real action is yet to commence, even, though the project represents a tip of the iceberg, given the magnitude of degradation and devastation in the entire region. The reclamation of Ogoni alone is billed to take 30 years.
The health implications are enormous. People would be dying from hunger and disease. Great opportunities would be lost in fishing, which is the natural occupation of the people. And foreign fishing companies are compounding the problem by fishing illegally in the region. This should be stopped.
It is strange that with the quantum of pollution in the Niger Delta, there has been no effective national response to tackle the problem and the people are left to bear the brunt of a degraded environment. Nigeria ought to follow the example of the national response given to the 2010 Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill in New Orleans. Shortly after the disaster, more than 1,000 scientists and public officials gathered in New Orleans to review scientific information on the short and long-term effects of the spill on the natural systems in the Gulf and on the people who live and work there. The gathering explored new fishing areas and new investments were made to ensure that neither the people nor the natural environment suffered as a result of the spill.
Such commitment and actions ought to be part of the peace-making process in the Niger Delta. Sadly enough, President Muhammadu Buhari has not even deemed it fit to visit the region to identify with the people even when he knows that his visit alone will send a strong message that his government understands the people’s plight.
The state governments in the Niger Delta should also take the lead in the effort to rehabilitate the people and restore their environment. They should stop waiting for the Federal Government to initiate every action. At least they should spearhead the moves for research into how to revive the fishing industry on which the people must live.