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Why oil is a humanitarian issue for Nigeria’s new president

‘What the communities are asking for is that they clean up the mess, compensate the people, and restore their environment to what it was before they came in.’

Two men are on a canoe. The water around them is polluted with oil resulting from a recent spill an oil spill in Santa Barbara, Nembe Bayelsa, Nigeria, November 25, 2021. Temilade Adelaja/Reuters
The majority of oil spills have been in Nigeria's Bayelsa state. This spill in the state's Santa Barbara oilfields, photographed here in November 2021, left the area heavily polluted.

High on the list of priorities for Nigerian President-elect Bola Tinubu is how to revive Nigeria’s troubled oil industry – the source of so much of the country’s wealth, but also a curse that has poisoned the environment, triggered violent unrest, and is now the subject of several lawsuits.

Few countries on the face of the planet have suffered more from pollution than Nigeria, and in particular its oil-rich Delta region. Spillages – year after year – have devastated one of Africa’s most diverse ecosystems, a fragile patchwork of wetlands and mangrove swamps. 

Divided by resource disputes stoked by oil extraction, farming and fishing communities that long prospered in the region have become far poorer and far sicker. And with these traditional occupations all but gone, the loss of livelihoods for a mass of young people has helped spur the growth of an alternative illicit industry of kidnapping, oil theft, and high-seas piracy.

Trillions of dollars have been earned by the government and the oil majors over the course of a more than six-decade partnership. During the years of peak production, when more than two million barrels a day were being pumped from the lush Niger Delta, Nigeria earned at least $80 billion annually.

Those days have passed. Not only has oil production slumped, but four of the top five energy companies operating in the country – Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Eni – have indicated their intention to sell off all their remaining onshore and shallow water fields assets. Only TotalEnergies has yet to make clear its plans.

“We may be changing the continent of our portfolio but this is because we intend to focus future investment in Nigeria on deep water exploration and production,” Shell Nigeria’s chair, Osagie Okunbor, said in the statement on the company’s website.

The oil majors ostensible reason for leaving is the need to curtail the environmental impact of petroleum production toward their net-zero obligations.

In reality, however, they’re not only escaping a surge in sabotage, oil theft, and an environment deeply scarred by oil mining, but also the threat of litigation launched by local communities – litigation that is finally beginning to have an impact.


Go, but pay

Before they leave, communities are demanding they pay any outstanding compensation for the environmental damage already wrought. 

“When you’ve created a hazardous situation, you can’t leave as you wish,” Chima Williams, executive director of Environmental Rights Action (ERA), the Nigerian affiliate of Friends of the Earth, told The New Humanitarian. “What the communities are asking for is that they clean up the mess, [compensate] the people, and restore their environment to what it was before they came in.”

According to government figures, there were more than 7,000 spill incidents in the Delta between 1970 and 2000, which discharged an estimated 9-13 million barrels of crude into the environment. 



Leakages accelerated more recently with close to 8,000 spills between 2006 and 2019, according to a study by Nigerian researchers published in the December 2020 edition of the journal, Environmental Pollution. That contrasts with the situation in Europe, where an average of 10 oil spills a year were recorded between 1971 and 2011.

For 20 years, Fidelis Ledorsi had combined fishing and farming with some success in his hometown of Goi, in the region’s Ogoniland. That was until one day in 2006 when the residents of this rainforest community woke up to see the nearby Goi River, which surrounds their farms and fish ponds, brimming with crude oil.  


“We lost our livelihood; we lost everything.”

A major trunk pipeline transporting oil for Shell from onshore fields to the Bonny export terminal on the Atlantic coast had ruptured overnight and spilt its contents. It left the air thick with the acrid fumes of crude oil, sending residents fleeing in the knowledge that a fire could break out at the slightest spark.    
“We lost our livelihood; we lost everything,” Ledorsi told The New Humanitarian. “My cassava farm and two fish ponds, and the river where I had fished since I was a child, were all drenched in oil.”   
The village ultimately had to evacuate because the oil slick had made the place uninhabitable. Those affected got no compensation because Shell, the operator of the pipeline, said the break had been caused by sabotage. Nigerian law only allows compensation for spills caused by equipment failure or pipe corrosion.


A history of exploitation

The Niger Delta has played a crucial historical role in Nigeria’s relations with the rest of the world over the past five centuries. During the trans-Atlantic slave trade, ports from Calabar to Warri became key points for the transport of human cargo. Then, just as the slave trade waned, the region became known as the “Oil Rivers” for its abundant supply of palm oil that greased the wheels of Europe’s industrial revolution.   
That was well before Shell struck its first oil at Oloibiri in Bayelsa state in 1956, setting off an onshore scramble for Nigeria’s sweet “Bonny” crude and propelling the country on the path to becoming Africa’s largest producer.


“The UNEP study concluded it would cost $2 billion just to clean up in Ogbono – one district that represents a small fraction of the entire Delta.”


Ledorsi’s story, and that of his village, are typical of the impact of the oil industry in the Delta. At least 5,280 oil wells have been sunk there, linked to more than 7,000 kilometres of pipelines. The infrastructure, which is prone to leaks – and the associated 24-hour gas flaring – disrupts the lives of more than 1,500 agricultural communities, according to data from Shell and the Petroleum Ministry. 

The ecological impact is recorded in the quality of the air and water, and the soil people rely on to grow their food. There are well-above-normal levels of lead, cadmium, chromium, and nickel in several Delta rivers, according to a study by the environmental chemistry department of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, based in the southeastern city of Awka. 

A 2011 report by the United Nations Environment Programme found that levels of the carcinogen benzene exceeds the level recommended by the World Health Organization. The region’s life expectancy, at 41, is a decade lower than the national average. 

The UNEP study concluded it would cost $2 billion just to clean up in Ogbono – one district that represents a small fraction of the entire Delta.


Legal redress

Delta communities, working with the support of environmental advocacy groups, have been fighting back. The Aghoro community in Bayelsa state, which is seeking $1.5 billion from Shell in compensation for a 2018 spill, got a court injunction in June last year restraining any asset sale pending the suit’s determination. 

The Nigerian Supreme Court, where Shell is appealing a $1.7 billion award to the Ejama-Ebubu community, has also asked that Shell stop any disinvestment sales for now.

For decades, a major impediment communities faced was the partnership between the government and the oil majors. Government officials and agencies typically view any attempt by the communities to assert their rights as opposition and disruption of economic activity. If such opposition manifested itself as protests and demonstrations, the response has often been a heavy-handed crackdown by the security forces.

Read more: Crude awakening: Can oil benefit the people of the Niger Delta? 

Affected communities and environmentalist groups have sought to overcome this by taking legal action against the energy companies in their home countries. ERA in 2008 filed a suit against Shell in The Netherlands on behalf of four farmers, including one from Goi, and three from other spill sites. The Court of Appeal in The Hague upheld Shell's liability in January 2021, ordering a compensation payment of $16 million to the four farmers.   
A month later, the UK Supreme Court made a ruling allowing farming and fishing communities in the oil region to seek legal redress in the UK against Shell for environmental damage caused by its Nigerian subsidiary. 

The UK legal firm Leigh Day is currently representing more than 13,000 people and organisations in the Niger Delta who have filed loss of livelihood claims against Shell at the High Court in London.   
Some Nigerian courts have also given stern rulings against the oil companies. One example is the award against Shell to the Ejama-Ebubu community, which is for a spill that dates back more than 50 years. 


New smaller players can’t clean up

As the leading international energy companies depart the onshore and shallow-water fields, smaller Nigerian independents are moving to take their place, snapping up the assets on sale amid concerns they lack the technical capacity to deal with the environmental fallout. An oil blowout from a field in the Nembe district of Bayelsa in 2021 owned by the Nigerian firm Aiteo spewed hydrocarbons into the environment for more than four weeks before it was finally brought under control. The delay in staunching the flow was because the company had to fly in experts from outside Nigeria.


“Much of the blowback will remain domestic and will remain a political headache for the incoming Tinubu administration.”


These spills in the smaller fields that Nigerian companies are buying might not generate the same international headlines that blighted the record of the oil majors. But they are happening in a politically significant region and will still have repercussions for Nigeria’s new president, who is due to be sworn in on 29 May.

“The risk of increased oil spills and other forms of environmental degradation remains elevated,” Ikemesit Effiong, head of research at Lagos-based business advisory group SBM Intelligence, told The New Humanitarian. “Much of the blowback will remain domestic and will remain a political headache for the incoming Tinubu administration.”

Much of the recent ecological damage has also been due to the region’s restiveness. Armed groups demanding greater control of the area’s oil wealth began attacking oil facilities, as well as the security forces, in the 1990s. The unrest only eased with a 2009 amnesty deal and the creation of a Delta development fund.

But there’s still a pool of hands willing to join the pirates roaming the region’s waters, the militant groups that still take up arms from time to time, and the criminal gangs refining stolen crude in makeshift bush refineries that cause further untold harm to the environment. One telltale sign is the soot that settles quickly on any surface in the city of Port Harcourt, the byproduct of the cauldrons of oil cooking in the many illegal refineries at work in the surrounding countryside.


“It’s really a vicious circle for the Niger Delta and its people,” Fyneface Dunmamene, who heads the Port Harcourt-based Youths and Environmental Advocacy Centre, which seeks to protect the region’s ecology, told The New Humanitarian. “Most of the youths who can no longer fish or farm profitably have taken to one oil-related crime or the other that end up further compounding the problem.”

Edited by Obi Anyadike.

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