A polluted swamp and river in the Ogoni region of southeast Nigeria
The Nigerian government is finally starting a long delayed clean up of the area which first brought the neglect of the country’s oil-producing communities into the global spotlight.
Millions of barrels of oil have been spilt since oil was discovered in the southerly Niger Delta region in 1956, with much of the environmental destruction occurring in an area known as Ogoniland. Over the decades there have been thousands of spills, many as the result of oil theft and sabotage, but activists say companies including Royal Dutch Shell have consistently failed to prevent or clean up spills.
“This is a good moment for Nigeria,” said Ken Saro-Wiwa, son of the environmental and human rights activist of the same name who was executed in 1995 by military ruler Sani Abacha after his activism drew international attention to the damage to the livelihoods of people from the impoverished region.
“It is another vindication of the Ogoni agitation for a cleaner environment but today is part of a long process that began decades ago,” said Mr Saro-Wiwa.
A Shell-funded United Nations assessment published in 2011 concluded that most people in Ogoniland “have lived with chronic oil pollution throughout their lives”. The UN report recommended that the clean up be financed with initial funding of $1bn, to be provided by the government and oil companies, including Shell. The company’s Nigeria subsidiary, the Shell Petroleum Development Corporation (SPDC) is the largest onshore producer in the Delta.
Members of the Ogoni community and their advocates say that Goodluck Jonathan, the former president of Nigeria, did not push ahead with efforts to get the clean up going. Mr Jonathan hails from the Delta but, after his five years as president, there are few signs of improvement — such as roads or reliable electricity — in the region.
“There has been no clean up whatsoever since 2011,” said Daniel Leader, lead lawyer for Leigh Day in the two cases the London law firm has brought to the High Court in London on behalf of affected communities. “Precisely nothing happened except that computers and cars were purchased, a new government institution was created, people were employed then fired and there were multiple allegations of corruption.”
Nigeria delta map
He said the communities welcomed the government’s effort now but were going to continue with their legal cases until there has been a proper clean up because they did not have confidence this will happen unless the oil companies are “pressured with legal action”.
Starting the clean up signals that the government and communities are turning a page “from struggling to get justice to getting justice done”, said environment minister Amina Mohammed.
The minster said the Muhammadu Buhari administration that took office a year ago had reviewed “what had been done” and concluded that “numerous activities had not come to fruition.”
Activists say that this step does not relieve Shell of its responsibilities under Nigerian law, which requires companies operating pipelines to clean up spills regardless of their cause. “That is something Shell has failed to do for decades,” said Joe Westby, an Amnesty International campaigner.
A spokesperson for SDPC said the company remains committed to contributing its share of funds for the clean up as recommended by the UN and will “play its part in the government-led implementation process”.
The swampy Delta is where more than half of Nigeria’s crude is produced. Attacks this year by a new militant group have cut the country’s output to its lowest level in two decades — a huge blow to government revenues amid an already severe economic crisis caused by the collapse in oil prices.
The minister said the plan launched on Thursday in the community of Bodo, site of numerous spills over the years, involves two new government structures to ensure “sustainability, transparency, and accountability” for a process that will take 20 to 25 years.
On Thursday, President Muhammadu Buhari’s office said he would not be visiting the Delta, as announced previously, to attend the launch. One of his spokesmen said the vice president would attend but did not give further details.