What it feels like to live in the Niger Delta



“My lord,

We all stand before history. Appalled by the denigrating poverty of my people who live on a richly endowed land, distressed by their political marginalization and economic strangulation, angered by the devastation of their land, their ultimate heritage, anxious to preserve their right to life and to a decent living, and determined to usher to this country as a whole a fair and just democratic system which protects everyone.” 

This is an excerpt of Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa’s last statement before a Nigerian military-appointed tribunal executed him in November 1995 as one of the nine leaders of the struggle of the Ogoni people. It seems that not much has changed in the past twenty years.

Security fears, poor infrastructure, sparse public services and an environment devastated by the oil industry is still the reality for most in the Niger Delta. Saro-Wiwa was prepared to die for his vision of a just Nigeria and a world without oil spills. Over the last five decades 546 million gallons of oil has been spilled into the Niger Delta. For the local communities spillages often result in a fight for survival as farmland is rendered unusable, drinking water polluted and fish and wildlife – for most communities the main source of food – dies.

Impacts of the Oil Spills on the environment and livelihoods

The majority of the 27 million people living in the Niger Delta depend on the environment for their livelihood, often farming and fishing for market or subsistence living. A study in the Niger Delta conducted by UNEP documented the immense environmental degradation. It reported that mangroves—nurseries for fish and natural pollution filters— are stripped bare of leaves and stems with roots coated in a layer of bitumen-type substance due to spillages. The highest concentrations of Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons detected in Ogoniland groundwater exceed 1 million micrograms per litre (µg/l) – compared to the Nigerian  standard for groundwater of 600 µg/l. When an oil spill occurs on land, fires often break out, killing vegetation and creating a crust over the land, making remediation or revegetation difficult. At some sites, a crust of ash and tar has been in place for several decades. This bleak picture however is not the reality for all communities in the Niger Delta.

The oil money is invisible in the communities but not the consequences of oil production. The security situation remains tense allover the state. A private security apparatus paid for by oil companies and vigilante groups often exacerbate the problems. These private ‘security’ companies are often responsible for a shift in power. Their guns and money bring them influence that is taken away from more traditional authorities. Residents in all communities suffer from a high crime rate. The situation is further compromised as there is little or no governmental security presence.

The wider impact of oil money on governance

Although oil spills and environmental degradation do not occur in all communities  the wider impact of oil money on governance and public service delivery is felt allover Southern Nigeria. Infrastructure, Education, unemployment and a lack of accountability and governance hampers all development efforts in the Delta. To counteract this the Nigerian government implement the derivation fund which pays 13% of oil revenue directly to the state governments. This practice is widely critiqued by community groups as money rarely reaches its intended purpose but instead is siphoned off by local officials and lost in corruption. Reports in Nigerian newspapers say that the Federal Government had paid out over N7.282 trillion in the past years. The status of public services is appalling. Communities are isolated as roads and bridges have disintegrated or never been built. Economic development is stalled as produce cannot be transported to markets. Schools and health centers are in a dire state. The condition of the area has generated a feeling of hopelessness amongst the people. There is a lack of trust in politicians, Governments and their unfulfilled promises.

 Justice is for the rich

Many citizens, especially in the rural areas, feel paralysed as there are few avenues to express their grievances. A convoluted, corrupt, expensive and oftentimes frankly useless court system offers little help. One respondent in Oyibo LGA states that the extreme gap in distribution of wealth is a breeding ground for crime, especially the high rate of youth unemployment contributes to the perception of a gross lack of social justice. Most people, especially the youth, are educated but lack practical skills and opportunities. The Ministry of Youth Development acknowledges the positive impact of policies directed at young people and regrets that due to budgetary constraints there is still a long way to go. Generally, there is a perception that justice can only be obtained with money, as a man from Port Harcourt says: “There is no social justice. Justice is for the rich in Rivers State.”

Who to blame and what to do?

In most cases the anger of the community members is directed towards their state government others  blame the Oil companies for the wrongs done to them. The question of responsibility is as old as the first spill. Research of the International Institute of Science and Technology, a 2008 established research institute for the developing world reveals that the first oil spill in Nigeria was at Araromi in the present Ondo state in 1908. A 970 oil spill in Ogoniland led to thousands of gallons being spilt on farmland and rivers, ultimately leading to a £26m fine for Shell in Nigerian courts 30 years later. According to the Nigerian government there were more than 7,000 spills between 1970 and 2000. Who is responsible for cleaning things up and how does the process of cleaning up spills actually work – or rather doesn’t work.

These and other questions will be tackled in the next post.


Photo Credit: http://www.greengrants.org/2009/02/25/nigerian-government-misses-ban-on-gas-flaring-deadline/


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