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The curse of oil

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200 riverside Delta communities cry out
THERE are two traditional African sayings that “a man that lives near the river will not use spit to wash his hands” and “a man cannot be in the river and be looking for fish to eat”.

Oil spill in the river

Both mean the same thing, which is that one cannot be suffering in the midst of plenty.

But since December 20, 2011 discharge of about 40, 000 barrels of crude oil into the Bight of Benin by Shell Nigeria Exploration and Production Company, SNPECO, following a leak in its oil production facility, christened, Bonga offshore oil field, inhabitants of not less than 200 riverine communities, scattered in the Itsekiri and Ijaw ethnic groups in Warri South-West and Warri North Local Government Areas of Delta State complain that day after day, their search for fish to eat had been in vain.

Reason: Crude oil spill purported to be from Bonga has polluted the rivers, streams and ponds in the fishing communities, killing and chasing away fishes from their environments to the deep seas. Sometimes, fishermen stay days before they return to the village because of the distance of the sea from their homes. Though the Managing Director, SPDC/Chairman, Shell companies in Nigeria, Mr. Mutiu Sunmonu and Corporate Media Relations Manager, Mr. Tony Okonedo, insisted that the spill the communities were complaining about were third party spill and not from Bonga FPSO, the oil communities said the only crude oil spill they knew within the period was the one from the Bonga.

Itsekiri communities cry out

 About 64 Itsekiri communities, including Ilesami 1 and 11, Otumara, Aje-Edede, Akpakpa-Eyitsede, Ajokorugbo, Oguwan, Egbe-Okuta, Ugogoro, Ogidigben, Ajudaibo, Okegbe, Oboro, Madangho, Ogheye-Uton, Ogheye-Idimigun Ajokoro, Ajibeku, Ajimaki, Ubala-tie and Orere are currently battling with the company for compensation over the spill.

In a letter to the managing director of SNEPCo, attorney for the communities, Stella Ozoma Esq. said: “Our clients asked us to inform you that your oil spillage at Bonga Field that occurred on December 20, 2011 flowed to their villages and fishing areas, and thereafter disturbed their fishing activities, stained their fishing materials, vegetations, killed aquatic lives. Some of the oil spillage, which your people dispersed with chemicals (referring to dispersal of the crude spill by Shell) caused turbidity within our clients fishing areas and also formed tire balls which were taken to our client’s shores by sea currents.”

The statement added that the affected communities earlier thought that the oil spillage was from a Chevron facility, but further investigation confirmed that the oil spillage was from SPDC Bonga oil field facility and the spill might be over 40,000 barrels. The solicitor added: “Consequently, we and our clients are proposing to meet with you on January 9, 2012 at 9.30am in your office. The purpose of the meeting is to, among other things, agree on a date and time when your team and ours will jointly enumerate the damage or injury caused to our clients’ trees, land, fishing materials and disturbance of fishing activities as a result of the effects of your said oil spillage at Bonga field.”

The letter was copied the Senate Committee on Environment, Delta State House of Assembly Committee on Environment, Federal Ministry of Environment, Delta State Ministry of Environment, National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency, Department of Petroleum Resources, oil Spill, Response and Claims and Legal Departments of SPDC.

A Gbaramatu citizen examining an oil spill in the river

Youth President of Ugbege Community, Mr. Fredrick Asin, who spoke on behalf Ugborodo and other coastal communities in Warri South West and North Local Government Areas said his people were suffering as a result of the negative impact of the oil spillage, adding that they would explore every avenue of dialogue for which Itsekiri people were known for. His words: “If they refuse to heed to this call for peaceful dialogue, we will carry out enumeration and assessment of damage and thereafter demand for compensation. And let me put it also that after all avenue for dialogue expire without fruitful result, disturbances will be inevitable.”

Ijaws petition NOSDRA: On their part, the affected Ijaw communities, through their monarch of Gbaramatu kingdom, HRM, Godwin Bebenimibo, Ogeh Gbaruan II, petitioned the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency, NOSDRA, over the December 20, 2011 spill, alleging that over 100 communities were affected by the spill from Bonga.

In a petition, signed by Chief Alfred Bubor, Chief J.G.B. Ari and Sir Clark Gbenewei on behalf of the monarch and the Gbaramatu Council of Chiefs, they alleged that the oil spill not only polluted their river, but grounded fishing, which is the primary occupation of the people. They stated: “We, the undersigned for ourselves and on behalf of HRM, Godwin K. Bebenimibo, Ogeh Gbaruan III, Pere of Gbaramatu Kingdom and the good people of Gbaramatu Kingdom communities, wish to inform you that the recent SPDC Bonga oil spill has spread to over one hundred (100) communities in our kingdom.

“There is severe health hazard and no water/food for survival as their source of drinking water is also polluted and their source of food supply through their primary occupation (fishing) has been depleted. The people are helpless and frustrated and are aggrieved over the nonchalant attitude of the company in addressing the plight of the affected communities. In order to avoid any crisis situation, it is important that Shell is directed to make arrangement to supply food and relief materials including drugs to the affected communities.

Effect of damage on the kingdom

It is also very necessary and important that a joint investigation is put in place to visit the kingdom for on the spot assessment to determine the extent of effect and damage on the kingdom communities by the spill. Shell should be directed to organize and make arrangement to undertake a clean-up of the spill in the kingdom immediately. It is hoped that our plight will be looked into on its merit and arrangement put in place to address them immediately.”

Chief Roland Aduke, High Judge of Oporoza

Tour of communities: On Friday, March 2, Vanguard visited some of the communities to find out what was on ground, as the oil company said it had carried out clean-up in most of the communities, not necessarily that it was responsible for spill complained of, but as a corporate social responsibility to mitigate the disaster, not minding  the polluter.

In Kunukunuma, fishing activities grounded: At Kunukunuma in Warri South-West Local Government Area, a community leader, Chief Clement Aruwe told Vanguard: “There was oil spill late December last year into January, and our fishing activities were grounded as a result of the spill. Our economic life is no more because there is no fish to catch. We are penniless, go to Chanomi Creek, we cannot get fish to kill, our people are suffering and we need relief materials. You can see how I am looking, am I looking well to you, it is the effect of the Bonga spill on us”.

How are you sure the flow is from Bonga?

Chief Aruwe asserted: “It is obvious, the flow is from Bonga, we were not aware of any spill at that time apart from the Bonga spill. We noticed it in the high seas before it flowed into our river. The spill is still in the river, it goes and come and flow into the mangrove, killing our fishes.

“We are surviving on low cash. You can feel the pulse of the community from where you are sitting now (Vanguard reporter and photographer sat with him and some other villagers in a makeshift canopy not far from the community’s jetty). The town is very quiet, there is no sign of business activity, which is our lot here since the Bonga spill.” He said the only educational institution in the town is Kunukunuma Primary School, whilst there is a hospital and generating plant, supplied by SNEPCo.


We feel the pinch till date


 The eldest man in the community, Pa Gabriel Aruwe, who listened as his kinsman spoke added: “What I know is that our fishing business halted since the Bonga spill. Hunger crept in and as at today (March 2), the effect of the spill is not gone, we are still feeling it”.

Economic life crippled in Tebu Ijaw: At Tebu-Ijaw community, the youth president, Abedenego Douperegha said: “Bonga spill affected us, it affected our fishing. Fishermen and women cannot go out to the river anymore because there is no fish to kill. Our economic life has been crippled”.

You are mentioning Bonga, how do you know the crude oil spill is from there?

“The spill is Bonga. There was no other spillage that occurred here.

We hear it is from a third party, oil bunkerers to be precise?

“We don’t have oil bunkerers here, it is from Bonga, it affected our economy drastically, no money to eat, we don’t even school here, no electricity, our ecological system is damaged. As a matter of fact, we urgently need relief materials and replacement of our fishing equipment that were damaged; our suffering today is as a result of Bonga spill.”

Can you show us the spill you are complaining of now?

“If you go to the seashore, you will see it, the sign of the devastation is there, but this happened about three months ago, you cannot see it as such now because they have dispersed it, but we are feeling the effect now. That is why there is no fish for us to catch even though we are in the river. Take a look at the water, can you drink the brownish water you are seeing now, can’t you see our problem, we are inside water, but we can’t get water to drink. Why? Because it is polluted, the oil companies provide bottled water for their workers.

“From where you are standing now, you are looking at the Escravos Gas to Liquid project, owned by Chevron, we cannot afford bottle water and our people are dying as a result of water-borne diseases and other illnesses. You can see what we are suffering, we are so close, but we are no close at all, we are on standing on our last legs.

Chief John Diegbegha, Ogulagha Chief Priest.

What some families do is that they dig the ground for water, I hope you know that is dug up well for water, and they put alum in the water, which is already polluted, either way and those who do not want to take the risk, rely on sachet water bought from Warri and other places.”

Everything is stagnant in Oporoza: At Oporoza, the chairman of the community, Mr. Amami Ebimene said: “There was oil spill that affected us negatively between late Decemebr, 2011 and early January. We are still feeling the effect of this spill till date. It has affected us ecologically, physically and culturally. Our economic trees gave way, our vegetation also and no fishing activity is going on now. Our people now go to the deep sea to fish. Everything is stagnant at the moment; most of our people go to distant villagers, about 80 kilometres from Opoloza to do fishing now.”

How do you know this spill is from Bonga?

“There was no spill in Niger-Delta within the period except the one of Bonga. But, we hear it was caused by oil bunkerers? This spill was not caused by oil bunkerers , we don’t have oil bunkerers in Oporoza. As I speak, Shell has neither visited us nor sent relief materials since this incident.” Can I see the spill?  “It occurred some months ago, you cannot see it nakedly now and that is the danger, they said they had dispersed it, but it is affecting us negatively, the effect is very dangerous to our wellbeing. Shell should bring relief materials to us and pay compensation to our people for the damage to our environment.”

Chief Roland Aduke, said to be a community judge, corroborated the chairman’s claim the crude oil spill was affecting the people of Gbaramatu kingdom seriously. He said: “Shell has not done anything about it, they are not bothered about what is happening to us here. The spill is from Bonga, it is affecting us, when we go to the river, we don’t see fish to kill any more. The spill has dried off, you cannot see it now, water flows and it goes with water tide.”

Military checkpoints on the river: As you have police checkpoints on the road, though it was recently dismantled on the orders of the Inspector General of Police, so you have checkpoints by the Joint Task Force, codenamed Operation Pulo Shield on the waterways. They have not been dismantled and it does not seem the JTF was in a hurry to do that.

Dreaded Camp 5

Remember Camp 5! It was the den (read militant barracks) of former militant leader, Chief Government Ekpemupolo, alias Tompolo. From this stronghold, a lot of activities were coordinated by militants some years back, ranging from kidnap of hostages and crippling of oil installations, which the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger-Delta, MEND, gleefully claimed credibility for.

Well, after some soldiers were killed by some militants from this camp in 2009, the task force, then under the leadership of Major-General Sarkin Yarkin-Bello, declared the leader, Tompolo, wanted and also raided the den, the first time ever by the Nigerian military and took it over. Till date, the camp is occupied by soldiers, it had been taken over as a government property and soldiers mounted sentry as we passed the former militant den to Ogulagha kingdom. Of course, no speedboat driver passes the place without stopping for checks.


Shell caused the spill in Ogulagha   –  Temewei

Vanguard was received at Ogulagha by the vice chairman of the community, Mr. Tony Temewei, who claimed that they were informed by Shell officials that there was a spill from  Bonga, but until finger printing test was done, it could not be said that the spill is from their own facility or otherwise. Ogulagha kingdom is easily the most populated and most commercially buoyant riverine community in the state from what this reporter saw.

Temewei said: “We have had challenges since the spill. The whole river is polluted, we cannot fish, our fishing nets were all damaged and we are facing these problems up till date. Before, our people didn’t go to long distances for fishing, but now, they go hundreds of miles with speedboats.”  He added that Shell was only trying to confuse the people by saying it was going to carry out fingerprinting because there was no spill immediately before and after the Bonga spill, when its officials came to meet Ogulagha people at that time.

No relief material, no compensation: Temewei said, however, that the company used dispersants to disperse the spillage in Ogulagha, adding, “The effect is what we are having today, yes, they did clean-up here, but no relief materials, no compensation till date. Now, they are calling it mystery spill. We have a cottage hospital that was abandoned by OMPADEC but completed by Shell in Ogulagha. We have electricity, also provided by SPDC after many battles”.


Potable drinking water


He, however, said that potable drinking water is a no-go-area in the community, but that the community was making efforts at the moment to sink a borehole. His words: “There is fear of sea encroachment in the community, though SPDC is putting up shore embarkment, it is failing. There is no impact of the local government, state government, Ministry of Niger-Delta and Federal Government in this community”.


The gods are angry  – chief priest of Ogulagha

Speaker of Ogulagha community, Mr. Johnson Ifitibous said there was no gainsaying that the crude oil spill has been disastrous to the wellbeing of the people, while Temewei, who interjected, said the spill in question was not caused by oil bunkerers, adding, ‘It is SPDC that knows who caused the spillage”.

The Benikarewei (chief priest) of Ogulagha kingdom, Chief John Diegbeghe told Vanguard that gods were angry over the desecration of the waters with crude oil, as it affected the serenity of their milieu.  According to him, no less than 20 shrines were affected by the spillage and sacrifices have to be made to appease the gods to avert dangerous consequences.


Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.