By Dotun Ibiwoye
The Minister of Environment,Ibrahim Usman Jibril, was at the World Bank headquarters during the Land and Poverty Conference in Washington DC., where he spoke on United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP, the clean-up operation going on in Ogoniland; the Nigeria Erosion and Watershed Management Project (NEWMAP) and the support coming from the Ogoni people. In this interview, he bares his mind on the continuation of the work of his predecessor, Amina Mohammed, who resigned in February to assume the position of Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations. He also speaks on the $500 million World Bank grant for NEWMAP. Excerpt:.
Can you expatiate on the UNEP clean-up in Ogoni which is ongoing? What is your role in the exercise?
The Vice President has, of recent, been travelling to the Niger Delta region. After the Niger Delta group, known as PANDEF, came to visit the President,.the Vice President travelled to Gbaramatu Kingdom in Delta State. Since then, he has travelled to almost the entire Niger Delta region. The essence of this engagement is to find out the issues at stake. Before I came to this program, Land and Poverty Conference in Washington D.C, there was a meeting in the office of the Vice President where the nine ministries and government agencies involved with Niger Delta, Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, Petroleum Resources, Environment, Amnesty: Office, of Special Adviser, Niger Delta Development Corporation, were in attendance to find the way forward. That was after the VP’s visit.
On the same day, there was also a meeting with Ambassadors from western nations led by the Netherlands Ambassador to Nigeria. The thrust of their visit was to find out what the Federal Government is doing and to see how they can assist. So, on the part of the Ministry of Environment, one issue that has been on the front burner is the issue of the Ogoni clean-up. We are conversant with the Ogoniland oil pollution and agitations that led to the oil companies pulling out of Ogoniland 24 years ago. But the report remains to be implemented. When the President, as a candidate in the 2015 election, went to Rivers State, he was invited to Ogoniland and the UNEP report was given to him and he promised to implement that report if he was elected. So, when he got elected, he appointed two ministers and charged them with the responsibility of the clean-up.
We set the ball rolling, with the launch, in June 2, of the Governing Council, the Board of Trustees inaugurated by the President in August and the last activity we did was on March 14, when we aproved the appointment of the Project Coordinator who will lead the Hydro Carbon Restoration Project (HYPREP). He has now moved to Port Harcourt to set up an office and their work is in progress.
Are the Ogoni people hostile or supportive?
There are contractors on site who decided to come and demonstrate the clean up using whatever technology that is available, select about three locations based on the UNEP report in each local government and there are four local governments in Ogoniland which means we have 12 sites. We did the ground-breaking ceremony in the middle of February for the the soil contaminated centre where a laboratory will be set-up. So we are on track and, since we have appointed the Project Coordinator, it is now left for us to start the program asking the coordinator to roll out the plan for the rest of the year so that we can hit the ground to meet the expectation of the people. It is not only the cleaning of the land, there are so many recommendations made by UNEP. There is the issue of water, because the water is contaminated both at the surface and in the ground. We need to get potable water to the people. There is the issue of livelihood: training the women and youths. We have selected about 600 women and youths for training and we are extending it to a thousand of these vulnerable groups.
Any time I travel to Ogoniland and I see women carrying their baskets from the farm and the shrimps which they get from the creeks, that is no longer there because the mangroves have been destroyed. So we are looking at all aspects concerning the livelihood of the people. We are training these women and the old ones in oil palm production, fishing and small scale businesses.
Within the 16 months that we hit the ground, you are aware that we were two in the ministry before my senior colleague was appointed as Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, so, I am carrying the burden now; we worked together as a team are. It is not something new to me, it is something that I have to carry on to make sure that the plans are implemented in such a way that people will not notice if there is any difference between us.
What are the challenges in the Niger-Delta since the former minister’s elevation?
I have been in the ministry for 16 months and my main concern is to see that the way the program we set up before she left continues in that trajectory to a logical conclusion. So we need to put heads together and, with the active support we are getting from the Ogoni people, all the groups, the stakeholders like MASSOB, civil society organisations, have keyed into it, because one thing you cannot take out from Ogoniland, is the passion for this job and they are fully mobilised and I am sure that they want to give us maximum cooperation. With their cooperation, we will perform and that should be enough motivation to drive the process forward to achieve our goal; the goal to clean-up Ogoniland and restore their livelihood. This program will last for five years, but the restoration will take 20 to 25 years. So, it is a process that will outlive our tenure. But, we intend to lay a solid foundation to make it irreversible.
When you say irreversible, what is your ministry doing to ensure this is not changed overnight?
The Ministry of the Environment decided to do a presentation on the Nigeria Erosion and Watershed Management Project (NEWMAP). This is a World Bank program. The World Bank is doling out about $500 million and this is spread across nineteen states of the federation and it is about controlling erosion, but in a way of managing the water and stopping gully erosion. They are also taking care of the shade to prevent further development of gullies. You do this by looking at the entire water shade, restore the soil, plant grasses, plant trees and ensure that the soil is fully protected. Once the soil is covered, the chances of letting it exposed and therefore carried away by rain flood is minimal. With the grass covered, tree foliage will form a cushion when the rain drops. If it is completely bare, the speed and the velocity that rain brings, you may look at it as a tiny drop but it has power and that means it can wash it away.
What measures are you taking to avoid the re-occurrence of erosion via the opening of the Camerounian Dam that occurred some years back?
When you release excess water from the dam, you need to control it, normally, when such release has to be made. There is the need to give advance warning to those living downstream. When there is excess water, the speed will increase, the volume of the water will be so high that it will lead to the eroding of that area and then flooding. When you have flooding, which is excess water in a particular place at a particular point in time, that is dangerous. After the destruction of lives and property, we have to take care of erosion. The Ministry of Environment is doing something to prevent such an occurrence.