By Samuel Oyadongha, Yenagoa
Hon Fred Agbedi is the member representing Sagbama-Ekeremor Federal Constituency in the National Assembly. He spoke on the recent crude oil spill that devastated the costal settlements of Aghoro, his hometown, the plight of his kinsmen as well as the nation’s skewed petroleum laws which has not only deprived the people of their God-given resources but also emboldened the oil majors in their dealings with the impoverished host communities.
It is almost three months since the coastal settlements of Aghoro Kingdom in Ekeremor Local Government Area of Bayelsa State was devastated by an oil spill from the Trans Ramos pipeline owned by Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), what is the situation and how are the people coping?
The situation has not fared better, that is to say it has not been handled the way we expect that it should have been handled. I have been there on three occasions. First was when the spill occurred and as representative of the people and the area. I went to see what went wrong. I saw the massive spill and then the second trip was when the government of Bayelsa State went to see things for itself and I was part of the delegation of His Excellency, the Deputy Governor of Bayelsa State who was directed by the Executive Governor, Hon Seriake Dickson to visit the site. And then, the third time was when I came back from a gas conference about a week ago and I heard that the pipes have been exhumed and then I went to see things for myself.
What did you observe?
In my first visit, yes we saw the massive damage that was caused by the spill to the environment and we called on the Federal Government and SPDC to expedite action by first providing relief materials. Relief materials amounting to succour that can be rendered to the people, which means that they can’t farm, they can’t fish. So how do they feed themselves? They need food items. Of course, we have no pipe borne water, all the water facilities both by SPDC and state government none of them are functioning. So, the water, the river and brooks that are polluted are the same water that the people have converted to their domestic use including drinking. And so if this water is polluted which water are they going to drink? So, it was an issue. And of course, the fume from the crude was such that even I, on my first visit there, experienced a lot of inconveniences. Our bags, cloths and other items were all soiled with crude oil and the fumes alone that you inhaled was completely hazardous and a threat to human life and we raised all these issues and expected that medical attention should have also been brought to the people as a remedy for any health hazard and interventions to prevent any health disaster that could have happened. Of course, this never happened as early as anticipated, as early as my constituents anticipated, as early as the communities around the area that the spill impacted and affected anticipated.
But some relief materials were brought
Well, eventually I know that they brought some relief materials, specifically from what I gathered and from what the women said; SPDC notified me. About 100 bags of rice to went Aghoro I and 100 bags to Aghoro II and the communities and some bags of milk and sugar without medication and no water. No protein to use with the rice and then no medicals. And again, when we relate with them to say this people needs urgent medical attention. Of course, you know that crude oil is made up of several chemicals. It is not something that anybody can live with. It is a disastrous and harmful chemical to human body. So, you must make sure human being health situation are looked into and given proper attention. Till date as we speak, I haven’t been informed by my people that they have been given neither water nor medical attention which I frowned at, at my last visit and till date. I don’t think that is the right thing to do. You know that as much as we are talking to the communities affected in the area to take things calmly, to take things easy, to ensure that they don’t create some kind of protest, reaction, it is also not nice for the Federal Government and SPDC to consider their loyalty to the owners of this business as if it is misplaced loyalty. I think that is where some of us are really not happy with what is going on. We all know that you can’t get this happening in some climes. There is no way, you are made to compensate through your nose. Like I said, there is no amount of compensation that can take care of the devastation that is done to the environment. My cousin who is over 70 years was here three days ago complaining about most of them coughing, a lot of strange health challenges they are encountering in the community. And you see these people who cannot go to farm, who cannot fish are the ones who will be in pain. They cannot take care of themselves because the Federal Government and SPDC have completely abandoned them. And these are the partners in the business that are making money with our environment and our lives. Like I said before, it is clear government is more interested in making money for herself rather than taking care of the human beings who are the purpose for which government is formed.
Some have called on the oil companies to conduct integrity test for their pipelines, what is your take on this?
Of course, those issues canvassed for by Dr. Festus Odubu were very correct and I am sure other environmentalists have also raised this issue. That goes to the issue of my question. The motion I moved on the floor of the House of Representatives goes to the extent that an ad hoc committee be set up to investigate and determine the integrity of the pipeline. How old is it and other issues environmentalists have canvassed because we need to know if the life span of this pipeline has not expired. And note, before the spill occurred in my constituency, across the other side of Delta where the pipeline runs through – Odimodi area – the same failure occurred in that same pipeline. Two weeks earlier or there about 24th April, there was a spillage in that area on that same pipeline on the Delta side and by 17th May, the same spillage occurred at three different points on the Ramos River side in Bayelsa State, which puts the integrity of the entire pipeline into question. I know these pipelines may have been constructed 30 or more years ago. If that is the case then we are talking sometime in 1990 or 1991 that the pipelines were constructed. If pipeline has stayed for 30-40 years plus, the integrity of the lifespan of that pipeline would be put to question. So, these are things that should be determine because for a pipeline to regularly get failure within a determinable distance means that something is wrong with the lifespan of the pipeline. So, the question of integrity is very, very important and then the follow up.
But the oil companies have blamed most spills on oil theft and sabotage…
Well, that happens and that is for those incidents but in this case, it is crystal clear and they also agreed, accepted and affirmed that this is equipment failure and not sabotage. No external or foreign impact. Clearly, it is an equipment failure. Having been confirmed by the company itself goes to mean that they should have committed more dedication to attending to the issues of health of the people, drinkable water for the people and other issues of at least reasonable relief materials because will you go and find a fish in that river? No. If you can’t catch a fish which is your occupation, how do you feed yourself? Of course, a poor environment, you know that the Federal Government and the oil majors are partners and richer, living in heaven and the area in which oil is explored, where pipeline passes through are in squalor, impoverished and in abject poverty. As we speak, you know this is raining season, the moment it rains, it flushes all sludge of crude that are held up in the forest and different parts back into the rivers and the people go to bath in it.
Water, a luxury in the area
That is what it is, they are asking for water, yes asking for water to bath is like a luxury. Meanwhile, as they (Shell workers) are trying to sustain and amend the pipeline, all the people on site are drinking bottle water. Be you a worker, labourer, professional, be you an engineer, community relations person. All those officers of SPDC or Federal Government that are visiting that site are drinking bottle water. I went there; I didn’t drink the bottle water. I didn’t have the opportunity of having one to drink until I returned but you go there as we speak you will see the workers, they are drinking bottle water. Why don’t they drink from the oil polluted water? If they know that it is good for human life and human health, they should also drink that water.
Appeal to SPDC
I have always appealed to them. My appeal continuously is that they should look into the plight of the people. The plight of the people in terms of more relief materials, the plight of the people in terms of water, the plight of the people in terms of medical attention and sometimes they used the word “we are going to do medical outreach.” Maybe, I am not very schooled on the word medical outreach. Here is a disaster, here is an emergency and in an emergency situation; that is why when you go to the hospitals you have emergency units. That is where, if you suddenly fall sick, you are rushed to the emergency unit where doctors will promptly attend to you. We are talking about a disaster, we are talking about an emergency and in such an emergency situation one’s expectation is that you will swing into action promptly to save lives and other environmental organisms that makes life meaningful for the people.
What have you, their representative at the National Assembly, done, and what has the state government done for the people?
Well, what have I done is the voice you are hearing every day. I have raised my voice in all manner to the highest level across the country, across the continent and into the world and that itself you know the cost of raising the voice for the voiceless people and that is the mandate the people gave to me. Two, the government has sent some support to the communities. If you heard one of the news, a community leader was also appreciating the government for the support they sent to them. And they even valued the support of the state government that was sent to them. Her Excellency, the wife of the governor comes from there. Those of us who are elected and appointed people from the area and communities, we have also pooled resources together and sent such support to the people. So, take note that the state government has no place in the oil industry. It has no contribution to the laws; it doesn’t manage any aspect of the oil industry laws; and it is an exclusive preserve of the federal government. And so whatever they are doing, it is because of the people that are affected and citizens of the state. But in terms of laws, benefits and all that it is determined by the Federal Government. It is not as if there was a willingness to provide a derivation to the people. So, if the laws governing the oil industry are exclusive preserve of the Federal Government then of course, what are we talking about? You know the Federal Government holds 60 per cent shares in the business, so the federal government will prefer to protect their business rather than protecting the people. That is why if you remember the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the American government stood by her people because they don’t have shares in the business. They defended their people against the owners of the business but in here the federal government is the owner of the business. So, in this case the human beings, the host communities, the people of the environment are less important to their investment and that is the bane of our problems as communities and host communities in the oil producing area.
Enthronement and practice of true federalism
That is the truth of it, huge topic for discussion but that is the only way Nigeria can reinvent itself. If you practice true federalism in this country, clearly this country will progress, this country will develop. And what is development? Development has different components; different extremes of the federation growing in their own ways and manners that will cumulatively make an impact as a nation, to be able to say this is how far this country has grown. The situation we have now is such that if the Federal Government has no money then there is no money anywhere, if the federal government is broke then the entire country is broke. If the federal government did not propose anything then sorry, if the federal government refuses to release allocation like they didn’t release for the past two months, then everybody is bogged down. So, we are all waiting till the end of the month to drive to Abuja to collect some pittance, whatever they drop into your palms, you pick it, come and pay salaries, you do a few things and then maybe you can’t account for the balance of it.
Without recourse to the laws, the federal government has no right to touch any revenue accruing to the country until it is appropriated, it is shared. But you will hear the Federal Government has collected one billion dollars for security. Who appropriated it? Nobody! That is an abuse of the constitution. The governors are complaining that the NNPC is refusing to release money and account for sales of crude oil, all that is abuse of the constitution. But you see, one unit of government, one arm of government, the executive can open the treasury of Nigeria, take whatever it wants to take, spend whatever it wants to spend, declare whatever it wants to declare, give out whatever it wants to give out and shut the doors to the treasury to every other person.