Holding the bull by the horns, even as toxic intrigues by international oil majors play out and the federal government dithers, Governor Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa State empanels an international commission on oil spills to assess environmental damages and determine responsibility, among other issues.
According to Sheikh Zaki Yamani, the stubborn Arab strategist, and one-time Saudi Arabian Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources from 1962-1986, “The Stone Age did not end for lack of stones, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil.” The compelling logic of this position expressed three decades ago, remains true.
Going forward, clearly something fundamental has shifted in strategic calculations in the world’s hydrocarbon sector. Clearly, advances in technology are beginning to offer a way for economies, especially those of the developed world, to diversify their supplies of energy and reduce their demand for petroleum, thus loosening the grip of oil and the countries that produce it.
But from the facts on the ground, these fundamental changes and logic have no place in the oil sector exploration and exploitation practices in Nigeria’s Niger Delta regions where death and environmental despoliation remain grim facts of life as both the national and regional leadership watch. The level of environmental degradation, loss of human lives and nonchalant attitude of past leaders both in the Niger Delta region and at the national level are becoming extremely worrisome. The physical environment is polluted and the seas are no longer a safe place for fish and human lives to exist side by side. Past governments cannot deny the fact that the problems have been in existence but as well as to not paying adequate attention or deaf ears to the problems associated with the activities of the major players in the area. It is against this grim background that the Bayelsa State Governor, Honourable Henry Seriake Dickson, who leaves office in February 2020, recently brought together a team of world leaders including the former President of Ghana, Emmanuel Kuffour, the Archbishop of York Dr. John Setanmu who is expected to retire from his post on June 7, 2020, as well as notable academicians to address the harrowing issue of environmental despoliation as well as related challenges in the oil industry.
It would be recalled that the Archbishop of York chaired an independent Commission on the Future of the Living Wage. This flowed from his work as the sponsor of the fairness commission in York for the Commission on the Degradation of the Environment
As governor of the oldest and largest on-shore oil-producing state in Nigeria, Dickson strongly feels he is representing people that have been unduly affected by the corporate negligence which he said inspired him, on behalf of the people of Bayelsa State, to set up this commission.
With little question, oil and gas exploration and extraction has had an incalculable impact on the people and environment of the Niger Delta. It has threatened local livelihoods and economies, impeded agricultural development, fueled health disorders and caused tensions in the social fabric of the communities. Bayelsa has paid too high a price for the growth of Nigeria’s oil sector, without reaping any significant benefits; though it was in the state oil was discovered first in Nigeria.
The work of the commission, according to the governor, will transform the lives of his people the environments in which her citizens live. His words: “These are our lives. This is our future. We will work together to restore all of Bayelsa, for ourselves and for the next generations”. More so, there have been several commissions at both the states and federal government levels to get the oil companies to face the issues positively.
The aim of Dickson’s commission, however, is to develop a set of informed recommendations that will lead to the development of a new legal framework that ensures accountability and an action plan for implementation to ensure a healthy environment by ensuring appropriate clean-up and remediation of impacted sites and that host communities receive sufficient compensation for the impacts of environmental pollution and degradation and reap the benefits from the production of oil within their communities.
While inaugurating the commission which also includes Prof. Engobo Emeseh, Head of the School of Law, University of Bradford, Professor Anna Zolik, Dr. Anna Zalik, Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, Dr. Catherine Nwajoku-Dahou, an international independent consultant, Dickson read out the commission’s mandate: “The Commission on Oil Spills in Bayelsa State shall investigate the facts and current circumstances surrounding oil spills and their environmental and human impact. To that end, the Commission shall (a) establish the facts; (b) quantify the impact of oil spills; (c) determine responsibilities and, where possible, identify those responsible; and (d) make recommendations, including, in particular, on a suitable accountability framework.”
The Dickson Vision
The former attorney general and commissioner for justice who mounted the saddle as the executive governor of Bayelsa State seven years ago, said: “First of all, the environment is a collective heritage of all mankind. There is no isolated Bayelsa or Nigerian or Ijaw or Nigerian environment. The environment is for all. God made our environment special and it is for the use and benefit of all mankind. Unfortunately, we have not paid much attention and care to the environment as we ought to do and we are already beginning to see the signs, and we are equally beginning to pay the price for abandoning the environment.
“I always say that English playwright and poet William Congreve who wrote these lines in his play The Mourning Bride, 1697, Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turned, Nor Hell a Fury, like a woman scorned, was right when he said that hell has no fury comparable to a woman scorned.”
Dickson may have referred to the play but he was furious as theatre-goers of the day would have understood the meaning of ‘scorned woman’ as something more specific than the present day meaning. Observers of the oil industry in Nigeria and other countries will explain the great difference in operations and community relations, vis-a-vis the double standards, being applied by the oil majors and their affiliates/associates.
Dickson believes that “where Shakespeare to be alive today, he probably would have said “hell had no fury than the environment abandoned” because the environment has been abandoned for so long that we are already beginning to see the signs.
He added: “We are taking up the challenge of the environment; we are taking up the challenge of calling for all those who have contributed to our degraded environment to account. I call it environmental terrorism. That is simply what the oil companies and their collaborators and the Nigerian state in a way have done in the Niger Delta. We are calling on all people of goodwill to rise up for Bayelsa, rise up for the Niger Delta environment; rise up for our collective heritage.”
On the Level of Degradation.
The former member of the House of Representatives believes that “what is going on in Bayelsa and the Niger Delta is very well known; it is almost as we say, the law of res ipsa Loqito, the facts in the Niger Delta speak for themselves. If you go to every oil producing/bearing community in the Niger Delta, the facts there stare you in the face. The facts are proof of terrorism itself”.
He added: “So, there of no doubt that great injustice, great harm has been done to the environment of the Niger Delta and to the environment of Bayelsa. Of course, you all know that the story of oil and gas exploration and exploitation in Nigeria started from Oloibiri in Bayelsa, in 1956. From that time till now, we have been paying the heavy price. We in Bayelsa know more than most states, more than most people, what it means to be an oil-producing state.
“We know what it takes for communities to be oil bearing communities. The social dislocation apart, the restiveness it promotes and the disruption of our livelihood. And now, the danger to our lives itself. So, I call it terrorism because it is an act of terrorism. For a group of people or individuals to come, pollute the environment that they met in a pristine condition and they don’t care about what happens there and thereafter.
“They don’t care about their environment; they don’t care about the effects on the people themselves. Whereas, if a person, a terrorist wraps a bomb around himself and blows up a place or has a gun and fires at people, you see that immediately and we call that terrorism. So, that is plain terrorism. This is terrorism also because there are people who don’t do what they ought to do. They don’t observe that standards that they ought to observe.
“And they deliberately collude with ‘our’ people to look the other way while they treat the environment with reckless abandon, knowing that the effect of the degradation of the environment is going to end up or produce the same result like somebody blowing up, detonating a bomb or firing a gun. It leads to the destruction of lives; it leads to mass destruction of the environment, the livelihood, and human beings. This is exactly what is happening in Bayelsa and most of our oil-producing communities.”
Rising Up for Bayelsa
Bayelsa is one of the major oil-producing states in Nigeria. However, there are indications that past administrations – military and civilian – paid deaf ears to the outcry and neglect occasioned by the degradation and double-speak on the part of the government and international oil companies operating in the area which Dickson says is worrisome.
“We are calling on all people of goodwill, Bayelsans to rise up for themselves and all Nigerians to rise up for Bayelsa. We are calling on all people of goodwill to also rise up and do what is right, proper and call the oil producing communities and the agencies that are colluding with them to account. We are calling for environmental responsibility, we are calling for social corporate responsibility; we are calling for enforcement of standards, just in the same way and manner that these standards are observed by these same companies in other countries. But in Nigeria, anything goes.
“In the Niger Delta environment, anything goes. In Bayelsa, anything goes. This is the capital of oil and gas pollution in Nigeria. We are not just the place where oil and gas exploration started. We are unfortunately also, for 60 years almost the headquarters of pollution. There are several acts of pollution by oil majors and their agents every day. You can verify it from the agencies. The records are there, so we want an end to it,” he said.
In doing so, firstly, Dickson stated: “We want people to know and be aware of the dangers that we live with now. The dangers stare us in the face. The oil majors and their collaborators in our communities are damaging us.
They need to be careful and need to know that being exposed to these substances is harmful to plants, not just to the natural environment but also to human existence.
“I think our people need to know that you can’t just avoid it again because a lot of the water we drink and the fish we eat are polluted. It is not practicable to provide water to all our communities, all the thousands of them because of the extant challenges. People need to be careful and should avoid polluted sites as much as possible and avoid eating from anything that is produced from that kind of environment. Those are the simple steps that we can take because these things are happening everywhere around us, in our own ancestral homes which we cannot run away from.
“The other solution is to relocate everybody from their ancestral homes. And to where? So, do we stay on our land and take care of our ancestral homes? We call on our people to be more careful and avoid polluted sites and avoid eating anything, getting in contact with crude oil and its associated products.”
Higher Political Responsibility
The centrality of Bayelsa, both symbolically and in substance, to the future of the Niger-Delta region cannot be denied. In this connection, its political leadership is expected to evolve a transformative vision for both state and region.
Dickson appears to express this consciousness by setting up the first international commission in the state and the region to confront environmental terrorism and more. The philosophy behind the commission could transform Bayelsa and the Niger Delta and clearly recommends Dickson for higher political responsibility in the course of time.