CSO and NGOs from Ogoniland gathered in Abuja to watch a documentary focused on the staggering environmental pollution in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. The 45-minute-long film, Environmental Refugees, was premiered by Oak TV to enlighten stakeholders about the consequences of oil spills and create a sense of urgency around the ongoing cleanup project.
“It is very true that the documentary has summarized the situation in Ogoniland, but paying attention to the question raised towards the end: What does the future hold for us about some of the concerns we still have?” asks Kabari Sam, to set the ball rolling for the following panel discussion.
Sam, the session’s moderator, is the head of Environment and Conservation at the Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD). The discussants are Celestine Akpobari, human rights and environmental rights campaigner; Baridam Suanu Timothy, king and chairman of the Ogoni Council of Traditional Rulers; Martha Agbani, director of Lokiaka Women Development Centre; and Mene Eric Barizaa Dooh, the paramount ruler of Goi community.
Timothy sets the tone by acknowledging that the difficult security situation in Ogoniland is as a result of mismanagement of resources and destruction of livelihoods. He suggests that a restoration of the land to its fertile state will go a long way in resolving the crises.
“This is a situation that you actually have a land that they normally say is filled with honey and, right before your eyes, it’s been taken away and you’re left with a land that is completely destroyed, where livelihoods are completely taken away from you. Of course, the next thing that would resort from that is insecurity because it is going to be about survival of the fittest,” the traditional ruler says.
Akpobari agrees that the loss of livelihoods is a major cause of insecurity, but he also blames what he calls a “complete absence of government”. The average Ogoni man, he explains, has to provide his own healthcare, potable water supply, electricity, among other basic amenities.
“I’ve always said that everything about a man is tied to his environment. If you want to destroy a man, destroy his environment. The Ogoni man has been destroyed as we can see [from the documentary],” he says.
Moving to the nagging issue of artisanal refining and how it is affecting the prospects of a successful cleanup, Dooh argues that multinational companies and security agents should get the most blame for the bunkering activities. This is partly because it is the oil dealers who intimate the community men of exactly when oil is scheduled to pass through the pipes, he says.
“I don’t know how to polish words. It involves security men and the multinational oil company workers. So if you want to stop these activities, you won’t stop it from the grassroots. Stop it from the roof. By the time you stop it there, it will run downwards,” the Goi paramount ruler adds to a round of applause.
He further suggests that those involved in artisanal refining need alternative means of earning a living. This is likewise the view of Agbani, whose non-governmental organisation regularly interacts with people at the grassroots. Illegal oil bunkering and artisanal refining, she says, are life-threatening activities that are driving Ogoniland faster towards not only ecocide but extinction.
“We also make them understand that the report has also made a provision for them and the provision there is that HYPREP ought to give them alternative livelihood, and so they need to now start pushing for that livelihood by saying we want to sustain our environment but you do your own part by giving us what we need to have,” she says.
“Remember that the reason they go into the artisanal refining is that they need to earn a living, they need to survive. And you cannot politicise hunger, you cannot play with hunger.”
Asked what kinds of alternatives need to focused on, Agbani replies that those that fall within the value chain of what the Ogoni people are already familiar with: fishing and farming. Since they are mostly agrarian, she recommends that the government invests heavily in mechanised farming, teaching youth advanced agricultural methods, and assisting them to reach an international market.
Some of the complaints the panellists have about the cleanup project implemented by the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP) are that it is slow and not transparent. HYPREP was set up by the federal government in 2016 in compliance with the recommendation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Dooh says the reason for the slow pace is a lack of proper consultation with all the key stakeholders and a lack of opportunities to engage the contractors.
“I think it is our duty to put pressure on HYPREP to ensure that there must be time for them to show accountability to the people, to say this amount of money has been given to us, this is what we’re doing with this money, this is what we’ve done,” Timothy submits.
Only less than a week to the screening, Timothy became the head of the Central Representative Advisory Council set up by HYPREP to sensitise the people of Ogoni about the cleanup and manage any conflicts that may arise. Through that platform, he says, they hope to educate the residents towards making sure that they see the project as theirs, not the government’s.
With the floor opened to the audience for contributions, Okoro Onyekachi, a film-maker who has worked in the Ogoni area for long, seizes the opportunity to recommend that HYPREP trains people at the grassroots on how to collect needed information. Since the agency has a limited number of environmental monitors, it can further bridge the communication gap this by providing the people with small hand-held devices with which to monitor signs of progress.
“On the other part, that goes to the respected members of CRAC,” he says, “they should also look at ground-level ways of creating awareness, town hall meetings, interactive sessions, and then probably film screenings like this―not in beautiful, posh places like this. It could be in a place down in the communities such that people can feel connected to the system and want to ensure that it works.”
Another participant, a retired civil servant who has worked with the Federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Ministry of Environment, makes a clarion call for peace to reign in the Niger Delta communities.
“I think it’s time for leaders at the community level to come together and let peace reign in that place so that development will come,” he appeals.
As he gives his final words later into the event, Timothy urges the federal government to sign the Petroleum Industry Bill into law because as it’ll take care of a lot of issues. The CRAC chairman adds that “every hand must be on deck to ensure that we follow HYPREP ‘bomber to bomber’ according to some people to ensure that the right thing is done”.
Agbani, on her part, implores the federal lawmakers to “make the Ogoni case a national cause” and not to play politics with issues affecting human lives.
“I thank God there are dignitaries who can carry this message home,” says Dooh.
“There are lawmakers who are here. There are security agencies that are here. There are people who are into internet and ICT. Please, send the message across. We are appealing because people are dying. You need to come there and see it for yourself. Seeing is believing.”
“The documentary is a reality,” he adds, wide-eyed and with a raised tone.