Nigeria Vows to Clean Up Oil Spills That Have Caused Decades of Violence
But will Abuja honor its promise?
by PETER DOERRIE
Oil was first discovered in the Niger Delta in the 1950s and since exploitation began, crude has pretty much constantly spilled into the local ecosystem, ruining nature and livelihoods alike.
A 2011 report by the United Nations Environment Program on Ogoniland, one of the most impacted regions, found that “contamination is widespread and severely impacting many components of the environment.” The researchers found crude and associated carcinogens in drinking water and farmland at soil depths of up to five meters.
This is not purely an environmental or public policy issue, either. Control over oil production played a key part in the Biafra War, both in terms of motivation of the Biafran secessionists and the outcome after the Nigerian government captured oil installations early in the conflict.
More recently, massive pollution and the political marginalization of the local population at the behest of Western oil companies led to unrest and violence starting in the late 1990s. After a few years of relative calm in the wake of the 2009 Amnesty Program for militants, violence has flared up again this year.
A new armed group, the Niger Delta Avengers, appeared seemingly out of nowhere, inflicting major damage on the local oil infrastructure and causing a substantial drop in Nigeria’s oil output.
This is the context of a massive cleanup project the Nigerian government announced in June 2016. Targeting a thousand square miles at a cost of up to $1 billion, the cleanup project is, according to the government in Abuja, the largest such cleanup ever attempted.
It will likely be more than a year before the work actually starts. The cost will be covered by the Shell Petroleum Development Corporation, which is a joint venture between multiple international oil firms and the Nigerian state oil company.
The timing of the initiative might seem a bit suspicious, given the government’s recent security troubles in the region, but the initiative is actually the direct result of the 2011 UNEP report. Still, Pres. Muhammadu Buhari likely welcomed the opportunity to portray his administration as willing to do what his predecessors couldn’t or wouldn’t — clean up the mess that decades of oil exploitation have inflicted on the environment.
The cleanup will focus on Ogoniland, where oil production halted two decades ago in the wake of a non-violent local uprising against environmental destruction. Writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, the movement’s leader, and eight others were arrested and executed in 1995 by the military government then ruling Nigeria, prompting an international outcry.
Ogoniland nonetheless continues to be impacted by oil spills from derelict refinery infrastructure and pipelines. But spills aren’t the only environmental challenge in Ogoniland and other regions in the Niger Delta.
Intricate criminal networks have sprung up around the illegal tapping of pipelines, known locally as oil “bunkering.” Well-organized criminal groups take advantage of the swampy terrain to approach pipelines, breach them and pump the crude oil into barges.
They later sell the pilfered oil on the black market or process it into gasoline of questionable quality in makeshift refineries, a cottage industry that the Guardian covered in a fantastic photo series. The thieves seldom have the courtesy to fix the pipeline damage they inflict.
The profits from this illicit trade in oil are massive. In 2013, Nigerian thieves made off with oil worth up to $8 billion.
The government has promised cleanups in the past but never followed through. And even assuming that this time the government honors its promise, the measure, no matter how ambitious, won’t end the environmental crisis in the Niger Delta.
Oil spills are symptoms of a whole host of issues, ranging from neglected infrastructure and overt crime to real or perceived political marginalization and the resulting violence.
Still, for Ogoniland the cleanup project represents a victory in a fight that has cost many people their lives and health. “It will not be a 100-meter dash,” Nnimmo Bassey, director of the Nigerian think tank Health of Mother Earth Foundation, told the Guardian. “This is the start of a marathon.”
And an important part of the race won’t involve rehabilitating nature, but shaping the political environment in a way that guarantees that more oil is cleaned up than gets spilled at the same time.