Skillfully scooping water from beneath a thick black carpet of crude, veteran Nigerian fisherman Suagelo Kpalap gives a shrug of resignation at the mention of the latest twist in an oil spill blame game he’s watched for decades.
A United Nations (UN) report released in August told Kpalap and the other inhabitants of Ogoniland, a region within the vast, oil-rich Niger Delta, what they’ve known for years — their environment is dangerously polluted and Royal Dutch Shell and the government aren’t doing enough to clean it up.
“Oil spills have wasted my life, my environment and livelihood. There isn’t much for me to enjoy at my age,” the 57-year old said, wiping oil-stained hands on ragged clothes. “My fishing nets are all soaked in oil, I don’t have money to get new ones and my canoes have been destroyed by the spills.”
In some Africa delta regions, tourists enjoy the calm waterways and wildlife. The landscape of banana trees and a pineapple farm where Kpalap stands looks bleak, stained with oil, in air filled with dark smoke from gas flaring.
The UN report said Ogoniland required the biggest oil clean-up in history, which could take 30 years and cost an initial $1-billion. The paper — the most scientific and detailed report ever on Niger Delta spills — found levels of pollution that shocked the most pessimistic observers.
In one community, drinking water was contaminated with benzene, a substance known to cause cancer, at levels over 900 times above World Health Organisation guidelines.
Shell and Nigeria’s state-owned oil firm NNPC were criticised in the paper for not meeting their own best practices. In 10 out of 15 areas the UN visited where Shell said it had completed its clean-up, high levels of pollution were still found.
Shell was forced out of Ogoniland in 1993 by the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), led by poet and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, after they said the oil giant had destroyed their fishing environment. Saro-Wiwa was later hanged by the military government, prompting international outrage.
In the years since, Shell has stopped pumping oil from the region but its pipelines and other oil drilling infrastructure remain, largely unprotected, and are susceptible to leaks, sabotage attacks and theft.
Shell says it is working to better protect its equipment in Ogoniland but repairs are thwarted by persistent sabotage attacks and illegal tapping by local oil thieves.
Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People and residents of hundreds of communities across the Niger Delta are angry with Shell and other oil majors operating in the oil-rich country and frustrated with the government for not enforcing stricter operating practices.
The government says the foreign oil company operators have to look after their equipment.
In a region where most people live on less than $2 a day, despite around $240-million-a-day in oil export revenue flowing into Nigeria, residents are tired of decades of fighting and want a proper clean-up along the lines of what the United Nations has mapped out.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan last week constituted a committee to review the report and Shell and NNPC have both said they will look carefully at the findings.
Nothing short term
But there is scepticism that the positive statements of intent following the release of the report will result in any long-term changes in an area of the world far from the international media glare.
Suanu Baridam, secretary of the Ogoni Council of Traditional Rulers, hopes the UN report will build momentum that will force Shell, NNPC and the government into long-term action.
“We don’t want anything short term … I know how they normally do their thing. Once you agree with them to do one thing now and they say they will come later, they end up not doing anything. People forget again,” said Baridam.
Shell, NNPC and the government have all supported the UN report’s depth and integrity and have promised to investigate its findings — a small victory has been met with cautious optimism by rights groups and many Nigerians.
The report proves the unacceptable environmental damage caused by oil drilling in Nigeria and offers a tough and long solution.
One thing that has become clear is that the Nigerian government will have to drive any change.
“There is no point blaming Shell any more than we should blame ourselves,” said Senator Magnus Abe, the representative in the upper house of Parliament for Rivers South-East, one of the three states in the Niger Delta.
“It is our responsibility as Nigerians to enforce our laws and ensure people obey our rules. If we compromise ourselves, compromise our offices and allow people to do what they like, it doesn’t make sense for us to blame everybody else.” — Reuters