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Ogoni Clean Up And Matters Arising



ANAYO ONUKWUGHA writes on the number of salient issues raised by the people of Ogoni at the commencement of the full clean up exercises of the polluted Ogoni land by the federal government.

In August 2011, The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released its report on the environmental assessment of Ogoni land of Rivers State.

Study of the UNEP report showed amongst others, extensive oil contamination of rivers, creeks, and ground waters in Ogoni land, Nigeria. The levels found in the more contaminated sites are high enough to cause severe impacts on the ecosystem and human health: extractable petroleum hydrocarbons (EPHs) (>10-C40) in surface waters up to 7420 µg L−1, drinking water wells show up to 42 200 µg L−1, and benzene up to 9000 µg L−1, more than 900 times the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines.

In line with UNEP recommendations to meet yearning of the people of the land, the federal government had on July 2, 2016, flagged off the clean-up exercise, though till recently, it was still skeletal.

Few days ago, the Federal Ministry of Environment kick-started the handover of oil spill impacted sites in Ogoni land to successful contractors.

Speaking at one of the sites at Obolo-Ebubu community in Eleme local government area of the state, the Minister of Environment, Suleiman Hassan, said the event would mark the commencement of the restoration of the natural environment, including water and vegetation.

Hassan charged the people of Ogoni to take ownership of the clean up project, assuring that the contractors would clean up the polluted sites in accordance with international best standards.

Dr Marvin Dekil, Project Coordinator of Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP), the agency saddled with the responsibility of restoring the environment, said the handover of the sites to the contractors had put to rest, speculations surrounding the actual time the clean up proper was going to commence.

Dekil stated that the contractors handling the clean up exercise underwent rigorous processes before they were selected to carry out the exercise.

However, the people of Ogoni, including traditional rulers, elders and youths have raised concerns over the federal government’s failure to provide the people with drinking water. They have also complained of none implementation of the recommendations of the UNEP report before embarking on the exercise.

First to raise the alarm was the paramount ruler of Ogali-Eleme community in Eleme local government area, Emerge Godwin Bebe Okpabi, who stressed the need for HYPREP to provide potable water to Ogoni people and also restore their livelihoods as contained in the UNEP report.

Okpabi’s warning was followed by a press conference addressed by a group of Ogoni elders under the aegies of Gbo Kabaari Ogoni, who called on the federal government to implement the recommendations of the UNEP report before the commencement of proper clean up of the impacted environment.

The elders listed some of the UNEP Report recommendations to include, provision of adequate sources of drinking water to the affected people and posting signs in areas where hydrocarbons were observed on surface water, warning people not to fish, swim or bathe in those areas, amongst others.

According to Senator Bennett Birabi, chairman of the group, there was the need for the setting up of an integrated contaminated soil management centre comprising an incinerator, thermal unit, soil washing unit and a contaminated water treatment unit, based on the recommendations of the UNEP Report.

“During the said flag-off Ogoni clean up exercise, the federal government stated that the implementation of the report would be done holistically and in a manner that ensures transparency, accountability, genuine partnership and proper representation of the people at the grassroots as well as guarantee job creation for young people and that Argo-allied industries required for processing agricultural produce would also be put in place.

“More than two years after the flag-off and the laudable assurances given, we are concerned that the manner and processes for the implementation of the recommendations of the UNEP Report run completely contrary to the assurances given by the federal government and more importantly, the very recommendations of the report.

“In the recommendation pages of the report. He stressed that while the overall environmental situation in Ogoni land needs urgent and focused attention, before cleaning up the existing pollution and restoring the environment, UNEP identified a number of emergency public health and other fundamental measures that must be first addressed.

“These measures include: provision of adequate sources of drinking water to the affected people; posting signs in areas where hydrocarbons were observed on surface water, warning people not to fish, swim or bathe in those areas; ensuring that everyone who has consumed water from contaminated sources is requested to undertake a comprehensive medical examination by physicians knowledgeable about the possible adverse effects of the hydrocarbons detected.

“Comprehensive decommissioning of oil facilities that fail an ‘Asset Integrity Management Plan for Ogoni;’ setting up of an Integrated Contaminated Soil Management Centre comprising an Incinerator, Thermal Unit, Soil Washing Unit and a Contaminated Water Treatment Unit.

“The Centre, which should drive the clean up is expected to be a modern industrial enterprise in Ogoni land that would employ hundreds of people; bringing all sources of ongoing contamination, including artisanal refining, to a swift end before the clean up. And for the purpose, the sum of $10 million is recommended for the provision of alternative employment for those in artisanal refining”, he further explained.’’

The elders decried the alleged politicisation of the contract, leading to exclusion of indigenous contractors and others from the Niger Delta region, as well as the drafting of the military to guard clean up sites in Ogoni land.

He said: “In our view, the extreme politicisation of the contract awards, resulting in the exclusion of competent indigenous contractors from Ogoni and other parts of the Niger Delta, is as insensitive as it is unacceptable to our people. It is, therefore, not surprising that the award process has sparked off a considerable wave of discontent throughout Ogoni land capable of derailing the project.

“And, in a desperate attempt to ostensibly stem the tide of anticipated protests over the exclusion of competent indigenous contractors, the Federal Government has taken umbrage under an ill advised decision to draft soldiers to Ogoni land ostensibly to provide ‘security services’ for the clean up and remediation project.

“We make bold to say that the best security that can ever be provided for any project in our community, and indeed anywhere else, is to fully involve the affected people in the implementation of the project.

“It is for this reason that we had, by our letter dated 19th November, 2018 to the vice president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, requested a reversal of the decision on military deployment so as not to justify any fears that the planned militarisation of the area is only a ploy to spark off violent crisis in the area as an excuse for a force majeure on the clean up project.

“Based on credible information available to us that the current clean up exercise is only but a preliminary phase intended to show that something is being done, we wonder why it has been given priority over the emergency life saving issue of provision of potable water.

“As stated earlier, observing that Ogoni communities were daily consuming water contaminated with benzene and other carcinogenic materials in concentrations over 900 times above the acceptable maximum as stipulated in the WHO guideline, UNEP had recommended that the provision of alternative safe drinking water to the communities, amongst other measures, be undertaken as a priority emergency measure before anything else.

“As our people are still condemned to drinking, bathing and fishing in the heavily contaminated water, we wonder if the current exercise is not a classic case of putting the cart before the horse. Or worse still, if the health and lives of our people are not being sacrificed on the altar of ‘political exigencies’ and patronages to certain privileged few, he asked.

“In the light of the foregoing, believing that the current clean up exercise is a genuine effort at addressing the aged long environmental degradation of our land, and not a mere political billboarding, we fervently demand that these issues be addressed in order to ensure that the project is not delivered dead on arrival!”

Joining in the clamour for full implementation of the recommendations of the UNEP report was the Ogoni Youth Federation (OYF), which warned the federal government not to think of mobilising contractors to Ogoni and for clean up if the key recommendations of the UNEP report, have not been carried out.

The youths listed the key recommendations to include provision of clean portable drinking water, medical evaluation and treatment for the Ogoni people, building of Centre of Excellence and the Integrated Contaminated Soil Management Centre, adequate participation of Ogoni indigenous contractors, youth involvement and training, etc.

According to Legborsi Yamaabana, President of OYF; “The recommendations are conditions precedent to the Ogoni clean up exercise and must be followed! We make bold to say that unless these are done, Ogoni youths can not guarantee the security of contractors in the Ogoni environment.

“It is worrisome that over two years after the flag off of the clean up exercise, the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project, (HYPREP) under Marvin Dekil and the Federal Ministry of Environment had continued to deceive the people with rhetoric, rather than carrying out the actual recommendations of the United Nations Environment Program report.

“OYF wishes to sound a note of warning to the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project and the Federal Ministry of Environment to do the right thing by implementing the above recommendations or be ready to face vehement resistance from Ogoni people and a fresh legal and internationally recognised opposition”, the group had threatened.