Many years after large quantity of crude oil was discovered in Oloibiri, Ogbia local government area of Bayelsa State with all its attendant evils, Osa Okhomina examines the fight that has been launched by the state government to make oil multinationals accountable for the damages that their activities bring to the host communities.
For decades, successive administrations in Bayelsa State and the Niger Delta region as a whole, failed to summon the political will to demand justice for the environmental pollution resulting from oil spillage and gas flaring in the states. As a result, the people had to live with the pollution and their source of livelihood threatened.
Consequently, the people were denied access to safe, drinkable water and also pushed away from their fishing and farming businesses. The oil spillage constituted serious threat to the health of every member of the communities that was affected. Even child-bearing became difficult and rose alarmingly.
It is believed that an estimated 13 million barrels of crude has been spilled in Bayelsa State since the 1950s. The state’s commissioner for Environment, Mr Ebi Epianogolo, disclosed this last week after a team of forensic expert commissioned in 2012 to study the impact of oil pollution in the state concluded their survey. Interestingly though, no compensation has been paid to any community in whatever form, for the spillage and the consequences thereafter.
The alarming discovery has caused the state government to take the battle to the door step of the oil multinationals. The first thing that the governor, Seriake Dickson, did was to set up an international judicial commission of inquiry to probe, investigate and bring to account, the oil companies that have exploited the wealth of the state in the past 56 years.
The commission of inquiry is made up of foreign experts, diplomats and forensic experts including the Arch Bishop of York, Dr John Sentamu as chairman, the former president of Ghana, John Kufou, a former member of the British Cabinet and House of Lords, Baroness Valerie Amos Brondesbury and a principal at the Fydow Forensics, Daniel Onifade as members.
Other members of the commission include the former attorney-general and commissioner of Justice in the state, Barr Wodu Kemesuode, who would serve as legal counsel to the commission, head of the School of Law, University of Bradford, Prof Engine Emeseh, Professor of Public Economics, University of St. Gallen, Prof Roland Holder and Dr Kathryn Nwajiaku-Dohou, among others.
The commission’s assignment, according to Governor Dickson, is to last only nine months, after which it is expected to submit a report. If, however, more needs to be done and more time is required, the commission has been given the window to formerly request for an extension which would be granted accordingly.
Governor Dickson gave the commission power to, in the course of carrying out necessary investigations, conduct private hearings, both within and outside the country. To that end, he said, the commission shall establish facts, quantify impact of oil spills, determine responsibilities and, where possible, identify those responsible, and make recommendations, including, in particular, on a suitable accountability framework.
“As governor of the oldest and largest on-shore oil producing state in Nigeria, I represent people that have been unduly affected by this corporate negligence. It is on behalf of the people of Bayelsa State that I have set up this commission,” the governor explained.
He lamented the impact that oil and gas exploration and extraction has had on the state describing it as incalculable and one that has threatened the livelihood and economy of the state. The governor did not fail to mention the impact of oil exploration on agricultural development and how it has fuelled health disorders and caused tension in the social fabric of communities in the state and region.
“The people of Bayelsa State have paid too high a price for the growth of Nigeria’s oil sector, without reaping any significant benefit.”
He then expressed hope that the work of the commission will transform the lives of the people of Bayelsa and the environments which they live. “These are our lives. This is our future. We will work together to restore all of Bayelsa, for ourselves and for the next generations. Thank you for being part of that mission.”
Archbishop Sentamu, who is the chairman of the commission, is one of many people pleased with the government of Bayelsa State for the step it has taken to solve the oil spill menace in the region once and for all. He commended Governor Dickson for setting up the commission and assured the governor that the commission is aware of her responsibility and is willing to do everything possible to get results at the end of the day.
“The aim of the commission is to develop a set of informed recommendations that would lead to the development of a new legal framework that would ensure 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,” he said.
“The commission will achieve this by investigating the environmental and human damage caused by the operations of the multinational oil companies, specifically as a result of oil spills, in Bayelsa State. Analysing the existing legislation governing the operations of the multinational oil companies, undertake comparative analysis with legislation governing the operations of multinational oil companies in other territories, and assess the suitability of the existing Nigerian legislation for holding multinational oil companies to account for their activities.”
Following protest in some communities shortly after it was set up, the commission visited some oil ravaged communities in the state. The chairman of the commission led an eight-member committee to Egbebiri and Ikarama communities in Yenagoa local government area as well as Azuzuama community in Southern Ijaw local government area. There, the commission held evidence sessions with representatives of no fewer than 35 communities, traditional rulers, environmentalists and civil society organisations.
In Egbebiri, chairman of the community development committee (CDC), Mr Godspower Worikumo, told members of the commission that the last spill caused by equipment failure occurred in October 2018. He said the manifold operated by the Nigeria Agip Oil Company (NAOC) spilled crude oil for about 11 days before it was identified by the oil company.
“Our river, ponds and farmlands were destroyed by the spillage and since then, our community has suffered terrible devastation and our means of livelihood affected as a result of the spillage.”
In this community, the commission members expressed shock that an attempt to clean up the spills resulted in further pollution as they saw a pit of fire where crude excavated from the soil was being burnt and the smoke spreading all over the community.
“This is shocking and totally unacceptable,” Archbishop Sentamu lamented as he scooped raw crude from a pond with a plastic bucket.
It was also lamentations in Ikarama community as an environmental monitor for Amnesty International and youth president of the community, Warder Benjamin, informed the commission that it takes a minimum of 12 days for Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) to respond to the several incidents of oil spills in the community.
He explained that the youths were employed only on part-time basis as look-out personnel for oil spill and that when such incidents are reported, they always promise to do something about it but nothing is ever done.
In Azuzuama, placard-bearing youths protesting the devastating effect of oil spill and exploration in their community welcomed the delegation.
During the four-hour round trip by boat to and fro Azuzuama community, the delegation saw evidence of the devastation caused by spillages on the rivers and mangrove stilts, which had been blackened by crude seeping off oil facilities.
An environmentalist and Ibenanaowei of Ekpetiama Kingdom, King Bubaraye Dakolo, who spoke to journalists after attending the evidence session in Yenagoa, accused highly-placed personnel of the International Oil Companies (IOCs) of complicity in the sabotaging of oil facilities for their selfish and pecuniary interests.
“No oil firm can accuse the youths of the Niger Delta before me because they are the cause of the violence we are experiencing in the region. Prior to oil exploitation and exploration, Niger Delta man lived in a pristine environment with tranquility.
“Time and time again, ocean liners and ships that have the capacity of picking up at once, the entire crude oil that comes from Nigeria berth at the Gulf of Guinea. They anchor there and wait. They sponsor young men to go and bring crude from everywhere around.
“Sometimes the oil workers open the valves and release crude to the barges in the night and these barges bring crude to the big ocean liners at the Gulf of Guinea. Ocean liners are not tiny drops, they are not canoes. They are boats that are so large an entire kingdom can get into them. And then they collect sufficient crude that they take to Europe and America to sell. So, who is profiting? Is it the man that is sent to go and do some menial, dangerous job? Or it is the main man that sponsors all of these?
“You and I do not have the expertise to burst the pipes. For you to burst pipe, you must have the expertise. And where do you get expertise of that type if not in the oil industry? So, the sabotage that they accuse us of is caused by the oil industry. They are the experts.”
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