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‘Ogoni cleanup has been politicised due to diverse interests’

Activists in Port Harcourt, Nigeria protest to demand that Shell pay reparations and clean up its oil spills. Photo: © Amnesty International.

By Edu Abade: 04 September 2017

The Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action, Dr. Godwin Uyi Ojo (right), in this interview with Edu Abade says the cleanup process of Ogoniland announced at the commencement of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration with funfair has been politicised due to diverse interests. He argues that Shell’s membership of the governing council can only be likened to a judge sitting on his own case. He also expressed concerns over the desecration of the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB), which has culminated in the partial passage of the Petroleum Industry Governance Bill (PIGB) recently by the Senate. An environmental activist for more than three decades, Ojo insists that oil as an exhaustible resource, will become obsolete on 20-30 years and advises Nigeria to explore alternative sources of energy.

What, in your view, is actually delaying the cleanup of Ogoni land for over two years after the Federal Government announced its commencement?
The cleanup process was flagged off with funfair and with raised expectations that things will be done in Ogoni. But we have seen clearly that the cleanup process of Ogoniland has been politicised and the diverse interests in the process has not been properly managed to the extent that there are different expectations from different interest groups. This is one of the serious problems why the cleanup has not commenced. And because it has been politicised, the flag off itself is a mere political statement with what we have seen. Two years down the line, not a drop of oil has been cleaned up.

Do you think that Shell has a hand in this dilemma?
Yes. I think the cleanup process and the entire setup shows that the sovereignty of the Nigerian state has been compromised because Shell is the chief culprit responsible for the pollution. Not surprisingly, Shell is a member of the governing council while other oil companies have representatives on the board of trustees. So, Shell is a judge in its own case and this is one of the reasons we suspect that they are protecting their interests as a company that is well known for making promises that it does not intend to keep. Shell’s membership of the governing council may have compromised the process.

Are the Ogoni well represented in the committee set up by government, including the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP) committee?
Well, individually we can say yes, but in terms of institutions, they are largely marginalised. The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) report recommended the setting up of Ogoni Restoration Authority (ORA) but that has not taken place. Instead, the Ogoni have been muscled and what you have is a pseudo institution called HYPREP, which has taken the place of ORA. The intention was that the Ogoni would then be empowered to run the institution and ensure a proper cleanup. Although headed by an Ogoni and one or two persons on the board of trustees, the HYPREP is inadequate. The main issue is the institutional framework in place and the fact that the ORA has not been settled at all, is a major problem.

In this regard, do you think the Ogoni are united in their resolve for the clean up to take place?
I can tell you that the Ogoni are largely united for the cleanup to take place because while a consensus may not be achieved, the overwhelming majority yearn for the cleanup for which Ken Saro-Wiwa and his Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) compatriots paid the supreme prize. So, the struggle has been on and majority of Ogoni people have been at the forefront with Environmental Rights Action (ERA) and other civil society groups. By and large, the ERA is committed to continue working with communities, especially the Ogoni, to put pressure on the process and ensure that people’s expectations are managed and ensure that the cleanup takes place. In addition to that, we have been at the vanguard of the protection of the environment in Ogoni. We clamoured for the UNEP report to be released and for the study of Ogoni land. We are still calling for the cleanup of the Niger Delta through environmental and impact assessment. For the past six years, we have been on this struggle in ensuring that justice is in Ogoni.

What is your take on Shell’s decision to commit only $200 million yearly for the exercise, instead of $1 billion recommended by the UNEP report?
I think Shell is eating its cake and trying to have it, because they are the regulated that has become the regulator. They are being let-off the hook by the Federal Government. The UNEP report recommended that they commit $1billion initial take off grant but they have been able to say whatever the reason, which is untenable because you are making profit and you have made the money, we are asking for a fraction of that profit. So, Shell and the Federal Government, instead of paying $1billion, as recommended by the UNEP report, have said they want to pay $200 million yearly for the cleanup. But as we speak, while that is grossly inadequate, only $10 million has been released for the year 2017. So, we are calling on the Federal Government and Shell to declare the amount that they will pledge to the cleanup process in 2017, next year and beyond.

The UNEP asked the Ogoni to be patient with the Nigerian government, if you remember clearly. So, what exactly does that mean in the context of the cleanup project?
I think more than any minority tribe in Nigeria, the Ogoni has been more peaceful and more patient in terms of the environmental disintegration and responses that we have seen. But having said that, I think that UNEP itself should be more political in putting pressure on government and the process to ensure a cleanup, especially when they see that there are violations of their recommendations… We have seen a situation where Shell advertised for contractors and people for the cleanup process and they have also said that 12 people have been trained for the cleanup exercise. This is preposterous because we are talking of a gigantic technology driven process and here they are trying outdated measures. The critical element is that UNEP ought to be in the forefront of the cleaning process because they have a pool of competent contractors. They have not only gone through the process before but they will deploy the appropriate technology for the cleaning. Again, you don’t need new breed technocrats in the cleaning process. The National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) was supposed to be detecting spills but they are so handicapped that they can neither detect spills nor respond to them. This is the process to empower them so that they are able to monitor and provide technical solutions to spills. I think Nigeria is missing it because the right institutions are not being consulted. NOSDRA should be empowered to play a central role in the monitoring of the cleaning process. Right now they are not able to discharge that responsibility. Of course, you know that some of these cleanup sites that Shell has said have been cleaned up in the Niger Delta are not cleaned at all but they have been certified as clean by NOSDRA.

Why hasn’t Shell decommissioned, yet it is divesting from most onshore facilities and moving offshore?
This is one of the enemies so strong that we think UNEP and the Federal Government should address calls for a decommissioning of Shell facilities. That is, facilities that are active should be rendered immobile or decommissioned in a way that they do not continue to be active. That virtually means removing obsolete facilities and equipment. It means leaving the place but they are trying to continue to put a foothold on Ogoniland. Shell has destroyed their image in Ogoni and there is no love lost between the company and the community. So, it will be hard for Shell to go back to Ogoni. But I can tell you I had letters from communities that Shell has been trying to re-enter Ogoni by changing some of the pipelines. This can result to serious conflict because cases have not been settled and so on. Shell should not use the cleanup process to re-enter Ogoni land. That could be very fatal.

What about the movement from onshore to offshore?
The movement from onshore to offshore is a deliberate attempt to leave behind the environmental degradation, mess and pollution they have created onshore. That is why they want to run away. We are saying that Shell should not be allowed to divest from onshore and move offshore without clearing up their mess. They are responsible and will remain responsible and should, therefore, cleanup Ogoni and the entire Niger Delta.

What is your opinion on the Petroleum Industry Governance Bill (PIGB) and the balkanisation of the original Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB)? Do you think the communities would get a fair deal on this, especially as the PIGB was partially passed by the Senate recently?
I think the lawmakers got it wrong when they balkanised the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) and renamed it the Petroleum Industry Governance Bill (PIGB) and only recently passed it partially. We reject it completely. The passage of the PIGB is no more than window dressing and a grope in the dark. This is highly unacceptable. The bill is pro-industry and fails to provide any holistic approach to resolving the persistent resource conflicts, environmental degradation and human rights violation being perpetrated by transnational oil companies operations in the Niger Delta on a daily basis. Since rural farming and fishing livelihoods have been destroyed what innovative ways are being proposed to account for this? The earlier versions of the Bill in the previous years recommended the inclusion of at least 10 per cent equity fund from oil revenue to be devolved to the host communities so that they can be involved in decision making and community development of their areas. In this present bill, community concerns are grossly neglected. The bill cannot be appreciated by a piecemeal approach. We are told there will be other three or four bills that are in the making. The question is where are the other Bills?  Let the Senate, and House of Representatives put all the cards on the table to allow for transparency and accountability in the process. What constitutes environmental infractions and penalties were not specified in the bill making it irrelevant to resolving conflicts in the oil fields of the Niger Delta. The bill has very little or no value added beyond investments, dividends and profits to the detriment of the people.

What is the future of oil, given all the challenges surrounding it locally and internationally?
Oil will become obsolete in the next 30years. There are now electrical cars. There is now a global Paris agreement for a gradual de-carbonisation process. You will see a transition from fossil fuel dependency to renewable sources of energy. Nigeria and other countries will become lagging if they don’t develop a renewable energy hub in West Africa. We are not thinking of energy transition and when we signal leave the oil in the soil, we are talking about Nigeria beyond oil because oil will become an obsolete resource in 15, 20, 30 years.

Has civil society played enough roles in the clean up process in Ogoni land and with other environmental issues?
Civil societies in Nigeria are filling the gap of opposition in providing critical reflections on governmental policies and governmental programmes in terms of planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. The role we have played in sustaining the struggle for the cleanup of the Niger Delta through peaceful protests, advocacy, workshops, local empowerment, has helped to enhance environmental awareness in Nigeria. We strongly believe that a critical mass is being built up and this has led to increasing voices speaking up in defense of the environment. Having said that, civil society should understand that they need not be sucked into the Ogoni cleanup process and the HYPREP itself must understand it is not only those that are working within the structure of the cleanup that they should consult. There are others who seek not to be sucked in, but want to ensure independent monitoring for the cleanup process. We see a situation where HYPREP is making consultations with civil society and choosing those to consult, which is rather arbitrary. So, civil society will continue to push. A major challenge presently is that some civil society groups have mushroomed into mouthpieces for government and even Shell.

What has the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth (ERA/FoEN) done to ensure that the Ogoni gets justice and fairness in the cleanup process?
In the Niger Delta, ERA/FoEN has been at the forefront of the struggle to put the cleanup of the area in the front burner and we have ensured that we continue to talk about gas flaring. We have secured several governments’ commitment to end gas flaring but each of those commitments was never honoured. Ours is to advocate and bring issues before government and believe that government will listen to us one day. Of course, we signaled the cleanup process that has become a major platform for this government. So, we will continue to push for the cleanup and institutions have been set up. I would say we are making progress but how would the situation have been like if ERA and other civil society groups were not speaking as we do. I think we are building the critical mass and we are responding to the misadventures of multinational oil companies, we are educating people… There is environmental awareness in the country and people are more interested in environmental issues more than in say, 20 years ago. We have been championing the struggle on a global scale to ensure that transnational corporations answer for their human rights violations. On June 5, 2015, the United Nations passed a resolution that transnational companies should be held accountable for their environmental violations and we are working with global partners to bring corporations to account.


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