President of Ijaw National Congress, Prof Benjamin Okaba, shares his thoughts with DANIELS IGONI on oil spill in the Niger Delta and the clean-up of Ogoniland, among other issues
Shell recently announced that it would pay €15m to farmers in three Niger Delta communities as compensation for damages to their farms as a result of oil spill in compliance with a Dutch Court ruling. What do you make of this decision?
In the first place, we had expected more as a result of the damages done to our environment resulting from the exploration and exploitation of oil and gas over the years. No matter how little, this amount, for me, could be a starting point so that as many communities that are involved, the shift in focus and paradigm should be away from agitation to taking legal actions. I think it paid off in the Ogoni matter. This is also another case. The lesson for the Niger Delta people is that the use of arms is no longer providing the necessary result; instead, people should approach the court with application of due diligence. From our local courts to international courts, when judgments are passed, we will not be damaging our environment further. There had been talks about people who felt that one way of attracting justice is to get involved in illegal bunkering business and that kills the environment even faster than the activities of the oil companies. So, for me, the judgment is very good; it is a feat that should be emulated by communities affected by the same degree of damages over the years.
When will Nigerian courts also deliver judgments concerning oil pollution in favour of farmers and oil-producing communities in the Niger Delta?
The Dutch court ruling should also be a lesson to the Nigerian judiciary. This is what they should have done over the years. But again, it speaks volumes of the independence of the judiciary in this country. If you do an evaluation of oil matters, political matters and all that, you cannot beat your chest and say that our judiciary is as independent as expected. But if foreign countries can stand up and do the right thing, I think Nigerian courts should be bold enough to do the same thing. For me, such judgments show that the judicial system in this country needs to buckle up and do the needful.
But in all of these, it appears that communities in the region that bear the brunt of oil exploration and exploitation are the ones that initiate legal actions against multinational oil companies in foreign courts instead of the federal and state governments. Is it supposed to be so?
It is borne out of frustration when there is a high level of connivance and compromises on the part of the state and federal governments. In fact, when you talk about operations of oil multinationals in the Niger Delta and the various levels of deprivation and oppression, you will see the involvement of the state, particularly using the apparatus of state in cowing communities that come up to express their displeasure over the years with the oil companies not even meeting up with the conditions spelt out in Memoranda of Understanding that are agreed upon. These are communities that lack electricity, potable water and are heavily degraded. But over the years, it shows that the Federal Government is only interested in the revenues that they make from oil and gas and not really protecting the fundamental human rights and environmental rights of the people and the communities.
So, ab initio, they know that the government is not protecting them, and they have to take their destiny in their hands. Even when communities protest against the excesses of oil companies, the government or the state tend to openly support the oil companies and suppress the oil-producing communities instead of backing them. So, approaching the government to resolve any issue is just a waste of time, and they (communities) have decided to take up matters by themselves. Although it is capital intensive, at the end of the day, they will see results. For the same reason too, they don’t approach those courts that are under the influence of the Nigerian government, because they (courts) can even influence judgment against a community instead of an oil company. It is as bad as that.
What is the way forward for the oil-spill impacted communities that do not have confidence in the state?
For instance, there are international best practices in terms of oil operations and whether you like it or not, these operations are domesticated; and the kind of environments the oil companies find themselves in will actually influence the way they operate. These companies, if they have good intentions based on international rules and guidelines, when they come into a state or a country where the state officials, for selfish reasons, for what they will get out of these operations, will reduce standards to cut cost and tell them that certain things can be avoided in as much as benefits are accruing to them.
Look at our laws concerning gas flaring and environmental impact assessment and others. They are so cheap that they can be easily circumvented. So, the oil companies prefer to go and pay ahead of time. Even when there are infractions on those laws and policies, the state apparatus, instead of effecting arrest and ensuring compliance with the rules, through some compromises, they allow them to go. Look at what happened recently about the oil theft where a vessel that is as big as three football fields left the Nigerian waters and was only intercepted in Equatorial Guinea. When the naval commander raised the alarm, it was very obvious that this vessel left because there was high level connivance from the key actors; people that should have ensured that the correct papers were available and due diligence was applied were all compromised. It took the intervention of some foreign agencies and maybe the seriousness of the Federal Government, at least for once, to bring those persons to book.
So, these are things that affect the entire operations of what we do in this country, and that is why what is obtainable elsewhere can be easily abused in our clime. Nigerians go to China even as individual businessmen; a quantum of medicine that can cure an ailment, Nigerians pay extra money or pay less, not minding the impact of what they are doing; and bring highly diminished doses. That is the kind of clime we find ourselves in. The only solution is for the government to sit up, be truly patriotic and have the interest of the citizenry at heart and not think of what they will gain as individuals. We also have corrupt people internationally. But in countries like Singapore, you don’t go and do those things; they will kill you. But in Nigeria, such corrupt people have their local allies and at the end of the day, they get away with their crime and only the citizens suffer.
The Niger Delta has been described as the most polluted wetland in the world and the Federal Government is alleged not to be doing much in terms of protecting the region’s environment and the oil-producing communities. It’s been said that in some decades to come, the losses in terms of flora and fauna, and health hazards to the people will be massive. What is the fate of the people in the region?
For the past three or four decades, the cry against oil spill and environmental pollution has been ongoing. From Ken Saro-Wiwa, and even before him, Isaac Adaka Boro, and many Niger Delta struggles have been based on oil exploration and the degradation of the environment. For this number of years, people have been talking about a very bleak future for the Niger Delta people. As we speak, we are no longer talking about what to expect, the symptoms of the degradation on land, water and air are already being felt. There are health hazards. The Bayelsa State Government recently made a shocking declaration where it said that many people had been flown out of the country and about 90 per cent of these are people who have heart-related, pollution-related and cancer-related diseases.
You also know about the soot problem in Rivers State; look at the phenomenon of climate change, flooding patterns and encroachment of the ocean. These are things we have started seeing and economically speaking, they have made life so bad and horrible for the people; farmlands are not as productive as they used to be, our fishing ponds are no longer dependable to the extent that riverine communities that were exporting fishes now import iced fish to survive. We have to now survive on meat, foreign products; we have rivers all over the place, but they are not good enough. I am talking about contaminated water because most of our communities do not have potable water; they still depend on the badly polluted waters.
In fact, if you go to the Forcados and Gbaramatu areas, you will see the river almost overtaken by pollutants. To get clean water there is very difficult. So, we have started having the full impact of the oil spills, gas flares and all the various types of environmental degradation. We have started experiencing them full scale. Unless something drastic is done, in five to 10 generations from now, I don’t see them being able to live a normal life. Except there will be some miracle from heaven. That is the situation about massive oil spills and pollution in the Niger Delta. It is that bad. We have gone beyond the warning signals; we have started experiencing those dark ages we have been talking about befalling our people if urgent steps are not taken to mitigate the process.
Talking about oil spills, the implementation of the UNEP report on Ogoniland has been rather very slow. What implication does this portend for the comprehensive clean-up of the Niger Delta?
When the INC delegation met with the Federal Government in 2021, this point was also made. I happen to be one of the consultants on socio-economic impacts. So, I know the areas impacted in Ogoni and they are massive, no doubt. But it cannot be compared with other parts of the Niger Delta like Bayelsa State. Yes, Ogoni is massively polluted, but we know that it is infinitesimal when compared to the degrees of pollution suffered in other areas in Bayelsa and other places. People applauded the UNEP intervention because we saw it as a stepping stone into what could happen from Ogoni to other areas. That is why Niger Delta leaders outside Ogoni did not say, ‘Come and start here’; or ‘Why not take all of us together’.
We just felt that let us use Ogoni as a test case, and with the seriousness that will be devoted to the clean-up and remediation process, something true can get to other places in the region. Unfortunately, the same Nigerian factor seems to be affecting the Ogoni clean-up. Now, the exercise is highly politicised and it is slowing down the process. It’s just that we don’t have a serious government. When we made these points to the Federal Government, saying, ‘You are starting with Ogoni, you will get to other places’, we thought that by now, the government would keep its promise and stand by it. Today, if we do an evaluation of what we have in Ogoniland, and in terms of the extent of compliance, it is nothing to write home about and there is no pretence of any hope for the rest of the Niger Delta. After several years with so much money pumped in, we cannot say that the environmental clean-up in Ogoni has attained 20 per cent. Then how do you talk about other places that you have not started at all. So, it is as bad as that.
In your view, has the Petroleum Industry Act made any significant difference in the conduct of oil and gas business in the country?
It does not look like the PIA is in existence. From inception, we were against it because we saw it as another obnoxious piece of legislation that was recklessly pushed down the throats of Nigerians. If you look at the manner in which it was pushed through in the National Assembly, it was clear that it was another way of providing an environment for oil companies in business to further exploit the resources of the Niger Delta to the extent that a call for just 10 per cent to the host communities, to at least address some of the impacts, because 10 per cent will not do anything; they gave the host communities a paltry three per cent. It is an insult, and we will continue to say that it is an insult. We have never believed that the PIA will work; that it will change anything.
Does it not surprise you that the PIA has not changed anything?
That the PIA has not changed anything is not a surprise to me. I do not expect that the PIA will change anything. It will even be a waste of time to do any evaluation on it. Nothing has changed. It is just that it has provided a legal framework for the oil companies to now make more lucrative gains, though they have been making such before, but now, they have a legal framework and all those community boards that are also structured in a manner that the communities have little or no control are just put in there to serve the interest of the state and not of the communities. The state governments that are in the constitution and have responsibility of ensuring peace and order are not even considered in the PIA. That is to tell you that it is confusion and confusion all the way. For me, we thank God that we still have some peace in the region in spite of all these.
The Federal Government has eventually constituted a substantive board for the Niger Delta Development Commission. Does the INC have confidence in the new board?
Well, talking about confidence in the new board of the NDDC, the fact that with or without the so-called forensic audit, the board has been constituted and the era of sole administrator as the head of the commission is over. It is just a step further. Secondly, when you talk about the board’s capacity to perform, it depends on the individuals appointed and their sponsors, the Nigerian factor and the time in which they want to operate. We have a few weeks to the conduct of the general elections and the result of the election has a way of actually affecting the performance of the board.
The demands of the political party in charge, too, will also define the focus of the board. Is it there to link money to election funds? Are they there to actually address the developmental challenges of the Niger Delta or the political actors who have truly nominated them? They are people linked to one political actor or another. We must not fail to say this. So, what is the interest of the godfather? Those are a whole lot of considerations we have to do before somebody goes to clap hands and say, ‘Wonders will happen with this board’. However, it is better late than never and half bread, they say, is better than none. At least we have a board, but I don’t have much faith in any serious thing happening. That’s the truth.
The NDDC is alleged to be one of the most politicised federal agencies. What do you suggest should be the solution to the problem?
When you talk about politicisation, there is hardly anything that has to do with an appointment that is not politicised. If you say we want an NDDC with seasoned technocrats, these technocrats have to be nominated and appointed by the political class. So, you now have seasoned technocrats who are also politically appointed for political reasons, and it is not an agency that you say you grow as a career administrator and you get to the apex. Even at that level, maybe you get to the position of director and you say that one of the directors becomes this and that. We also have directors who are politicians and the appointment to the apex level will also be politicised. Therefore, political interference by the state is the major challenge. The major challenge they face is over-politicisation; if not every appointment is politicised. The vice-chancellorship appointment is politicised. There is a process that produces three persons, and the President chooses any out of the three. In as much as the issue of choice is made, it is politics.
So, political interference, not allowing people to do their job is a major challenge. Appoint the person and let him go and do his job. Don’t interfere; don’t set selfish targets. That is our bane and until it is addressed, it will be very difficult not only with the NDDC, but with all agencies, particularly those that are money-spinning; we will not have it right.
The pipeline surveillance contract has led to the discovery of huge oil theft locations in the Niger Delta. What is your impression about the revelations so far made?
We are expecting more discoveries and revelations on the large-scale oil theft in the region. Again, when the Nigerian people were made to believe that Niger Delta people, through oil bunkering, are the major oil thieves; in fact (former President) Obasanjo described us as ‘economic saboteurs’; we kept on saying that oil theft is capital intensive and the volume of oil theft we are talking about cannot be managed by local boys in these communities, and that there is heavy collaboration. Some of us went into the creeks and saw what was going on under the watch of military personnel, where boats were being loaded with crude oil in broad daylight under the supervision of military personnel; where about N500,000 then was paid as bribe for loading a boat; we also saw the involvement of international oil thieves.
All these things are not possible without the connivance of top-class military and intelligence officers because for those people to operate in and out of your continental shelf without the permission of the various naval and intelligence agencies is very difficult. So, the revelations, to a large extent, have vindicated the people of the Niger Delta that they are not the ones stealing crude oil. Secondly, records have shown that stealing of crude oil in offices is even heavier; those 800 barges that were found in foreign countries and unaccounted for; the stealing of crude oil in offices is more than what happens in the creeks. More discoveries, I believe, are on the way.
But federal troops have been seizing and destroying vessels caught with suspected stolen crude oil? What is the implication of this?
That is another disturbing dimension; why are they destroying evidence? Yes, some major vessels were caught and suddenly set ablaze. Why will they destroy the evidence? That in itself is further degradation to our environment. This is an issue that Niger Delta lawyers are beginning to put their heads together to see how they can sue the Federal Government, because those vessels are owned by people. When you find them with, maybe, tank farms, they should be intercepted and interrogated. Why the deliberate effort to destroy evidence? That tells us that people in top positions are involved in the sabotage.
The Federal Government has inaugurated an 11-man special investigative panel on oil theft headed by the Interim Administrator of the Presidential Amnesty Programme, Major General Barry Tariye Ndiomu. Is the INC going to present a memorandum to the panel?
Before now, we have had discussions with Ndiomu when he had some initial hiccups as to if the amnesty programme be shut down and what we need to do to sustain the peace in the Niger Delta. We had suggested to him that if the militants are engaged in ensuring that oil theft is reduced because they understand the terrain, the needed result will be achieved. I am sure he presented the same position to the Federal Government, and that was part of why they took this initiative that is paying off. If the Ndiomu committee demands memoranda from stakeholders, we will make our presentation to them. We will do deeper investigations and give them facts and figures as far as we know, because oil theft to a large extent is polluting our environment; there is no doubt about this. Secondly, it is economic sabotage, and thirdly, it has painted us in a very bad light. So, if we have the opportunity to change the narrative, why not?