BY DOIFIE BUOKORIBO
President Muhammadu Buhari is working. Nothing best demonstrates the promise of PMB to rise up to Nigeria’s myriad challenges than his prompt response to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Report on the environmental restoration of Ogoniland. It is a show of good faith, a promise kept and a hope restored.
At the instance of the Federal Government of Nigeria, the UNEP began an investigation into the environmental pollution of Ogoni, part of the oil-producing Niger Delta of Nigeria, in 2008. The investigation followed over 50 years of environmental devastation engendered by oil exploration and exploitation, on the one hand, and 20 years of community protests over environmental human rights abuses by Shell Petroleum Development Company (Nigeria) Limited which led to a halt in oil-drilling in 1993, on the other. The invitation to UNEP was part of reconciliatory moves with the Ogoni in order to ensure the resumption of oil production in the area. UNEP completed its assignment, and submitted a report to the Nigerian government on 4 August 2011.
“The Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland is the most comprehensive and complex assessment ever undertaken by UNEP,” UNEP’s Director, Division for Environmental Policy Implementation, Mr Ibrahim Thiaw, noted during the formal presentation of the assessment results to President Goodluck Jonathan.
Thiaw stated, “This assessment encompasses contaminated land, water, sediment, vegetation, air quality, public health, industry practices and institutional issues. And, it represents the best available understanding of what has happened to the environment of Ogoniland following 50 years of oil industry operations. It also provides operational recommendations on how that legacy can be addressed, including priorities for action such as clean-up and remediation.”
The report confirmed and emphasised a wide range of health and livelihood damages inflicted upon the people by the oil activities, stating, “The Ogoni community is exposed to petroleum hydrocarbons in outdoor air and drinking water, sometimes at concentrations at highly elevated levels.”
To ameliorate the situation, UNEP recommended the establishment of three new institutions to plan and manage the restoration effort. It proposed the setting up of an “Ogoniland Environmental Restoration Authority,” a government body to oversee the implementation of the report; “an Integrated Contaminated Soil Management Centre,” as a major industrial enterprise in Ogoniland that would employ hundreds of people, and a “Centre of Excellence for Environmental Restoration” to train the stakeholders in environmental monitoring and restoration; and “an Environmental Restoration Fund for Ogoniland with an initial capital injection of USD 1 billion contributed by the oil industry and the government.”
UNEP concluded, “The clean-up efforts undertaken to date are inadequate and have not resulted in environmental restoration,” stressing, “Full environmental restoration of Ogoniland will take an estimated 25 to 30 years. This will be possible through a combination of modern technology to clean up contaminated land and waterways, backed up by practical action at the regulatory, operational and monitoring levels.
“The happy news is that with a more focused approach it will be possible to attain major improvements in just five years.”
It said the situation required, “The swift commencement of clean-up before the pollution footprint spreads any further.”
Unfortunately, four full years after, no concrete action was undertaken by the federal government to implement the crucial report. This is despite the fact that Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, a son of the Niger Delta, superintended over the affairs of the country at the time of the submission of the report of UNEP’s Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland and, in fact, received it on behalf of the Nigerian government.
In a report published in October 2014 titled, “Still Polluted: Monitoring Government and Shell’s Response to UNEP’s Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland,” the Social Development Integrated Centre (Social Action), a non-governmental organisation, accused the Nigerian government under President Jonathan of nonchalance. The organisation condemned government’s failure to respect its responsibility for environmental protection as contained in Section 20 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) that stipulates as follows: “The State shall protect and improve the environment and safeguard the water, air and land, forest and wildlife of Nigeria.” Social Action observed that the response of the Jonathan administration to the UNEP report was the establishment of the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project (HYPREP) under the Ministry of Petroleum Resources in July 2012. With respect to Shell, Social Action quoted the company as saying that its counterpart funding to the USD 1 billion Ogoni Restoration Fund had been reserved in an offshore account. In the absence of a legal framework and technical work-plan to be worked out by the Nigerian government, the clean-up exercise could not commence.
Praises are due to President Buhari for the bold and clear commitment of the new administration to implement the UNEP report. The wide-ranging measures meant to accelerate the implementation of the UNEP report approved last Wednesday, 5 August 2015, by PMB included the amendment of the Official Gazette establishing the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project (HYPREP) to reflect a new governance framework comprising a Governing Council, a Board of Trustees, and Project Management.
The measures were based on the recommendations of the Executive Director of UNEP, the UNEP Special Representative for Ogoniland, Permanent Secretaries of the Federal Ministries of Environment and Petroleum Resources, and other stakeholders.
The president appointed a HYPREP Governing Council and a Board of Trustees for the HYPREP Trust Fund to collect and manage funds from contributors and donors towards the clean-up effort. He also approved an initial contribution of $10 million to the fund.
Though, government is a continuum, it is instructive that a Nigerian president of non-Niger Delta origin is now the one who has taken the focused approach required to pull the region back from the brink of oil-instigated ecological disaster. Buhari’s decision to prioritise implementation of the UNEP report on Ogoniland speaks volumes for his determination to make the lives of people in the Niger Delta better. It is a strong statement that those who have tried to impute anti-Niger Delta sentiments to the coming of Buhari have gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick. It is appropriate to also thank Timipre Sylva, Rotimi Amaechi and others from the Niger Delta for standing solidly with Buhari, against all odds, in the 2015 Presidential Election.
In responding to the UNEP report on the Ogoni, PMB has just taken a step in a long journey towards resolving the Niger Delta question. As a matter of fact, there are a few issues yet to be sorted out before the commencement of the clean-up exercise. These include issues of representation in the proposed structures; appropriate name of the agency to drive the process, and the scope of the project.
My take is that with the acceptance of the demand to set up a public trust to manage project funds, every other grey matter can be sorted out through dialogue and engagement. Significantly, the ecological think-tank, Home of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), has drawn attention to the misnaming of the body to undertake the clean-up. “Certainly, government does not wish to ‘restore pollution’ as the name Hydrocarbons Pollution Restoration Project (HYPREP) suggests. The object is to remediate the environment, not to restore pollution,” HOMEF noted. My suggestion is that government should retain Ogoniland Environmental Restoration Authority as recommended by UNEP, to start with.
Similarly, I fully endorse calls for the Nigerian government to commission an assessment of the whole Niger Delta environment.
The Ogoni environmental problem mirrors the global ecological crisis faced by the peoples of the Niger Delta. It echoes the vast economic catastrophe wreaked in the Niger Delta by the destruction of livelihoods in the service of the oil and gas industry.
Central to the Niger Delta question is the destruction of the people’s environment and means of livelihood by oil and gas activities, expropriation of the region’s mineral resources, unemployment, and shortage of infrastructure.
Answers to the Niger Delta question have been captured in various reports on the region. But common to the reports are a clean-up of the Niger Delta environment by government and the oil companies that do business there; a firm resolve by the authorities to ensure that the extractive sector in the region conducts its activities in line with international best standards; employment creation through integration of the local economy with the oil economy and a conscious effort to change the culture of enclave development whereby lavish facilities that house and service the oil economy exist side-by-side run down communities; and establishment of institutions primarily dedicated to facilitating development in the region.
Buhari has launched a strategic attempt at change in the Niger Delta. It behoves us to support the move to bring the region to the expected end of environmental and economic restoration that the people and, indeed, Nigeria badly needs.
*Doifie Buokoribo is a media and political strategist, development consultant, and social and political activist. He has worked as a public affairs journalist, environmental human rights campaigner, and public servant. He can be reached on: Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @doifiebuokoribo