UNEP Report: Balancing optimism with Caution

By Tijah Bolton-Akpan
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari recently issued a presidential directive on measures to fast-track the implementation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report on the environmental assessment of Ogoniland. This comes four years after the UNEP report was first released in August 2011; four years of denials, deception and inaction. Finally, the long-awaited cleanup and restoration of Ogoniland appears set to begin. This is no doubt reason for cheer, but there is need for caution. It is a delicate process and any misstep at this point would defeat whatever good intentions may have informed the directive. There are also lessons in the Ogoni case that can positively inform the broader Niger Delta question.

Since the beginning of oil exploitation from Ogoniland in 1958, the people have had to live with the terrible impacts of oil on their soil, air, and water. Their protests against the ravaging toll of oil on their environment and livelihoods led to the ousting of Shell and the discontinuation of oil production in Ogoniland in 1993. As part of a reconciliation process, the Federal Government commissioned UNEP in 2006 to carry out a comprehensive and independent assessment of the damage.

The UNEP report passed a damning verdict on Shell and the Nigerian government for their roles in the environmental and public health disaster in Ogoniland. According to UNEP, the damage is so severe that it will require around $1 billion and between 30 to 35 years to conduct any meaningful cleanup. Among other things, the report recommended the creation of an Ogoniland Environmental Restoration Authority and an Environmental Restoration Fund for Ogoniland with capital of $1 billion, to be co-funded by the Federal Government, Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC). It recommended urgent and comprehensive cleanup of Ogoniland, coordinated action to end to all forms of ongoing oil contamination, and some emergency interventions in the provision of clean water and health services. Government allowed one year of inaction to pass before responding by setting up what it called the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project (HYPREP), which was roundly rejected by the Ogonis for falling far short of what UNEP recommended. Then to worsen matters, HYPREP sat on its hands for another three years, before the recent pronouncement of fast track actions by Mr. President.

Granted, implementing the recommendations of the report is not a simple process. The remediation options in the report are massive and complex, and will require coordinated multi-stakeholder action over time. It is not enough to establish a new governance structure for HYPREP, as approved by the President. So far, HYPREP hasn’t worked. It is therefore a mistake for the current administration to again place the implementation of the UNEP report in the hands of that failed agency. There is need to begin on a clean slate and the minimum take-off point should be the scrapping of HYPREP and the establishment of the proposed Ogoniland Environmental Restoration Authority, strictly following the terms provided for in the UNEP report and with legal backing by the National Assembly. This will build confidence in a process that had become synonymous with distrust. Whatever fast-track actions have been directed should be based strictly on the UNEP report, and any further consultation and development of a technical work-plan for implementation should be coordinated by the Authority. This is a necessary first step to reinforce confidence of community members and the general public in the process. Anything short of this would be another invitation to failure.

There is need to also move quickly with the proposed institutional and regulatory reforms. The new government should also resist the urge to politicize this implementation process, as has been alleged in some quarters. This should not be about scoring political points; it should rather be about genuinely addressing a national disaster. Surely, some urgent steps can at least be taken by government and the companies with regard to the emergency measures on drinking water and health as proposed in the report!

The question of cleaning up the Niger Delta environment is imperative from a human rights standpoint. Section 20 of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria (as amended) places on government a responsibility to safeguard the environment, thus: “The State shall protect and improve the environment and safeguard the water, air and land, forest and wildlife of Nigeria.” The African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights of which Nigeria is signatory also declares that “all Africans shall have a right to a safe and satisfactory environment in which to develop”. So the government clearly owes the citizens of the region more than the perfunctory handouts it has thrown their way over the years.

But the implementation of the UNEP report on the restoration of Ogoniland should go beyond rights and liabilities. It should also be about responsibility – the responsibility of every stakeholder to sign on to a new compact, a new way of doing things that prioritizes people and the environment. The project should be managed in a way that factors in such sensitisation, continuous engagement and ownership. The report itself warns against the tendency to treat the response as a mere technical exercise, emphasising the need to ensure “long-term sustainability” which “will require coordinated and collaborative action from all stakeholders.”

The Companies, on their part, have to step up to the plate in terms of employing globally accepted standards in their operations. The report, for instance, shows that Shell did not even meet its own internally required standards of operations. Oil multinationals cannot continue to employ one set of practices in their host countries while singing a different tune to shareholders back home. The implementation of the UNEP report is also about polluters paying for serious human and environmental damage for which they are liable, not a matter of grudging tokenism or humanitarian concessions as the oil companies would have us believe. There should be no excuses when it comes to funding. The polluter pays principle remains the global gold standard on these issues.

Government also needs to wake up to its own responsibility to the people and the environment. Not only is slow response and weak enforcement by regulatory agencies a big part of the problem, but government remains a major polluter itself, as seen in the Ogoni case! For every finger we point at Shell, four fingers point to the Nigerian government (or NNPC, to be precise) through its joint venture partnership with Shell.

Government must respond to environmental threats and emergencies as if the environment really matters. Recall how the US government responded to British Petroleum’s massive Gulf of Mexico spill in 2010. It penalised the company, immediately ordering an expensive cleanup and payment of billions of dollars in settlement and other compensations. The difference between the US case and ours is that over there, the government takes the side of the people, taking the lead in making those claims against the oil companies. Here government takes the side of the companies, and muffles the people’s voices when they cry out for their health and the environment. Witness the feeble response and foot dragging that has been government enforcement since the flaring of gas by oil companies in the region was outlawed. It is not unusual to hear of state governors in the region calling on host communities to withdraw pending environmental lawsuits against oil multinationals when the reverse should be the case!

Then there is the responsibility of the people themselves. The report recommends that community members should proactively report environmental challenges and acts of sabotage in their area for immediate attention as well as provide right of way and access for response to spills. This is part of the change that is needed. As long as government does the right thing, it is also important for the people to give the process a chance to work. It is interesting that the umbrella group Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) has warned the Ogoni people against “tendencies capable of jeopardizing the process”. Current tensions around process are legitimate, but parties need to cut each other some slack if the implementation is to ever take off.

The Ogoni case has earned its place as the poster child of the Niger Delta situation. The struggle did not just happen, and doubtless, there are lessons for other oil-impacted communities in the build up to this moment. Victory, it is said, comes from struggle. If the UNEP report is faithfully implemented, this should hopefully be the phase of reconciliation and restoration.

The Ogoni case is a metaphor for the economic and environmental emergency of the entire Niger Delta region. The Ogoni case is just what we know, because an unprecedented audit was conducted there and the terrible situation on ground has been shown to the world. But like Ogoniland, like the entire Niger Delta; as we would say in the local parlance. The region has become one large expanse of despoliation. The Niger Delta ecosystem is renowned to hold one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity on the planet. Before oil production began, most of the Niger Delta peoples, like their Ogoni counterparts, used to live on fishing, farming and food processing activities. But the pursuit of petrodollars has left in its wake a trail of devastation – the spewing of toxic soups into soils and streams; the flaring of noxious gases into the air and the resulting gnawing of roofs by acid rains; the disruption and destruction of community lifestyles and livelihoods – everything befitting of the nickname “the devil’s excrement”, given to the contentious black fluid by the famous Venezuelan oil diplomat Juan Pablo Perez Alfonzo in the 1970s. Nigeria produces 2 million barrels of crude each day; and the country has made about $1 trillion from oil since independence, according to some estimates. Yet the stark poverty and environmental devastation of the so-called “goose that lays the golden eggs” continues to belie such stupendous figures.

Therefore the restoration of Ogoniland should be, for this government, a necessary first step towards the restoration of the entire Niger Delta. The Egi people, also of Rivers State, have for years demanded an audit similar to that conducted by UNEP in Ogoniland. Across the region, the Ogoni scenario replays itself on different scales. Therefore, government should quickly learn from the Ogoni case and comission an environmental audit of the entire Niger Delta environment immediately. But in scaling up the experience of the UNEP audit, it is important to also learn from its mistakes. Such a region-wide process should be marked by genuine and far-reaching participation by community and civil society to strengthen ownership. Recall that at the outset, this was a question mark that almost marred the Ogoni audit’s acceptability.

For Ogoniland, at least a process has begun that, if managed carefully, can earn the trust of the people and rebuild the confidence of the impacted communities in their government. However, as we applaud the Buhari administration for taking this important first step, the biggest lessons of the Ogoni narrative should not be lost on the Niger Delta and Nigeria as a whole. So what have we learnt from the long term cost of hydrocarbons; a dirty and depleting resource? How far can oil take us as a nation especially considering the falling prices of crude and the global quest for more sustainable energy alternatives? All considered, is oil really worth the trouble? What will happen when the oil runs dry?

Bolton-Akpan is Head of Programmes, Policy Alert, a non-profit based in Uyo – Nigeria. You can follow him on @Tijahbolt. Contact: 234-909-000-1685

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