Nigerian architect, environmental activist and author, Nnimmo Bassey, is the Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation. In this interview with NKASIOBI OLUIKPE, he speaks on climate change and environmental issues in the Niger Delta
Is the clamour for reforms in Nigeria’s oil sector necessary? Aren’t there supposed to be international standards of operation in that sector?
Some people ask for reform in the sector, but I don’t think its so much about operations. It should be about the financial and managerial architecture. That’s what I suspect people are talking about because the procedures had been laid down. This is what the Petroleum Industry Bill is all about. The laws governing the sector are obsolete; they were drawn up when there were no concerns whatsoever for the people or the environment; when it was all about profit. Till now, the mindset of the government is about protecting the pipelines and oil installations. Whenever they talk about crises, you hear about losses being incurred; you never hear about us losing our biodiversity or lives. So, the needed reform should be about the framework within which the entire entreprise is carried out in Nigeria.
Again, from the perspective of your question, we have international best practices. The truth is that those practices are not good enough. The oil business is inherently destructive at all stages, from the time of exploration and gathering of seismic data, whether on land or in the sea. It affects the environment in a very negative way. Of course, when the oil is being extracted, it comes out sometimes with a mixture of gas and water; the separation constitutes serious hazards to our environment. That is why we have gas flaring. The water that comes out with the crude oil is supposed to be captured and sufficiently treated before being released to the environment. In places like Brass, we have open tunnels or canals carrying this water into the Brass River for decades. Just looking at it, you know the water is not safe for consumption. But that is what we have generally in the Niger Delta. Their best practices are not good enough. The corporations should ensure their activities have a little or minimal impact on the environment; and then where there is an incident or accident, rather than fighting to avoid responsibility, they should see to it that the issue is remedied and the environment remediated.
On January 29 this year, Shell was asked to pay compensation to some communities in the Niger Delta by a Netherlands Court. Now, if this case had been instituted here in Nigeria, do you think they would have got that kind of judgement?
Actually, aspects of that case were instituted in Nigeria previously and there are also similar cases in the Nigerian courts. You can get similar judgement, but what I am sure of is that you cannot get similar response from the oil companies.
The Nigerian judicial system allows corporations to drag cases for so many years that the plaintiff dies without getting judgement. In November 2005, there was a judgement against Shell on gas flaring at Iwereka in Delta State. As we speak, the judgement has not been vacated. The oil company is not responding to it and the government is not enforcing it, while the people are languishing over the impact of gas flaring. So, yes, you can get the judgement, but you will not get the response. The one in the Netherlands is where their major shareholders are. This is why it is important to take the matter to the home countries of these oil companies. They pay attention to what happens in their home courts. So, the Netherlands court ruled that they should pay compensation to two of the communities while negotiating with the third community on the compensation.
There are reports that most times, host communities instigate spillages. If that is true, aren’t there mechanisms to ensure a behavioural change in these communities?
The statement that host communities instigate spillages is a public relations coup that the oil companies have succeeded in carrying out and pushing the blame away from themselves. They have been relating this since the 1980s and they have no evidence to prove it until the time of open militancy and sabotage, which was openly declared and carried out.
The breaking of pipelines is also a ready excuse because they call it sabotage. But I don’t know what they mean when they call incidents including oil theft sabotage. We have also had researches, including documentaries, proving that oil companies are involved in oil theft and breaking of pipelines. I don’t think any community wants to contaminate its rivers and streams when it knows that it has no alternative water to drink. People who do these are found within various structures, the oil companies themselves, the businesses themselves, those who are meant to secure the pipelines and the big guys who stay in luxury boardrooms somewhere. They always claim it’s the communities, especially now that we have illegal refineries. But just go back, the most authoritative information on how much oil is stolen was given by Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala when she was Minister of Finance in Nigeria. Speaking to the Financial Times of London then, she said that 400,000 barrels were stolen in a day in Nigeria. Think about that. What an enormous quantity! The three refineries in Nigeria, when working optimally, cannot refine 400,000 barrels a day. So, breaking of pipelines for the purpose of stealing crude oil is an industrial business.
Research has also proven that some of the spillage-related environmental damages are either irreversible or may take decades to restore. If given an opportunity now as an environmentalist, how would you quantify what should constitute adequate compensation for impacted communities.
I think it is impossible to compute what should constitute adequate compensation. It’s like trying to compute compensation for life. We cannot pay for life. But now, you are talking of not just life, but also the environment. The Niger Delta is where you have the lowest life expectancy. The average is 41 years. People there are dying young of breathing difficulties and different kinds of complicated diseases. You are also having acid rains compounding the problem. So how do you compensate for that? It is very difficult to estimate. Even in Ogoni, after the clean-up is completed, it will still take a lifetime to restore the environment. The environment doesn’t just spring back to what it was. So much biodiversity would have been lost, aquatic life that people were used to is no longer there. It takes time for it to be restored. So, remediation is one thing, restoration is another.
There is no serious cleaning going on anywhere in the Niger Delta, apart from Ogoni land where there is a body overseeing it and there are some levels of supervision going on. In most other places, its just extremely superficial. And to attempt to compensate for it is just symbolic.
As an environmentalist, how would you assess Nigeria’s climate change mitigation strategies?
The major cause of global warming is the continuous extraction and burning of fossil fuel. Has Nigeria stopped burning fossil fuel all over the nation? Do we have plans to stop it any time soon.
Nigeria’s plan to mitigate climate change includes cut in gas flaring, which I think is insignificant. But on that, we have been shifting the goalpost since 1984. The latest goalpost was in 2020, which we have shifted to 2030, following the World Bank guideline. It said nations should invest in renewable energy. Still we don’t see much emphasis on that; rather we are hearing about $1.5bn to be used in repairing the refinery and $1.3bn for building fertiliser plant. These are things that compound climate problems.
I have seen the mitigation plan for Nigeria. It is a lovely document. What we need to see from year to year is a measure of how these policies are being implemented. Some of the things in the policy is the Great Green Wall, which cuts across areas affected by desertification, that is, the entire Sahel Region in Africa. Agriculture also is one area the policy said is to be mitigated. But we don’t see sufficient emphasis in the kind of agriculture that we are to mitigate, which is agro-ecology; for instance, finding enough support for small-scale farmers whose farming practices are not as destructive as those of the industrial farmers.
The government should provide enough extension officers to help the small-scale farmers adopt climate-friendly practices, giving out organic fertilisers and other things that will help our environment. Do you know that the Food and Agriculture Organisation recommended one extension officer to 1,000 farmers. But in Nigeria, we have one extension officer to 10,000 farmers. If you don’t have people supporting these farmers, you can’t even place any blame on them on issues like bush burning that should be discouraged and many more.
Does Nigeria actually have the resources to mitigate against climate change?
Nigeria and other African countries are not the major contributors to the problem. And so, the major burden should be on the polluter-industrialised countries who have tactically avoided responsibilities. Nigeria should be given resources to tackle global warming by way of grants or whatever. It is a climate debt that we have been owed for years of destruction of our ecosystem. This, to me, is the line of negotiation countries in the global south should make on those who have created the problem. This was the trajectory of climate negotiations of the 15th Conference of Parties 15 that took place in Copenhagen in 2009. As at that time, countries were categorised into those who were creating the problem and those who were impacted.
From COP 15 to the Paris Agreement of today, countries are only expected to take voluntary action. So, it’s a big problem. We are suffering a crisis we did not create. But then, it requires everyone in the world to act collectively in the best interest of the planet. Poor countries like Nigeria need to be supported financially and technologically. We need to bring in technology that supports life not the one that creates problems. And we need to invest more in the environment.
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