By Dr Edoghogho Philip
No one can deny the fact that the exploitation of oil in the Niger Delta region has brought to bear oil spillage and its numerous problems such as contamination of water bodies, danger to aquatic life and destruction of the ecosystem. It was therefore gratifying to see that after years of endless promises, the Ogoni clean-up, backed by the United Nations Environment Programme, was flagged off in June 2016 by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, with fanfare and so much enthusiasm from both the Nigerian authorities and the people of the Niger Delta.
Based on the initial request from the federal government and the background work undertaken by UNEP, about eight assessments were formulated for the cleanup; they included a comprehensive assessment of all environmental issues associated with oil fields in Ogoniland, quantification of impacts, provision of useful guidance data to undertake remediation of contaminated soil and groundwater, provision of recommendations for responding to future environmental contamination from oilfields, as well as enhance local capacity for better environmental management and promote awareness of sound environmental management and sustainable development.
Ogoni people have for decades lived in a place where their God given natural resources rather than be a blessing has become a curse. For decades, numerous oil spills have chronically affected vegetation, water and wildlife. To worsen things, the oil spill which originates from leaking pipelines, wellheads, and flow stations; from spills in connection with transport of mostly stolen oil; from illegal tapping of the wells; and from artisanal refining under very primitive conditions compounded an already worse situation. As a result of the contamination which has penetrated into soils down to several meters and has contaminated ground waters over large areas, the people and other inhabitants daily grapple with severe health and environmental challenges.
Before now the Niger delta had some of the best agricultural land in Africa, as well as vast oil resources which attracted numerous oil companies. But oil spills and industrial waste means the people can no longer drink the water from the streams and to make matters worse, even the air is toxic and contaminated due to gas flaring. Unarguably, vandalisation of the oil pipelines by the local inhabitants and their foreign collaborators, oil blow outs from flow stations have made environmental degradation worse.
The Shell/Ogoni sad episode needs no repeatation here even as the MOSOP/Ken Saro Wiwa tragic ordeal needs no revisitation, let alone the complicity of past Nigerian governments and multinational corporations
Oil pollution in many intertidal creeks has left mangroves-nurseries for fish and natural pollution filters- denuded of leaves and stems with roots coated in a layer of bitumen-type substance sometimes one centimetre or more thick while the five highest concentrations of Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons detected in groundwater exceed 1 million micrograms per litre (µg/l) – compared to the Nigerian standard for groundwater of 600 µg/l.
It must be noted that when an oil spill occurs on land, fires often break out, killing vegetation and creating a crust over the land, making remediation or revegetation difficult and the surface water throughout the creeks in and surrounding Ogoniland and other oil bearing communities contain hydrocarbons.
As a way out, the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP) was established under the Federal Ministry of Environment to initiate, and develop work programmes aimed at restoring all hydrocarbon impacted communities and sites referred to HYPREP and undertake a comprehensive assessment and mapping of all environmental issues associated with hydrocarbon pollution, in collaboration with NOSDRA.
HYPREP’s objectives in Ogoniland and other impacted communities include to determine the scope, means and modalities of remediation of soil and ground water contamination in impacted communities as may be recommended by HYPREP Governing Council and remedy theme, to enhance local capacity for better environmental management and promote awareness of sound environmental management as well as ensure livelihoods and sustainable development, ensure security and promote peace building efforts in impacted communities, and stengthen governance, transparency and accountability in the region with the Project Coordinating Office, Governing Council and Board of Trustee as organs.
However, on July 28, 2022, at the management retreat organized by the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, President Muhammadu, represented by the Minister of Transportation, Mu’azu Jaji Sambo, while presenting a keynote address at the opening ceremony, transfered HYPREP from the Federal Ministry of Environment to Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, a noble idea that has been resisted by those who perhaps contributed to impede Buhari’s vision to change the story of the Niger Delta region for good.
Before now, like a monstrous organism that has overgrown its own capacity for coordination and dynamic mobility, HYPREP could not longer serve itself or the region it was established to cater for which necessitated it’s redeployment to the Niger Delta Affairs ministry to avoid a situation that looks like the more things change, the more they remain the same.
But to what extent has the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP), set up to remediate the environment and restore the livelihood of the people, achieve its purpose? HYPREP commenced preliminary remediation activities in early 2018 and procurement processes commenced for remediation in line with the Federal Government Public Procurement Act of 2007.
From training to water quality assessment, to health impact study, to job creation and training, HYPREP has increased public awareness campaigns to the communities, at town hall meetings and in the media on the dangers of illegal bunkering and refining on human health, environment and the economy and also for the youths to take ownership of the project and community engagement.
President Muhammadu Buhari should be commended for summoning the political will to implement the UNEP Report on Ogoniland and his recent directive to have HYPREP moved from the Ministry of Environment to Niger Delta Affairs to enhance efficiency and effectiveness. His action shows clearly that his promise in 2015 to carry out the Ogoni Clean-up was not a mere political ploy to garner votes in the 2015 Presidential election.
Despite challenges, some undeniable achievements of HYPREP include the training of thousands of Ogoni women in alternative livelihood skills in agro-allied ventures being handled by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), provision of Cassava Processing Factory to some communities which was a tripartite collaboration between HYPREP, Stakeholder Democracy Network (SDN), the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).
It must be noted that the clean-up of Ogoniland, and I must add, several other oil producing communities in the region will not only address a tragic legacy but also represents a major ecological restoration enterprise with potentially multiple positive effects ranging from bringing the various stakeholders together in a single concerted cause to achieving lasting improvements for the people of the region.
All stakeholders must support the ongoing attempt by President Muhammadu Buhari to get HYPREP live up effectively to its mandate and the recent policy change which puts HYPREP under the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs rather than the Ministry of Environment it was previously domiciled must be commended. Will HYPREP make the difference and justify the confidence of both Mr President and the Niger Delta people? Time will tell.