Environment Opinion

Ogoni Cleanup: The way forward – Cyril Abaku

By every account, September was a historic month for the federal government and its lead agency in the Ogoni cleanup programme, the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project.

At a highly publicised event that took place in Nkeleoken-Alode community, Eleme Local Government Area, a high powered delegation comprising the minister of the environment, leaders of Khana local government area, chiefs, elders, the youth, and state, as well as local government officials, gathered together to celebrate a feat that seemed destined to happen in some distant time.

The said event was the Federal government’s handover of seven cleaned up lots in Ogoniland to the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency to verify whether they had indeed been cleaned as claimed.

This is really interesting for anyone who is a keen follower of developments in Ogoniland. First it is heartwarming to see that some lots have indeed been handed over, and that they are even seven in number. We would have been left guessing.

Only weeks and months to that event, the number of completed lots was never certain; some said five, others gave another number. It depended on which official was speaking and at what time.

But I make bold to state that the handover of those slots didn’t itself come as some logical progression in the cleanup process. It was one such brainchild of the stringent advocacy mounted by Nigeria’s gallant environmental justice advocates whose doggedness in demanding only what is right for the Ogoni people has literally lifted the cleanup process from a mere policy statement of government to all that have transmuted into material benefits for the communities in the four affected Ogoni LGAs.

In August, HYPREP’s project co-ordinator, Mr. Marvin Dekil, originally announced during the ninth anniversary of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report that five of the 21 less complex lots had been successfully cleaned. He added that the said five lots were awaiting what he referred to as “internal and external certification.”

That statement changed everything, because HYPREP was taken to task on that claim. There were not a few voices that rose up to question the wisdom of Mr. Dekil’s announcement.

The said sites may have been cleaned, they argued, but such cleaning was way beneath acceptable standards. So said one side of civil society. Another argument was that if indeed the sites had been so cleaned, the police of the Nigerian environment, the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency, must be invited and given a chance to certify and tell Nigerians that the said lots were truly cleaned up as claimed.

At one such forum held in Port Harcourt, this writer was privileged to observe proceedings closely, as one speaker passed on the floor to another in a series of submissions that drew participation from traditional leaders in Ogoniland all the way up to representatives from the offices of the deputy president of the senate and the vice president.

I thank the African Centre For Leadership Strategy and Development and Monday Osasah, its Executive Director, for their determination and foresight in periodically engaging stakeholders in Ogoniland.

It didn’t take long before the real issues militating against accountability and transparency in the cleanup process came to light. I have already dealt with a number of those issues elsewhere so for now I will limit myself to HYPREP’s testimony about its “first fruits” and the need to effectively address all the other dynamics of the clean up process that are within its control to address.

First, there must be room enough to have NOSDRA play its part as an unbiased, capable umpire. This “certification” process is one that could have been undertaken concurrently during bioremediation, but one can only hope that “the capacity that was not demonstrated prior can indeed be demonstrated post.”

Claims of underhanded practices by contractors who use work tools different from those accredited for the cleanup must be thoroughly investigated.

These are very strong accusations that, if proven true, could even cause far more damage than what led to the clean up in the first place.

Then, the yardstick by which NOSDRA will be reaching its judgment as to whether the lots have been cleaned as claimed must be well advertised for public evaluation especially by the civil society organizations that have kept HYPREP on its toes. There must also be a faithful timeline to this.

To this day, the lack of satisfactory accounting in determining how waste from the cleanup is being managed is beginning to look like an act of malicious negligence. Or perhaps HYPREP has already shifted gear from the establishment of the Integrated Soil Management Centre recommended by UNEP. Maybe.

The other issues that caught my attention during the Port Harcourt meeting were those of the lack of sustainable livelihood provision for women and the youth.

In the case of women, care must be taken to avoid exploitation. Any programme designed to provide startup funding for businesses must be conducted in a manner befitting the intention to render justice to the oppressed.

With no water, no health audit, no centre of excellence to engage the youth and inadequate provision of sustainable livelihoods for the rural dwellers, artisanal refining has become something of a full-blown industry.

The consequence is that a degree of unprecedented repollution is already afoot, enough to erode the gains that might have been made in the cleanup so far.

It is HYPREP’s departure from preliminary/emergency measures as defined by UNEP that has also effectively disempowered more and more Ogoni people from being able to put their best foot forward, in owning the clean up process. Little wonder then that internal disputes over land and chieftancy matters have only continued fester.

At the moment, reports from Ogoniland about how contractors have abandoned the remaining lots with backlogs of unpaid salaries are not the kind of advertising the project needs. These matters should be addressed with dispatch.

This is where the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People may have to reinvigorate its vision and step in to raise the bar in ensuring that the about four million Ogonis they represent do not, in the final analysis, end up with the short end of the stick.

Cyril Abaku is a Senior Researcher and he lives in Lagos.

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