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Decades of oil spillage in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta and the incessant bickering over who should own up to the wanton environmental degradation has taken a toll on Nigeria’s economy, seeing it slid into recession with the delta being classified as one of the most polluted places on earth.
But behind the staggering macro figures is a catastrophic cost largely ignored; that of the disruption of the ways of life of over 30 million of residents living in the delta, 70% of whom live beneath the poverty line, and who have had to contend with diseases, job losses, conflict and death.
“An area that was once teeming with aquatic life is now a shell of its former self with numerous polluted estuaries and oily swamps.” — Bob Koigi
Yet as the blame game between government and oil companies persists, so does life for communities deteriorate with no one to turn to. Over 60 years since the first discovery of commercial oil in the area, residents say they have experienced firsthand the curse of oil which has robbed them and their generations the true value of life. Water in some areas has been found to contain a cancer-causing agent at levels 900 times above World Health Organization guidelines, yet this is the water the residents rely on for drinking. The cleanup to give the residents back their clean water, the basic element of life and their environment, would, according to the UNEP, take up to 30 years.
Over 80% of the population relies on fishing for livelihood. But in an area that was once teeming with aquatic life, it is now a shell of its former self with numerous polluted estuaries and oily swamps which has robbed them of their livelihoods and reduced them to begging. This has created ripple effects.
“People living in the Niger Delta have to drink, cook with, and wash in polluted water; they eat fish contaminated with oil and other toxins–if they are lucky enough to still be able to find fish; the land they use for farming is being destroyed because of the lack of respect for the ecosystem necessary for their survival; after oil spills the air they breathe reeks of oil and gas and other pollutants; they complain of breathing problems, skin lesions and other health problems, but their concerns are not taken seriously and they have almost no information on the impacts of pollution,” reads a section of a report by Amnesty International dubbed Nigeria: Petroleum, pollution and poverty in the Niger Delta.
Idris Okosta, a researcher on the impact of oil exploration to the communities in Niger Delta, captures the daily suffering of the residents: “There is nothing as heartbreaking as watching men rowing their skiffs for a whole day and only collecting dead fish and shrimps. They have never known any other way of survival apart from fishing. When their children get sick, and they do quite often, they have to walk at least four hours to access the nearest health facility. Even basic infrastructure in an area that supplies the bulk of Nigeria’s fortunes is hard to come by. It is such a shame,” he said.
The health cost isn’t just on the sick, but on those who tend to them and the amount of time they have to spend to nurse those ailing, time that would be utilized in other economic activities. Women, who bear the greatest brunt of the oil spill, spend on average 8.5 hours a day tending to the sick, who are mostly family, losing out on other income-generating activities, according to Action Aid. Fishmongers, farmers, and traders in the riverine villages have had to close their businesses, leading to diminished incomes. “When they can no longer afford any income what follows is withdrawing their children from school, and then that sets in motion a whole set of other problems,” said Idris.
“The residents continue getting caught in the crossroads, as they pay a premium price for an activity they know little about, one they never enjoy the fruits of, and one that has altered the rest of their lives.” — Bob Koigi
That avalanche of woes includes a growing list of young unemployed youth who are willing to do anything, especially on noticing the marginalization of their community members. Oil theft, which has been noted as one of the greatest causes of oil spills, is attributed to the many unemployed youth looking for ways to earn income. This has also birthed a catalogue of militia groups now wrestling to have a share of the oil fortunes, with Niger Delta Avengers, the most dreaded, vowing to drive away all oil companies in the area. “These are young unemployed people who have grown watching government and oil companies exploit their land, impoverishing their people without a care in the world. With nothing else to live for, they have sought to defend their land,” Idris added.
Fyneface Dumnamene Fyneface, a firebrand activist and environmentalist who has been championing for the rights of the Ogoni people, who are among the most affected by the oil spills, agrees with Idris arguing that the youth protest at what they see as outright injustice. “Theft and vandalism do occur especially when the youth are expressing anger over the antagonistic tendencies and the divide-and-rule tactics of the oil companies and government,” he said.
This pilferage has led to a heightened crackdown and a showdown between the militia groups and the military keen on clamping them down. This has seen the destruction of social infrastructure including schools and health centers, further disadvantaging the communities, especially women and children. For a region that houses over 30 million people, one can easily count the number of schools or hospitals.
With the oil companies vowing to stay put, the government still counting on the delta to earn more revenue and the militia groups mutating to deadlier forces and promising more terror, the residents continue getting caught in the crossroads, as they pay a premium price for an activity they know little about, one they never enjoy the fruits of, and one that has altered the rest of their lives.
“So long as impunity for abuses of the environment and human rights remains entrenched, so too will the poverty and conflict that has scarred the Niger Delta. Only when there is effective accountability, access to justice and when people are given the information and space needed to participate in decisions that affect their lives, will the human rights tragedy of the Niger Delta begin to end,” the Amnesty International report adds.
Bob Koigi is a multiple award-winning Kenyan journalist who has extensively reported on agriculture, food security, rural development, climate change and environment across radio, TV, print and online media for various international media outlets. Koigi holds a Masters degree in International Studies and an undergraduate degree in journalism and media studies.