In­ter­view: There’s no need for more oil wells in Nige­ria

Africa Renewal - - Contents -

Nn­immo Bassey, an award-win­ning en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist, is one of Africa’s lead­ing cam­paign­ers, par­tic­u­larly for his work in Nige­ria’s oil-rich Niger Delta re­gion. Mr. Bassey was a hu­man rights ad­vo­cate in the 1980s. He was im­pris­oned many times by late pres­i­dent Sani Abacha’s govern­ment in the 1990s. He is co-founder and chair of Friends of the Earth In­ter­na­tional and En­vi­ron­men­tal Rights Ac­tion. In 2009, Time mag­a­zine named him one of the Heroes of the En­vi­ron­ment. In this in­ter­view with Yemisi Ak­in­bobola for Africa Re­newal, Mr. Bassey dis­cusses the con­tin­u­ing protests by the Niger Delta peo­ple against oil pol­lu­tion and makes the case for com­pen­sa­tion.

Can you pro­vide some his­tor­i­cal con­text to the strug­gle in the Niger Delta re­gion?

It’s re­ally a long his­tory. The first com­mer­cial ex­port of oil was in 1958, but be­fore then there had been some very se­ri­ous en­coun­ters with forces whose ma­jor in­ter­est was to ex­ploit and sub­ju­gate the peo­ple in the Niger Delta.

You know about the case of the revo­lu­tion led by Isaac Adaka Boro in the 1960s and a more re­cent his­tor­i­cal land­mark was the re­sis­tance by the Ogoni peo­ple un­der the lead­er­ship of the late Ken Saro Wiwa [Mr. Wiwa was ex­e­cuted by the Sani Abacha’s govern­ment], which led to the ex­pul­sion of Shell Oil from Ogo­ni­land in 1993. In the early 1990s, there was the rise of mas­sive peace­ful re­sis­tance against the pol­lut­ing ac­tiv­i­ties of oil cor­po­ra­tions abet­ted by their col­lab­o­ra­tors in the Nige­rian govern­ment.

Around 2006, there was a ma­jor shift in the power re­la­tions in the re­gion. We saw a rise in vi­o­lence. Two years later, Chevron [a US oil com­pany] pro­moted the idea of en­ter­ing into agree­ment with com­mu­ni­ties on cor­po­rate so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity.

What are the kinds of en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues that ex­ist as a re­sult of the oil dis­as­ters?

The oil sec­tor is by na­ture a pol­lut­ing sec­tor. The cor­po­ra­tions don’t have a com­plete sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity. We have spills hap­pen­ing vir­tu­ally ev­ery day, and a lot of it goes into the land and waters and the at­mos­phere. So the foot­prints of the cor­po­ra­tions are all over the oil fields. To catch a bit of it would be to look at the re­port of UNEP on Ogo­ni­land. Apart from the oil spill, there is also gas flar­ing, which is the burn­ing of gas as­so­ci­ated with oil ex­trac­tion. And apart from the eco­nomic loss of over $2 bil­lion ev­ery year, the smoke that flar­ing emits can ac­tu­ally cause bron­chi­tis, and equally the ni­tro­gen ox­ide [also from flar­ing] can send acid rain down on peo­ple, crops and build­ings.

Who should be blamed—the govern­ment or the oil com­pa­nies?

It is the Nige­rian state pri­mar­ily, be­cause the Nige­rian state al­lows the cor­po­ra­tions to de­stroy the land. But the phys­i­cal pol­lu­tion and degra­da­tion are the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of oil cor­po­ra­tions.

How have the govern­ment and oil com­pa­nies re­sponded to the ac­tivism in the Niger Delta?

If you check, his­tor­i­cally, you will find that the govern­ment’s re­sponse to the peo­ple’s de­sire to have dia­logue and con­trol over their re­sources has al­ways been more and more re­pres­sion. Right now we are still see­ing a very slug­gish move­ment to­wards jus­tice in the re­gion, one of which is the pro­posed Petroleum In­dus­try Bill that will pro­vide bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions. The sig­nal that things may change for good is a pro­posal by Sen­a­tor Bukola Saraki that will make laws on oil spills more strin­gent.

Where does the Petroleum Bill now stand?

The Petroleum Bill has not been passed—we be­lieve that we need such a deal, and we think that a fund for the com­mu­nity is also nec­es­sary.

Are Nige­ri­ans join­ing up to fight the en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ters?

Peo­ple are pretty much aware that they have to op­pose im­punity in their ter­ri­tory. They’ve done this over the years. The other thing is that peo­ple are liv­ing in very des­per­ate sit­u­a­tions that ac­tu­ally af­fect their ca­pac­ity to of­fer more re­sis­tance to these things [im­punity]. So, peo­ple are hope­ful things will change, that they will sud­denly have a more fo­cused at­ten­tion from govern­ment. Play­ing with the emo­tions of peo­ple by cre­at­ing the Min­istry of Niger Delta Af­fairs, which is not by any means bet­ter than the Nige­rian Na­tional Petroleum Cor­po­ra­tion, is just cre­at­ing a new bu­reau­cracy that re­duces fur­ther progress in the re­gion.

In 2009 you sub­mit­ted a pro­posal on how to build a post-petroleum Nige­ria. How did that go?

We sub­mit­ted that pro­posal through the Nige­rian Ex­trac­tive In­dus­try Trans­parency Ini­tia­tive. So far we have not re­ceived any of­fi­cial re­sponse. From the state­ments we are hear­ing from govern­ment of­fi­cials, I think it’s be­com­ing in­creas­ingly clear that they are be­gin­ning to agree that we have to move into a post-petroleum phase in Nige­ria.

Our pro­posal says that Nige­ria should stop ex­pand­ing oil ex­plo­ration and

How did the de­ci­sion to take Shell to court in The Nether­lands come about?

We’ve had cases against oil cor­po­ra­tions like Shell in Nige­ria. For ex­am­ple, in 2005 there was a case against them on the gas flar­ing is­sue, and there was judge­ment in the high court in Benin City that gas flar­ing vi­o­lates the hu­man rights of the peo­ple and the con­sti­tu­tion of Nige­ria. But Shell has nei­ther ap­pealed that de­ci­sion nor have they obeyed the rul­ing of the court. We thought it was nec­es­sary to take the case to their own home so that their share­hold­ers would know where they are get­ting their money from.

What’s dif­fer­ent this time?

The Nige­rian govern­ment an­nounced a fine of $5 bil­lion against Shell for the Bonga oil spill that oc­curred in Septem­ber 2011. It also an­nounced a $3 bil­lion fine against Chevron for the oil spill dis­as­ter that hap­pened in Jan­uary 2012. Both cor­po­ra­tions just laughed it off. So they clearly don’t have re­spect for Nige­ria. We think that they will be more re­spon­sive if judge-

So peo­ple are hope­ful things will change, that they will have a more fo­cused at­ten­tion from the govern­ment.

ex­trac­tion. If the ra­tio­nale for ex­pand­ing oil fields is to gen­er­ate more rev­enue, Nige­ria can ac­tu­ally dou­ble its rev­enue base from oil right now with­out even drilling one more oil well. We main­tain that as much oil as is of­fi­cially sold is be­ing stolen on a daily ba­sis. So what the govern­ment needs to do is to stop oil theft. Oil theft is not be­ing done by lo­cal peo­ple with drums and small boats and ca­noes. It’s an in­ter­na­tional mafia with top Nige­ri­ans in­volved.

In May [2013], the min­is­ter of fi­nance, speak­ing with the Fi­nan­cial Times of Lon­don, es­ti­mated that up to 400,000 bar­rels of crude oil are stolen ev­ery day. The coun­try is be­ing robbed by many forces, and when the lead­ers say we still have 41 years of oil, it’s pure fic­tion be­cause if you don’t know how much oil is be­ing taken, you can­not then know how much oil is left. Nige­ria could do bet­ter if we turn our back on oil. ment is pro­nounced over them in their own coun­tries. It’s a ques­tion of dou­ble stan­dards. If they get away with ‘mur­der’ in our own coun­try, they need to be held ac­count­able where they will pay at­ten­tion.

What about mil­i­tancy in the re­gion?

Mil­i­tancy has ac­tu­ally sub­sided in the re­gion.

What can other oil-pro­duc­ing African coun­tries learn from the Niger Delta?

In my work as co­or­di­na­tor of Oil Watch In­ter­na­tional, we try to warn coun­tries just go­ing into this [oil] sec­tor that in Nige­ria, 54 years ago, there were a lot of hopes [for pros­per­ity] in com­mu­ni­ties, and to­day you have a story of shat­tered dreams and hopes. So they [coun­tries] should not ex­pect much dif­fer­ence from that. Al­ready we’ve seen in Ghana, be­fore the first of­fi­cial oil ship­ment, that there were al­ready three oil spills off­shore.

Si­mon Strumse/Sosial­is­tisk Ung­dom

Nn­immo Bassey.

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