The Niger Delta is a territory under siege. This siege did not begin today. It didn’t begin yesterday. The siege has been prominent since the 15th Century.
The siege has disrupted our ways of living, our communities, our cultures, and our spirituality. It has brought drastic fissures in our relationship with Nature and other beings. This assaulted our routine patterns of living in harmony with nature, our philosophical underpinnings of ubuntu, eti-uwem and other norms by which communities were built on the platforms of cooperation and solidarity rather than on violence, dispossession, undue accumulation, and wastefulness.
This disruption has eroded our resilience, harmed our health or broken our biodiversity. Today we breath poisoned air, fish and drink polluted waters and grow foods on toxic soils.
We must not forget that once we were organized, productive, and progressive nationalities with moralities and communalities that paralleled or excelled their counterparts elsewhere. AT that time farming yielded bountiful harvests before the downward spiral and fishing was a great joy. Today, with broken local economies and environments our story has become an unending struggle for survival.
History may have been banished from our curriculum, but no one should banish them from our schools of life. They provide markers and memories of where we have been; what we have built; what we fought for, won, or lost. History provides us with more than mere scaffolds for the construction of our future. It gives us the energy needed to confront oppression, degradation, humiliations, and sundry manifestations of ecological racism.
We remind ourselves that leaders of the Niger Delta were not pushovers when the shove came from precolonial and colonial adventurers. We recall the fact that the battle for the control of trade between our peoples and European markets brought much violence against our people. It led to cruel military invasions and horrendous pillage, with the razing of Akassa in 1895 standing out as one of the reprehensible landmarks on the march to colonialism. The smoke of that assault was still rising when the Royal Niger Company (Unilever) sold Nigeria to the British crown for £865,000 (Eight Hundred and sixty-five thousand pounds sterling in 1899.
That Akassa massacre was over palm oil. One hundred years later, in 1995, the bloodletting continued with the judicial murder of Ogoni leaders in a bid to continue reckless exploitation of crude oil, without any concern about the environment or the people.
Oil spills, blowouts, gas flares, and the criminalisation of a people
Today oil spills have become routine occurrence and responses have remained slow or inadequate. Gas flaring continues and deadlines come and roll by while the people and environment continue to be gassed with no respite in sight. Several well blowouts have been recorded over the decades, including Texaco’s (Chevron) Funiwa -5 well blowout of January 1980 which spilled 400,000 barrels of crude and another blowout and rig fire at the same field in January 2012. In recent months we have been witnesses to the AITEO well blowout at Nembe in November 2021 with an estimated 300,000 barrels of crude oil dumped into the environment and the explosion and sinking of an aged and unlicensed floating, storage and production vessel (FSPO Trinity) off the coast of Ondo State in February 2022. One largely ignored well blowout is the one at the Ororo-1 field. This well blow out occurred in April 2020 and has been burning and spilling crude non-stop for over two years now. In which other region in Nigeria or in the world would a disaster of this magnitude be ignored for two solid year and counting?
The criminalization of the people of the Niger Delta has been something of concern to many. Transnational oil companies and public agencies continually plead “sabotage’ or third-party activities as the cause of every oil spill. They never pause to ask how these so-called sabotages occur despite the high militarization of the region. The oil companies and related public agencies have sung this refrain so much that it has become a tattered fig leaf. Now the situation has expanded with horrendous pollution through artisanal refining in the region. We dare say that this deviant economic activity may have been encouraged by corporations and their cohorts as a mean of offloading pollution resulting from their irresponsible environmental behaviours. It has also arisen as individuals and groups ape the Special Economic Zones concept that officially creates enclaves of economic activities with least control on the guise of promoting national economies.
The Niger Delta Alternatives Convergence
The Niger Delta Alternatives Convergence (NDAC) has been convoked as an inclusive platform for the individuals, civil society groups, political players, community groups, women, ethnic nationalities, and business to come together to address the nagging problems that continue to plague the region. The NDAC is a conference that yields spaces for the interrogation of the outputs of research, community dialogues and the search for alternative resource management pathways as well as examination of laws governing mining and petroleum sectors in Nigeria. The space for engagements of this nature has been often rigged against our communities, but this is a peoples-driven engagement designed to ensure that the communities are heard. It builds on other convening that has been led by many highly respected groups in the region over the years with the aim of extricating the region from the paths of retrogression.
The convergence also aims to produce an inclusive Niger Delta Manifesto for socio-ecological justice highlighting needed alternatives for transformation and social mobilizations for re-source justice. It is hoped that NDAC will provoke a platform for convergence of communities in the region to galvanize action for needed changes for resource access including through demands for legislative changes, debates on the Petroleum Industry Bill, and for critical attainment of re-source democracy – defined as the right of a people to live in harmony with Nature and to retain a right to use, or not use, the gifts of Nature.
Bandages over Festering Sores
We recognize that huge sums of money have been allocated to alleviate the dastard harms caused by petroleum resource exploitation in the region. Such efforts include various Memoranda of Understanding with communities by oil companies, and various government interventions through agencies such as Niger Delta Development Board (NDDB) established in 1961, the Niger Delta Basin and Rural Development Authority (NDBRDA) of 1976, the Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission (OMPADEC) of 1992, the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) established in 1995, Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) set up in 2000 and the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs created in 2009.
These efforts have been characterized by the throwing of money at the problems without a participatory and due consultation with our peoples. Little wonder the outcome has been reigns of corruption and manifestations of abject failure. They have been nothing short of bandages aimed at covering festering wounds without dealing with the fundamental malaise that over six decades of reckless oil and gas exploitation has inflicted on the people and the environment.
Life After Oil
Considering that the world is moving from fossil fuels and that Nigeria is struggling unsuccessfully to meet her OPEC allowed production quota; considering that oil theft continues apace, oil spills, gas flares and dumping of toxic wastes and sundry ecological destruction continue unabated, we risk not just being left behind by the world, we risk remaining mortally wounded and utterly stranded if we do not brace up insist on urgent transition from this destructive activity, demand and insist on a clean-up of the entire region. Tomorrow will be too late. This is the time to examine and check-mate the moves by transnational companies to divest from their ancient infrastructure, drying wells, polluted fields and sneak away to enjoy their loot.
We cannot say this too often, but it is time for us to accept that without a healthy environment we cannot be a healthy people. 64 years of oil extraction has brought untold misery and cut life abysmally low in this region. Things cannot continue this way. We have demands and resolves in the proposed Niger Delta Manifesto shared to delegates. Let’s all rise to be counted, demand that politicians declare their environmental plans before they gain our votes; let us demand real climate action including a halt to gas flaring and a restoration of our ecosystems. Let us demand action to stall the washing away of our communities. After 64 years of a nightmare, it is time to wake up, it is time to demand socio-ecological justice. We are not calling for charity, we are calling for justice.
I thank the Chairman of this Convergence, His Excellency, Obong Victor Attah, a man with demonstrated impeccable leadership and wisdom. I thank our keynote speaker, Prof G. G. Darah for what promises to be a rousing call for action based on knowledge. I thank all our academic, activist and community comrades who will take the podium in this Convergence.
I welcome you all, brothers, and sisters.
Welcome words by Nnimmo Bassey, Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation at NDAC 2022 held at Watbridge Hotel, Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria on 23 June 2020.