Oil spill: Bodo as metaphor for agonies of the Ogoni

Oil spill: Bodo as metaphor for agonies of the Ogoni

Posted 14 August 2011, by Bolaji Ogundele, The Sunday Tribune (African Newspapers of Nigeria Plc), tribune.com.ng

Soil of farmlands turned into cakes of crude oil in Ogoniland

In this piece, BOLAJI OGUNDELE was in Bodo community, Gokana Local Government Area of Rivers State, believed to have warranted the recent landmark judgement in a London court which fined oil giant, Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) more than $400 million as restitution for the damage done to environment. He draws comparison between what obtains in the community and the larger Ogoniland.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), about a week ago, submitted its report on the Ogoni oil-spill clean-up assessment. It coincided with another epochal event in the life and struggle of the Ogoni people for equitable treatment by their former oil-exploiting tenants, the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) and the Federal Government.

The struggle it was that claimed, in the hands of the Sani Abacha-led military government, the lives of many environmental rights activists who were of Ogoni origin. Most notable of these were the Ogoni Nine, members of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), led author and activist, Kenule Saro Wiwa. They were hanged, contrary to pleas by the international community against such, in 1995.

But today, a court in far away London, England, gave the justice Wiwa and company were looking for; it fined Shell some $410 million as compensation for damage done to environment and life in Bodo, an Ogoni community in Gokana Local Government Area of Rivers State and the oil company admitted responsibility for this damage. Sunday Tribune’s finding in Bodo and Goi on the much-talked-about sites of oil spills gives an opportunity to draw a line between the incident in the community and what transpired in the entire Ogoniland, which had warranted the report of the UNEP.

“While some on-the-ground results could be immediate, overall, the report estimates that countering and cleaning up the pollution and catalyzing a sustainable recovery of Ogoniland could take 25 to 30 years,” is the verdict of the report. Mildly put, the time-frame proposed by the UNEP for the restoration of life and naturalness to the Ogoniland environment is between 25 and 30 years. The UNEP report, the second within a space of three years and ever controversial, was borne out of an extensive study of the Ogoni axis of Rivers State of Nigeria, a place where the culture of non-violent agitation against unethical practices of giant oil and gas concerns like the SPDC has become a legend, and Ogoni has stamped its name on the world map through its persistent demand for one thing only.

The current UNEP report on the spills in Ogoniland has been both accepted and rejected; accepted by critics and a section of the Ogoni community as a vindication of their decades of struggle and insistence on shutting any oil and gas company that is unwilling to deal with them and their environment with the same respect and standards as it is found in its homeland out.

Rejected, however, by yet another section of Ogoni people and critics for not being comprehensive enough as to note certain vital issues like who should take blames for what and for leaving out some critical sites of spills in the area.

The contradictions, claims and counterclaims notwithstanding, this is the first time in the history of Nigeria that an internationally-organised inquiry into how foreign relations, either of social, economic or political nature, have affected the living and conditions of living of the people.

Though one question has continued to resonate since the report was released, and this is: “Could the picture of the Ogoni oil spill experience be as grim as has been painted all along?” It is a clean-up exercise that will take up to 30 years; pollution of underground water that has become 900 times more toxic than the World Health Organisation (WHO) had suggested and needing the largest clean-up exercise ever suggested for an area in history.

Then, it got rather scarier when a London court awarded a multi-million dollar fine against SPDC for admitting responsibility for two spills in Bodo community in 2008. According to experts, this particular incident has caused a damage that might take about 20 years to clean up.

A look at the Bodo spill, taken as a sufficient case study, gives a graphic description of the devastating impacts of oil spill on the daily life of the typical Ogoni community and by extension, the Niger Delta community that has suffered the curse of spillage. Looking through the pictures of an oil spill site, as sordid as those in the pictures supporting the UNEP report, is the least idea a distant observer of the situation can have of what life feels like for people living with oil spills.
Listening to a farmer who has lost an entire expanse of land to the spill may not even be a sufficient testimony of the pain the people feel. They say a picture is worth more than a book of letter description, but being on site gives a more vivid confirmation of the wreck dealt by a spill.

If a deaf-mute would be pushed to tears on sighting charred and blackened farmland, forcefully turned barren by the toxic components of oil that spilled three years back, the putrid odour oozing from an erstwhile pristine country environment will sure spur a blind visitor to ask questions. The green, quiet composure of Bodo town, viewing it from the homestead angle, gives no idea what the people have had to live with since 2008. But some three to four minutes motorcycle ride away from town into the farmlands and the surrounding waters completely changes the nice, serene country view one might have of the environment because before seeing anything; the automobile-mechanic-shop sorts of air blowing from the remnants of the farmlands and surrounding mangrove waters would change one’s view.

Layered on the far view by a deceptive green, the fallowed farmlands are mostly blackened by the harshness of the acidity in the spilled oil. These are some people’s farmlands or what used to be their farmlands. These farmers are mostly women; wives, grandmothers and matriarchs of homes who have legions of dependents gawking hungrily at them daily as their fortunes continue to worsen. The experience has not been fairer with those who depend on the aquatic for their daily bread, mostly men.

“I am still a farmer, but the whole farmland is now filled with oil; entering the place, you must walk on oil. As of yesterday when I tried to enter the farm with a friend of mine called Mama, we discovered that there was no single crop on it. We just cried and went back to the house empty handed,” Hanna Gberenem, a farming housewife, lamented when asked to describe her experience. She is just one of thousands of women who are daily losing grip on sustenance, and one of the few who agreed to share their post-spill experience with Sunday Tribune.

The cries go on and on with various persons giving different sordid accounts of what they have been putting up with.

The recent positive court judgement in the London court notwithstanding, the people are appealing, especially to government, to come to their aid. When asked why they were not excited by the prospects in the judgement, the fears expressed were related to their past experience with the oil company.

“Shell has shown in the past that it always finds a back door to escape responsibilities. This judgement may not be different. Until I see that the money is paid, indeed, I have no hope in them. It is the governments I will appeal to; they should come to our aid. We are dying; they should come and save us,” Victor Baribefe, a fisherman and father of three who lost a huge fishery investment to the spill, exclaimed.

To this singular 2008/2009 disaster, an entire community’s economic and social life was lost. Ogoni people, according to experts, are basically farmers and fishermen, but their farmlands and waters were gone with the spill; an entire ecosystem is lost. The economy that was reaping an acclaimed N5 million per day is gone, just as more than 65,000 jobs have been lost. Imagine same or similar cases surfacing in most of the communities in the area. This, however, is besides consideration for the health implications this development poses to the people, a factor that sure derives from the immense damage to the environment.

Giving a peep into the cost of the disaster to both the environment and human health, foremost environmentalist and Executive Director of the Environmental Rights Action (ERA), Nnimmo Bassey, said the entire area, according to the report by UNEP, was no longer good to support life because of the level of contamination.

“This report can be taken as a definitive conclusion that Ogoniland is almost uninhabitable. But people are living there, drinking water that is 900 times more toxic above World Health Organisation’s standard. In their water there is Benzene and other toxic elements. We are not just talking about the oil-spills, there are evidences of solid toxic wastes dumped in Ogoniland by Shell, by the oil companies and there are photographs shown in the report. Most of the people live with these poisons all life long; life expectancy is very low. So, people here are living in a very precarious situation. It is a thing that cannot wait till tomorrow,”he said, charging the Federal Government to declare a state of environmental emergency in the entire Ogoni axis.

The oil giant, which the entire Ogoni race, including Bodo, has for long accused of the environmental misfortune they now suffer, SPDC, has, however, not faulted the report or rejected its recommendations. Rather, it has welcomed it and proferred its own recommendations which it suggested would aid the actualisation of the goals of the report. In two separate responses, one being the official response as delivered by the Managing Director of the company, Mutiu Sunmonu, and an email message by Andrew Vickers, a Vice President of Shell, the report was welcomed.

“This report makes a valuable contribution towards improving understanding of the issue of oil spills and the environment in Ogoniland and we pledge to work with the government, UNEP and others on the next steps. I agree completely with the UNEP report that we also need the authorities to take concerted action to curb the illegal activities, in particular oil theft and refining, that are exacerbating so many of the environmental and social issues. Unless these activities are brought to a halt, any action we take will be of limited impact,” Sunmonu said in his response.

The success or otherwise of the proposed clean-up of the Ogoni area, as proposed by UNEP, and the subsequent replication of same in other areas of the oil-rich Niger Delta, is a project being eagerly awaited. But other issues of concern like what sort of precedence is the court judgment in London in favour of Bodo community and the acceptance of responsibility by the SPDC is likely to set in the history of community/oil company relationship in Nigeria and probably in other parts of the world where they suffer similar fate as the Niger Delta does are now bugging the mind and observers are watching to get answers.

Shell issued a statement after the report came out and it said most of its oil-spills were caused by third party interference; by the local people. But the people keep feeling insulted by this percieved wrong attitude of putting the blame on them, the victims.

Sunday Tribune got a few other personal experiences of victims of Bodo spillages, some of who spoke through interpreters. The following are excerpts of their views:

Christian Lekoba Pande, cleric and fish farmer

The oil-spill has affected me much more than any other person in the community. I have a fish pond into which I invested a capital of about N7 million and in 2008/2009, within a twinkling of an eye, everything was destroyed and reduced to rubbish and since then, life has not been easy. In fact, seeing it is believing it as pictures don’t lie. That disaster has affected me all round; psychologically, family wise, even as a minister of God. You know that investing such a huge amount of money in business should not be easy because I did not gather it in one day.

It also means to me that all my toiling in Lagos, where I had worked as pastor for more than 20 years, are now a waste. I decided to make that investment when I was posted back here; now all that is gone. Even members of the congregation and other people who had been benefitting from the investment are now left with nothing.

Like in my family now, my daughter was supposed to be in a boarding secondary school; she is now outside, I now have to depend on people to help me out on her because I cannot afford the school fees any more. I was formerly staying in a large rented apartment, accommodating many people, including extended family members, but because of this misfortune, I have been dislocated, I was made to leave the place to seek a very small place and cannot accommodate those I used to help again. All the less-privileged who were staying and feeding from the proceeds of my fish pond have been asked to leave because I can no longer cater for them.

Help has refused to come from either government or Shell. We have cried and cried for help but it seems no one is hearing us. I remember once, in a community of about 69,000 people, they brought about 50 bags of rice for the people to share. That one caused another round of fight among the people.
Since then, nothing else has come to us and mind you, the rice came eight months after the oil spilled.

Madam Grace Koba, a grandmother and farmer
I am a farmer and the oil spill in 2008/2009 affected my okro, pumpkins, cassava, yam, cocoyam and corn. As the oil flowed, it entered the farm and destroyed all that I planted; burned them. I was very annoyed. Since then, I have had nowhere to go, I am just sitting down in the house and I have seven kids to feed. So, I am angry.

Before now when we were still farming, we used to go into the mangrove to pick periwinkles and those shellfish, but now, the oil has destroyed everything; we come home empty handed; we are hungry now. Poverty is killing us. We are dying.

Mrs. Hanna Gberenem, a farmer
I am still a farmer, but the whole farmland is now filled with oil. Entering the place, you must walk on oil. As of yesterday when I tried to enter the farm with a friend of mine called Mama, we discovered that there was no single crop on it. We just cried and went back to the house empty handed.

Madam Miiva Bariboor, a farmer and housewife

I am a farmer, I have farmed for more than six years and I know I used to make a lot of money. I have been catering for my immediate and extended family from what I make from my farm. But since that 2008/2009 oil spill happened, I cannot do anything on the farm again. The whole crops; pepper, cocoyam and cassava, have all gone. The oil just destroyed everything totally. I am just home now, crying. I am suffering from a very high level of poverty now. I am begging now to feed my family and myself. I am begging government to come to my aid, I am suffering.

Boonu Baribefe Victor, a fisherman
The Bodo oil spill has affected me in so many ways. Bodo people’s main occupations are fishing and farming. I am a fisherman. The spill has affected me so badly; it destroyed the mangrove with which I do my fishing. I used to catch so much fish per day that I was making as much as N50,000 per day. But today, due to this spill, there is no more mangrove to fish in. The oil has taken them all away. The fish too are gone. There are no more fish in the rivers, you will search and you will catch nothing.

Since the spill happened in 2009, I have been left jobless, just moving helter-skelter, searching for what I can be doing, but there is nothing. Now, I am facing a lot of problems. I have a family to feed, I have two boys and one girl. To feed them has become a problem. I don’t have one naira now.

We are still calling on government and Shell to come to our aid in Bodo because, statistically, when there was no spill the activities on the aquatic and the entire ecosystem used to yield about N5 million per day to the people.



One response to this post.

  1. […] Oil spill: Bodo as metaphor for agonies of the Ogoni « Only EdDescription : It coincided with another epochal event in the life and struggle of the Ogoni people for equitable treatment by their former oil-exploiting tenants, the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) and the Federal Government. … a place where the culture of non-violent agitation against unethical practices of giant oil and gas concerns like the SPDC has become a legend, and Ogoni has stamped its name on the world map through its persistent demand for one …http://edmortimer.wordpress.co .. […]


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