Friday 5 August 2011

The UN reports on oil pollution in Ogoniland, Nigeria.

On the 4th of August 2011 the United Nations Environment Program published its report into oil pollution in the Ogoniland area of the Niger Delta in Nigeria. The report paid particular attention to the oil giant Shell, who have been a dominant player in the area for many years, and who have been widely condemned for their poor environmental record.

Ogoniland is located in the southeast of Cross River State, Nigeria.
It lacks official status and has no precisely defined borders.

The Niger River has been flowing into the Bight of Benin since at least the Cretaceous. During this time it has meandered back and forth across what is now southern Nigeria, as well as moving back and forth with the rise and fall of the sea level. The river caries a great deal of sediment with it, which is dumped when it reaches the sea forming the delta. Over time the organic material within the sediment forms pockets, which are then heated and crushed by the overlying sediment (increasing pressure also increases temperature, and vice versa, which is why aerosol sprays, undergoing rapid decompression, are cold), forcing water out of more complex organic compounds (dehydration) and forming pockets of gas and oil.

The formation of sediments in a generalized delta basin.

The petroleum industry has been exploiting these reserves since the late 1950s, when Nigeria was still a British colony. The first commercially exploitable oil reserves were discovered by Shell in 1956, but by 1960 when Nigeria gained independence, other companies, such as Mobile, Gulf Oil and Texaco, had also begun extracting oil in the Delta region, though to do this they needed to gain licenses through Shell, who had been granted a monopoly in 1938. The British granted monopolies to companies like Shell as they did not have the man-power to run a licensing system themselves. Britain had a large empire and a limited supply of colonial officials. As long as companies granted monopolies would still license other companies rights to exploit natural resources, then revenues were guaranteed and the colonial administration was satisfied. However this system often meant that local enterprise was locked out of bidding for contracts, or greatly disadvantaged compared to European and American companies, since licenses would be granted from the monopoly holder's headquarters, usually in London, rather than by a local colonial administration.

After independence Nigeria became a federal republic, divided into three states (Eastern, Western and Northern Nigeria), but was plagued by inter-ethnic tensions, a legacy of the British colonial policy of divide and rule. In 1966 the civilian government was overthrown in a bloody coup by a group of mainly Igbo military officers (from Eastern Nigeria), who were in turn overthrown in a counter-coup by a group of northern military officers. This lead to widespread anti-Igbo (and anti-eastoner-in-general) rioting in Northern Nigeria, followed by a mass exodus of Eastern Nigerians living in the North, and the emergence of a successionist movement in Eastern Nigeria.

A conference hosted by Ghana in January 1967 failed to reach a satisfactory solution, and on 30 May 1967 Eastern Nigeria, including the oil-rich Niger Delta, proclaimed independence, as the new state of Biafra, under the leadership of Colonel Odemegwu Ojukwu, the former governor of Eastern Nigeria. On the 6th of July Nigeria invaded Biafra (this was described as a 'police action'; there was never actually a declaration of war). The Biafrans were hopelessly outgunned by the much better equipped Nigerian Army, but were determined not to surrender, at least in part because they expected a repeat of the massacres in Northern Nigeria, which the northern dominated government had refused to prevent. Biafra received a great deal of sympathy from outside the country, but little actual support. The result was that the Nigerian Army became bogged down in Biafra, with heavy casualties on both sides, and no solution in sight.

This deadlock lead to widespread starvation among the civilian population as it became impossible to move food about the country; the extent of this, and who was to blame is still argued about. As a result a number of foreign organizations began 'blockade-breaking' aid missions to bring food to the people of Biafra. This too was controversial, with many outside observers feeling that this was prolonging the conflict (there is a school of thought that all aid is wrong, and that people caught up in wars or natural disasters should be encouraged to find their own solutions without outside intervention, although the advocates of this seldom oppose intervention in countries for other reasons). The Nigerian Government perceived this intervention as support for the Biafrans, and responded by hiring foreign mercenaries to fight in the conflict, a move which the Biafran leadership soon matched by hiring its own mercenaries. These mercenaries were widely accused of human rights abuses, particularly Egyptian conscript forces (hired by the Nigerian Government from that of Egypt) who were implicated in a number of attacks on Red Cross facilities. The apparent inability of the Red Cross to defend its staff against attacks by Nigerian Government backed forces lead to the creation of the organization Médecins Sans Frontières in 1971.

In 1969 the British government (which had refused to even meet a delegation from the Biafran Government, despite widespread public support in the UK) began to greatly step up shipments of arms to Nigeria. This enabled the Nigerian Army to mount an assault in December 1969 that finally toppled the Biafran Government in January 1970. The British Government claimed that it was necessary to oppose Biafran independence as it to do otherwise would have encouraged tribal succession across Africa.

After the war Eastern Nigeria was reintegrated into Nigeria, but faced severe penalties. All Eastern Nigerian government and military personnel who had become Biafrans were assumed to have resigned their jobs. Any homes left by East Nigerians either fleeing from other parts of the country, or more directly fleeing the conflict in East Nigerian cities were deemed to have been abandoned, confiscated by the Nigerian Government and re-allocated to government supporters. A new Nigerian currency had been introduced in 1968, and all money held in bank accounts by East Nigerians now had to be converted into this currency, but the amount that they could redeem was set at twenty Nigerian pounds, all other savings being lost.

The oil industry also suffered, with production dropping steadily throughout the conflict. Shell, the largest company in the Delta, remained officially silent during this time, relying on British support for the Nigerian Government to resolve the crisis in its favor, but Elf Aquitaine (now part of Total) petitioned the French Government to intervene on behalf of the Biafrans.

Up until this point the post-colonial Nigerian Government had chosen to follow the same policy towards the oil industry as the British Colonial regime; namely collecting taxes and revenue from licenses, but not getting directly involved. This was now to change.

In 1969 the Government of General Yakuba Gowon introduced new regulations on the division of oil revenues. Up until this point oil revenue had been divided equally between the state in which it was extracted and the federal government. Now the federal government was to receive 100% of the revenue, and it would decide what (if anything) the individual states would receive.

In 1971 the Nigerian government nationalized the oil industry, forming the Nigerian National Oil Corporation to run the industry. The 1970s were boom time for oil producers, and the combination of a military government with strong ethic bias, complete control of the oil industry by that government, and the marginalization of the population in the oil producing areas, proved to be a toxic mix, fueling the birth of a wealthy national elite, a political economy based on patronage and corruption and deepening ethnic and religious tensions. During this period oil began to dominate the Nigerian economy, so that while revenue from oil rose, other areas of the economy, such as agriculture, were ignored and allowed to stagnate. This trend continued under successive military and civilian governments in the 1980s & 90s, with Nigeria slowly becoming more indebted and more dependent on oil.

Although the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (the successor to the Nigerian National Oil Corporation) in theory runs and owns the Nigerian oil industry, in practice it is run by subsidies of multinational corporations. These are 55-60% owned by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation and have to have 'Nigeria' in their name, but otherwise operate as arms of their parent companies, with successive Nigerian Governments having been content to receive the income from oil without feeling the need to become involved.

The biggest oil company in Nigeria, controlling 50% of all oil production is the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited. Other companies are Chevron Nigeria Limited, Mobil Producing Nigeria Unlimited, Nigerian Agip Oil Company Limited, Total Petroleum Nigeria Limited and Texaco Overseas Petroleum Company of Nigeria Unlimited.

The Niger Delta is (or was) a biodiversity hotspot on great importance. It hosts a combination of lowland rain forests, freshwater swamps and water-ways, mangroves and offshore islands. This area provides a home to about 20 million people, belonging to 40 ethnic groups.

An aerial view of the Niger Delta.

As early as the 1980s people were starting to raise concerns about the environment in the Niger Delta. In 1983 a report by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation warned that pollution from the oil industry was slowly poisoning the Delta environment. Because oil in the Niger Delta is located in many small pockets the country is criss-crossed by an extensive network of oil pipelines. A combination of poor maintenance and acts of sabotage (both politically motivated and by people stealing oil) has lead to millions of barrels of oil being spilled from these pipelines. This has happened over a long period of time, with many small leaks, rather than one spectacular leak or spill, but amounts to between 9 and 13 million barrels of oil (2-3 times as much as was spilt in the Gulf Oil Spill of 2010) all of which lingers on in the environment.

Oil pipes in the Niger Delta.

At the same time the Delta has seen a deepening humanitarian crisis. The government has maintained a monopoly over property rights in the Delta, enabling it to confiscate any land needed for use by the oil companies. Since the government has a major financial interest in the oil companies and does not see itself as representing the people of the Delta, this has been pursued ruthlessly. In this respect the government can be seen as a private company, owned by the wealthiest 1% of the Nigerian population, and viewing the Delta as a colony to be exploited.

This has lead to an ongoing confrontation between the people's of the Delta on the one side and the oil companies and Nigerian Military on the other. In 1990 a Nigerian TV Produced called Ken Saro-Wiwa founded the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), a protest group outspoken about pollution and corruption in the Niger Delta in general and Ogoniland in particular. A talented writer and broadcaster, Saro-Wiwa was able to raise the profile of the Ogoni people on the international stage, but this served to antagonize the military government. In 1994 a raid by the Nigerian Military into Ogoni territory killed an estimated 2000 people and raised 30 villages to the ground. In 1995 Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders were arrested and held for 17 months before being subjected to a show-trial and executed.

Video from the MOSOP, briefly explaining their grievances.

The scientists from the United Nations Environment Program spent 14 months in Ogoniland compiling their report. They examined over 200 locations, 5000 sets of medical records, dug 142 monitoring wells and 780 boreholes and talked to over 23 000 people.

Members of the UN team at a field site in Ogoniland.

The UN team found water contaminated by oil and benzine (a highly carcinogenic hydrocarbon compound) in wells, with in one area 8 cm of oil sitting on top of the water. Many areas of mangrove were dead, with roots covered in a bitumen-like substance. These mangroves are an important breeding ground for many fish, which use the exposed root systems as nurseries for their young. Oil spills often caught fire, creating a crust of ash and tar over the land, through which nothing could grow. Tidal creeks throughout the region had a surface layer of oil on the water more-or-less permanently, with only the thickness varying. The widespread pollution was causing a huge reduction in the number of fish (a staple of the local diet) available, although contrary to local suspicions the fish were not hazardous to eat, as they will avoid the oil at all costs. The pervasive nature of the pollution is likely to be adversely affecting the health of around a million people.

Oil burning after a spill from a Shell pipeline in Goi-Bodo in 2004.
Shell attributed this to sabotage.

The report also found that artisanal refining, a process by which local people 'steal' oil and attempt to refine it themselves, presented a serious threat to lives and was responsible for isolated pollution events. Shell have long claimed that this artisanal refining is responsible for all pollution in the Delta. The UN report strongly denied this, and noted that Shell consistently failed to follow its own guidelines on environmental protection.

The UN report suggests that some areas of contaminated land could be cleaned within five years, but that heavily impacted areas of mangrove and freshwater swamp will take at least thirty years to clean up. It also notes that this process cannot begin till after all ongoing pollution has ceased. The report also puts a cost of US$1 billion on the first five years of the cleanup, which is likely to prove hard to obtain.