Silent killer: The deadly price of oil

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Nigeria’s silent killer: The deadly price of oil

By Patrick Smith
Posted on Tuesday, 5 May 2020 12:25, updated on Monday, 7 September 2020 16:30

Right in the middle of Ogoniland in the Niger Delta is the one of the most profitable oilfields in history –only now it is one of the most contaminated stretches of water and marsh land in the world.

Nine years ago, after publishing a comprehensive survey of the damage, the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) called for the launch of a $1bn fund to clean up decades of oil spills there. It is a 600 square kilometre area full of shut-off oil wells and a labyrinth of ageing pipelines converge.

The UN believed the environmental damage to Ogoniland was far worse – in volumes of oil split and destruction of the habitat – than the BP Deepwater Horizon spill of 4.9 million barrels in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Hopes for the Delta’s future depend on whether what the UN calls the world’s biggest clean-up programme will work.

For that BP paid fines to the United States government of $18.7bn after a court ruled it was primarily responsible for the damage, and it spent some $65bn for the clean-up operation.

Failed clean-up by Nigeria

Lacking the negotiating power of the US government, successive Nigerian governments have failed to press ahead with the Ogoniland clean-up. Held back by myriad legal disputes between communities, state governments and oil companies – cases heard in courts in Britain and the Netherlands – as well as local political turf wars, the main work of the project is yet to start.

Its billion dollar budget was to finance the first five years of a clean-up that the UN reckoned would take 30 years or more. The Nigerian government and oil companies such as Shell, and some international foundations have raised nearly $200m to start the work.

READ MORE: Oil & Gas: Shell defies order to halt production at Nigeria facility

Alongside the Nigerian authorities and international oil companies, officials from the UN, Britain and the Netherlands are working as funders, observers and advisors.

Sometimes they tread on each other’s toes and there is little effective coordination. Worse still, most of the operations are opaque and are not accountable to the local communities.

“Worst slow-burning environmental disaster in history”

Yet this is meant to fix what UN experts have described as the worst slow-burning environmental disaster in history. Conditions remain appalling. Decades of oil spills and leaking pipelines have desecrated the Ogoni landscape.

The poisoning of the water has robbed fisherman of their livelihoods and the despoliation of the land has made farming impossible.

Levels of benzene in local drinking water were found by UNEP officials to be 900 times above the level deemed safe by the World Health Organisation. Many long-time inhabitants have fled the area to other parts of Nigeria or neighbouring countries. And Ogoniland is just one area of the Niger Delta where the oil has been extracted and the environment wrecked.

For half a century, oil has dominated Nigeria’s export economy and earned billions for international oil companies; all at a terrible social and environmental cost.

Activism for Niger Delta

It was in the 1980s when writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa from Ogoniland started campaigning for compensation for the oil damage and his people’s political rights. Teaming up with international campaigners, Saro-Wiwa put the environmental crisis in the Niger Delta onto the world news agenda.

Ken Saro-Wiwa, November 1995, Greenpeace/SIPA

That quickly led Saro-Wiwa, whose Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People was winning grassroots support, to clash with Nigeria’s military regimes.

Saro-Wiwa’s final battle with General Sani Abacha’s regime, widely seen as one of the most corrupt and brutal in the country’s history, cost him his life.

Fearing the Ogoni campaigners would use the political and economic power of their base in the oil-producing Niger Delta, Abacha’s apparatchiks seized Saro-Wiwa and eight others, then sent them to a military tribunal in 1995.

Despite interventions from Nelson Mandela and censure from the UN and Commonwealth, Abacha ordered the execution of Saro-Wiwa and the others.

That prompted UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to send a special rapporteur, Malaysian lawyer Param Cumaraswamy to investigate conditions in the Niger Delta. It took the demise of the Abacha regime and years of negotiation for the UN to win support for the clean-up of Ogoniland and beyond.

Ogoniland today

Today there are big questions about the future of the clean-up.

With the economics of the energy industry in freefall as Nigeria’s treasury is weakened by crashing oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic, communities in the Delta worry that once more concerns about their environment and livelihoods will be shunted aside.

Activists protesting in 1995, SIPA

For this special investigation, Ruth Olorunbi and Kelechukwu Iruoma travelled across the Niger Delta talking to people hit by the environmental devastation that the oil industry has wrought on their communities.

Hopes for the Delta’s future depend on whether what the UN calls the world’s biggest clean-up programme will work. Success would breed success and the prospects of more such programmes in the region. But failure would poison the futures of yet another generation.

Part 1 – Nigeria’s silent killer: Welcome to Ogoniland 

Part 2 – Nigeria’s silent killer: Self-imposed exile

Part 3 – Nigeria’s silent killer: Compensation to the communities

*This investigation was supported by Microsoft Modern Journalism and International Center for Journalists (ICFJ)

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Also in this in Depth:

Nigeria’s silent killer: Welcome to Ogoniland

In this first report, we travel to Goi, a community in Ogoniland, a region in Nigeria’s Niger Delta that was hit by oil spills in September 2008. These were not contained until November of that year.

Nigeria’s silent killer: Self-imposed exile

In this second report, we see the long-lasting environmental, social and health problems the people of Ogoniland continue to deal with since a major oil spill in 2008.

Nigeria’s silent killer: Compensation to the communities

In this third and final report, we see how the oil spill clean-up in Ogoniland is still not complete, despite recommendations by the UN and money distributed to the Nigerian government.