On the same day the 26th Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP 26) earnestly kicked off in Glasgow, the first day of November 2021, an abandoned oil well in the bowels of Nembe territory in Nigeria’s Bayelsa State blasted out like a reservoir of toxic champagne, gushing throughout the duration of the global party in Scotland. From dual valves on Santa Barbara Well 1, one of many Shell Petroleum legacy wells lately handed over to the domestic operator, Aiteo, a lavish fountain of crude oil flooded the creeks onto the coastline distantly downstream for thirty-eight days running. By the time the splash stopped on 8th of December 2021, several hundred thousand barrels of petroleum had been released into the Nembe environment and a crude Christmas was assured for the creek dwellers. Two years and two COPs later – the second barely two weeks away – not an inch of the terrain has been cleaned up.

Using the Niger Delta and its epicenter, Bayelsa State, as the focal locus for this discussion, and the 1999 return to civilian rule as a cut-off, it can be safely said that four Nigerian Presidents (Obasanjo, Yar’Adua, Jonathan – an indigene, and Buhari), four Bayelsa Governors (Alamieyeseigha, Jonathan – again, Sylva, and Dickson) and one institution, the Niger Delta Development Commission, have so far lost the chance to make history on the environment, beyond a few PR gimmicks. President Bola Tinubu and Governor Douye Diri still have the opportunity to be the firsts, by dint of their incumbency in office, to seriously remedy the biggest plague of the region. Perchance, former President Goodluck Jonathan may still enter that restitutive hall of fame if he would make the small sacrifice of investing his extraordinary post-office goodwill in attracting a solution.

But, first, back to November which is becoming an annual nightmare in the Nembe and Niger Delta Peoples’ relations with Big Oil. One November before COP 26, the chiefs of the affected kingdom, Opu Nembe, dressed in all-black regalia, addressed a widely televised national press conference: to demand justice for the oil operator’s obsession with dehumanizing the community. Two Novembers after, another kingdom of the Nembe-Ijaw People, Okpoama, home of Nigeria’s immediate past oil minister, is buffeted with oil oozing out from another abandoned, un-decommissioned, wellhead owned by another operator, a subsidiary of the national oil company, NNPC Ltd. The wellhead at Okpoama had been spilling oil for about two weeks before efforts reportedly commenced on the ground to stop the spill.

From the 2021 blowout at Santa Barbara River to the 2023 discharge at Bendick-kiri in Okpoama domain, both of which are reprises at the exact same spots, this pollution footprint presents many metaphors for social realities in Nigeria’s Delta, and for as many intersections between the themes that have marked its political-economic relations from pre-colonial times through post-colonial Nigeria.

In December 1998, before climate change became such common parlance, a mass of Ijaw youths converged to resoundingly protest that enough was enough in the Niger Delta. Drawing a line in the sand, they bravely proclaimed an Operation Climate Change with effect from 31st December that year, to reclaim the trampled upon dignity, property and environmental rights and terminally threatened destiny of the Ijaw People within Nigeria. Like a first among equals, Oronto Natei Douglas was the face of the struggle’s leadership. Reminiscent of the American Declaration of Independence, though not an instrument of secession, the youths under the banner of a newly formed Ijaw Youths Council made the historic Kaiama Declaration, asserting the inalienable right of Ijaws to own and control the natural resources God embowelled in their land, and to manage their delicate environment in a sustainable manner that preserves it for ensuring intergenerational equity. That was to break from the unrelenting ecological destruction of the region by the Nigerian State in joint venture with the multinational oil industry, for which Royal Dutch Shell was poster boy in a fiendish bid to drill all the hydrocarbon in the Delta and leave it terminally perforated and prostrate.

Mostly in their borderline thirties then, Oronto and his comrades such as Felix Tuodolo, Isaac “Sankara” Osuoka, Bubaraye Dakolo (now a 1st Class King and author of the book The Riddle of the Oil Thief) and other Delta eggheads, example Nnimmo Bassey and Ike Okonta, went on to emblazon the Ijaw and Niger Delta identity on global consciousness, taking the baton from Ken Saro Wiwa who with his Ogoni compatriots had resumed the freedom relay for the Delta’s ethnic nationalities in the 1990s before he was judicially murdered, one sad November too. They enacted an intellectual ferment and environmentalism movement that took them to capital cities and parliaments across the globe to voice the plight of their people in the feudalistic pretension of federalism and curious brand of republicanism practised by Nigeria. As the country’s military rulers and hurriedly arranged civilian successors failed to heed reason, more hot blooded youth leaders in the region emerged and launched a brutal militant campaign that pulverized the life blood of the national economy: oil mining.

Fast forward to December 2012. Oronto, now an Adviser to his fortuitously enthroned kinsman (President Goodluck Jonathan) had lost his dad, and the cream of the country headed to his stupendously oil-endowed hometown, Okoroba in Bayelsa State, for the funeral. I rode in a boat with some of Nollywood’s faces. As we waltzed through the undulating rivulets and contours in the creeks from Nembe to Okoroba, my co-travellers from Lagos and Abuja oohed and aahed to the pulsating sea waves, bemoaning Nigeria’s indolence in not harnessing our riviera as a tourism haven like the Bahamas or Barbados.

But the Santa Barbara swamplands had an unusual traffic of tourists in the weeks between COP 26 and Christmas 2021. Thanks to the prolonged blowout at Santa Barbara Well 1, there was an equally long flow of pollution tourism to Opu Nembe and its fishing settlements. A trending drone shot taken on the day the Bayelsa State Governor, Senator Douye Diri, visited the still-belching site produced an image that could have been of an erupted volcano, molten magma and all in luminous golden hues. The disaster is such that a natural setting for ecotourism suddenly attracted visiting dignitaries for its catastrophic spectacle.  

Ijawland of which Nembe country is part, and by extension the Niger Delta, was already that part of the planet most bastardized by oil pollution and gas flaring. Soon after its discovery in commercial quantity in then Oloibiri Province of present Bayelsa State, Nigeria’s crude oil became a curse to its natural owners, while a bonanza for the rest of the country. This accentuated pre-Independence grievances of the ethnic minorities, whose neglect throughout the colonial period and fears of majority domination in the impending post-colonial polity caused the soon departing colonial government to institute the Willink Commission of Inquiry to douse their desire to quit or be autonomous in such a Nigeria as they were apprehensive of. One of other national plans to give them a sense of belonging was the Okarki-Nembe-Brass Road proposed around 1946. Seventy-five years later, when the epic Santa Barbara spill occurred, it was still a proposal. The state government, not the federal, awarded a contract for the Nembe-Brass section in 2022.

As the paradox of poverty and pollution from petroleum hit home to compound their existing woes, an Ijaw intellectual firebrand, Isaac Jasper Adaka Boro, mobilized a small guerilla army in 1966 to launch the country’s first secession attempt, declaring a Niger Delta Republic which was later quelled by military might. Adaka (Ijaw name for tiger) Boro was the biggest Ijaw hero of the 20th Century. He followed the footsteps of a Nembe-Ijaw forebear, King Frederick William Koko, who led an armada from war canoe houses of Nembe kingdoms in January 1895 to sack a pre-colonial British conglomerate – precursor of the UACs and Royal Dutch Shells – that persisted in breaching Nembe’s territorial integrity in international trade. That bloody clash was one of the triggers for Britain’s formal colonization of the entities that were eventually merged to form Nigeria.

At the time of the Nembe-British duel, also known as the Akassa Raid or Nembe Youmi (the Nembe War), the British described the area as the Oil Rivers Protectorate, after the export trade in palm oil transacted via its rivers. Since 1956, those waterways could have been renamed the Crude Oil Rivers. Aiteo’s well blowout (some experts call it loss of containment) in Nembe country brings back into vivid relief that the waters of Nembe and the Niger Delta are indeed now rivers frothing on the surface with crude oil.

The Aiteo-Santa Barbara blowout was a catastrophe waiting to happen. When earlier warnings by the oil well went unheeded, the blowout became avoidably inevitable. Sometime in September 2019, a whole two years and more earlier, the same Santa Barbara Well 1 burst open, spewing crude oil for a week. Reports were made to the spill control agency, NOSDRA (National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency) and other regulators. Experts representing affected communities engaged with NOSDRA and Aiteo, demanding for cleanup, compensation and safeguards against recurrence. None of those was enforced. So an entirely foreseeable and preventable disaster recurred.

Like most regulatory bodies in the sector, NOSDRA is rendered ineffective by a combination of poor funding, possible insensitivity to pollution victims due to its head office location a thousand miles away in Abuja, sheer leadership complacency and a steady supply of lazy excuses. It took a year of constant haranguing for the agency to lead a post-spill assessment of the 2019 spill. What is more, the Nigerian court system is almost a no-go for environmental justice. Communities are nervous about endless court delays, the heavy cost of hiring experts to conduct forensic studies that will prove pollution and its impacts, and a systemic addiction to technicalities while pollutants percolate deeper into the communities’ ecology. With the help of NGOs and foreign law firms, a small cluster of determined rural dwellers are resorting to foreign courts for justice. Many of them die before succor comes from offshore.

The last decade has seen a series of divestments of oil blocs from international oil companies to Nigerian firms, with zero environmental due diligence. In the double guise of energy transition and Nigerian content enhancement, the IOCs are taking flight from legacies of humongous environmental liabilities. Oilfields, with several rickety facilities that are as safe as landmines or time bombs still un-decommissioned, are auctioned off at windfall prices to domestic moguls, amidst otherwise climate valuable but now oil-battered mangroves and altered ecologies. Abuja-bound regulators turn a blind eye. A classical case is where Nigeria got its first oil from, in 1956: Otabagi Community of Bayelsa State, within the same OML 29 as the Santa Barbara oilfield, handed by Shell to Aiteo. Located barely a few minutes’ drive from former President Goodluck Jonathan’s village, crude oil still steadily seeps out to the surface around oil wells abandoned by Shell decades ago, unattended till date. A forecast of the fate of Jonathan’s kinsfolk is unlikely to be pretty.

Bar one or two, the domestics are fast proving to be worse than their bad predecessors. They find no compelling incentive in the local regulatory and legal climate to be of good oilfield conduct. Many communities are defeated, divided and heavily induced into proxy conflicts of mutual destruction. There are tomes of reports and recommendations on what to do to adorn the Delta’s millions of ecologically traumatized and livelihood-displaced dwellers with some redress and respect. A recent one commissioned by the Bayelsa State Government took four years to compile, covid-19 and paltry executive attention counting amongst the setbacks. With the telltale title of “ENVIRONMENTAL GENOCIDE: The Human and Environmental Cost of Big Oil in Bayelsa, Nigeria, it put the volume of oil spilled in the last fifty years in the state at 110-165 million gallons, tantamount to 10-15 times the volume of the Exxon Valdez spill disaster (11 million gallons), a per capita spill impact of one and half barrels for the state’s population of 2.5 million people, and 16,000 infant mortalities within a month of birth from pre-natal exposure to oil spills. Five months after it was finally released in May 2023, the report has not been put to any use. The earlier UNEP Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland took two years to prepare and four years to stay on the shelf. Afterwards, it has faltered in implementation for eight years and counting.

As this November ends, this year’s climate change fest, COP 28, will commence in Dubai. Before COP 28 disperses in December, Ijaw youths will mark the 25th anniversary of their Operation Climate Change and Kaiama Declaration. Bayelsa State would have had a governor announced for a new four-year term. But Bayelsans and Deltans in their millions will be getting set for another crude Christmas in the creeks, like previous Yuletides, from Worikuma-kiri at the ground zero of the Santa Barbara mega spill to Bendick-kiri to Lasukugbene to Ikarama to Fantuo and back to Nembe Creek. This because, with scant exceptions, no president, nor minister of oil or environment, nor governor, nor regulator, nor traditional ruler has cared two hoots to roll up their sleeves on the subject.

Going by that sad roll call, it would take a passionate President, an inspired governor, a conscientized international system, or a galvanized community citizenry to bring climate change to Christmas in the creeks. But any pleasant surprise from regulators and majesties will be welcome; and from Chevron, Shell, Aiteo, Neconde, Eni/Agip, Oando and NNPCL too. Let’s choose hope, but active in the awareness that equity aids the vigilant, not the indolent, and faith without works is dead. Who knows if Pope Francis, who is billed to attend COP 28 due to his priority on the environment, will plead with President Tinubu and Big Oil this December in Dubai to start a Niger Delta wide cleanup and restitution programme?

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