Femi Folaranmi, Yenagoa
Edwin Ofonih aged 50 in 2001 told two writers- Ike Okonta and Oronto Douglas in their seminal book ‘Where Vultures Feast’ the general feeling of ecstasy when oil was first discovered in commercial quantities in Oloibiri. “In 1956, I was with my father when crude oil was found at 11 o’ clock in the morning. We thought that when oil was found, we the people out here are very people; we thought we would be millionaires. We are still depressed” Seventeen years after he gave that interview the people of Ogbia are still waiting for the blessings promised them. Sixty-three years after Oil was discovered, the people of Ogbia are worse off. In some communities the only trace that oil was ever drilled are the desolate oil wells, polluted rivers, dislocated local economy, arid farmland and a angry and depressed people. “Since the discovery of oil in Ogbia it has been a story of woe. The multiplier effect of the discovery of oil has not been felt effectively in Ogbia” Chief Standfast Harold Oyigbo from Otuabagi community told members of the Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission (BSOEC) investigating environmental degradation due to activities of oil companies in Bayelsa State. “From 1956 when oil was discovered in commercial quantities in Ogbia land till today, Ogbia has no beautiful story to tell expect the story of woe. From that time till today we have been suffering from certain situations.”
Investigation reveals that just like every other oil producing community, communities in Ogbia Kingdom have suffered incalculable damage to their health, environment and source of livelihood. In 1998, an Australian environmentalist, Shelley Braithwaite was said to have conducted investigation in five sites where an oil company sited its operations. Her discovery was staggering. She found out that Total Petroluem Hydrocarbon (TPH) found in the drinking water of the oil producing communities was not acceptable for human consumption. Indeed it is now common knowledge that certain aliments afflicting the people were a result of oil exploration.
“Our air has been polluted which has lead to new diseases. For instance children as young as six months now need to be flown abroad to treat heart diseases, one of the children eventually died when he came back. This happened in Otuopkoti” says Chief Oyigbo.
He told members of the commission how the discovery of oil has polluted the rivers and the land threatening the source of livelihood of the poor people in oil communities. Hear him “Our Rivers used to be source of economic value. Our occupations are fishing and subsistence farming. In those days for those of us fish, we catch fish everywhere. But nowadays, fishermen would work over night and come home empty handed. Also our main river is our main source of water supply and till date we have no portable water supply so we still rely on the River. Consequently because of the spills our rivers have become a sort of danger to us as we drink the same polluted water. Unfortunately not much has been done by the government to provide us with pipe borne water. So we have several cases of water borne diseases.”
Cocoyam is a staple food that is loved by the people of Ogbia because of its preservative nature but now the crop is going extinct because the farmlands are no longer fertile. The youths that find refuge in fishing and farming as occupation are now forced in anti-social vices. “Our land which we used for subsistence farming is no longer fertile which has affected the growing of Cocoyam. The absence of enough fish and staple foods has caused malnutrition. Our children now cannot be compared to when oil was just discovered. The effect of oil spill which has affected the occupation of fishing and farming has made many of the youths jobless and the result is that they have developed a culture of militancy. The militancy by our boys today was not because they want to but they were forced into it as they have nothing to do. The discovery of oil rather than be a source of blessing is that of woe.”
Driving from Yenagoa to Ogbia, the abject poverty and loss of hope for even a miracle for development is very visible. Year in, year out all the promises by government at all levels have been unfulfilled. The people watched as billions of dollars worth of crude oil is drilled from their land and they get nothing back in return. “Since 1972 when oil came into our community we have been suffering. Oil pollution and oil spillage has affected adversely affected our lives. Plantain and cassava that grows without problem on land is difficult now we have to buy plantain and garri from Delta. Our youths are not employed; our girls are forced prostitution because of lack of jobs. Our boys are forced into militancy and lately bunkering. We are low in all indices of development. No schools and no good hospitals. Oil exploration has destroyed our ecology. There have been cases of earth tremors due to continued oil exploration” says Confidence Moses, the Community Development Chairman (CDC) of Otuasega community.
It is an irony that the oil God blessed Ogbia Kingdom with has caused it so much trouble with oil companies being the major culprits. “Oil has brought curse on Ogbia land. In 1956 when Oil was discover , our fathers did not know what oil means, they thought it was palm oil not knowing it was crude oil. Oil which was gotten from Ogbia has been used to develop other places like Abuja. Driving to Ogbia is hell. We don’t have water, we don’t have roads. The Federal Government should come and develop Ogbia,” Chief Livingstone Fortune, said.
Chief Arumuna Jolly Inari who shares the same views doubts the ability of the BSOEC to bring any change because all the various times the people have voiced out their concerns have yielded no fruit. “Since I was born I saw many oil wells when I found my father and mother to the farm. We have been talking many times but no result. It was lack of action that led us to militancy leading to arrests. Oil pollution has done so much damage. Communities’ leadership have signed several MoUs with oil companies but no result. Primary and secondary schools are nothing to write home about.”
For the women, aside the untoward events surrounding oil exploration which has affected their livelihood and their children, they are not spare as their productive cycle has been greatly altered.” We have been suffering since the discovery of oil in our land. My father told me that they were promised blessings when oil was discovered but we have not seen the blessing since then. Because of the effect of crude oil, women now start menopause early. We even use the crude oil to rub our children bodies whenever they are sick because we don’t know what to do with it. Many have come here to talk but we have not seen any results” Mrs Keyesi Edabo the women leader from Opume community said. “Oil well has not brought any gain to us. There is no better hospital. We have oil and we think it would attract social amenities but that is not so. We are really suffering. We are begging you; please let the government know what is bordering us. We are suffering here” another woman, Mrs George Mietama Suoye from Otuabagi community added.
In Epebu community, the villagers are tired of the impunity exhibited by oil companies operating in the area. The community where oil has been drilled since 1964 has nothing to show for it all the decades of oil exploration “Oil companies that operate in our area have no respect for laws and orders. They disobey government and court rulings. Oil was discovered in Epebu in 1964. Pipelines that have been paid since then are still in use. We have no than seven oil wells but we have nothing to show for it. We are suffering” Mr Gilbert Ikiomasi laments.
The situation is not different in Imiringi community where oil companies have their facilities but the people have nothing to show for it. “I just want to bring to our knowledge that the oil discovered in Ogbia should be a blessing and not a cause. We were to benefit from what is being gotten from us but rather it is suffering that has been visited on us. The impact of oil exploration cannot be over emphasised. The oil pollution is affecting our respiratory system. If you go to our rivers, oil spill is on it. Our natural resource should not be a cause to us, it should be a blessing.”