Femi Folaranmi, Yenagoa
In the second leg of its interface with communities ravaged by oil spills over the years, the Archbishop John Sentamu led commission of inquiry of environmental degrdation were shocked to hear heart-rending stories from civil society groups and representatives of oil communities on the impunity exhibited over the years by oil companies operating in the communities. Civil society groups one after the other while commending the setting up of the commission by the Bayelsa State Government pointed out concerns dwelling on timing, sustainability, sincerity and independence.
“BANGOF despite the concerns are willing to work with them. For the past fifteen years some of the issues the commission is bringing are some of the things we have been fighting for”says Robinson Kuro, Chairman of the Bayelsa Non-governmental Organisations Forum, who led civil society groups to the meeting with members of the commission.
His view was echoed by Pastor Faith who explained that civil society groups are adopting an open mind to work with the commission because of impacts its recommendation could be in the international community.
“The move of the Commission is a welcome development. This because there has to be a first step which is what the Commission has done. The environmental issue in Bayelsa State has been an issue. There has been a lot of agitation and advocacy but we need to constructively present our case and I think the move of the Commission is a first step in the right direction. I think if they are able to articulate all their concerns and make appropriate recommendations, it is going to take us to the place we would have an agenda to present to the international community” he said.
The coordinator of Operation Rescue, Princess Egbe believed the “work of this Commission is unique and timely because of its international outlook.” But her concern remains that in the next twenty years “we might not be talking about Oil again so what happens to the Niger Delta and our health.”
Egbe’s concerns resonated with many of representatives in attendance especially as the issues on the table of discussion revolves around “development and environment” says Dr Tari Dadiowei, a peace and conflict expert representing Conflict Resolution Training Network at the meeting. “Development depends on the people and the environment is our source of livelihood. And if anything tends to destroy the environment people would react. This is why there is a lot of restiveness in the Niger Delta because a lot of people are not happy. Most of the IOCs are now talking about sustainable development, how can that be achieved is a difficult thing for us to know.”
He expressed worry that no meaningful step has been taken on the “recent call for the massive development of the Niger Delta by the Federal Government because the oil resources of the Niger Delta would soon dry up.” “The question now arose who would bear the ecology death. Oil companies have left Warri and the impact of the environmental disaster is there. If you go to Oloibiri, it is only an abandoned museum that is there. The effect of environmental disaster is all over with gas flaring. Our source of drinking water has been contaminated, they pump their waste in and we drink this water and harm the children.”
Related to the question of the fate of oil communities after oil had dried up is also the question on the political will to sustain the work being done by the John Sentamu led commission especially sanctions and penalties for defaulting oil companies? “What is the political will to sustain this process? Yes it can be put into law but what is the political will to sustain it. We have seen a lot of spillages and we have seen how irresponsible IOCs have been. We have seen collaboration between IOC and Ministry of Environment just to dodge information while the people are suffering. What are the sanctions as we speak? We need to hold IOCs accountable for environmental degradation” says Philip Salboh, a former chairman of BANGOF in the state.
The Commission which reiterated its determination to seek redress for oil communities allay fears that its independence would be compromised because it was set up by the government. Dr Isaac Osuka, a Director of Social Action who works with the commission spoke on that “I have met members of the Commission and I have interacted with them. I can assure you that the Commission is very consciousness of the need to guide its independence. We recognise that it is the government of Bayelsa State that set up the Commission and given it its mandate. We also recognise that we depend on the government to facilitate certain aspect of the work like providing security for the team to conduct their research and investigations properly,” Osuka pointed out that the Bayelsa Commission of Inquiry “is not a development commission but a fact finding commission established to gather the truth and present them in a way that is acceptable to the Bayelsa public.”
Archbishop Sentamu taking off from where Osuka stopped harped on the need for the civil society to trust the commission to carry out diligent investigations into environmental degradation in the Bayelsa oil communities. Hear him “I cannot turn blind to what I have seen and saw when we came here a month ago and people we listened to. Friends we need to be in partnership with all of you, you need to assist us. Your passion is our passion; your determination is our determination. Yes the Commission was set up by the government but I am afraid they don’t tell us what to say. The Commission is independent in that respect. We would say what we believe in and what should be done. Recommendations would be made irrespective of what is being done. This is because environmental degradation has destroyed livelihood; it has gone on for too long and enough is enough”
At the other leg of its engagement with 60 oil spilled ravaged communities in Brass, Yenagoa and Southern Ijaw local government areas, the commission listed to tales of woes from victims. The oil communities accused the Shell Petroluem Development Commission (SPDC) and the Nigerian Agip Oil Company (NAOC) of several oil spills which has affected the people of the communities. “We don’t have fish in our rivers anymore. Even our land for farming is gone. Nothing is left for us due to these oil spills. We thank Governor Seriake Dickson for giving us hope,” says King MC Kipasa, the traditional ruler of “Agudama community in Yenagoa Local Government Area. Aside devastating the environment, the oil companies have also been frustrating moves to honour agreements reached with oil communities. “Our farmlands have been destroyed; our river has been polluted due to oil exploration and the oil companies have reneged countless times on terms of agreement reached and signed with oil communities” says Chief Igwe Napoleon of Agbura community.
“The effect of gas flaring is huge in our area. The heat from the gas flare has resulted in blurred vision of people living here” says L.A Enimah.
The victims decried the continued effect of oil exploration on the health and well being of people in oil communities.
“ There are numerous effects of Oil spills on the communities including but not limited to skin diseases, destruction of marine life, respiratory illness and chronic fatigue,” says Prof Paingha Alagoa, a laparoscopic surgeon.