By Paulinus Nsirim
On Wednesday, January 13, 2021, Governor Nyesom Wike embarked on fact-finding assessment tour of two local government areas of the state, Ikwerre and Emuoha, to see for himself some of the locations where the operators of the infamous illegal refineries tormenting the health and wellbeing of Rivers people with black soot for years now have commandeered as their operational bases.
The revelations of that tour have not only been mind-boggling in terms of the assemblage of sophisticated equipment and the operational dynamics of the illegal refineries, but, sadly,in the cummulative impact and overall long-term negative implications of the environmental, health and economic damage their continuous operations have inflicted and would continue to inflict on the people.
Gov. Wike’s pragmatic, on-the-spot assessment tour to the two LGAs, to dare the lions of illegal refineries in their own dens, was sequel to his radically precise 2022 New Year message to Rivers people, in which he unequivocally read the riot act to sponsors and operators of illegal refineries in the state.
He not only dropped the gauntlet by naming some of those behind the illegal operations, he boldly declared 19 persons wanted, and urged others who know themselves to report to security agencies on their own volition and discretion.
Gov. Wike equally directed all LG chairmen and community leaders to locate, identify such sites and report all those behind all illegal bunkering and crude oil refining sites in their localities for prosecution.
And as a follow-up to his trip through the track roads into the forest of Ogbodo community in Ikwerre LGA and the forest of Ibaa community in Emohua LGA to uncover the illegal refining sites, Gov. Wike has now issued a 48-hour ultimatum to the 23 LG chairmen to provide a comprehensive list of illegal refineries and their operators within their jurisdiction.
The Rivers governor, who gave the ultimatum at a meeting with the council chairmen and heads of the Nigerian Army, Nigerian Air Force, Nigerian Navy, Nigeria Police, the Department of State Service and the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps at Government House, on Friday, January 14, challenged the council chairmen to prove that they were not complicit in the dangerous business that has continued to threaten the health of Rivers people and the national economy.
While further demanding the redeployment of the DPO and NSCDC officers implicated in illegal refinery activities, the governor stated unequivocally that, as a responsible government, it will be unwise for them to fold their hands and do nothing to safeguard residents of the state from the death that is forced upon them by criminally-minded operators of artisanal refineries.
Gov. Wike’s pragmatic offensive against illegal refineries had been driven by his deep worry and concern over the environmental pollution caused by dangerous black soot, which had practically covered the stratosphere of major parts of Rivers State and had become even more life-threatening with the arrival of the Omicron COVID-19 variant to compound the already menacing and precarious respiratory health challenges synonymous with the coronavirus.
More significant to the Rivers governor’s courageous trip into the heart of the jungle, where the operational hub of these illegal refineries throb with nefarious activity, is the widely believed notion that the Federal Government and its security agencies have either deliberately or otherwise failed woefully to rein in those behind illegal oil bunkering and artisanal crude oil refiners in the state, whose illegal operation has become the number one health hazard in the state.
Gov. Wike, speaking on the black soot matter in his New Year message, stated categorically that: “As a state government, we have drawn the attention of the Federal Government to this problem and requested for its intervention to stop the activities of illegal bunkering and artisanal crude oil refiners, which have been identified as the main sources of the soot pandemic.
“Unfortunately, the Federal Government has remained inexplicably silent over our request and even complicit to a large extent with the security agencies actively aiding, encouraging and protecting the artisanal refiners to continue with their harmful activities unabated.”
To fully comprehend and appreciate the enormity of the situation, which confronts Rivers people with the continued operations of these illegal refineries unchecked and which has now driven the Rivers governor to engage in this frontal, hands-on radical action to tackle the soot menace, one must necessarily reflect on the timeless Igbo adage invoked by the great Nigerian writer, the late Professor Chinua Achebe, in the famous novel “Things Fall Apart,” which says: “a man who does not know where the rain began to beat him, cannot say where he dried his body.”
It is a well known fact the illegal refining business is a multibillion-naira industry. It is something that is not hidden, it is very visible. Gov. Wike has, on several widely reported occasions, called out the heads of security agencies in the state over their involvement in aiding and abetting the illegal operations.
Niger Delta analysts and civil society organizations have also opined that a lot of influential political and military leaders referred to as ‘cabals’ or ‘cartels’ are all involved in this business, and so it has become quite difficult to put a halt to it.
The result of this illegal occupation in Rivers State and on Rivers people is the black soot. Efforts to tackle this health hazard may have been cosmetic, especially following the 2016 and 2018 #StopTheSoot protests in Port Harcourt and other parts of Rivers State and Niger Delta.
The emergence of COVID-19 and the concerted agenda to control and manage the pandemic has even achieved a greater urgency now, as a result of the protracted air pollution crisis caused by the black soot and exacerbated by the new Omicron Delta variant, which is said to swiftly aggravate and accelerate respiratory failure.
A report by the World Health Organization states that outdoor air pollution causes 4.2 million deaths each year across the world. Additionally, 99 per cent of the global population is exposed to a high level of air pollution, which puts them at risk for heart disease, stroke, cancer and other life-threatening medical conditions. Black soot, in particular, can be linked to a wide range of severe health effects, including acute bronchitis (an inflammation that causes coughing) and an aggravated breathing situation for asthma patients.
Gov. Wike recognized this in his impassioned directives to the Rivers State Police Commissioner, Friday Eboka, at one of the sites of the illegal refineries, to ensure that the sponsors and operators of these operations are brought to book, no matter how highly placed.
As at January 13, 2022, when Gov. Wike was in Ikwerre and Emuoha LGAs to assess the illegal refineries, the total number of COVID-19 cases in Nigeria amounted to 249,586 and, according to figures from the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, the latest numbers show that Lagos State had a total confirmed cases of 97,320 to top the list, followed by Abuja (27,782), Rivers (15,990), as the second and third highest number of cumulative cases, respectively.
It is common knowledge that Section 44(3) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended), the Land Use Act and Petroleum Act vest the exclusive control, ownership, and management of oil and gas in the Federal Government and not to the state or local government where the oil and gas are situated (Exclusive List).
But there’s no doubt whatsoever that Gov. Wike’s pragmatic offensive against illegal refineries in the state is not only a step in the right direction in the collective effort, with civil society groups, to confront and defeat the continued production of black soot through the activities of these illegal operations, it once again exposes the distinctions between opportunistic service and the demands of the conceptual responsibility of service and leadership, geared towards protecting and preserving the well being of the people.
Gov. Wike has never failed to stand on the side of the people and his ‘war’ against illegal refineries is just another manifestation of a leader who not only leads from the front, but will always put his people first and step on toes to ensure that the people come first, no matter whose ox is gored.
Political opportunists whose stock in trade is to politicise every genuine intention of Gov. Wike should bury their heads in shame this time around.
•Nsirim is commissioner for information and communications, Rivers State