By Innocent I. Edemhanria

Oil spill is a common sight in the Niger Delta Region of Nigeria and several communities have suffered the devastating effect of such spills. At the end it is the local communities located around such oil installations that bear the brunt. The spills are sometimes caused by several factors including poorly maintained infrastructure located around high pressure oil pipeline. When accidents occur, these pipelines get damaged and spill off its content. Activities of oil bunkers where local people break into pipelines and wells to steal the content have resulted to damaged pipelines there by leaving them to leak. In many cases, equipments and facilities of oil multinationals often fail due to poor maintenance.

Whether the spill is caused by crumbling, aging oil infrastructure or outright sabotage by thieves and aggrieved groups, it has been rumored that up to 1.5 million tons of oil, 50 times the pollution unleashed in the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster (Alaska, March 1989, where 257,000 barrels of oil were spilt and there was massive outcry in America), has been spilled in the ecologically precious Niger Delta over the past 50 years.

Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) is one of the biggest players in the region and one of the most heavily criticized. Its role came under the international spotlight following the execution of the Environmentalist, Playwright turned minority rights activist – Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995 by the then military dictatorship. Environmentalists often accuse Shell of failing to meet its obligations to some local communities where they operate and promises to replace ageing pipes and swamp flow lines. This, Shell has continuously denied, claiming that about 95 per cent of discharges over the past five years have been caused by sabotage and that the oil giant does meet its commitments and continuously monitors equipment.

Recently, fishermen operating off the shoreline in Akwa Ibom State, near Mobil Producing Nigeria’s Qua Iboe oil field raised alarm over the safety and health implication of oil contaminated fish in the area. Meanwhile, Mobil, a subsidiary of U.S. oil firm, ExxonMobil, in a statement signed by Mrs. Gloria Essien-Danner, on May 1st confirmed leakage of a pipeline at one of the company’s offshore platform. The fishermen confirmed that they have been suffering for many years in the hands of Mobil Producing Nigeria due to their frequent oil spills.

It is, however, paradoxical that the current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico caused by British Petroleum (BP) is attracting so much outcry from the American people, where President Barack Obama has forced Mr. Tony Haywood, the Managing Director of BP to make a commitment worth 20 billion dollars, for compensation and rejuvenation of aquatic life affected by the spill. But an American oil company has done and is still doing worse damage by contaminating the source of livelihood of many Nigerians who depend on aquatic creatures as a cheap source of protein, and the Nigerian Government is doing nothing about it. It is expected that these oil giants should maintain the same environmental standard operative in their home country, rather than operate without regard for Nigerians.

Damage to the fragile mangrove forests over the past 50 years is tantamount to a catastrophic oil spill occurring frequently in the Niger Delta which is one of the world’s most important ecosystems. This frequent spill is threatening rare species including primates, fish, turtles and birds, the pollution is destroying the livelihoods of many of the 20 million people living in the region, damaging crops and fuelling violent conflict among the communities and the multinationals.

This year, environmental activists from across the world including Nigeria, Ecuador and Burma were prevented by Chevron from entering the shareholders meeting despite having legal shareholding proxies. Activists have condemned the actions of Chevron and other oil companies operating in Nigeria such as Shell, Mobil, Elf and Agip etc for their various activities and effort to undermine the good people of Niger Delta where oil spills have been taking place for the past 50 years.

In October 2002, the Niger Delta town of Okpella, Edo State, Nigeria, suffered its second devastating oil spill in three years when a pipeline belonging to the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC), ruptured and spilled refined crude oil into the environment. The incident threw more than 20,000 inhabitants of the town into confusion. Local residents responded slowly to the disaster in the face of belated official initiatives to prevent the spread of the spill. The inhabitants of the area watched helplessly as refined crude oil seeped into the underground water supply and then into a stream which provides the only source of drinking water for the villages. The oil spill also affected the farmlands of the community where crops were visibly withered due to the presence of toxic materials in the soil, a major blow to a population that depends on farming for its survival. The inhabitants grow plantain, yam, cassava, coconut, groundnut, potato and other crops, but most of such plants got destroyed and dried up in the aftermath of the spill.

After an inspection, NNPC officials acknowledged that the spill was a result of equipment failure and was not due to sabotage. Company officials could only present two plastic water tanks to this community of thousands of people who are struggling to deal with contaminated water. Okpella residents complained bitterly about the grossly inadequate compensation for the devastation visited upon their community as a result of the spill to no avail.

Today, international and local civil society organizations are calling on the Federal Government and oil multinationals to set aside funds, which can be administered independently, for dealing with oil spills in the Niger Delta. The civil society groups are also calling for the establishment of an independent body that should be funded through environmental insurance bond based on the agreed percentage of the oil revenue. A prompt response mechanism need to be put in place to curtail oil spills and address critical social needs brought about by such incidents.

Innocent Edemhanria is Programme Officer of Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice (ANEEJ).  Email –