From poisoning the environment to violent unrest and lawsuits, Nigeria’s oil is now a humanitarian issue for new president

From poisoning the environment to violent unrest and lawsuits, Nigeria’s oil is now a humanitarian issue for new president


High on the list of priorities for Nigerian President-elect Bola Tinubu is how to revive Nigeria’s troubled oil industry – the source of so much of the country’s wealth, but also a curse that has poisoned the environment, triggered violent unrest and is now the subject of several lawsuits.

Few countries on the face of the planet have suffered more from pollution than Nigeria, and in particular its oil-rich Delta region. Spillages – year after year – have devastated one of Africa’s most diverse ecosystems, a fragile patchwork of wetlands and mangrove swamps.

Divided by resource disputes stoked by oil extraction, farming and fishing communities that long prospered in the region have become far poorer and far sicker. And with these traditional occupations all but gone, the loss of livelihoods for a mass of young people has helped spur the growth of an alternative illicit industry of kidnapping, oil theft, and high-seas piracy.

Trillions of dollars have been earned by the government and the oil majors over the course of a more than six-decade partnership. During the years of peak production, when more than two million barrels a day were being pumped from the lush Niger Delta, Nigeria earned at least $80 billion annually.

Those days have passed. Not only has oil production slumped, but four of the top five energy companies operating in the country – Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron and Eni – have indicated their intention to sell off all their remaining onshore and shallow water fields assets. Only TotalEnergies has yet to make clear its plans.

“We may be changing the continent of our portfolio but this is because we intend to focus future investment in Nigeria on deep water exploration and production,” Shell Nigeria’s chair, Osagie Okunbor, said in the statement on the company’s website.

The oil majors’ ostensible reason for leaving is the need to curtail the environmental impact of petroleum production toward their net-zero obligations.

In reality, however, they’re not only escaping a surge in sabotage, oil theft and an environment deeply scarred by oil mining, but also the threat of litigation launched by local communities – litigation that is finally beginning to have an impact.

Before they leave, communities are demanding they pay any outstanding compensation for the environmental damage already wrought.

“When you’ve created a hazardous situation, you can’t leave as you wish,” Chima Williams, executive director of Environmental Rights Action (ERA), the Nigerian affiliate of Friends of the Earth, says. “What the communities are asking for is that they clean up the mess, [compensate] the people and restore their environment to what it was before they came in.”

According to government figures, there were more than 7,000 spill incidents in the Delta between 1970 and 2000, which discharged an estimated 9-13 million barrels of crude into the environment.

Leakages accelerated more recently with close to 8,000 spills between 2006 and 2019, according to a study by Nigerian researchers published in the December 2020 edition of the journal, Environmental Pollution. That contrasts with the situation in Europe, where an average of 10 oil spills a year were recorded between 1971 and 2011.

For 20 years, Fidelis Ledorsi had combined fishing and farming with some success in his hometown of Goi, in the region’s Ogoniland. That was until one day in 2006 when the residents of this rainforest community woke up to see the nearby Goi River, which surrounds their farms and fish ponds, brimming with crude oil. 

A major trunk pipeline transporting oil for Shell from onshore fields to the Bonny export terminal on the Atlantic coast had ruptured overnight and spilt its contents. It left the air thick with the acrid fumes of crude oil, sending residents fleeing in the knowledge that a fire could break out at the slightest spark.  

“We lost our livelihood; we lost everything,” Ledorsi explains. “My cassava farm and two fish ponds and the river where I had fished since I was a child, were all drenched in oil.”  

The village ultimately had to evacuate because the oil slick had made the place uninhabitable. Those affected got no compensation because Shell, the operator of the pipeline, said the break had been caused by sabotage. Nigerian law only allows compensation for spills caused by equipment failure or pipe corrosion.

The Niger Delta has played a crucial historical role in Nigeria’s relations with the rest of the world over the past five centuries. During the trans-Atlantic slave trade, ports from Calabar to Warri became key points for the transport of human cargo. Then, just as the slave trade waned, the region became known as the “Oil Rivers” for its abundant supply of palm oil that greased the wheels of Europe’s industrial revolution.

That was well before Shell struck its first oil at Oloibiri in Bayelsa state in 1956, setting off an onshore scramble for Nigeria’s sweet “Bonny” crude and propelling the country on the path to becoming Africa’s largest producer.

“The UNEP study concluded it would cost $2 billion just to clean up in Ogbono – one district that represents a small fraction of the entire Delta.”

Ledorsi’s story, and that of his village, are typical of the impact of the oil industry in the Delta. At least 5,280 oil wells have been sunk there, linked to more than 7,000 kilometres of pipelines. The infrastructure, which is prone to leaks – and the associated 24-hour gas flaring – disrupts the lives of more than 1,500 agricultural communities, according to data from Shell and the Petroleum Ministry.

The ecological impact is recorded in the quality of the air and water, and the soil people rely on to grow their food. There are well-above-normal levels of lead, cadmium, chromium and nickel in several Delta rivers, according to a study by the environmental chemistry department of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, based in the southeastern city of Awka.

  • The New Humanitarian report
About author

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *