29 March 2014, Lagos – Nnimmo Bassey, an award-winning environmentalist, is one of Africa’s leading campaigners, particularly for his work in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta region. He is co-founder and chair of Friends of the Earth International and Environmental Rights Action. In 2009, Time magazine named him one of the Heroes of the Environment.
In this interview, Mr. Bassey discusses the continuing protests by the Niger Delta people against oil pollution and makes the case for compensation.
Can you provide some historical context to the struggle in the Niger Delta region?
It’s really a long history. The first commercial export of oil was in 1958, but before then there had been some very serious encounters with forces whose major interest was to exploit and subjugate the people in the Niger Delta.
You know about the case of the revolution led by Isaac Adaka Boro in the 1960s and a more recent historical landmark was the resistance by the Ogoni people under the leadership of the late Ken Saro Wiwa [Mr. Wiwa was executed by the Sani Abacha’s government], which led to the expulsion of Shell Oil from Ogoniland in 1993.
In the early 1990s, there was the rise of massive peaceful resistance against the polluting activities of oil corporations abetted by their collaborators in the Nigerian government.
Around 2006, there was a major shift in the power relations in the region. We saw a rise in violence. Two years later, Chevron [a US oil company] promoted the idea of entering into agreement with communities on corporate social responsibility.
What are the kinds of environmental issues that exist as a result of the oil disasters?
The oil sector is by nature a polluting sector. The corporations don’t have a complete sense of responsibility. We have spills happening virtually every day, and a lot of it goes into the land and waters and the atmosphere.
So the footprints of the corporations are all over the oil fields. To catch a bit of it would be to look at the report of UNEP on Ogoniland. Apart from the oil spill, there is also gas flaring, which is the burning of gas associated with oil extraction.
And apart from the economic loss of over $2 billion every year, the smoke that flaring emits can actually cause bronchitis, and equally the nitrogen oxide [also from flaring] can send acid rain down on people, crops and buildings.
Who should be blamed – the government or the oil companies?
It is the Nigerian state primarily, because the Nigerian state allows the corporations to destroy the land. But the physical pollution and degradation are the responsibilities of oil corporations.
How have the government and oil companies responded to the activism in the Niger Delta?
If you check, historically, you will find that the government’s response to the people’s desire to have dialogue and control over their resources has always been more and more repression.
Right now we are still seeing a very sluggish movement towards justice in the region, one of which is the proposed Petroleum Industry Bill that will provide better working conditions. The signal that things may change for good is a proposal by Senator Bukola Saraki that will make laws on oil spills more stringent.
Where does the Petroleum Bill now stand?
The Petroleum Bill has not been passed – we believe that we need such a deal, and we think that a fund for the community is also necessary.
Are Nigerians joining up to fight the environmental disasters?
People are pretty much aware that they have to oppose impunity in their territory. They’ve done this over the years. The other thing is that people are living in very desperate situations that actually affect their capacity to offer more resistance to these things [impunity].
So, people are hopeful things will change, that they will suddenly have a more focused attention from government.
Playing with the emotions of people by creating the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, which is not by any means better than the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, is just creating a new bureaucracy that reduces further progress in the region.
In 2009 you submitted a proposal on how to build a post-petroleum Nigeria. How did that go?
We submitted that proposal through the Nigerian Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative. So far we have not received any official response.
From the statements we are hearing from government officials, I think it’s becoming increasingly clear that they are beginning to agree that we have to move into a post-petroleum phase in Nigeria.
Our proposal says that Nigeria should stop expanding oil exploration and extraction. If the rationale for expanding oil fields is to generate more revenue,
Nigeria can actually double its revenue base from oil right now without even drilling one more oil well. We maintain that as much oil as is officially sold is being stolen on a daily basis.
So what the government needs to do is to stop oil theft. Oil theft is not being done by local people with drums and small boats and canoes. It’s an international mafia with top Nigerians involved.
In May , the minister of finance, speaking with the Financial Times of London, estimated that up to 400,000 barrels of crude oil are stolen every day.
The country is being robbed by many forces, and when the leaders say we still have 41 years of oil, it’s pure fiction because if you don’t know how much oil is being taken, you cannot then know how much oil is left. Nigeria could do better if we turn our back on oil.
How did the decision to take Shell to court in The Netherlands come about?
We’ve had cases against oil corporations like Shell in Nigeria. For example, in 2005 there was a case against them on the gas flaring issue, and there was judgement in the high court in Benin City that gas flaring violates the human rights of the people and the constitution of Nigeria.
But Shell has neither appealed that decision nor have they obeyed the ruling of the court. We thought it was necessary to take the case to their own home so that their shareholders would know where they are getting their money from.
What’s different this time?
The Nigerian government announced a fine of $5 billion against Shell for the Bonga oil spill that occurred in September 2011.
It also announced a $3 billion fine against Chevron for the oil spill disaster that happened in January 2012. Both corporations just laughed it off.
So they clearly don’t have respect for Nigeria. We think that they will be more responsive if judgement is pronounced over them in their own countries. It’s a question of double standards. If they get away with ‘murder’ in our own country, they need to be held accountable where they will pay attention.
What about militancy in the region?
Militancy has actually subsided in the region.
What can other oil-producing African countries learn from the Niger Delta?
In my work as coordinator of Oil Watch International, we try to warn countries just going into this [oil] sector that in Nigeria, 54 years ago, there were a lot of hopes [for prosperity] in communities, and today you have a story of shattered hopes.
– Yemisi Akinbobola, Africa Renewal