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September 13, 2012

Nigerians Demand Oil Spill Clean-up

by Heather Murdock

A year after the U.N. Environment Program reported Ogoniland, Nigeria, should be the site of the biggest oil spill clean-up in history, activists say it is still not clear who will pay for it or when it will happen.  While the oil company and the government argue about money, people say they are getting sick and dying.

Oil was first discovered in Nigeria in the 1950s in Ogoniland, a part of the Niger Delta.  In the 1990s, after nearly 40 years of oil spills destroying people’s livelihoods and health, the people forced oil-giant Shell out of Ogoniland.  But today, oil still flows into the land from pipes that criss-cross the region.

Citizens' concerns

At a community center in Oleh, a town in neighboring Delta State, Lizzy Ologe, a primary school teacher, says oil pollution is still literally killing people.

"Our water is polluted.  Our health is in hazard form.  In fact, we have high mortality rates, especially our little children.  We no longer live to old age," said Ologe.

Early this week, Ogoni leaders met with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to urge the government implement the recommendations of the U.N. study, which showed the damage to be worse than anyone had thought.

The study found families drinking water with 900 times the carcinogens considered safe by the World Health Organization and as much as eight centimeters of oil floating in groundwater associated with six-year-old spills. 

Who would pay?

The study called for a 25- to 30-year clean up funded initially with $1 billion, but it did not say who should pay.  This problem has thwarted efforts to clean up oil spills in the Niger delta for decades.  The government says the oil companies should do it.  The oil companies agree, but say they need government help, blaming sabotage and regional insecurity for most of the spills.

Shell accepted liability for two major oils spills that devastated a community of nearly 70,000 people in Ogoniland last year, but locals say the area is still drenched in oil.  On its website, Shell admits that maybe, some of their spill assessments have not gone “deep enough,” so spill areas they have restored are not really cleaned up.

In his office in the oil city of Warri, lawyer Onyinye Gandhi says both Shell and the government are responsible   The government is responsible for making sure the oil companies compensate spill victims and pay for environmental recovery.

"I think the only thing that has to be done is to attract government attention to the point that government will begin to hit a level of loss to hold these oil companies to account for the environmental degradation and devastation they have visited on the Niger Delta and its people over time," said Gandhi.

At the beginning of August, the U.N. Environmental Program praised the Nigerian government for again announcing it plans to implement the clean-up the report recommended.  But Ogoni leaders this week said nothing yet appears to be happening.

Hilary Uguru contributed to this report from the Niger Delta