Tarila Marclint Ebiede: President Jonathan is unable to solve the Niger Delta environmental question (Y! PolicyHub)

by Tarila Marclint Ebiede

Five years after militancy  stopped in the Niger Delta and amnesty was established, little has been done to address the environmental question that partly led to the insurgency.

Over 50 years of oil exploration and production have led to massive degradation of the environment. The main sources of environmental pollution in oil-producing communities are oil spills and gas flaring.

According to available data, the region had about 9,107 oil spills between 1976 and 2005. These figures trump all available statistics of oil spills globally. One of the most referenced oil spills in the literature is the Exxon Valdez oil tanker accidental spill that occurred in Alaska, United States. The Exxon Valdez released about 35,000 tons of crude oil into the sea. Comparatively, more than 200,000 barrels of crude oil is spilt into the Niger Delta each year. That means an Exxon Valdez spill has been occurring yearly in the Niger Delta for 50 years!

A typical example is the widely acknowledged Ogoni spills. The UNEP commissioned a study of the environmental and socio-economic impact of oil spills in Ogoni. In summary, the study established that there is an environmental emergency in Ogoni land! Yet, the Nigerian government has repeatedly delayed implementing the report. This delay is characteristic of the Nigerian government and the multinational oil firms operating in oil-producing communities. Their focus is on the exploration, production and export of the crude oil.

One argument is that the Niger Delta states earn 13% derivation from oil production and so they should not complain about development funding in the region. Those who share this view are ignorant of Nigerian economic history.

At independence, the regions in Nigeria earned 50% derivation of all revenues accruing to the federation from each region. This changed drastically when crude oil became the mainstay of the economy. First, derivation was reduced to 45% in 1969. This was further reduced to 20% in 1975 and in 1979, derivation was completely abolished and oil-producing states had to wait for the federal government to allocate resources. Finally, the federal government increased derivation to 13% in 1999.

While the politics of derivation was going on, the federal government completely ignored the environmental consequences of oil production in the Niger Delta. It was Ken Saro Wiwa, the Ogoni playwright and environmental activist, who brought the attention of the world to the environmental plight of the Ogoni people and Niger Delta in general. Before him, people from the Niger Delta had protested this situation without much success. The protests were mostly civil. Many people from the region took the federal government to court for environmental damages.

There is an ongoing argument that the emergence of President Goodluck Jonathan, an ethnic Ijaw, has invalidated the Niger Delta environmental question. This argument is wrong. Instead, people should ask why it is so difficult for President Jonathan to make the environmental question in the Niger Delta a core part of his transformation agenda. The answer, which requires further prognosis, is that the problem is an institutional problem and not about an individual.

The institutional problem can be found in the nature and structure of the Nigerian State. The State is too distant from the communities to enable it understand and address the impact of the environmental questions. The State has no empathy for the Niger Delta. It lives on Niger Delta oil, yet it is so distant from the people of the region, thus alienating the people from the resources in their homeland. To address this, we need to decentralise the governance of the oil industry in Nigeria.

Decentralisation of governance should not be about increasing revenues for oil-producing states. It should be about decentralisation of regulatory institutions and empowerment of local communities. For example, there is a need to domesticate the oil industry-related environmental regulation agencies in the Niger Delta states. The administration of such agencies should be the business of states where oil is produced. The states are closer to the communities and so are in a better position to respond to the environmental issues in these communities.

Oil is a finite resource, but the Niger Delta people will continue to live in the region. The Niger Delta people need their environment to face a future without oil. Even though the entire Nigeria benefits from oil today, it is the people of the Niger Delta who will face the consequences of today’s oil production in a future where there is no oil. Oloibiri is a typical example of the future of oil-producing communities in the Niger Delta. It is this anxiety that is pushing people to protest in the region. This anxiety is still there and nothing is being done to address it, so it is certain that the protests will resurface in due course.


Tarila Marclint Ebiede is a PhD candidate at the University of Leuven (KU Leuven), Belgium. He tweets from @ETMarclint

Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.


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