Ken Saro-Wiwa 20 years on: Niger Delta still blighted by oil spills

Editor’s Note: Mark Dummett is a Business and Human Rights researcher at Amnesty International. He writes for CNN on the 20-year anniversary of writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa’s execution. Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists led the movement against Shell’s activities in the Niger Delta and were executed by the military in November 1995. The views presented here are Dummett’s own and do not reflect those of CNN.

Story highlights

Oil pollution remains a huge problem in the Niger Delta

Amnesty says oil companies are not restoring land affected by oil spills

CNN  — 

The sad truth is that twenty years after the execution of writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, Nigeria’s oil producing region remains a blighted land.

There are hundreds of oil spills in the Niger Delta every year and Shell and the other oil companies operating there are still not doing enough to either prevent spills, or clean them up. The impact on the hundreds of thousands of people unfortunate enough to live next to the oil wells and pipelines where spills occur is catastrophic.

Shell, the largest operator, likes to blame local communities for the pollution, accusing them of cutting open the pipelines to steal oil. This is indeed a problem, but Shell overstates the issue to deflect criticism of its own failings, such as the poor state of its pipelines, and its terrible record on clean-up.

Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was hanged by the country’s military regime after a grossly unfair and politically motivated trial, wrote that oil pollution had turned the Niger Delta into an “ecological disaster.”

His claim – described by some at the time as an exaggeration - was vindicated in 2011 by the United Nations Environment Programme. Its researchers found that the people of Ogoniland, Saro-Wiwa’s homeland, had “lived with chronic oil pollution throughout their lives.” This pollution had contaminated the fields where they grew food, the water where they fished and the wells from which they drank.

Amnesty International campaigns for a proper clean-up of the Niger Delta because of this clear link between the oil pollution and the impact it has on the health and the livelihoods, and therefore the human rights, of the people living there.

Mark Dummett is a Business and Human Rights researcher at Amnesty International.

Talk to anyone over the age of 60 in the Niger Delta and they talk wistfully of swimming as children in the clean waters of the creeks, which meander through the region – one of the world’s most ecologically-important wetlands.

Visit these creeks today and you see signs warning people not to go close, you see dead mangrove trees lining the shore, and mud that is black with oil.

The people are understandably angry, and have refused to allow Shell to pump any more oil from its wells in Ogoniland.

But tragically, the pollution continues. Shell, which has been operating in Nigeria since the days of the British Empire, transports hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil a day along pipelines that cross the villages, fields and creeks of Ogoniland from neighboring oil fields.

These pipelines are old and leaky. We know this because of internal Shell documents that the company was forced to disclose during a recent legal action in London. The court papers include an internal memo by Shell based on a 2002 study that states that, “the remaining life of most of the [Shell] Oil Trunklines is more or less non-existent or short, while some sections contain major risk and hazard.” In another internal document dated 10 December 2009 a Shell employee warns that, “[the company] is corporately exposed as the pipelines in Ogoniland have not been maintained properly or integrity assessed for over 15 years.”

 Ogoni indigenes carrying a poster of Ken Saro-Wiwa in a remembrance march in 2005.

In August I travelled to the village of Kegbara Dere, in Ogoniland with colleagues from Amnesty International and the Centre for the Environment Human Rights and Development, which is based in the Niger Delta. There, we visited a place called the Bomu Manifold.

It is an important facility for Shell that is guarded by the Nigerian military. The manifold is a hub for the company’s pipelines which run from the oil fields to an export terminal on the coast. In 2009, there was an operational fault on one of these pipelines, which then exploded, causing a major spill.

Under Nigerian law, Shell has an obligation to start cleaning up spills within 24 hours, whatever the cause, and return the affected land to as close as possible its original state. The company said it had completed this work at the Bomu Manifold in 2012.

Yet in August we found that a wide area was still visibly contaminated with oil. A large area of land looked like a bomb had landed on it. There was no vegetation, but mounds of charred and oil encrusted soil. We saw streams spreading the contamination into a wider area, where people live and farm.

We visited another three locations which Shell said it had cleaned-up but which also remain visibly contaminated. Incredibly, the pollution at one of these sites, Boobanabe, also in Kegbara Dere, dates back to a fire at a Shell oil well in 1970.

One of village elders, Emadee Roberts Kpai, remembers the day when Shell first came to the area. “They promised that if they find oil here they’ll transform our community and everybody will be happy.”

But the transformation was not what they had expected. Emadee’s farm and fish ponds have been devastated by oil pollution from nearby Shell pipelines. Now, he says “We have no hope for our children in this community”.

Whether Emadee’s bleak assessment of the future comes true or not rests not just with Shell, but also with the Nigerian government. So far, its record of holding oil companies to account has been woeful. But recently elected President Muhammadu Buhari has pledged to restore the oil-wrecked environment. As a start, he said his government will implement the UN’s recommendations from 2011.

That would be the best way of honoring the memory of Ken Saro-Wiwa.

A Shell Petroleum Development Company spokesman released this statement to CNN in response to the allegations from Amnesty International:

“The Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited (SPDC) has led the way on transparency in spills reporting in Nigeria and has been open about the challenges of conducting remediation in areas such as Ogoniland in which access to spill sites has often been restricted. SPDC has repeatedly highlighted the challenges of re-contamination at some sites as a result of criminal interference with oil and gas infrastructure.

SPDC, as operator of the SPDC Joint Venture, is nonetheless committed to cleaning up spills from SPDC JV facilities, irrespective of cause. This is equally the case in Ogoniland, despite the fact that we ceased producing oil and gas there in 1993. SPDC is also working with its Joint Venture partners, government, communities and NGOs to address areas of concern.

Implementation of the UNEP report is part of a wider program of remediation, pipeline protection, community engagement and social investment activities being undertaken by SPDC with its joint venture partners, government, community and civil society.

As the UNEP report stated, it is crucial to put an end to the widespread theft and illegal refining of crude oil, which adversely impact the environment. Ensuring long-term sustainability remains a challenge that will require coordinated and collaborative action from all stakeholders.”