“Where’s the fish? There’s no fish in this water”. Chief St. Emmanuel Pii is afraid he will never see his community in the Niger Delta back the way it was before. A lively little harbour in the Niger Delta, with fish and shellfish in abundance. In 2008, hundreds, if not thousands of barrels of spilt crude oil landed there.
By Hélène Michaud, Ogoniland
It is low tide and easy to see that the rich mangrove forest adorning the river’s ramifications, is dead. Black. The river bed: black, covered with a thick layer of oil, as far as we can see on the horizon. The staunch. The drinking water undrinkable, with some toxic chemicals at unimaginable levels.
Bodo is a rural fishing community of around 70 thousand people that can no longer fish. Near the harbour, I meet two shy 18- year- olds, Daniel and Thorance.
With the fishing, they used to pay their school fees. Today, a car full of goods came. They and ten other boys rushed to see if they could be hired to help unload it. Otherwise they hang around with nothing to do. “We dropped out of school.”
Shell has admitted responsibility for the tragedy and is required to clean up the mess and pay compensation. Three years later, nothing has happened, the chief says, pointing at the devastated landscape.
“Shell has been given us deaf ear. They’re after their profit. They don’t care about human life”.
The company sees it differently. Tony Attah, Vice-President Health Safety and Environment and Corporate Affairs, says that the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC - Shell’s joint venture in Nigeria), is prepared to start cleaning up the spills, but that communities in the Ogoni region simply refuse to grant the company access to the polluted sites.
“In Nigeria you cannot enter someone’s community without them letting you in, so for them to allow us in to come and clean up, it’s almost as if in their minds we’re coming in to clean up evidences, that’s the way they’ve handled it ,” he told RNW in an interview at the company headquarters in Port Harcourt. “The reality is we’ve asked to come in many times, we’ve been denied, people are talking compensation rather than cleaning.” He said that very often the communities see a spill as a potential source of income.
Villagers, when asked, deny they’ve prevented Shell from entering to clean up the spills. So who’s lying?
I the case of Bodo, Attah says an ongoing court case in the UK is making it difficult to communicate with the community. “We’re hearing that the lawyers want you to speak through them. You cannot speak to communities directly any more, you can only speak to them through intermediaries. I can only believe that this kind of situation makes it even worse and complicates the whole issue.”
Almost 20 years after the oil giant suspended its operations in this oil-rich region of the Delta, Shell still has a strained relationship with Ogoniland.
“We have a history with the Ogoni area. It’s not a conventional Delta community. Access has been a huge challenge for us.”
That’s why Shell says the Nigerian government should take the lead in the cleanup operations.
“Because of the long history we have with the Ogonis, this is not the place you can just take things by yourself and walk in. (..), government has to lead the way, otherwise you will not be trusted. That is the reality.”
Meanwhile, the Nigerian government is keeping silent. After the release of a critical report by UNEP calling for urgent measures to restore the devastated environment caused by oil spills in Ogoniland, the President set up a special committee chaired by Petroleum Minister and former Shell executive ( Diezani Alison-Madueke) to deal with the matter. Tony Attah says that he is “personally uncomfortable” with that committee’s own silence.
The villagers, and even Shell’s fiercest critics, the environmental organization Friends of the Earth, and Amnesty International, all believe Shell should take the lead. FoE chairman Nnimo Bassey, told RNW that “Shell cannot base its action on the response of the Nigerian government. What they’ve done is a crime against humanity, and this report by an impartial UN agency is enough for them to tell the government: this is what we’re doing.”
Lack of confidence
Ogoni villagers, environmentalists and human rights activists alike, despite their criticism of Shell’s failure to clean up the spills, share a profound lack of confidence in the Nigerian government’s ability or willingness to act.
But while the big players point fingers at each other, innocent victims of the spills like Daniel and Thorance continue to suffer. Their message to the Dutch journalist: “We want you people to help us so that we can go back to our fishing”.