Pollute and run away

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Pollute and run away

Pollute but don’t pay for it. Big Oil in the Niger Delta is now planning to walk away. Ken Henshaw writes.


The Dooh family on their lake in the Niger, ruined by an oil spill. The farming family won a legal case against Shell in the Netherlands. It took 13 years. PETTERIK WIGGERS/PANOS

The two biggest transnational oil companies working in Nigeria’s Niger Delta are Shell and ExxonMobil. They are now packing up and leaving.

Both companies have plans to sell as soon as they find buyers, and to leave the Niger Delta. They have extracted crude oil and gas there for over fifty years. For communities living there, the news is confusing and worrying. They are worried that after the terrible effects of oil extraction, they will never get justice.

Counting the costs

The Niger Delta is nine states in Nigeria, to the south is the Atlantic Ocean and to the east is Cameroon. It has 112,000 square kilometres, about 12 per cent of Nigeria. Over 40 ethnic groups and nationalities speaking hundreds of languages live there.

The companies have extracted crude oil from the Niger Delta since 1956. There are now over 900 oil wells. This has made the Delta into one very big oil and gas field, producing up to 2.5 million barrels of crude oil every day.

The oil and gas from the region have been a big part of Nigeria’s income for many years, and the problem is that Nigeria is dependent on oil. As of 2019, oil and gas was 84 per cent of government exports.

But for the people of Nigeria the situation is not good. There are very big hydrocarbon profits but living conditions near the oil wells are horrible.

Over 30 million people live there but there is no benefit for them from the oil beneath their lands, rivers, and swamps. There is a lot of poor healthcare and poor education, insecurity and poverty. Bad management and corruption has made these communities some of the least developed and poorest in the country.

The Nigerian nation has also not made any progress using its oil wealth. It has overtaken India as the world’s poverty capital – 94 million Nigerians live in extreme poverty. Again, the story for the Niger Delta is worse – oil extraction makes traditional ways of making a living impossible and there are no alternatives, and it affects health.

Thousands of kilometres of crude oil pipes are buried under the land, swamps, and rivers of the Niger Delta, sometimes in people’s farmlands and backyards. The oil pipes often split and the oil contaminates farms and rivers and destroys the ecosystem.

We think that more than 2 billion litres of crude oil have spilled in the Niger Delta over the last 50 years. The National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency says there were about 370 reported oil spills in 2020. More are never reported. The effects of oil spills are terrible. Even small oil spills in a river can kill a lot of fish and then thousands of fisherfolk starve. Mangroves are the breeding ground of fish and other water species, and they die. Rivers are lifeless. It is the same on farmland, too.

Then there is the burning of the oil. This causes heart and breathing problems. Each year companies burn $2.5 billion of gas and create more emissions than the transport and electricity use by all of the 206 million Nigerians. There are other ways of managing the gas but the oil companies find wasteful burning cheaper and more convenient. They keep delaying deadlines to end burning – from 1979 to 2030.

In 2011, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reported on the polluted sites in Ogoniland, the oil-rich territory of the Delta’s Ogoni people. From these lands and rivers Shell extracted 28,000 barrels of crude oil daily between 1958 and 1992. The report talks about oil pollution, contaminated water, and serious health risks.

UNEP says cleaning up Ogoniland would take 25-30 years and cost $1 billion. The report talks about the many failures of oil companies to clean up oil spills. A Nigerian study found cleaning up all of the Niger Delta region would cost more than $50 billion and take at least 50 years. Life expectancy in the Delta has fallen to under 43 years.

Getting out

It’s not surprising that communities are very unhappy about oil company ‘divestment’. They see it as an opportunity for the companies to leave and run away after years of environmental pollution in the Niger Delta.

Shell’s chief executive officer, Ben van Beurden, says the company cannot ‘solve community problems in the Niger Delta’. In the last ten years there have been more environmental justice campaigns with new opportunities for legal cases against transnational companies in European courts.

As Shell and ExxonMobil sell to local players, it is not clear who will be responsible for the damage caused by pollution and cleaning up the mess. Shell talks of making a ‘clean break’ from the Niger Delta, and then the possibility of accountability is very small.

Tijah Bolton works with communities affected by the activities of ExxonMobil in Akwa Ibom state. He says divestment means trying to avoid responsibility. After over 50 years of extracting oil, the companies just walk away quietly without telling anyone.

In 2021, the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation promised to develop a divestment policy to safeguard the country’s interests. This has not happened and the time before transnationals leave is running out.


A poster in a Niger Delta cafe shows Ken Saro-Wiwa, executed in 1995 with eight other Ogoni activists after protesting against Shell’s oil extraction. ROBIN HAMMOND/PANOS

Working but with no punishment

When affected communities tried to hold transnational companies to account, they rarely received the support of the Nigerian government. From the start, the business of oil extraction in Nigeria followed the methods of Western traders and colonial powers – big profits helped by the state.

In 1990, the people of Umuechem, a community just north of Port Harcourt, the Delta’s largest city, went on a peaceful march to ask Shell to keep its promises of benefits. When the company arrived 32 years before, they promised roads, hospitals, schools, electricity, and jobs. But the farming and fishing community suffered pollution, land grabs, and loss of jobs. Peaceful protest seemed like the only possibility when they met at a crossroads many kilometres away from a Shell facility. There they sang and danced. Then Shell called for the Nigerian police. Amnesty International said that the police burnt many buildings and shot 80 people. Still no-one has been held responsible.

After protests against Shell in Ogoniland, there was a long siege by the Nigerian army. They murdered, raped, beat, arrested, and exiled many community members.

In 1995, they executed the leaders of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, including writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, after an unfair trial. Amnesty and others reported that Shell kept talking about the Ogoni ‘problem’ with the dictator, General Sani Abacha.

Protests have stopped all oil extraction by Shell in Ogoniland since 1993, but new oil spills from pipelines continue. The situation is the same in other communities where the people tried to hold the transnationals to account. Going for help to the Nigerian courts is not always possibility. The government controls the courts and the chances of communities getting positive results are small.

But there was an opportunity in 2005, when a court supported the Iwerekhan community. It said that burning was against rights to life and dignity, including the rights to a ‘clean, poison-free, pollution-free, healthy environment’. But when the court met to decide if Shell had stopped the burning, the judge was moved elsewhere, and they could not find the court order. Gas burning continues now in Iwerekhan.

Kentebe Ebiaridor works with the NGO Environmental Rights Action. He thinks the failure of the Nigerian courts resulted in communities arming themselves and protesting against the oil companies in the late 1990s.

‘How do you take the peoples’ oil, destroy their fish ponds, their farmlands, and make their children into poor beggars, and when they ask for justice, you invite the police and army to kill them?’ he asks.

More and more floods

Many oil-producing areas are close to the Atlantic Ocean and other water, and communities there face regular floods as a result of climate change.

In 2012, many community lands and villages were under two metres of water. The people lost a farming season and many people had to move to higher grounds. Since then, the floods have come regularly. Every time community members, mostly fishers and farmers, have to live without income for months, creating more poverty, insecurity, and migration.

Many of these people still don’t understand that the oil and gas extracted from their lands is the reason for the climate change affecting their lives.

For the communities of the Niger Delta, giving back their jobs and their environment will be necessary. A hurried divestment alone from the transnational oil companies is not enough.

For the communities, a just transition must include repairing the damage from oil pollution, a check on the health of the people, and a plan for the problems from climate change. A just transition must also give justice to the many victims of abuse by oil companies and the state, and paying back the people of the Niger Delta for years of taking away their lands. Anything less is injustice.



(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)