The reason why persons or corporations make investments is dependent on the expected or desired outcomes. The same can be said of why investors divest. Investments are predominantly made for profit. For instance, a corporation would estimate how much profit would accrue, in financial terms or material gains, and over what period, for an investment that has been made. In other instances, investments may be made for humanitarian, not-for-profit reasons or for desired social change. Whether for profit or for altruistic ends, investments are made with gains in mind.
Investments are not made carelessly or by whim. Investors carry out detailed studies or assessments of the objective conditions surrounding the issues on hand to put their resources in areas where they expect the best outcomes. Controls and regulations are established by governments or other relevant authorities to ensure that the pursuit of profit does not expose citizens and the environment to unacceptable levels of harm.
It is for this reason that the idea of sustainable development emerged to moderate the inclination of those pursuing the transformation of Nature for profit without consideration of long-term socio-ecological implications, from doing so. It is also for this reason that proponents of physical development projects are required to carry out environmental, social-economic, and other impact assessments before embarking on such projects.
Assessments or studies carried out before projects or investments are approved are site specific, and studies done elsewhere cannot be applied in an entirely different location simply because investors or regulators assume there would be similar outcomes. The point to note here is that some tangible and intangible conditions could differ even where demographics and geographies appear similar. To ensure that such peculiarities are not blindsided, the people living in locations where investors, governments or institutions wish to carry out projects/activities must not only be consulted but must be part of the assessment processes. It is one way by which communities can provide informed consent for investment or development projects to be carried out in their territories.
The situation in the Niger Delta over the years has largely been one of willful neglect and refusal to consult or engage the people in decision making processes regarding investments, development, or even infrastructural projects. Projects are often thrown at communities even when they are not the priority needs of the people. Little wonder that the projects get abandoned during construction or are left to rot after completion.
The most worrisome case is that of extraction of resources from the Niger Delta. The concerns have remained the same from pre-colonial to colonial and present neocolonial state. There are historic records of kings and leaders in the Niger Delta who were exiled or killed in the pre-colonial days for insisting on their right to have a say on trade, cultural observances or decision making in their territories. The burning of Akassa in 1895 by the British Navy over the control of trade issues remains a clear example of such infractions.
Crude oil development and the installation of industrial infrastructure in the Niger Delta were carried out without consultations with the people. Community gatherings organized by the transnational oil companies and their colonial governments were mostly moments for selling dreams of developmental progress that would happen once the wells began to spurt. Some of such events saw the showing of moving pictures of shinny cars, houses, schools and hospitals and nothing of the environmental impacts that would occur in their communities. It did not take long for the dreams to burst and for the gory realities that prevail to this date to manifest.
Efforts to bandage the massive harms inflicted on the Niger Delta has been carried out through various means including oil company driven Memoranda of Understanding with communities, and various government interventions through agencies such as Niger Delta Development Board (NDDB) established in 1961, the Niger Delta Basin and Rural Development Authority (NDBRDA) established in 1976, the Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission (OMPADEC) established in 1992, the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) in 1995, Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) established in 2000 and the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs created in 2008. These bandages seek to cover up festering wounds, without dealing with the fundamental ailments that over six decades of disastrous exploitation has wrought.
At a global level, foils used by the fossil fuel industry to obscure the fact that they are the major drivers of climate change has now been torn to shreds. The world is at the brink of irreversible climatic chaos unless urgent shifts are made in investments in the fossil fuels sector. However, the industry has so captured government structures around the world that climate negotiations hardly refer to this prime cause of the threat, and governments tend to believe that more investments are needed in the sector to develop safer energy options. Such oxymoronic arguments are simply mind boggling.
The crisis of the Niger Delta continues to build up. With lands, water, and air polluted and the region ranking among the top ten most contaminated places on earth, bandages no longer suffice to cover the ecological crimes. Making matters worse are the frequent oil spills that are futilely blamed on third party interferences even when the rotten state of the facilities and poor oil field practices are obvious. Recall the AITEO oil well blowout at Oil Mining Lease (OML) 29 that spewed hydrocarbons into the Santa Barbara River at Nembe over a period of six weeks starting from 1st November 2021. Recall the decrepit Trinity Spirit FSPO that recently burst into flames off the coast of Delta and Ondo States. Do not forget the oil well blowout and fire that has been raging at Ororo-1 oil field (OML 95) off the coast of Ondo State since May 2020 with no discernible efforts to stop the disaster. Between 2018 and 2019 the National Oil Spills Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) recorded 1,300 oil spills, averaging 5 per day. Add to these, the unmitigated disaster related to bush refineries in the region – a clear outcome of regulatory failures by the state and lack of duty of care by the corporations.
Today the Niger Delta has over 1,481 wells and 275 flow stations, over 7,000 kilometres length of oil/gas pipelines and over 120 gas flare furnaces. The Niger Delta is an exploded ecological bomb and citizens and the environment have since been sacrificed.
Years of agitation for a legislation that speaks to the problems of the petroleum sector, the environment and the communities eventually yielded the Petroleum Industry Act (2021) which still leaves the communities on the lurch regarding economic benefits and environmental protection while pandering to the desires of oil corporations.
The current drive by oil companies such as Shell and ExxonMobil to divest from onshore and shallow water oil fields or even to leave completely brings up very serious issues. After the oil companies drilled the Niger Delta without consulting the people, to leave the region without as much as informing the communities represents an unacceptable closing of the loop of irresponsible exploitation. In the ongoing confusion over whether ExxonMobil’s agreement to sell its assets /shares to Seplat stands or if the NNPC can take over those assets, there is no talk about what the communities think or desire.
Communities must rise to demand that oil companies be held to account for historical and present harms inflicted on the environment and the people. They equally must decommission their rotten installations, pay for health and ecological audits, and equally pay for the clean-up and remediation of the entire region.
This is the conversation we must have.
Opening statement at a Community Training on the Petroleum Industry Act and Divestment hosted by Health of Mother Earth Foundation and We The People at the Ken Saro-Wiwa Innovation Hub on Wednesday 9 March 2022.