The economic indices laying bare before Nigerians today reveal that the country is poorer than ever before and cannot fend adequately for its needs without borrowing. That might seem like the obvious consequence from the sharp fall in not just the demand, but the price of crude oil internationally. But most importantly, it is difficult to have a glowing economy because Nigeria’s government continues to operate a mono-economic system rather than opening and growing the economy through other sectors. However, none of this makes much difference before the Niger Deltans, because they have been rendered penniless and inactive for decades from their traditional occupation of farming and fishing by the crude oil spill. This underlines the big challenges facing the region and the reasons behind its youth unending restiveness.
Of course, there is every need to be restive since the market value of oil does not reflect any value in the lives of Niger Deltans. Hence, the Niger Deltans are in constant search for justice to address the lingering issue of oil pollution and their livelihood.
Pardon me to digress a bit by telling an old joke as published by the Economist magazine recently. It goes thus: a policeman sees an inebriated man searching for his keys under a lamp post and offers to help find them. After a few fruitless minutes, the officer asks the man whether he is certain he dropped his keys at that particular location. No, says the man, he lost them in the park. Then why search here, asks the officer. The man answers: “Because that is where the light is” for years the story has been used to illustrate the simple point of great relevance to social scientists, that what you find depends on where you look. The telling thing about this story with regards to the Niger Deltans is that, for much of their sufferings and pains from crude oil pollution, they have since 2008 narrowed their search for justice in faraway Dutch in the Netherlands where the lamplight is of greater focus than back here at home where they lost their lands, waterways and occupation to crude oil pollution.
Indeed, it is welcoming news that some of the Niger Delta crude oil spills and degradation of the region’s environment is now linked and adequate penalty (ies) been pronounced against culprits. The few privilege communities that earned this ‘golden feat’ are, Oruma in Ogba local government area of Bayelsa state, Goi in Gokana local government area of Rivers state and Ikot Ada in Ikot Abasi local government area of Akwa Ibom state respectively. After 13 years of legal wrangling, the appeal court in The Hague ruled that: “Shell Nigeria is sentenced to compensate farmers for damages”. The Shakespearian literature in Merchant of Venice refers to such ruling as “…a Daniel has come to judgment…”. What else are the Niger Deltans demanding if not justice and the need for oil companies operating in the region to clean up the environment and be more careful in future operations. This is because oil pollution is not just corroding the environment, it is corroding the livelihood of Niger Deltans at every level. Just as it creates distrust between host communities and the oil companies, while it encourages youth restiveness to rise sharply.
The efforts of the Dutch court in its verdict is commendable. However, the foot-dragging before the ruling may make the issue look like a new problem. But, in fact, it is a very old one. Also, the judgment is an attempt that tried to explain what a free and independent justice system should look like and how justice should be dispensed irrespective of influence surrounding an individual or corporate organisation. No doubt, the Dutch ruling is a much harder feat to achieve back here at home due to governments, past and present interference and insensitiveness to the plight of the Niger Deltans. Hence, the increasing cause to intensify emotions that results in volatile situations in the region. In a way, the agitation for compensation and a clean environment now seems like a trial of strength between host communities and oil companies and by extension the Federal government.
However, the most depressing thing about the oil spill in the Niger Delta is not just the destruction it causes on the environment. It is the way people, especially those in government circles and officials of oil companies echo a shadow accusation. They seem to lose all sense of good reasoning in their defense and distractive blame game. For instance, after the Dutch verdict against Shell, the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) of Nigeria spokesman, Bamidele Odugbesan insisted that it was sabotage. He said: “We continue to believe that the spills in Oruma and Goi were the result of sabotage. We are therefore disappointed that this court has made a different finding on the cause of the spills…” Rather than possessing a marvellous self-correcting mechanism, like the court advised that Shell’s parent company, Netherlands-based Royal Dutch Shell install a leak detection system on the Oruma pipeline among others. It is disheartening to note that it is more appropriate for the oil companies to point accusing fingers at sabotage. By the way, who is the saboteur, is it the host communities? This, therefore, makes the Dutch verdict seems to have a critical question whether it might be at all in Shell’s interest to obey the court ruling.
Notwithstanding the negative comments towards host communities, oil industry analysts, believes that the ruling would pave way for more cases against oil companies by host communities seeking reparations for lost income from contaminated land and waterways in the region. Indeed, the Niger Delta issue has become a matter that cannot be kicked down the road any longer. Much as the Dutch verdict reveals that the people from that region have refused to be taken hostage by the oil companies. As a lesson, it would be necessary for the federal government, through its institutions, especially law enforcement agencies and the judiciary to fall along the path of honour in all their dealings with the people of Nigeria, irrespective of region, tribe or religion.