The environmental history of Nigeria unfortunately is not a story filled with the rich biodiverse tropical rainforests of the Niger Delta or the cascading rich vegetation of the Sahel savanna but rather one marred with bloodshed, exploitation, pollution, death, destruction, and devastation. There was no agency in Nigeria that was saddled with the task of policing the environment until after the discovery in 1988 of toxic wastes that were dumped in Koko, a town in Delta State of Nigeria. Before then, Nigeria responded to most environmental problems on an ad hoc basis, with citizens largely bearing the weight of impacts and responses. The Koko incident woke the nation to the need for planned and coordinated action and led to the creation of the Federal Environmental Protection Agency 1988 (FEPA) through Decree 58. The agency was charged with the administration and enforcement of environmental laws. Over the years, from I988 till present day, as Nigeria has grown in population, economy and politically, it also seems that our environmental problems, challenges have grown also. Indeed, you will find as many environmental problems and challenges as you care to name. The somewhat carefree attitude of the citizenry adds to the problems. A casual look around shows plastic water sachets all over most of our cities and at police/military checkpoints on our highways. These non-biodegradable materials block drains and generally contaminate the environment.
Global Logic, Local impacts
Although the Nigerian government has taken some measures to tackle some of the prevailing environmental challenges, there is little to show for these efforts. This happens because the problems are systemic. The system seems to see the environment as something to be exploited, used, and discarded rather than as something to be cared for and respected. The market logic that has been fetishized by the apostles of neoliberalism and the gods of the market are presented as incapable of going wrong. The system believes that whatever is needed can be created and whatever is broken can be technologically fixed. It also believes that whatever can be extracted must be extracted.
In the environmental sphere some of these have been built on the backs of climate negotiation as well as on the so-called Green or Blue Economy. Economists describe this process as financialization or commodification of Nature.
We should say at this point that the rise of the market has led to a situation where rather than accumulating wealth from the excess labor of exploited workers, today profit is made through what some term innovative financial instruments. In the environmental sphere, some of these have been built on the backs of climate negotiation as well as on the so-called Green or Blue Economy. Economists describe this process as financialization or commodification of Nature.
The Green Economy idea itself is premised on the suggestion that nature is best protected when it is assigned a monetary value or when her services are monetized. In other words, it is said that people would not protect or defend Mother Earth except a price tag is placed on it. The sort of questions that are raised before nature is protected would be ‘What is the Ikogosi Warm Spring (Ekiti State) worth in Naira terms’? If it has a low value, it could be neglected, auctioned, or even destroyed.
According to Pablo Solon, ‘Inequality is an inevitable product of capitalism. Social and Environmental justice is only possible with system change.’ His statement was a response to Jerry Muller’s article which we quote: In recent decades, developments in technology, finance, and international trade have generated new waves and forms of insecurity for leading capitalist economies, making life increasingly unequal and chancier for not only the lower and working classes but much of the middle class as well. The right has largely ignored the problem, while the left has sought to eliminate it through government action, regardless of the costs. Neither approach is viable in the long run. Contemporary capitalist polities need to accept that inequality and insecurity will continue to be the inevitable result of market operations and find ways to shield citizens from their consequences – while somehow still preserving the dynamism that produces capitalism’s vast economic and cultural benefits in the first place.
Globalisation often manifests in the movement of goods and services. The driving geopolitical forces are sometimes hidden because the faces that are visible are the international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Funds. This is why the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) of the 1980s and the so-called Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) are seen as the sins of the IMF and the World Bank, whereas there are political superstructures behind these entities.
The SAPs threw our country and other African nations into the debt trap.
The SAPs threw our country and other African nations into the debt trap. Futile attempts to escape the traps are premised on efforts to make these payments from exploitation of natural resources for exports. Because the prices of those commodities are set remotely, they are sometimes so low that raising reasonable revenue necessitates deeper and more drastic exploitation of natural resources. In such desperate situations, environmental concerns are the least worries of neoliberal and predatory governments.
There is a direct link between environmental protection and politics. The more inclusive of the people a system is, the more environment-friendly the government would be. According to the first African to win the Nobel Peace Prize for environmental activism, the late Wangari Maathai, ‘What we’ve learned in Kenya–the symbiotic relationship between the sustainable management of natural resources and democratic governance–is also relevant globally. Indeed, many local and international wars, like those in West and Central Africa and the Middle East, continue to be fought over resources. In the process, human rights, democracy, and democratic spaces are denied…
The major reason why massive pollutions are tolerated by governments has been because the polluters generate the bulk of the revenue government needs for its activities
Regarding the Nigerian context, besides other causes, the major reason why massive pollutions are tolerated by the government has been that the polluters generate the bulk of the revenue the government needs for its activities. We have viciously polluting international oil companies in mind here. In some other areas, these manifest as land grabs, displacing local communities from their lands and forests to make way for that thing that poor governments are so addicted to: foreign direct investment.
Whenever there appears to be a call for responsible behavior, all the companies do is threaten to pull out of the oil fields to blackmail governments to withdraw and be content with the oil rents they receive. A recent fad has been the divestment talks, a process that allows transnational oil companies to sell off their assets to Nigerian companies and aims to, by this move, avoid responsibilities over the harms suffered by the communities. The divestment moves have been shrouded in such secrecy, and it appears even agencies of government are either not respected with regard to the process or are simply ignored. In all cases, communities are utterly ignored.
It is interesting that the same transnational polluters are closely advising the government on issues that have implications for environmental quality in Nigeria. For example, they sit on the board of the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA) while they are exempted by law from being regulated themselves.
Ecological Crimes and Remediation: It can be said that our more recent environmental laws have been largely reactive. And some actions are taken without enabling laws to ensure suitability and evaluation. Here we have in mind the creation of the Hydrocarbons Pollution Restoration Project (HYPREP) one year after the damning report of the assessment of the Ogoni environment by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). The anachronistic name of ‘Pollution Restoration’ was changed to ‘Pollution Remediation’ when a revamped and gazetted Hydrocarbons Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP) was inaugurated in 2016, five years after the UNEP report. The current project coordinator is the 5th to hold that office, and it does appear that things are picking up regarding the provision of emergency services (especially potable water) in Ogoniland. HYPREP has had a rapid succession of leadership, thus complicating the prospect of achieving the objective of the agency in a timeous manner.
The UNEP report had highlighted that ogoniland is highly polluted and that oil spills were never adequately cleaned up.
The UNEP report had highlighted that Ogoniland is highly polluted and that oil spills were never adequately cleaned up. With spills accumulated over the years, water bodies have been contaminated, including groundwater having benzene, a carcinogen, up to 900 times above World Health Organization standards. The report also indicated that hydrocarbon pollution had penetrated the ground to a depth of 5 meters at many places. The enormity of the contamination led to the set-up of HYPREP.
Another key event in the official response to ecocide in Nigeria is the release of a report by the Bayelsa State Oil and Environment Commission in May 2023. Whereas the Ogoni assessment report was paid for by NNPC, Shell, Agip/Eni, etc., the Bayelsa report was commissioned by the Bayelsa State government and produced by the commission.
The Bayelsa report revealed an astonishing level of ecological damage in the state. It reports that the state has suffered a per capita pollution of 1.5 barrels and that water bodies have total hydrocarbon contamination of up to 1 million times above safe limits. A snippet from the report helps here:
‘The historic and continued activities of the oil industry have fueled an environmental emergency, a silent health crisis, and deep economic hardship. This overwhelming tide of oil contamination has turned the Niger Delta – home to some of the planet’s largest mangroves and freshwater swamps, forests, and Africa’s largest wetlands – into one of the most polluted places on Earth. As much as 40 percent of the mangrove forests have been lost.
Human impact has been just as devastating. One study estimates that in 2012 alone, oil spills in Nigeria, and predominantly in the Niger Delta resulted in over 16,000 additional neonatal deaths. Community after community has seen their livelihoods damaged by oil contamination.
Environmental Damage Foretold
The environmental crisis in the world today has gone so deep that we can almost say that the world is facing a real possibility of massive ecological collapse.
The environmental crisis in the world today has gone so deep that we can almost say that the world is facing a real possibility of massive ecological collapse. This is not far-fetched because it is already known that available planetary resources cannot sustain the current rate of consumption. With the reality of peak oil has come the rise of extreme extraction. Humanity is working to show that resources and lifestyles can be sustained or stretched no matter the cost – even if it means scraping the bottom of the planet.
It is common knowledge that various sectors of the national economy have suffered gross neglect for decades. The environment has suffered special injury because the implications of certain aspects of the neglect are not immediately visible, as would, for example, the decay of infrastructures such as road buildings, water supplies, and telecommunications. Sometimes policymakers simply act as though they expect that the problems would disappear on their own. That has never happened to mountains of refuse. They don’t happen with polluted streams. They don’t happen with oil spills in waterways and farmlands. They don’t happen at the local or global levels.
A rough estimate of the amount of oil spills that have been experienced, and is still being experienced, has been put at about an equivalent to one Exxon Valdez spill per year for more than six decades. The Exxon Valdez spill occurred at Alaska in 1989. Several well blowouts have been recorded over the decades, including Texaco’s (Chevron) Funiwa 5 well blowout of January 1980, which spilled 400,000 barrels of crude and another blowout and rig fire at the same field in January 2012. In recent years, we have been witnesses to the AITEO well blowout at Nembe in November 2021 with an estimated 300,000 barrels of crude oil dumped into the environment and the explosion and sinking of an aged and unlicensed floating, storage and production vessel (FSPO Trinity) off the coast of Ondo State in February 2022. One largely ignored well blowout is the one at the Ororo-1 field. This well blowout occurred in April 2020 and has been burning and spilling crude non-stop for over two years now.
The truth that we have only one Earth and the fact that our environment is deeply interconnected is being played out in the web of crises confronting the world today. They may appear not to be closely linked, but a close look shows that there are strands revealing that they are held together by a clear logic. This logic pertains to reinforced fields of perception in which transactional actions have shut out the doors of transformational actions. Nature’s resources belong to nature. When humans term them ‘natural resources,’ the implication is that these resources occur naturally and can thus be grabbed or taken by the quickest, the strongest, and the most brazen.
Resolving or at least tackling the endemic environmental problems requires that we critically review the root causes of some of these problems as well as the political filters through which we view them.
Breaking the vital cycles of nature has dire consequences for all living beings on the planet
When it is said that the environment is our life, a significant implication is that we are all children of the universe. The sun remains the key source of energy for all creatures. For the survival of living creatures, the water cycle must not be broken. Breaking the vital cycles of nature has dire consequences for all living beings on the planet.
When we strive to defend the Nigerian environment, we are at the same time defending the global environment because we have only one Earth. The fact that we have one earth makes it urgent that we report environmental crimes as soon as they occur. We also must proactively work to ensure that these incidents do not happen. Where they do happen, there should be systems of checking and enforcing rulings against environmental crimes, including ecocide.