Uzokwe's Searchlight

Nigeria is gradually being condemned to desolation and barrenness by sustained and unmitigated pollution of her air, land and sea....
Monday, August 11, 2003

Alfred Obiora Uzokwe

(PART 1)

ecently, this writer was on the hot seat, for two hours, as a guest on the nationally syndicated radio talk show, The Bev Smith Show, broadcasting out of Pittsburgh, WAMO-830 AM. The segment began with this writer's introductory statement, elaborating on the role of as an Internet news magazine that furthers the concept of freedom of expression for Nigerians in the Diaspora. This was followed by the discussion of a range of socio-political and economic issues currently impacting Nigeria. Listeners from all over the country had the opportunity to call in with their questions during the second segment of the show. I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of concern that some of the non-Nigerian callers, especially Americans, expressed about the exploitation of Nigeria by oil companies. They lamented the trail of pollution and environmental degradation that the oil companies have left in their wake. One angry caller thundered that the oil companies "own Nigeria's oil" and are in collusion with the military to destroy the environment in Nigeria and "massacre" natives who express outrage. Although statements made by some callers, about Nigeria, had no factual basis and so one had to disagree with them, it was nonetheless a humbling experience to know that there are non-Nigerians out there, who are passionately concerned about the welfare of the Nigerian people. If they are reading this commentary, I would like to extend my thanks to them

I had already prepared a commentary about industrial pollution in Nigeria, for publication on, but after my appearance on The Bev Smith Show, and with the insight one gained into issues of the moment, I decided to broaden the commentary to include other forms of pollution, including pollution in the Delta region. I also wanted to address some of the issues relating to pollution that may have been missed during the radio show because of its fast-paced nature. This is therefore the first part of a three part series on pollution in Nigeria.

Nigeria is gradually being condemned to desolation and barrenness by sustained and unmitigated pollution of her air, land and sea; sometimes one wonders what the state of the health of Nigerians would be in the next 20 years given the sustained and worsening nature of this scourge. Well-meaning Nigerians, as well as visitors to the country, have had to complain about this problem and its unbridled onslaught on Nigeria and her people. Scientists in other countries have even linked the level of pollution, in an environment, to mortality rate and life expectancy for that area. While there are currently no hard statistics available, in the Nigerian case, to buttress this argument, it is clear that when people breathe in toxic fumes, eat food laced with toxic chemicals and drink water that has traces of toxic chemicals in it, they are bound to get sick, teeter on the edge of ill health or die prematurely. Average life expectancy for males and females in Nigeria is about 55 years and has not shown any upward swing in recent times as is the case in places like the United States where average life expectancy has pushed beyond the mid seventies. This leaves one groping for answers as to why, on the average, male and female Nigerians die young and in many instances from respiratory, gastrointestinal or other inexplicable ailments. The superstitious Nigerian would attribute the many untimely and inexplicable deaths to the handiwork of "Babalawos" or " Dibia okpulu ogwoo", but anyone with a scientific or modern mind must face the true realities on the ground and conclude that even though there are other reasons why average life expectancy is low in Nigeria, pollution cannot be discounted as a major contributory factor. It is a pity that as I write, the federal government of Nigeria still has not attended to this issue with the level of seriousness it deserves. In most cases, government action has bothered on tokenism to ward off the hue and cry from environmentalists; the damaging nature of the result cannot be overemphasized. This three-part treatise will briefly review the sources of pollution in Nigeria, examine its probable effects and reiterate some steps, many of which environmentalists have talked about before, that could help to ameliorate the sordid situation.

Some of the sources of pollution, in Nigeria, include but are not limited to the following: Oil spills, gas flaring, industrial pollution, SMOG, incineration of tires and other harmful materials, roadside mechanic shades, open and decomposing thrash dumps and clogged drainage channels.

Oil Spill in the Delta regions:

Oil spill has become one of the major sources of air, land and sea pollution in Nigeria, particularly in the Delta regions. Some have accepted the problem as part of everyday living because they feel that the oil companies do not seem to be doing nearly enough to contain the situation. They also feel that the Nigerian government has failed to live up to its responsibility of ensuring a clean environment for all. The oil companies, on the other hand, feel that it is not their responsibility to embark on massive clean up of Nigeria, or continue to provide social amenities for natives of the affected region beyond what they currently do. It is their opinion that the government should use the money they pay as tax as well as the money accruing from oil sales to take care of the citizens. Of course as this issue is kicked from one court to the other, the people living in the Delta regions continue to bear the full brunt of pollution in those areas.

The issue of environmental pollution, via oil spill in the Delta Region, was brought to the attention of the international community when Ken Saro Wiwa and his fellow activists were executed in 1995 by the repressive Sani Abacha regime, for protesting unmitigated oil pollution and consequent environmental degradation. Since that episode, many like the angry man that called in during the Bev Smith Radio Show, hold the opinion that the government of Nigeria, especially the military ones, collaborate with oil companies to make money from crude oil at the expense of the Niger Delta environment and public health. While it may sound far-fetched that the government would wantonly allow the environment to be despoiled by oil, for monetary gains, the action or inaction of the government, towards the plight of the people, does support the aforementioned insinuation. The most troubling part is that the money that accrues to the government from the oil sales, tend to go into private coffers instead of being used to develop Nigeria and clean up the environment. It is no secret that all former military Generals in Nigeria are millionaires with private mansions and jets all over the place; it is clearly a testament to the fact that they are the true beneficiaries of the oil money, which accounts for almost 90% of Nigeria's foreign earnings. This is why many feel that Nigerian leaders are incapable of calling the oil companies to the carpet and insisting on strict adherence to international environmental regulations - our leaders would not want to bite the hand that feed them.

It is important to pause for a moment to ask how and why oil spills and pollution of the environment continue to happen even though the deleterious effects are clear to any and everyone. Most of the oil spills in the Delta Region have been reported to be the result of the rupture of high-pressure pipelines. Wear and tear resulting from age or poor maintenance causes the pipelines to burst and spray crude oil into the environment. There have also been instances, where vandals have allegedly caused oil leaks. For example, on November 27, 1998, 1,500 barrels of oil was reported to have leaked in the Santa Barbara River Crossing in Bayelsa State, where the Shell Petroleum Development Company, which is the largest oil company in Nigeria and accounts for about 50% of oil production, was conducting operations. A company official stated that the leak started as a result of the removal of the stem of a valve from the pipeline [THIS DAY, December 2, 1998]. Once a spill occurs and enters the creeks, it is carried further, seeping into land, rivers and the ocean. One of the biggest complaints, by the natives in the Delta areas, is that when oil spills are reported, the oil companies do not respond immediately to remedy the situation; as a result, some of the spills last for several days, resulting in more unmitigated pollution and environmental degradation.

Leakage of oil into a body of water, like a river or stream, has very unpleasant ramifications. The surface of the water becomes coated with very thick layers of crude oil, preventing oxygen from getting to the fish or other marine life in the water. This leads to the decimation of marine life and consequent death of the organisms. Some of the fish also die from poisoning after ingesting the deadly crude oil. In the case of the Delta regions, the natives, who are fisherman by default, become dispossessed of their source of livelihood and just throw up their hands in disgust while some with no alternative, resort to eating and selling of poisoned fish. Of course when people eat poisoned fish, they get ill or even die. Also, some of the spills seep into the ground and contaminate ground water. Many in the Delta Region have complained that water from freshly sunk boreholes show evidence of oil contamination. This makes the water undrinkable even after some treatment. Again, some natives have been known to use or even drink polluted water out of frustration and the negative health effects cannot be overemphasized. The other problem with oil spill is that areas that have been known to be fertile for farming in the past have suddenly become barren or are getting close to being so. The mangrove forest is slowly withering away and the agricultural industry is suffering. This is particularly sad because the natives, who used to make their living through subsistent farming, have to look elsewhere.

The Delta region of Nigeria has for over 43 years been subjected to environmental pollution. Protesters contend that the oil in that region brings forth a lot of money and that some of the oil money should be used to clean up the area. This is not an unreasonable request to make. There have been several deaths as a result of violent clashes between the military or police deployed in the area to protect the oil companies. These clashes and consequent loss of lives continue unabated.

During the Bev Smith Radio Show, callers pondered why the Nigerian government could not see reason why the people of the region are protesting the environmental degradation brought on by oil prospecting. This writer simply restated the fact that personal avarice and overdependence on oil has made it difficult for the Nigerian leaders to stand up and lay down the rules on sound oil drilling practices. The leaders depend on the oil money to line their pockets and the country depends on the oil for over 90% of foreign exchange earnings and as such, Nigeria finds it difficult to honestly and fervently speak up against environmental degradation. I added that if Nigeria had a diversified economic sector, where other products like cocoa, groundnut, and palm oil are exported for foreign exchange, overdependence on oil would cease and the government could easily call the bluff of any oil companies that refuse to comply with established environmental practices.

Gas flaring

Another pollution source that goes hand in hand with oil production is gas flaring. Nigerian oil reserves contain high amounts of gas and during the oil drilling process, the gas is constantly being released and the only way to get rid of it is by setting fire to and burning it off. Called gas flaring, this process releases carbon monoxide and other chemicals into the air and Nigeria accounts for 18 billion cubic meters of total world flaring [All Africa .com, July 25, 2003] Gas flaring has obvious negative health effects; doctors have found unusually high occurrence of asthma, bronchitis, skin and breathing problems in communities where gas flaring has been practiced most [Africa Recovery, A United nations publication] There is no reason more compelling than the above, for Nigeria to stop or at least curtail the practice of gas flaring. The government once set a deadline for cessation of the practice but under pressure from oil companies, it sought to move the deadline from 2004 to 2008. The new environmental minister has since announced that the 2004 deadline must be adhered to. Gas flaring also contributes to ozone depletion and exacerbation of the problem of global warming. Some have even contended that acid rain in the Delta regions is the direct result of gas flaring and according to Nnimo Bassey, an environmental activist, the best evidence yet of the devastation of acid rain, in areas where flaring is practiced, is that corrugated metal roofing sheets deteriorate and corrode at a very fast rate. He says that the roofing sheets last 5 years as against the established 20-year life span.

It must be stated that Nigeria assesses a small penalty on oil companies for gas flaring but the amount is so miniscule that it makes no difference

Some solutions

Many environmentalists and even the average Nigerian have at one time or the other, proffered some solutions for ending environmental pollution brought on by oil exploration. Some of what I outlined below are not new but rather a reiteration of the seemingly obvious.

Oil companies in Nigeria should be compelled to abide by world environmental standards as they carry out their business. They should also modernize their equipment, establish proactive maintenance schedules for ageing and corroding pipes that cause leaks. Before drilling commences in an area, a satisfactory and exhaustive environmental impact assessment should be conducted to ascertain the impact of prospecting in the area. "What if" scenarios must also be developed to proactively study the impact of a spill in the area. The result of the study should help in the development of a line of action should things go awry. The Nigerian government should also impress upon oil companies to become very responsive when spills occur to restore the pipes. Emergency response teams must always be handy to immediately plug leaks while full-blown maintenance crews are dispatched to provide lasting fixes. Of course, in the unfortunate event of a spill, the companies must always compensate the communities affected and provide continuous education on how to deal with the spills. It is also important that more and better-equipped hospitals are provided for treatment of people who fall sick from ailments that may be pollution-related.

On the issue of gas flaring, Nigeria should simply stick to the deadline of 2004 for ending the practice. In the meantime, the oil companies should modernize their drilling equipment to bring them in line with modern ones that make the need for gas flaring obsolete. Also, since some oil reserves contain more gas than others, drill sites that reveal high levels should be left alone until better ways of containing associated gas are found.

Part 2 continues next week…

References: All, July 25, 2003, Africa Recovery - A United Nations publication,,,