Living in bondage of oil firms

More than 50 years of oil drilling at Owaza community in Abia State, rather than bring development, has brought environmental degradation and devastation. The community members cry of sicknesses, death, neglect and poor farm yields. JULIANA FRANCIS, who recently visited the community, captures their agony, experts’ views, and oil firms and government officials’ responses in Part Two of this report.

‘We suffer heat waves, rashes, cough’

The traditional Prime Minister (Onowu), Chief Hyacinth Anobala, 65, reminisces with a melancholy smile and a look of despair: “There was time farming, fishing and hunting were our main sources of livelihood. Our crops no longer grow well and the lands are no longer fertile. Our water has been contaminated and our fishes dead.” Anobala says that he believes that most sicknesses in the land are caused by gas flaring, because many often suffer similar ailments and symptoms. “Sometimes, everyone would be suffering from cough at the same time. The truth is that our air is unclean.”

Anobala, who undressed to show how rashes had ravaged his body, says other folks suffer similar rashes. He believes the rashes are caused by gas flaring. His wife, Lolo Mary Anobala, buttresses his points: “For some days now, my children have been coughing. I have to take them to Aba for proper treatment. The cough is caused by the gas flaring. Pregnant women suffer more in this community. Once our women go into labour, we start running up and down, looking for a taxi to take them to Aba. Many of them hardly make it to Aba. It’s quite a distance. If you live with us in this community for five days, your skin will change. You’ll start scratching every minute of the day.”

Experts on gas flaring

Dr. Olugbenga Mokuolu, Professor of Paediatrics, University of Ilorin, Nigeria, says that only a study can validate allegations that gas flaring is among factors causing convulsions in children. He says: “I would have loved that submission to be a bit validated by a health facility in that area.

If that is a concern, one would expect some logical people to be publishing such around that area. However, there are obviously some chemicals that one can say are neuro-toxic, which if there is a prolonged exposure, could cause neurological problems. I think it’s important, for a very literate communication, to see if some doctors practicing within that neighbourhood, to know if the issue is a valid observation or not. When it comes to oil producing communities, we have different claims that can occur. But definitely, there are dangerous substances that can be injurious to the nerve, if there is sustained or prolonged exposure to them.”

Mokuolu adds that if children as old as nine-year-old are having convulsion in that community, then one really needs to be sure that it is something that has to do with the environment. “Whether it is gas, water or what they are eating, it should be validated.

There are many areas to consider and look at. It would be nice to have medical people in that community, who can describe things in a more appropriate term,” he says According to HealthWiki, a Community Guide to Environmental Health, “Drilling for oil, refining it, and burning oil as fuel all lead to many serious health problems, such as blurred vision and other eye problems, headaches, tiredness, slurred speech, brain damage, coma, convulsions and unusual deaths, nose sores and nose bleeds, ear infections, asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia and other respiratory diseases, lung and throat infections and cancers, increased risk of tuberculosis, heart attacks, digestive problems.

It also leads to vomiting, ulcers, and stomach cancer, damage to liver, kidneys, and bone marrow, menstrual problems, miscarriages, stillbirths, and birth defects, skin rashes, fungus, and cancers.” The Head of Media and Campaigns, Environmental Rights Action, Nigeria, Mr. Philip Jakpor, discloses that scientists have been able to prove and show the effects of gas flaring on communities. “When oil is being extracted, it comes with gas. For you to have pure oil, which is marketable in the international market, you have to remove the gas.

There are different ways of removing the gas; you can either re-inject it or refine it for other uses like industrial gas or you burn it off. Reinjection is what we expect oil companies to do. But they feel it’s cheaper to burn it off, but it comes with a price. “When it’s being burnt off, it emits a host of toxic cocktail, dangerous into the atmosphere. It later comes down in the form of acid rain. When you see roofing sheets in such communities, they are rusted. You’ll also find soot which comes from the burning.

“The people in such a community are exposed to many health issues. If you go to hospitals around such areas, you’ll discover that documented complaints are lung problems, rashes, coughing, and burning sensation in the eyes. They are exposed to cancer at the long run,” Jakpor says.

According to him, this leads to untimely death. “Naturally, it will cause untimely death because of what the people inhale. It’s a gradual death.” Jakpor adds that crops in such areas usually don’t do well and the water is usually polluted. “When it rains, the poison in the atmosphere enters the river, polluting the river and fishes. One of the most dangerous things we have discovered is that women in some of these communities use the heat emitting from the gas flare to dry garri.

They pour it on the ground. Such practice is common in Warri axis. They are eating poison. But they’re just a victim of the system. If they know how dangerous such garri is, they wouldn’t be doing that.” The impact of gas flaring is not directional, he notes. In order words, “what you record in one community, may be different from another. There are always different kinds of ailments. On a larger scale, it also contributes to climate warming.” In finding solution to gas flaring, Jakpor says government must act with swiftness and be serious with its own laws.

According  to him, gas flaring has been illegal since 1984, but implementation has been a problem. “There is a fine for gas flaring, but the fine is insignificant, so much that the oil companies prefer to pay. A serious government will check to see gas flaring is stopped for the good of its people.

These effects are not restricted to only oil producing communities; it can affect those far away because wind carries such toxic things.” A senior lecturer in the Department of Chemical Science, Lagos State University (LASU), Dr. Abdullahi Sobola, says gas flaring in communities causes several damages, including destruction of the natural habitat.

“There are also health challenges like lung damage, cancer, deformities in children. Government needs to help people in such communities, the way government in other countries have done. Gas flaring should be made a prohibitive act; it should be stopped. If government must collect fine, it should be so huge that it will discourage these oil companies from continuing,” he says. Dr Ameh Alexander of Ameh Glory Hospital, Owaza, speaking on the possibilities of some ailment related to oil and gas in the community, says: “Most times, we get patients with various consultations, which I feel might be related to gas flaring and oil production in the community.

We, however, have not taken time to do a study, to know if the ailments could be related to gas flaring. We need proper study, research and data, so that we can come out with a proper conclusion, because whatever we’re saying right now is just speculation. But if you want us to do a study, then you have to come, so that we sit down and carry out the modalities, do a study and come out with a result. It would be an interesting issue to study. Yes, convulsion among the children could be linked to gas flaring. It’s highly possible, but like I said earlier, everything is mere speculation until we carry out a study.”

The Co-founder of Environmental Rights Action, Dr Godwin Uyi Ojo, says lack of political will by the Nigerian government to regulate oil industry is major reason for corporate abuse by oil multinationals. On his part, Director for Action Aid, Dr. Otive Igbuzor, notes that it has been documented that gas flaring leads to acid rain, retarded crop yields and respiratory diseases. Also, the Executive Director, Friends of the Earth, Nigeria, Nnimmo Bassey, argues that best solution for gas flaring is for the oil to be left alone in earth and for Nigeria to refocus on agriculture.

Oil seekers came into Owaza community in 1958, same time they made inroads into Nigeria. Then came the attendant alleged dangers associated with oil spills and gas flaring. Owaza and other communities in other nine states in Nigeria are suffering similar health challenges.

According to Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria, more gas is flared in Nigeria than anywhere else in the world. Although estimates are unreliable, but roughly 2.5 billion cubic feet of gas associated with crude oil is wasted in this way ev   ery day. The organisation further states that flare contains a cocktail of toxins that affect the health and livelihood of local communities, exposing residents to an increased risk of premature deaths, child respiratory illnesses, asthma and cancer. Everybody seems to agree that flaring should stop. There is even a global gas flaring reduction initiative, promoted by the World Bank, for which Nigeria is an important focus. Yet Nigeria remains one of the world’s biggest gas flaring nations.

Owaza oil: Gathering storms of violence

Chairman of Ajiwa villages in Epu West Autonomous community, Mr. Udochukwu Wabu, says the continued activities of the oil companies and their nonchalant attitude towards the plight of the people, and may soon result to, “riot or war.”

“The Federal Government should intervene. It’s not as if we cannot fight or that we don’t know what to do that can cause havoc in the next 10 minutes. We can burn down the place within seconds. If Owaza flow station is shut down, it will affect other stations outside Abia State. We have been patient enough! We’re tired of their negotiations, which is not yielding results.

Our health centre was commissioned in 1991. All we do is to go to local chemists to buy drugs or we go to Aba. Our women die every day during child birth.” Also, Elder Chief Silas Monday Ikocha believes people die prematurely because of gas flaring. “For example, my own brother died two weeks ago. He came out from his hut preparing for church service on a Sunday and slumped. That is how people die in Owaza. We rushed him to Living World Hospital in Aba, where he was confirmed dead. We want Shell, Total and government to help us to bring doctors, nurses and medicines to our hospital.”

Abandoned projects and drums of war

Owaza Youth Leader, Hon. Austin Nwarie, alleges that several projects in the community have been abandoned while others have fallen apart over lack of maintenance. “For over eight years now, just two roads are under construction. There is nothing like NDDC project in our community, except for the solar street light. Constructions were started on some roads and then abandoned. Our primary and secondary schools are in deplorable conditions.” Nwarie discloses that another abandoned project is the water project. “These are some of the reasons we keep asking if we are not part of an oil producing community.

The Federal Government is supposed to fight for our people, but they are not doing that. Last year, we called on the Federal Government to intervene in the matter between us, Total and Shell. We have repeatedly called on the Federal Government, because we don’t want to join other Niger Delta militants. If we decide to fight, the situation may worsen.

Government needs to call these oil companies to order. Our benefits from them have been death and sicknesses. My question is this; do we have to arm ourselves with rifles and fight before we can actualise and achieve what we desire? Is that what they are pushing us to do?” “If there was time, I would have taken you around so you’ll visit and see with your eyes most of the families affected by gas flaring. Nobody from the oil companies has deemed it fit to look into the affairs of Owaza. The fear is there.

There is a lot of intimidation here. “If they continue to ignore us, things might go back to 2010 and 2011, where youths took to kidnapping and other crimes. We’re not praying that things should get to that level. But let the right things be done. Our people are not happy,” the youth leader adds. On why Owaza has not taken the oil companies to international courts like other oil producing states, “We beg just to eat; where do we get money for a court case? Don’t forget that court cases can drag for years. Like what is happening in other Niger Delta states, violence is what some of these oil companies need and understand.

There is no body in this community that has up to N10,000 to render as assistance to another. “I have been to other oil producing states; I can tell you that Owaza is the poorest community among all the oil producing states. I noticed that those states that have benefited the most are those that are good in using knife, bombs and guns.

They got what they wanted. Shell and Total are even trying to divide us, so that we fight and kill ourselves. They are using some of our men to create problems among us,” Nwarie alleges. But how long Owaza will wait to hear from the oil companies before it reacts? “We have sent signals to Total and Shell to act between now and May. We cannot continue like this after May. If they want to kill the community, fine, let them kill everybody. The only thing that can save the situation is for them to act fast and settle things. Failure to do that, then anything they see, they should accept it,” he says.

Nwarie adds that he knows it is possible for people to come after him because of his militant stance, but he also believes that God will never forsake the righteous. “I’m not afraid; I believe in the truth. The Holy Bible says that if you say the truth, it will set you free. If anyone is coming to harm me, the person will sink. I’m after truth and justice. Our community should be developed. Our women and youths need to be empowered. Shell alone produces between 4,000 and 5,000 barrels daily, but just look at the community. It’s unfair when you consider the barrels of oil leaving this community every day.”

A school without chairs, desk

While our reporter was in the community, the heavens opened. A bucket was quickly placed outside; the water was dark in colour. Our reporter also visited the Central School, Owaza; it’s the only primary school in the community. Only two adults were in the spacious compound and a  handful of pupils in a class. One of the adults is a skinny teacher, armed with a white chalk, the other, a springy old man, who introduces himself as the gateman. The time was around 3pm. The school is still using boards coated with charcoal. The ceilings of the classrooms were falling off, clearly a hint of danger for the pupils. The school lacks chairs and desks.

The men say the pupils use stones as seats to learn. A unit of the school is, however, being renovated by ASOPADEC. They explain that a series of letters have been sent to Shell and Total, pleading that the schools, including the secondary, should be renovated and equipped.

Government officials’ perturbing silence on Owaza

Attempts were made to reach the Abia State Commissioner for Health, Dr. John Ahukunnah, about the alleged health challenges and lack of standard hospital in Owaza. Our reporter called Ahukunnah for days; his phone rang several times, but he didn’t pick his calls.

A text message was also sent, but he was yet to reply as at press time. The Abia State Commissioner for Environment, Aham Uko, however, says he is not aware of any environmental challenges being experienced by Owaza community. He notes that he has not received a complaint or a petition to that effect. One of the abandoned projects in the community, which had gulped millions of naira, is the Skills Acquisition Centre.

The community people allege that it has been abandoned for over seven years.

The Ministry of Niger Delta Skill Acquisition Centre

The centre, under the Minislooted  try of Niger Delta, was awarded to three contractors, Lot One- Building Construction Hinterland Developers Nigeria Limited for N2,093,430,756.50, to be completed within 12 months, Lot Two-Civil External Works, Apogee Engineering Limited (N649,794,515), expected to be completed in 10 months, Lot Three Services Works, Omenario Resources Limited (N398,840,725), also expected to be completed within 12 months.

The contract was approved on March 17, 2010. This same project was awarded to other oil producing states. But those had allegedly been completed.

Owaza Liaison Officer, Ministry of Niger Delta Skill Acquisition Centre, Marshal Onyemauche Anolaba, says it was the former President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan’s administration that came up with the Ministry of Niger Delta Skill Acquisition Centre project. He says: “The project was shared among three contactors – Lot One Hinterland Developers Nigeria Limited, Lot Two Apogee Engineering Limited and Lot Three Omenario Resources Limited.

Lot Two started on a very good note. He was in charge of clearing the site. He had been diligent. A very good contractor led by Engineer Anosike Osuwa Osinachi who saw it as his responsibility to complete his work. Everything given to him had been completed – the road network, the football pitch, the grassing and farm house. He’s now simply waiting to handover. The security guards at the site right now are being paid by him, to ensure that equipment left there are not looted.

Lot Three, who has 13.5 per cent of the contract, in charge of the electric network, bought transformers and left the site. There was no security guard then; some of those items were   Minislooted. There was a community stride, backed by the kings and we went to Aba. We were able to trace and brought the transformers back.

That singular move, underscored how jealously the community is guarding the project. But Lot One, who has 62 per cent of the contract, had never showed willingness to work. He works as if he hates the community. “If he had worked like Lot Two, by now the project would have been handed over. All the constructions, hostels, for male and females, residential areas were supposed to be handled by him. All these are at their foundation level. Some had not even been excavated for a foundation to be laid. The first take off money given to him was over N300 million. I’m not exaggerating.

Till date, we have not seen what Lot One had done that is worth such an amount. From recent information at our disposal, we heard that Lot One had been given another N25 million, in order to return to site. But till date, he had not returned to site. We want to use this opportunity to beg Lot One, Hinterland Developers Nigeria Limited, Ministry of Niger Delta and the consultant, Cosmo Base Consortium Nigeria Limited, (who is in charge of the three contractors), to call Lot One to come back to site. If he doesn’t want to come back to site, the community is ready to do anything within its reach to ensure that he is changed and another contractor brought in. If the centre had been completed, it would be beneficial to everyone.”

Marshal Anolaba, a Sociology graduate, working as a security guard, also says that part of the trainings youths are expected to learn at the centre was on oil and gas.

He says the abandoned centre has denied the community of being empowered academically, skilfully and financially. According to him, the centre would have improved the community’s standard of living. Our reporter went to the site of the Skill Acquisition Centre. The centre sits on an expanse of land space.

Aside from the security guards, nobody was on ground. A huge building and football pitch occupy pride of place.

N700m budgeted for Skill Acquisition Centres

The Ministry of Niger Delta spokesperson, Raphael Towoju, says that to the best of his knowledge, no project, which emanated from the ministry, has been abandoned. He explains that over N700 million was budgeted for all the Skill Acquisition Centres in the Niger Delta regions. “We have eight ongoing skill acquisition projects. The one in Bayelsa State has been completed and handed over to Otueoke University since 2014.

The Owaza Skill Acquisition Centre project has not been abandoned. What the government is doing is to ensure all the projects are completed, though funding has been a major challenge. To us as a ministry, none of our projects has been abandoned. If it has not been completed, then it is ongoing.

This administration promised to complete all projects and we are working hard to make sure we keep to that mandate. The budget is one for all; all the nine projects are seen as one project of the ministry and so the budget comes in bulk. “The ministry checkmates the projects based on how the contractors work.

That was why when this administration came on board, an audit committee was immediately set up to take a statutory report of all projects in the Niger Delta from 2009 to 2015 to determine the status of the projects and know the way forward. The project is expected to engage the youth when it’s completed. When they are engaged, it is believed that militancy will be over. It is designed to empower the youth; keep them busy. If they are busy, the last thing they’ll think about is militancy.”

Continue here: In Owaza, gas flaring comes with deadly consequences (III)