At the public well in Ogale, locals say the water still stinks of benzene eight years after the UN recommended emergency measures to remove the carcinogen after decades of oil production in the Niger Delta. But they still gather each day to collect it for washing, cooking and drinking.
“Are we satisfied? No, we are not,” says HRH Godwin Bebe Okpabi, the king of Ogale, a community in the heart of the delta. “We are the victims and we will be satisfied only when we get clean drinking water and our community is remediated.”
The decades-overdue clean-up of Ogoniland, after years of oil spills from the pipelines that criss-cross the region, is finally under way. But the billion-dollar project — funded by Nigeria’s national oil company and Royal Dutch Shell — is mired in allegations of corruption and mismanagement.
“We are not pleased with what is going on,” said Mike Karikpo, an attorney with Friends of the Earth International and a member of the Ogoniland team that negotiated the creation of the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (Hyprep), the government body running the clean-up.
Activists across the Niger Delta had hoped Ogoniland could be used as a model for even more polluted areas. But so far, it reads more like a cautionary tale.
Nigeria is Africa’s biggest oil producer, pumping out about 1.8m barrels per day. It provides roughly 90 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange and more than half of government revenues.
The clean-up began only this summer, about a year after the first of an expected five tranches of $180m in funding was released to Hyprep. Mr Karikpo complains of a lack of transparency, alleging that planning, budgeting and awarding of contracts took place behind closed doors. Work started at the height of the rainy season, washing away much of the progress as contaminated soil collected for treatment was swept back into the environment.
Now the government has floated the idea of resuming oil production in Ogoniland for the first time in decades even as crude continues to leak from the pipelines.
“There’s no transparency — communities don’t feel they can understand or trust the process,” Mr Karikpo said. “People think it’s a scam.”
Local people’s lack of faith is rooted in decades of mistrust in the authorities. In the 1990s, writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop) led non-violent protests seeking justice for the Ogoni over the severe environmental degradation in their homeland caused by oil extraction. The government responded with a brutal crackdown and in 1994 executed Mr Saro-Wiwa and eight others.
Little has changed since. Ogoniland, like the broader Niger Delta, has become more polluted and development has stalled, with little to show for the billions of dollars in crude that has been extracted.
Critics have now accused Hyprep of being, like much of Nigeria’s oil sector, a vehicle for political patronage and graft. This year 16 companies were awarded contracts for the first phase of the clean-up, which — to the consternation of critics — focuses on the least contaminated parts of Ogoniland. An investigation by the news site Premium Times found that almost all the companies were set up for other purposes, including poultry farming, car sales and construction, and had no experience of tackling oil pollution.
Meanwhile, insiders have questioned Hyprep’s capacity to handle such a massive project.
Wale Edun, chairman of Hyprep’s board of trustees and a former investment banker, said the organisation was moving so slowly that the board had only been able to disburse less than a quarter of the $180m available for the first year.
“It’s very disappointing,” he said. “The hope is that from a slow start momentum will build up . . . because if there’s no hope of that, then the poor Ogoni people will have no hope of their land being cleaned, of their water . . . and their livelihoods being restored.”
Shell and Hyprep have rejected the criticism. The clean-up is being funded by the Shell Petroleum Development Company JV, a joint venture operated by Shell in which the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, whose pipeline has been blamed for the Ogale water contamination, has a 55 per cent stake, with Shell owning 30 per cent and Total and Agip the remainder.
In a statement, Shell said the clean-up process was “being led by the federal government” through Hyprep, on whose board of trustees and governing council the company sits.
“The contracting processes through which these awards were made are robust and all the contractors went through a diligent technical and commercial scrutiny before award was given,” Shell said.
The company, which closed its Ogoniland operations in 1993, said it accepted responsibility “for spills arising from its operations”, but that some of the blame for the pollution must go to thieves who illegally tapped into pipelines and makeshift refining operations in the Delta’s creeks.
Sampson Ebimaro, Hyprep’s head of monitoring and evaluation, acknowledged that things had moved slowly since the clean-up effort was relaunched in late 2016.
“I wouldn’t say the performance has been robust,” he said. “Earlier we had challenges of insecurity and rain, but as soon as dry weather comes in we hope to move very fast.”
Ledum Mitee, a friend of Mr Saro-Wiwa who took over Mosop after his death and whose hometown of K-Dere is one of the most polluted in the region, said he had concerns going back to the original UN report in 2011, which he said was not sufficiently critical of Shell or its legal liability.
“I didn’t see a will to do a thorough job then and I don’t see it now,” he said. “So much of it is politics and hype, [rather] than changing people’s lives on the ground.”