Why Environmental Injustice Flourishes In Nigeria

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By Jerome-Mario Utomi

Recently, precisely on Tuesday, November 21, 2023, I participated as a panellist at the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies (IHS), Erasmus University, Rotterdam, Netherlands, a panel discussion on The role of multi-stakeholder engagement in achieving environmental justice.

The gathering, which was held in Victoria Island, Lagos, formed part of training on Environmental Justice: Reducing Ecological and Social Inequalities through Effective and Participatory Land Governance.

Essentially, in my private study/preparation for the programme, the need to domesticate the subject became paramount to me. To achieve this objective; the following questions came flooding; what is environmental justice? Are there traces or evidence that it exists in any part of Nigeria? In what form or shape? Who are the people responsible? Who are the most impacted? What is the politics that kept it going? How can we creatively achieve effective development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies without discrimination against the have-nots and vulnerable peoples? What strategy and tactics can policy and decision-makers at both Federal and state levels adopt to get the people directly involved in the decision-making process that affects their environment?

Providing answers to the above questions, beginning with the first, from what experts are saying, environmental justice is a crusade that advocates fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, colour, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.

Viewed broadly, environmental justice, according to the world information search engine, Wikipedia, is a social movement to address environmental injustice, which occurs when poor or marginalized communities are harmed by hazardous waste, resource extraction, and other land uses from which they do not benefit. The movement has generated hundreds of studies showing that exposure to environmental harm is inequitably distributed.

Historically, the movement began in the United States in the 1980s. It was heavily influenced by the American civil rights movement and focused on environmental racism within rich countries. The movement was later expanded to consider gender, international environmental injustice, and inequalities within marginalised groups.

The global environmental justice movement arises from local environmental conflicts in which environmental defenders frequently confront multinational corporations in resource extraction or other industries. Local outcomes of these conflicts are increasingly influenced by transnational environmental justice networks.

Undoubtedly, when the above definition/explanation is juxtaposed with the ongoing degradation in the country in the name of development, it becomes glaringly obvious that environmental injustice exists here in Nigeria and remains a sin that all must share in its guilt.  But if this injustice which daily and harmfully impacts the poor and other vulnerable Nigerians is a challenge in other parts of the country, what is happening in the Niger Delta region, South-South Geopolitical zone is a crisis.

It is a brazen unfairness planted by the government and signposted in areas such as; a parade of multiple but obsolete environmental laws, poor enforcement habits and brazen lack of capacity to see through to programme monitoring and evaluation,  discrepancy in application and implementation of environmental, policies, programmes and initiatives.

This environmental ill is further accelerated by corporate organizations’ particularly the International Oil Companies (IOCs) noncompliance with international best practices in their day-to-day quest for profit maximization through crude oil exploration and production in the Niger Delta region and compounded by their erroneous understanding of call for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) as a dangerous fiction targeted at hand twisting the rich and mighty.

Out of many such examples, this piece will highlight evidence of incapacity to enforce compliance with environmental regulations and demands.

Fundamentally, many Nigerians with critical interest had hitherto believed that the advent of Nigeria’s Petroleum Industry Act (PIA) 2021, which was signed into law in the aforementioned years, and arguably the most audacious attempt to overhaul the petroleum sector in Nigeria, will solve the real and imagined challenges in the nation’s petroleum sector, and turn Niger delta region, particularly host communities to a zone of peace in their relationship with Crude Oil prospecting and exploration companies.

But today, facts have since emerged that instead of providing the legal, governance, regulatory and fiscal framework for the Nigerian Petroleum Industry and the host communities, the Petroleum Industry Act (Act), has contrary to expectation become a first line of conflict between crude oil prospecting, exploration companies and their host communities. Like other Acts that guided crude oil production in the past, PIA has similarly become a toothless bulldog that neither bites nor barks. In fact, analysts and industry watchers have come to a sudden realization that nothing has changed.

A tour by boat of creeks and coastal communities of Warri South West and Warri North Local Government Areas of Delta state will amply reveal that the much-anticipated end in sight of gas flaring is actually not in sight. In the same manner, a journey by road from Warri via Eku-Abraka to Agbor, and another road trip from Warri through Ughelli down to Ogwuashi Ukwu in Aniocha Local Government of the state, shows an environment where people cannot properly breathe as it is littered by gas flaring points.

To a large extent, the above confirms as true the recently published report which among other concerns noted that Nigeria has about 139 gas flare locations spread across the Niger Delta both in onshore and offshore oil fields where gas which constitutes about 11 per cent of the total gas produced are flared. Apart from the health implications of flared gases on humanity, its adverse impact on the nation’s economy is equally weighty.

Banking on what experts are saying, the major reason for the flaring of gases is that when crude oil is extracted from onshore and offshore oil wells, it brings with it raw natural gas to the surface where natural gas transportation, pipelines, and infrastructure are lacking, like in the case of Nigeria, this gas is instead burned off or flared as a waste product as this is the cheapest option. This has been going on since the 1950s when crude oil was first discovered in commercial quantities in Nigeria.

While Nigeria and Nigerians persist in encountering gas flaring in the country, even so, has successive administrations in the country made both feeble and deformed attempts to get it arrested.

The facts are there and speak for it.

In 2016, President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration enacted Gas Flare Prohibition and Punishment), an act that among other things made provisions to prohibit gas flaring in any oil and gas production operation, blocks, fields, onshore or offshore, and gas facility treatment plants in Nigeria.

On Monday, September 2, 2018, Dr Ibe Kachikwu, Minister of State for Petroleum (as he then was) while speaking at the Buyers’ Forum/stakeholders’ Engagement organized by the Gas Aggregation Company of Nigeria in Abuja among other things remarked thus; ‘I have said to the Department of Petroleum Resources, beginning from next year (2019 emphasis added), we are going to get quite frantic about this (ending gas flaring in Nigeria) and companies that cannot meet with extended periods –the issue is not how much you can pay in terms of fines for gas flaring, the issue is that you would not produce. We need to begin to look at the foreclosing of licenses’.

The threat has since ended in the frames as the Minister did little or nothing to get the threat actualized.

The administration also launched the now abandoned National Gas Flare Commercialization Programme (NGFCP, a programme, according to the Federal Government aimed at achieving the flares-out agenda/zero routine gas flaring in Nigeria by 2020.

Again, like a regular trademark, it failed.

Away from Buhari’s administration, in 1979, the then Federal Government in a similar style came up with the Associated Gas Re-injection Act which summarily prohibited gas flaring and also fixed the flare-out deadline for January 1, 1984. It failed in line with the leadership philosophy in the country.

Similar feeble and deformed attempts were made in 2003, 2006, and 2008.

In the same style and span, precisely on July 2, 2009, the Nigerian Senate passed a Gas Flaring (Prohibition and Punishment) Bill 2009 (SB 126) into Law fixing the flare-out deadline for December 31, 2010- a date that slowly but inevitably failed. Not stopping at this point, the FG made another attempt in this direction by coming up with the Petroleum Industry Bill which fixed the flare-out deadline for 2012. The same Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) was protracted till 2021 when it completed its gestation and was subsequently signed into law by President Buhari, as the Petroleum Industry Act (PIA).

Despite this vicious movement to save the environment and its people, the Niger Delta challenge remains. So the question that is as important as the piece itself is; if this legion of laws/Acts cannot save the people of the region, who will? When will it complete its gestation period and deliver the targeted environmental protection/justice to the people of the Niger Delta region?

While answer(s) to the above question remain germane, this piece also identifies the government’s reluctance to appreciate development plans and reform programs from a rights-based perspective, as another fundamental obstacle to realizing environmental justice in the country.

This non-infusion of human rights perspective to development adversely acts as an impediment to the application of principles of participation, accountability, transparency and non-discrimination towards the attainment of equity and justice in development initiatives.

As clarified by the United Nations Independent Expert on the Right to Development, for a programme to be tagged development, it must require a particular process that allows the realization of economic, social and cultural rights, as well as civil and political rights, and all fundamental freedoms, by expanding the capabilities and choices of the individual.

To operationalize the above guideline, the state and federal government must shun all forms of discriminatory approaches to environmental designs, implementation and enforcement, as the concentration of environmental attention in one part of the state to the detriment of others is nothing but environmental injustice.

As stated elsewhere “the intentional involvement of traditionally underrepresented communities — especially low-income people of colour — is key to addressing local environmental justice concerns. Not only do these communities benefit from inclusion in the planning processes, but their knowledge can help those making planning and policy decisions in identifying activities of polluters and potential hidden hazards that they may not even realize exist.

This holds the opinion that both Federal and state governments must internalize these facts.

Jerome-Mario Utomi is the Programme Coordinator (Media and Public Policy), Social and Economic Justice Advocacy (SEJA), a Lagos-based Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). He can be reached via [email protected] or 09032725374

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