It is sixty years ago this year that the oil giant, Shell, first found oil at Oloibiri in Ijawland in the Niger Delta, after fourteen years of searching.
The local teacher in Oloibiri at the time, Princess Joy Amangala, would later recall how “some of the white men came back screaming ‘We’ve got oil! We’ve got oil’.”
Everyone in the local community was excited about the riches they had been promised. But the white man’s joy has been the black man’s curse as the oil industry has wreaked a trail of social, ecological and cultural destruction on the Delta.
For decades, Shell has been the driving force of this destruction.
Sometimes amongst the horror came moments of humour. The Oloibiri teacher, Joy Amangala, recalled how as a new town, called “Shell Oloiriri”, was built all the downsides of the oil industry quickly became apparent. “One Shell worker, My Taytee, asked for some girls to be brought to his cabin,” she recalled “but my friends and I laughed at the idea. Mr Taytee’s tummy was a bucket-size”.
As the years rolled on, the light humour would turn to dark horror.
The charge sheet against Shell is now well documented and is amongst the most serious levied at any oil company in the history of the petrochemical age: Chronic and routine air and water pollution; reckless gas flaring; operating to double standards; a total disregard for the social and cultural well-being of the communities in which it operated, akin to environmental racism; collusion with the Nigerian army and Mobile Police Force and complicity in the murder of Ogoni and others.
Of course over the decades the oil giant has defended itself against these charges with a procession of rebuttals, glossy brochures, half-truths and what many people would label outright lies. Often its empty promises to be a better citizen have turned out to be that, empty.
Eventually the brutal truth would catch up and Shell has now has had to also defend itself in court in America and Europe, as its reckless behaviour has come home to roost.
No person did more to raise awareness of Shell’s ecological destruction than the celebrated writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, who accused Shell of being complicit in the “genocide” of the Ogoni people in a book published in 1992.
Although Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni often grabbed the headlines at this time, others were also making representations on behalf of the people of the Niger Delta.
That same year – 1992 – a delegation from the River Chiefs from the Delta presented a report at the Earth Summit, which stated, in part:
“Apart from air pollution from the oil industry’s emissions and flares day and night, producing poisonous gases that are silently and systematically wiping out vulnerable airborne biota and otherwise endangering the life of plants, game and man itself, we have widespread water pollution and soil/ land pollution that respectively result in the dearth of most aquatic egg and juvenile states of the life of fin-fish and shell-fish and sensible animals, on the one hand, whilst on the other hand agricultural lands contaminated with oil spills become dangerous for farming, even when they continue to produce any significant yields.”
The River Chiefs also warned of the twin dangers of subsidence caused by oil operations and rising sea level rise caused by the burning of oil and gas.
Three years later, in 1995, as the world watched in horror at the murder of Saro-Wiwa by the Nigerian military, a study by a World Bank specialist David Moffat and Professor Olof Linden from Stockholm University, estimated that some 80 per cent of the Delta’s residents would have to move because of sea-level rise, with property damage levied at $9 billion.
In the twenty six years since that study was written, often the focus has been trying to stop the violence against the communities of the Niger Delta and to try and get Shell to clean up its mess in Ogoniland. This is rightly so, but because the situation on land has been so dire, the threat that climate change and sea level rise poses to the region has often been tragically over-looked.
Last week, the Foreign Policy website ran an article about how: “West Africa is Being Swallowed by the Sea”.
Reporting from Fuvemeh, a small fishing village in Ghana, journalist Matteo Fagotto notes how “in the past two decades, climate change and industrial activity” have “accelerated coastal erosion here. Gradually but inexorably, the ocean has swallowed up hundreds of feet of coastline, drowning the coconut plantations and eventually sweeping away houses.”
He adds: “Fuvemeh is one of thousands of communities along the western coast of sub-Saharan Africa, stretching more than 4,000 miles from Mauritania to Cameroon, at risk of being washed away. Spurred by global warming, rising sea levels are causing massive erosion — in some places eating away more than 100 feet of land in a single year.”
Fagotto notes that sea levels are expected to rise faster than the global average in West Africa. “The people of Fuvemeh are among hundreds of millions who are paying a heavy price for a problem they didn’t create.”
They are like the people of the Niger Delta. They too face a problem they didn’t create.
The warnings about the vulnerability of the Niger Delta to sea level rise have kept coming. A decade ago a scientific paper warned that: “The Niger delta Coastal settlements, which are already under stress of demographic pressure and unsustainable oil exploitation, are equally under the threat of sea level rise. Global projections of sea level rise put the area under future inundation of up to 100km in land”.
Last year another paper warned of the “high vulnerability of Niger Delta to climate change”.
For many people in the Niger Delta if they lose their homes to the rising waters, they will know that source of these rising waters is the oil giant Shell.
However, as Shell celebrates its sixtieth Nigerian birthday, the most sobering thought of all is that in another sixty years, large parts of the Niger Delta may not exist at all.
It will have been swallowed by Shell’s sea.