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Nigeria: ‘Water was the source of life; it is now the cause of death’ – the ongoing oil pollution crisis among Ogoni people in the Niger Delta

20 June 2023

With an estimated area of about 1,050 square kilometres, Ogoniland is situated in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, which happens to be the third largest mangrove ecosystem in the world and second largest in Africa. Ogoniland is home to six kingdoms and two special areas including Babbe, Eleme, Gokana, Ken-Khana, Nyo-Khana, Tai, Bori National Territory and Bangha Goi. Home to about 1.5 million people, Ogoniland is also an area of great linguistic diversity. Four main languages are spoken in Ogoniland, which are all related. They are the Kana, Gokana, Eleme and Tai languages.  

Ogonis are a distinct indigenous people with a rich cultural history and ethnic identity distinct from other ethnic groups and majority populations in southern Nigeria. Once a culturally rich and biodiverse region, Ogoniland is now cited as one of the most ecologically degraded places on earth. 

The polluted Niger delta as seen from the air. Credit: Milieudefensie (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

The reason for this ecological decline has been the catastrophic impact of oil extractive industries in the land, which dates back to the 1950s. By the late 1960s and early 1970s the woes caused by these industries had become acute. In 1969, the first oil spill was caused by the bombing of an oil tank in K-Dere community, Gokana, during the Nigeria civil war.  

A once green and high-yielding land was and still is largely reduced to oilencrusted fields where crops shrivel and die. Local rivers and creeks are covered in pools of floating crude oil and ecosystems destroyed; sources of livelihood have been lost and the health of the people seriously affected or in some cases damaged. Effluent discharges pour into local rivers and streams, making the water undrinkable and unusable.

Critically, the level of pollution by petroleum hydrocarbons has penetrated deep into the soil, surface and groundwater in the form of forever chemicals, that is, chemical pollution that is not biodegradable, which has taken and will continue to take a toll on the quality of life of people for generations to come. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Assessment Report on Ogoniland (2009–11) clearly states that due to the effect of petroleum hydrocarbon pollution, there is reduced life expectancy for the average Ogoni person, currently pegged at 45 years. 

Despite a long-standing claim for sovereignty over ancestral lands and compensation for damages caused by oil extractors, Ogoni people remain marginalized by the Nigerian state.  

This case study highlights the extent of environmental degradation on water resources in Ogoniland and the implications for Ogoni people’s rights to self-determination and restorative justice.

Ecological warfare

Although Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), the largest stakeholder in Nigeria’s oil industry, was forced to halt its operations in Ogoniland in 1993 following the passing of a ‘persona non grata’ order on SPDC and its contractors, its legacy of pollution is still felt as major pipelines criss-cross Ogoniland and intermittently spew out crude oil. Leaks from abandoned, ageing and dilapidated infrastructure have led to ongoing environmental pollution for decades. Recently, the activities of artisanal refiners have exacerbated the level of environmental pollution in the area. 

The formation of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) in 1990 came as a result of political marginalization, lack of control of Ogoni economic resources, under-development and ecological degradation (part of which concerned oil spills, the major challenge for Ogoni people at the time). While it was led by Dr G.B. Leton as the first president, MOSOP’s spokesperson was an environmental activist, playwright and ‘Right Livelihood’ award recipient, the late Kenule Beeson (Ken) Saro-Wiwa. Part of MOSOP’s mission is the fight for environmental justice and halting what Saro-Wiwa called ‘ecological war in Ogoniland’.  

‘Water was the source of life. Today, water is the source of death. People are drinking contaminated water because they have no choice. Even water from boreholes is contaminated.’

Before active oil exploration in Ogoniland was stopped, Ogoni oil contributed about 60 per cent of total oil exports from Nigeria and was also rated the best kind of oil, ‘sweet crude’.

Given that oil exports were the dominant source of external revenue and the country’s economic keystone, it was no surprise that the Nigerian government chose to support the oil industry and brutally suppressed the Ogoni people. In 1995, Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists were convicted on trumped-up murder charges. The men were subsequently executed. Their deaths caused international outrage and earned Nigeria a suspension from the Commonwealth. In 2009, SPDC paid out US$15.5 million in an attempt to settle a legal action out of court, concerning its involvement in the murder of the activists. (See Wiwa et al vs. Royal Dutch Petroleum et al, New York Federal Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, 2009.) 

Decades later, Shell’s legacy of pollution and death is still felt across the land. Ogoni environmental and human rights campaigner Celestine Akpobari argues that oil production has wrecked the land. He adds: ‘Water was the source of life. Today, water is the source of death. People are drinking contaminated water because they have no choice. Even water from boreholes is contaminated.’

His words are echoed by Nnimmo Bassey, a prominent Nigerian environmental justice advocate, activist, poet and also a ‘Right Livelihood’ recipient: ‘Ogoniland is a sorry situation. Much of the old pollution remains, especially in the case of complex sites that are yet to be remediated. This includes communities at Ogale where UNEP found groundwater to have benzene at 900 times above World Health Organization standards. Potable water remains a huge challenge in much of Ogoniland.’

Left: Ken Saro-Wiwa’s memory lives on: reflection in polluted river of local activist who follows in Ken’s footsteps, Kegbara-dere community, Ogoniland, Nigeria. Credit: Luka Tomac/Friends of the Earth International (CC BY-SA 2.0). Right: Ken Saro-Wiwa addressing Ogoni Day demonstration. The demonstration was officially called to mark the start of UNICEF’s International Year of Indigenous People, but unofficially it was against the Shell oil company. Credit: 5 January 1993. Tim Lambon/Greenpeace.

‘I repeat that we all stand before history. I and my colleagues are not the only ones on trial. Shell is here on trial … its day will surely come, and the lessons learned here may prove useful for there is no doubt in my mind that the ecological war the Company has waged in the Delta will be called to question sooner than later and … duly punished.’

To make matters worse, the current spate of artisanal refining in the land has contributed greatly to environmental degradation. The incomplete combustion of hydrocarbons has led to an increase in black soot with its resultant harmful effects on water quality and the environment as a whole. 

Restorative justice

In his final words before his execution, Saro-Wiwa famously proclaimed:  

I repeat that we all stand before history. I and my colleagues are not the only ones on trial. Shell is here on trial … its day will surely come, and the lessons learned here may prove useful for there is no doubt in my mind that the ecological war the Company has waged in the Delta will be called to question sooner than later and … duly punished.  

As Saro-Wiwa predicted, Shell has faced numerous court cases in Nigeria and abroad for the devastating pollution dumped on Ogoni lands. In January 2021, a Dutch court ordered Shell to pay €95 million (US$111.6 million) to Ogoni communities after a 13-year legal battle waged by some of the affected communities. 

In February 2023, and in representation of nearly 14,000 people from two local communities (Bille and Ogale), Client Earth filed a case against Shell’s Board of Directors for failing to move away from fossil fuels fast enough — the first ever case of its kind seeking to hold corporate directors personally liable. In May 2023, the UK High Court dismissed the case, but has since granted an oral hearing. The court case brings together schools, churches as well as individuals who request Shell to clean up their land. The communities also demand economic compensation.

To an Ogoni leader, HRH Mene Suanu Baridam, ‘taking a legal route is better than violence. It is a peaceful approach, and there is enough evidence of devastation to support the case.’ Court actions, Akpobari maintains, are also an indictment on the Nigerian government.  

If the regulatory agency was active and responsible, if the government cared about the needs of citizens, Shell would be held accountable and there would be no need to go to court [overseas], because the oil company knows the damage it has caused.  

According to Bassey, ‘the communities are right to sue Shell. We are happy the court has accepted to hear the case. It is precedent setting. Sadly, no amount of cash can pay for ecocide.’

Glimmers of hope

UNEP was commissioned to carry out an environmental assessment of Ogoni communities and make recommendations. Their recommendations called for emergency measures, as well as medium- and long-term implementation strategies that would lead to the clean-up, remediation and restoration of the land. In particular, UNEP called for a response to high levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, in the community’s sources of drinking water.  

The Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP), a government agency set up in 2017 to clean up the Niger Delta, is currently prioritizing provision of potable water in Ogoniland. Six contracts were awarded in March 2021 for water schemes that will provide potable water to the communities. If the contractors deliver these projects, Ogoni people may eventually regain access to safe drinking water. However, after two years, not a single source of potable water is to be found anywhere in Ogoniland, only gigantic water infrastructures without a drop of water in them! 

In addition to the provision of drinkable water, HYPREP has other mandates which include: remediation of soil, groundwater and swamps; provision of sustainable means of livelihoods; public health assessments; restoration and rehabilitation of mangroves, and more. The remediation project has been designed in two phases. The first focuses on hydrocarbon-impacted sites that pose medium risk and the second focuses on complex sites with extensive contamination that pose high risks to people and the ecosystem.  

HYPREP and the ongoing success of the legal battles against Shell are evidence that positive changes are happening in Ogoniland, and that the fight by the Ogoni people to remediate the damages caused by the oil extraction and by the Nigerian state as co-responsible actors in this ecocidal war, may yet lead to environmental justice for the communities and the waters of this land blighted by oil production.

Ogoni women in B-Dere community replanting mangroves to reclaim land degraded by oil spillage in Gokana, Rivers State, Nigeria. Credit: Zoryii Edith Neebari. 

We are grateful to members of Lokiaka Community Development Centre for their collaboration in the production of this chapter.

Photo: The polluted Niger delta as seen from the air. Credit: Milieudefensie (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

This chapter is part of our ‘Minority and Indigenous Trends 2023: Focus on Water’ flagship report. Discover all chapters >


Mercy Ette

Martha Agbani