In the last few days of my assumption of office as chief servant of ERA, I have reflected on the struggles for environmental justice in the last 20 years. Reliving the fervent spirit of the beginning has a pivotal vibe for the future. Then, four young environmentalists (Oronto Douglas, Nick Jones, Nnimmo Bassey, and I) were deeply conscious of mounting environmental degradation, neglect, poverty, misery and pains inflicted on the people of the Niger Delta from oil impact.  In founding ERA on January 11 1993 we shared a common desire to act spontaneously, socially and peacefully for the protection of the environment and the democratization of development, and to be a voice for the voiceless. Article 24 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights which states that: “all peoples shall have the right to a general satisfactory environment favourable to their development” was a guiding light. In what looked like a pioneering initiative, we anticipated that the ‘resource curse syndrome’ from the spirally environmental despoliation giving rise to social inequalities and grinding poverty could combine to unleash a backlash of insecurity and ignite rebellion against the state and the oil companies. Time rolled by, and how right were the predictions from the oil-insurgency!

Sometimes, we were misunderstood. At a time when environmental awareness was probably at its lowest, environmental considerations by government and corporations were routinely sacrificed willingly (and still is) on the altar of economic concern, yet, we stuck out in the trenches of advocacy resolute to fight against perpetrators of environmental and social injustices. Then, it was not unusual to see people cry out: “we want development and not monkeys” in our effort to prevent biodiversity losses and the protection of the Pandrilus monkeys endemic to Afi forests in Cross River state (salute to Liza Gasby and Peter Jenkins), halting deforestation at Omo Forest Reserve in Ogun state.  Nor was it easy defending successfully the Okomu Wildlife Sanctuary from the clutches of Michelin Rubber Company for expansion into a monocrop rubber plantation. The world renowned forest reserved populated with endemic sclaters guenon (white throated monkey) is now a gazette national park. The Kafin Zaki dam for its potential ecological impact and the displacement of thousands of rural communities in northern Nigeria has been unmasked and thankfully suspended.

In retrospect, it would appear that very minimal changes can be seen in our effort to influence relevant stakeholders to adhere to environmental standards, securing ecological debt payments and environmental justice. As environmental watchdogs we are pained to see that in spite of the effort, frequent oil spills and gas flaring continued almost unabated and as attested to by several scientific reports including the 2011 UNEP report. Indeed, the environment seems worse off far more than when we started two decades ago. Yet, the question is, how would this dark plain look like if there had not been any form of environmental activism to grapple with these forces of darkness? The onslaught of globalization, trade liberalization and increasing global energy supply to meet demand in an export-led natural resource extraction has a corresponding violent resource conflicts at the sites of extraction. This partly explains the exacerbating environmental conflicts and climate change impact in the north and south of the hemisphere.

Yet, to agonise and do nothing is to be crippled fast. Our firm belief that justice will prevail ignites the flickering flames of hope, and goading the strides of Ken Saro Wiwa and his activists’ kit and kin living or dead and whose labour past and present shall not be in vain. From the foregoing, I consider my task daunting knowing that the road to victory will be long, yet, not long. Knowing that the momentum for change is in the collective, I will continue to blow the whistle, waving green leaves and white flags, urging the frontline advancement of our numerous foot soldiers doing battles for environmental justice. While they are advancing from various positions and communities – men, women, and youths, academics, civil society groups, Media, Labour Unions and Trade groups, the call is to redouble our effort if to ensure victory in our lifetime.  

One victory from the journey so far, perhaps, is to hear many voices and see many hands enlist in the battle for environmental justice now firmly placed on the national agenda.  If the troops deployed here sounds familiar, it is because I share modestly in the trophies and legacies of the past years, the victories gained, and the pains and scars inflicted in the course of service for motherland and in the defense for planet earth. Indeed, as we mark this transition, we are not only taking off from where Nnimmo Bassey left off, good legacy we share. We are simply accelerating by engaging gear.

To set the tone, first, the Niger Delta is now adopted as a crime scene that equals ecocide or action from human agency resulting in the extensive damage to, or destruction of ecosystems that endangers people’s life. Truly, the Niger Delta as ecological disaster region is no longer one of the most polluted area in the world but the most polluted inhabited place on earth. Human rights violations are rife. Recall recent major spills such as the Shell’s Bonga spill which spilled over 40,000 barrels on 23 December 2011; Chevron’s North Apoi rig explosion offshore on 16 January 2013. Till date, there are over 4,000 oil spills in the Niger Delta and not one has been adequately cleaned up, making the region suffer from oil spills that equals one Valdez oil spill annually.  We urge the State to recognize the Niger Delta as an ecologically devastated environment and to as a matter of urgency declare a state of environmental emergency for restoration and compensation. So far, militarization strategies through military Joint Task Forces (JTF) have proved a fiasco time and again.

Secondly, we question the federal government’s amnesty programme that is not holistic but tokenistic, and failing to address the root causes of the oil resource conflict. Government has also failed to account for those other peaceful aggrieved agitators like the Ogonis (apparently, they had no guns). Rewarding entrepreneurs of violence alone installs a cycle of violence and crimes, kidnapping for ransom and other vices threatening the peace and security of our nation.

Thirdly, the question of impunity is running virile due to lack of transparency and accountability in the oil sector operations and in the management of oil wealth.  Oil is drilled under military shield and much stolen under their watchful eyes. The refusal by oil companies and State acquiescing to resist metering at the flow stations sounded like fiction. Only crude pumped at the export terminal is recorded as produced rather than from the oil wells. This mockery is simply unacceptable. Blaming the victims and locals who account for about 10 per cent of the oil theft while neglecting to fight the other few but powerful cabal who steal about 90 percent of petroleum products is calculated to give a dog a bad name in order to hang it.

We reject the oil companies’ corporate social responsibility that is subject to manipulation and abuse. Until environmental health is restored, we call for the immediate suspension of all forms of oil companies’ corporate social responsibility that is weakening and dividing the people than providing any net material benefits. Oil companies should stop forthwith the substituting of CSR schemes for environmental remediation and compensation.

In the hope that government will be amenable to change, in the discharge of its responsibilities to use national resources for the benefit of citizens, some practical measures are suggested as part of the emergency measures for social and environmental sustainability.

1. We proposed the immediate establishment of an independent National Environmental Tribunal to try and resolve all environmental justice cases as justice delayed is justice denied. Ecological debt from environmental destruction is pilling up and it is time for the agents and corporations to pay up. The crime scene of environmental despoliation is intensifying throughout the Niger Delta in Ikot Ada Odo, Bodo, Goi, Ikarama, Kalaba, Iwherekan, Oruma, Kwale, Urokhousa, Ilaje, and a host of other oil-bearing communities. It is sending victims to their untimely graves as impunity is left unchecked. We urge policy makers and parliamentarians to put in place a policy framework to kick-start this Environmental Tribunal process to allow for corporate and individual liability.  

2. We propose amendment in the law of evidence and proof in environmental cases. In the case of oil pollution the burden of proof should shift to the respondents to demonstrate otherwise claims by the plaintiffs. This is because the burden of proof as currently practice is too heavy a duty to be discharged by the poor hapless victims. So far, less than one percent of the environmental justice cases ever make it to court due to crucifying inhibitions strewn in the way of justice. After 10-15 years of litigation communities are forced to accept paltry compensation and to sign indemnity clauses that absolve such oil companies from remediation. Whether in Nigeria, California or The Hague, losing court cases not on grounds of merit but on spurious technicalities is injustice. Collectively, we must right this wrong.

3. We propose a National Basic Income Scheme (NaBIS) for the poor to redress the widening gap of inequalities through a national wealth redistribution system. Nigeria is one of the countries in the world where the gap of inequality is highest.  Over 68 million Nigeria’s are unemployed, millions live on less than two dollars per day and millions more go to bed hungry. Given the official figures from the Bureau of Statistics that Nigeria earned N48.4 trillion between 2000-2011, and N8.8 trillion in 2011 from oil wealth Nigeria can afford minimum Basic Income Stipend of about N18,000 exclusively to the poor and unemployed if we are to halt this decline towards a political class economy. It has the opportunity to release lock potentials. This Scheme as in other climes may be funded or subsidized by a reform of the progressive tax system. It is reparation from unequal use of natural resources from systemic internal colonialism. If the national budget trend is anything to go by, a situation whereby less than one percent of the population enjoys about 70 percent of the national wealth through recurrent expenditure while the 99 percent of the 170 million population is made to settle for 30 percent in capital expenditure from the national wealth is no longer acceptable. It is this sort of insensitivity that is maintaining poverty and leading to violent conflicts that is not conducive for our development. There is too much money flying around, and the citizens must wake up from docility and place real demands on their government.  

4. Nigeria needs to take advantage of the emerging energy transition model in renewable sources of energy and to diversify its economy from oil-dependency to a non-oil economy. By consistently advocating leave oil in the soil, and coal in the hole, a post-petroleum economy is expedient to eliminate waste and oil theft. It is a mystery that the barrels of crude oil produced daily in Nigeria remains unknown as the CBN, NNPC, and government bandy different figures. Because the volume is unknown, actual receipts remain mere conjectures.  Whereas production volume is placed around 1.8 million barrels per day, projections far exceed 3 million barrels per day. We are asking the oil companies and the government, what does it take to meter the oil wells and flow stations?

To conclude, we will continue environmental advocacy on policy level and to ensure enforcement through litigation strategies. Fortunately, this lecture/interactive session coincide with the marking of the International Day of Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action commemorated on April 4 annually. The session offers the opportunity to register our firm objection to the global extractivism economy to mark the painful struggles against mining and mines worldwide.  As the UN beams its focus on countries ravaged by mines, we are compelled to look at the growing use of explosives in the extractive processes in Nigeria without due regard to the people and environment. Several deaths have been recorded. Attention is hereby drawn to the quarries located at the Ogbere and Iwaye communities in Ogun state and the community folks that are being terrorized by mining companies that have operated for years without Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). The Ogun state government has heeded our demands by stepping in but it remains to be seen what changes will be made. The same situation exists in Ezza and surrounding communities in Ebonyi state, and that of the Jos Plateau that still claims lives regularly. In Zamfara lead poison continues to claim the lives of people, mostly children. Be it Blood Diamonds, Oil Wars, or Mines explosions, while the corporations laugh all the way to the banks many are sent to their untimely graves.

It is time to stand up for climate change and save one million lives plunged to their death by extreme weather conditions. We may not have changed our world these past years, but the collective vision embraced by many is firming up. Today, we can point to a community of environmental advocates, resolved in a strategic alliance and fighting side by side for environmental justice.  This bonding of activists and civil society groups remain a priority in the collective struggle and in our effort to continuously mobilise citizens, resist polluting corporations, and transform our societies for a just and equitable world.

Reflections on the Role of civil society groups on social and environmental justice struggles by Godwin Uyi Ojo, Executive Director ERA/FoEN being remarks during an interactive session with the media held in Lagos on 3 April 2013.

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ERA has recently received information that a group calling itself the "Niger Delta Coalition in the Diaspora" is still engaging itself in activities and communications giving the impression that it is linked with Environmental Rights Action (ERA).

This group issues out communications using ERA's headquarter address and mail box. We have never had any ties with this group and any views, comments or opinions expressed by them is not endorsed or authorized by any member of management or staff of ERA.

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