By Ekemini Simon
When crude oil was discovered beneath their land in 1957, they thought the spring where their blessings would flow from has been discovered.
After several promises of glad tidings to come, gleefully, they appended their signature to welcome the Anglo-Dutch firm, Shell Petroleum Development Company to commence oil and gas exploration in their community. With the Memorandum of Understanding reached, the first oil well in Akwa Ibom State known as SPDC Ibibio 1 was established.
When Shell dug their land, the people of Ikot Ada Udo in Ikot Abasi local government area of Akwa Ibom State never had the foggiest idea that they were co-conspirators in digging their grave for death by installment. No, they were far from discerning that they have opened the abyss of many-tentacled roots of ecological crisis.
The Beginning of Troubles
When SPDC Ibibio 1 was established, shell corked it as one of their reserved oil wells. Several years past and the doomsday came looming. According to experts, the facility began corroding and consequently failed. This led to its first oil spill incident in 1997. Report has it that the failure of the facility was not properly attended to and the spill re-occurred in 1999 and 2004. But these were just prelude to the real catastrophe. The last straw that broke the camel’s back was the massive spill which occured in 2006/2007.
The oil spill struck at a time of heavy rainy season. According to the Village Head of Ikot Ada Udo, Eteidung Emmanuel Alfred Akpan, the massive spill flowed into farmlands, fish ponds, water bodies including the main source of the community’s drinking water, fishing and waterway; Aya River. The community became an oily lake. Adjoining villages in Ikpa Nung Asang Clan were not spared of the ruination.
Despite the alarming situation, Shell did not visit the well head to stop the spill until after many months. The spill attracted media and the attention of the National Assembly and became a tourist attraction before Shell adjusted the cap on the well.
Life Before and After Shell Spill
Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) on Tuesday, April 20, 2021, organized Oil Fields Community Dialogue for the people of Ikot Ada Udo to freely express their concerns and plan for the future.
The location for the dialogue already reveals their plight. It was a deserted big beach market which prior to Shell spill used to attract many fish traders as far as Aba in Abia State. History has it that the river also served as one of the routes to ancient Opobo Kingdom. But all these became history when the SPDC oil spill struck. This reporter also observed that the subsoil at the river bank has become so darkened even after 14 years of the spill. The community narrated how life retrogressed after the 2006-2007 spill. ” I still remember how our farmlands yielded. Two stems of cassava yielded big tubers, enough to feed a family. Our water bodies were a haven for big fishes and crab. People came from long distances to buy fishes from our river. But after the 2007 oil spill, that became history”, says Madam Imelda Clement, who could no longer continue with farming after the spill destroyed their land.
She notes that the pollution caused by the spill has not only affected their environment but has damaged their health. Madam Clement explains ” The food we eat, the water we drink all come from polluted land and water. That is why we now have many, even the young ones in the community suffering from sight defects. We now have high cases of child mortality and people rarely live long here”.
Be that as it may, the spill from the SPDC Ibibio 1 does not seem over. Members of the community mention that the oil well still emits gaseous substances especially during the dry season
“During dry season when the well is heated, you have gaseous smell emit from it and it affects the community”, notes Elder Essien Umoren.
Members of the community insist that government at various level have not shown adequate interest in their plight. Hon Godwin King of the Host Community Network (HOCON) states ” In 2007, when the oil spill happened, Akwa Ibom State Government did not give adequate push. Even after that, they still do not care about our plight. We don’t have health care centre here.”
The Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), Nnimmo Bassey captures succinctly the plight of Ikot Ada Udo. He notes “Oil wealth flies above the heads of communities. Just like power lines take power elsewhere leaving us in the dark. Communities farm and endure rotten harvests. Fishers fish, but the fishes are banished by crude. Fishers eat imported iced fish. Communities live by the riverside but may well have been in parched deserts. Riverine communities drink pure water!
“At one end is the willful irresponsibility of the oil companies who simply rake in more profits as they externalize production costs by heaping harms on the hapless communities and ignoring their groans. At the other end are the complicit governments who are trapped in the false hope that extractivism can extricate their nations from the carefully engineered grip of poverty.”
Battle For Compensation/Clean Up
Shell were jointly dragged to court at the Hague, Netherland by a handful of farmers for the Ikot Ada Udo community in Akwa Ibom State and Oruma and Goi villages in Rivers State, to be compensated and their land and water cleaned up.
The Anglo-Dutch company, tried to prevent the case from being heard in the Netherlands, but in 2015, judges ruled that the case should go ahead. Interestingly, on January 20, 2021 a Dutch court ruled that Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary, the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC) was liable for oil pollution in several farming and fishing communities in the Niger Delta region.
Besides holding the Nigerian subsidiary responsible, the Court of Appeal in The Hague ruled that Shell, which is based in Holland, had breached its “duty of care” in its operations abroad. It ordered the subsidiary to pay compensation to the farmers and begin cleanup of the polluted areas.
Again, on February 12, 2021 the British Supreme Court ruled that the Ikot Ada Udo, Oruma and Goi farmers and fishermen can sue Shell in English courts, overturning lower court rulings that had blocked such suits.
Shell claimed that the spills were caused by sabotage, but the court rejected that argument, and in an interim judgment ruled in favour of Oruma and Goi villages saying the company had not provided enough evidence to support its claim.
A ruling in the third case involving SPDC Ibibio 1 oil well in Ikot Ada Udo is pending. In that case, Shell still insists the spill was caused by sabotage, but the court has not determined whether Shell can be held liable and has requested clarification about the extent of the pollution caused by the spill.
The final judgment is still expected. But the Oil Giant after years of denying responsibility is seeking ways for out of Court settlement.
The Director of HOMEF posits that for the people of Ikot Ada Udo to take an informed decision, dialogue is imperative. “Dialogue in the oil fields require keen attention because much of what is communicated is more in what is not being said than in what is said. Tears and sorrows, groans and gnashing of teeth speak louder than speeches or songs”, he noted.
Bassey advised the community not to allow themselves to be tricked by Shell’s promise of settlement. He charged the community to wait for the final judgment of the court so that their concerns can be addressed holistically.
He added “Anybody who destroy our environment must repair it. Don’t be carried away by the promise of compensation alone. It was only when the matter was considered at the National Assembly that Shell came to stop the spill. That kind of irresponsible behaviour must not go on in the Niger Delta. We can’t accept pollution anymore in our communities. We are certain that God will help you to get Justice”.
This same position is held by Policy Alert, a non-governmental organisation working on fiscal and environmental justice. According to the Executive Director of the Organization, Tijah-Bolton Akpan, their call to the community is that they should not fall for the shenanigans of Shell.
He noted ” Shell is playing a shell game and if the communities play along with shell, at the end of the day, they will stand to lose.”
He insists that through the instrumentality of the Court, Shell must compensate the community and most importantly, they must come back to clean the community hence the more reason the community should not settle for out of court settlement.
As the world looks on to what would be the fate of Ikot Ada Udo community, many would wish Ikot Ada Udo among other oil communities would reflect on the words of Nnimmo Bassey ” It is time for us to reflect on what went wrong and who we accepted should exploit our land in exchange for a dream that has become a nightmare. It is time for reflection as to what went wrong that our land would be so polluted while the polluter walks away free. It is time for us to reflect on what must be done so we can live in our land with dignity and enjoy the gifts of nature with no hindrance.
“It is time for us to hear ourselves again, to hear the crickets chirp and the birds sing. It is time to quench the evil flames and allow the moon to light our night sky again. The time it is for us to flush away the polluting crude and toxic wastes from our steams, creeks and rivers and once more see our faces in our waters.”