Another World Environment Day, and the ambivalence of speech-making ritual in Bayelsa, By Iniruo Wills

Posted by News Express | 5 June 2020 | 813 times

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•Iniruo Wills

Barely half-way gone and still fairly young, the year 2020 is already uniquely historic in many ways. Easily forgotten now is the infectious affection with which an enthusing world welcomed it at birth, for as simple a reason as the nice ring of its twin name, ‘twenty-twenty.’ The ritual of New Year resolutions was expressed in momentous tones and portrayed with the finest memes across social media.

Then came Coronavirus from the shadows of 2019’s evening, breaking out onto the morning of this year. Nothing has since remained the same. The world has literally stood still. The buzzword in recent years being disruption, Coronavirus has become the world’s dominant disruption. All are agreed that the one overarching lesson from the pandemic is that the world must rethink and reset its ways; so too its rituals.

One ritual perhaps to rethink and reset is the practice of designating days on the annual calendar to, as it were, celebrate specific themes of life. Almost every day of the year is now world something day: World Friendship Day, World Human Rights Day, World Gender Day, World Sickle Cell Day, World Happiness Day, and so on. Some themes are even repeated by having resort to synonyms. So we have World Earth Day on April 22 and World Environment Day on June 5. It is almost as if we need to pretend seriousness on global challenges by setting aside a day for each one. After that day, life goes on as usual until another year and another World Day for another set of moving speeches.

We have to wonder if this culture of annual rituals, without more, can ever put a dent on any global challenge. Whoever bothered to empirically evaluate what remarkable impact this global governance by rituals has made? For all the pain the pandemic has caused and its costs socially, if it forces us to check the habit of dressing up complacency in garbs ranging from solemn commemoration to jubilant celebration, it would be a small dividend. Perhaps a greater dividend would be for the United Nations, leading designer of these rituals and embodiment of the world system, to take stock for self-reinvention, seeing as it was itself flustered at the outset of COVID-19.

If there is one place where the shock of COVID-19 and the oil price crash that coincided with it should serve as a life cry to convert a crisis into a catalyst for change, it is Nigeria and, more so, it is Bayelsa State. The 2020 World Environment Day is a fitting day to start that move.

The environment of Bayelsa State is probably the most polluted on the planet due to reckless and unregulated petroleum production activities, both by government-licensed operators and artisanal groups who siphon and crudely “refine” crude oil on their own terms. The ravages of petroleum pollution in the state, as I have often pointed out, are only possible in ungoverned spaces, i.e. where governments do not exist. Agip/ENI, Shell, Aiteo, Chevron and other oil producing behemoths overwhelm the regulatory and supervisory institutions of the Federal Government and State Government alike. The artisanal racketeers desecrate the environment further, while most of the security operatives look the other way, barring periodic scapegoats.

The State’s immediate past governor, Seriake Dickson, rightly described the situation as environmental terrorism. Sadly, Governor Dickson also exemplified a political governing elite whose spectacular failure is the reason why just another round of World Environment Day speeches in Bayelsa State may mean nothing more than blowing of hot air.

Blessed with eight years as governor, Dickson embarked on a policy of grandiloquent rhetoric as his environmental roadmap from 2012 till 2019. So, the state remains grossly oil-polluted, the worst flooded every year and without a flood management plan (the Dutch Embassy tried to facilitate one but was treated like it was begging to be done a favour), and without a single public waste management infrastructure.

Institutionally, it knows not what to do about the rich biodiversity in its renowned mangrove forests and extensive coastal territory, an area broached by the UNDP at a time for a marine park, to be the first of its kind in the sub-region if not in Africa. The State’s Ministry of Environment, i.e. the environmental governance body of the most ecologically distressed State in Nigeria, enjoyed spasmodic funding of roughly three hundred thousand Naira about every other month, at least for the period April 2014 to February 2016 when this writer was Commissioner for Environment. Capital releases were practically zero: zilch! The environmental governance ministry of the state is institutionally dilapidated and perennially gasping for breath.

Governor Dickson waited till his last year in office (2019) to take the only serious step he ever did to deal with the multi-layered crisis, by empanelling the Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission. Comprising a fine team of Nigerian and international experts, environmentalists and moral figures led by the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, the BSOEC has done tremendous work to record the ecological epidemic that has been the lot of Bayelsa’s people since 1956 when oil was struck in one of their communities in commercial quantity, for the first time in Nigeria. For a task that entailed intensive field visits and might be next in significance only to the unprecedented UNEP Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland, BSOEC was inaugurated just months to the foreseeably turbulent governorship elections in the State. It worked against debilitating constraints that members tried courteously to conceal and could only defy by their sheer gravitas.

Shorn of the policy discontinuity associated with political transitions (even when the same party produces the successors), and with the right funding and personal executive support - a.k.a. political will - accorded BSOEC by the Governor, for that is how we roll in Nigeria, the smooth conclusion of the Commission’s work may be the State’s finest hour yet on the environmental stage. It would be the best chance at mitigating the former governor’s betrayal of Bayelsa’s wounded environment. Alas, he does not hold the monopoly for that shame.

One of the biggest lessons from the COVID-19 crisis is that, regardless of globalization, societies must learn to be their own solutions not just in public health but also generally in building resilience against shocks coming from whatever sector, whilst striving for universal standards. Added to that, the epidemic of racist homicide in season again in America, reminding us how that land of dreams is not nearly as civilized as it is developed, should teach us that we cannot keep waiting for outsiders to free us from our shackles. Some of the external liberators we are counting on are crawling in their own moral scourges.

The moral here is that Bayelsa’s leaders must start to solve Bayelsa’s problems and compel external violators to do right by our people, including by way of strict enforcement of environmental standards. There is no lack of approaches to reverse the situation, but there has always been lack of will by native Bayelsans or Niger Deltans that have been governors, senators, ministers and president. It is specific people with specific authority that must be held responsible for the primitively polluted condition of Bayelsa. Our kith and kin previously in these positions refused to protect our ecology, biodiversity and environmental rights. Senators go and come back with no agenda. Ministers of Petroleum were more interested in OPEC meetings and the prestige of rolling with oil industry moguls than with compelling the industry they supervise to clean up their mess. The only Minister (of Environment), one not from our region, that showed an understanding of the value and urgency of our environment was Amina MohammedWhatever her faults, she was a better “Niger Deltan” Minister than all the Ministers of Niger Delta origin. Since 1999, when last did a Minister of Petroleum from the Niger Delta visit any of our devastated sites? President Obama visited the areas affected by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout many times and pressed BP and its co-defaulters to ensure they were properly remediated and victims were compensated. Our previous governors have rather embarked on grandiose projects than do the things that will enhance communities and livelihoods.

This lack of shame and community patriotism is at the core of our problems, ranging from development to empowerment to environmental governance. We have had the headquarters of the Nigerian Content Board in our domain for ten years now. Granted, it has done considerably well in promoting Nigerian content. Yet, it has done so abysmally in terms of host community content enforcement and empowerment that no less an expert on comparative local content policy as the Guest Speaker at this year’s World Environment Day Conference in Bayelsa State, Dr Pereowei Subai, hinted at a possible advocacy for the establishment of a separate agency for Community Content Development, during the public presentation of his book on local content last year.

So let us look beyond the fiction of regulatory institutions and pin down responsibility on human agency, where it practically belongs in our Nigerian context. For the present time, the two most important gentlemen responsible for stopping the environmental carnage on our homeland from the petroleum industry are the incumbent helmsman Bayelsa State, Governor Douye Diri, and the incumbent Minister of Petroleum Resources, Chief Timipre Sylva, both sons of Bayelsa State. None is a Hausa-Fulani or Yoruba man or Italian. It is to them we must look for the revival of the ecological carcasses of our communities that form a morbid trail:

from Ezetu where an oil firm insulted them with the rubble of a burnt platform as a gift “for [their] hospitality,” to Koluama that was displaced by ocean surge and is yet to be duly compensated for the K S Endeavour blow out, to Okpoama that was recently flood by oil pollution, to Brass Kingdom that is drowning and eroding away under 48 years of daily toxic sludge from Agip/ENI, to Otuabagi that is witnessing fresh crude oil seepages from the earliest wells that fed Nigeria with petrodollars before the drillers and government abandoned the community high and dry to move on to new fields, to Obunagha where the giant Shell flame of hell burns, and Nembe area where Aiteo the indigenous oil giant has been mercilessly polluting and seems to say “go to hell.”

Their predecessors failed on this score. But if Governor Diri and Petroleum Minister Sylva resolve to be decidedly different from their predecessors, there would still be hope for restoring our biodiversity. Then this year’s World Environment Day may not have been just another worthless bazaar of speeches. It would be a mark of how we did not waste the lessons of the crisis of this season.

 

 

•Iniruo Wills a former Commissioner of Environment in Bayelsa, wrote from Yenagoa

 


Source: News Express

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