By Chima Nwafo
Most Nigerians – young and old, men and women – suffer from Collective Amnesia. Light-hearted folks easily attribute it to the welter of socio-economic problems weighing down on the citizenry due to a succession of self-serving political leadership. Unfortunately, same leaders take advantage of this failure to recall past errors in governance. Currently, this is what is playing out in the Niger Delta where one director-general of a government agency has assumed the role of a Prosecutor, Judge, Jury and Advocate in explaining the mysterious poisoning of fishes, leading to their death in thousands: Quite a pathetic and unnerving sight floating of the coastline.
Yours truly is deeply concerned for two reasons, because it’s NOT an oil-spill issue. And it’s inhuman.
It brings to memory the celebrated Koko Toxic Waste dump issue of 1988. A dubious Italian importer deceived an innocent village man in renting his land for the Italian government to dump harmful industrial waste. Koko, a tiny port town north of Warri in the old Bendel State. It is the ancestral home of the famous King Nana Olomu of Tsekiri. It’s rather sad that the Nigerian print media has lost its verve, for obvious reasons. It’s also more painful that The Guardian, which championed the toxic waste story 32 years ago, though still in circulation, is now a shadow of the erstwhile Flagship of the Nigerian press.
Sometime in May 1988, some Nigerian students in Italy filtered the information to the local media about the shipment toxic waste material to a rural Nigerian port of Koko. The media houses then responded as per their individual skills and perception of the tip. Unlike today when the propagandists have messed up the air and paints the media in bad light, the federal military government believed the evidence-based media reports; followed up with its own investigation, confirmed the media findings and took necessary actions locally and internationally; which was a trade mark of the military President Ibrahim Badamasi Babagida’s administration. As a result, the powerful European nation, after initial denials, was brought to its knees.
The second reason for concern is that a similar evidence-based incident has happened in the oil-producing, fishing/farming coastal communities of the Niger Delta, threatening health, their lives and livelihood. Woefully, the press today has been crippled and could not repeat what happened in 1988. No media enquiry or simple suggestion of a forensic laboratory analysis: “The main purpose of a forensic analysis is to analyze, recover, document and preserve evidence in an investigation.” The affected states could individually or collectively have submitted samples for such analysis. But they didn’t.
As a result, the Director-General of the National Oil Spills Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) Mr Idris Musa, gave the initial reaction, which was to explain that there was no recent oil spill to have caused the deaths, which is within the bounds of NOSDRA mandate. But he went further to clear the oil companies of any responsibility, which is wrong because oil spill is distinct and separate from oil exploration activities. He went ahead to select government agencies relevant to maritime and set up a committee for investigation and laboratory analysis. He also announced the result. The whole objective which he makes clear is to exonerate international oil corporations of any complicity in the fish-kill. One considers this evangelism suspect.
As captured by Enviro News of May 14: “The National Oil Spills Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) says findings on the dead fishes on the Atlantic Ocean coastline indicated high levels of toxicity caused by toxic wastes discharge. The agency noted in a statement on Thursday, May 14, 2020 that the discharge of toxic materials into the Atlantic may have come from land as the wastes from domestic and industrial sources often empties into the water body.”
Recall that NOSDRA had on April 22 said it was coordinating a multi-agency investigation, aimed at unraveling the cause of the reported massive death of fishes within the nation’s territorial waters. Mr Idris Musa, Director-General of NOSDRA, said that the high toxicity of the dead fishes and water samples was caused by pollution from heavy metals from industrial and domestic wastes.
In what played out as an enquiry with a Pre-Determined Result, the NOSDRA boss enthusiastically pontificated: “Results of the tests conducted confirmed (his) preliminary findings that the death of the fishes were not linked to oil leakages as the levels of hydrocarbon in the samples tested were within regulatory limits. The agency noted in a statement on Thursday, May 14, 2020 that the discharge of toxic materials into the Atlantic may have come from land as the wastes from domestic and industrial sources often empties into the water body. The results of the laboratory tests were perused, and we make explanation on the parameters of concerns that were analysed for the purpose of clarity and understanding.”
Dear people and governments of Niger Delta, why must you rely on the postulations and “findings” of one federal agency boss whose outfit has no direct responsibility to the cause of your collective tragedy?
For example, since he also chose “relevant government agencies” to participate in the enquiry, why did he leave out the only Federal agency with direct responsibility for Food, Water and Chemical analysis – the National Agency for Food Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC)? This is a cause for worry and no one, including affected state governments, seems to be concerned. Above all, such massive death of fishes floating on the Atlantic coast since February, polluting the water and land is wholly an environmental issue. And, don’t forget that the defunct Federal Environmental Protection Agency (FEPA) morphed to the Ministry of Environment. So, the ministry owes Nigerians a responsibility to explain the immediate and remote causes of the monumental death of croakers. It is completely outside NOSDRA’s mandate.
Let’s flash back to June 1988 in Koko, now in Warri North Local Government of Delta State.
In response to the tip from Italy, the Nigerian press rose to the occasion but the The Guardian On Sunday, did not break the news but led the pack with its deeply investigated and evidence-based report by the trio of Emeka Obeide from the Business Desk (who led the team), Seun Oguseitan, Environmental Reporter and a photographer. Their findings confirmed the existence of drums and containers, some of which were identified with the letter R (the international symbol indicating ‘toxic and harmful industrial waste’). The team also identified the owner of the vacant plot of land, Mr Sunday Nana, who confirmed that he had agreed to let foreign importers use his land for $100 per month.
Characteristically, the report thrashed earlier ones with its details and photographs and expert analysis. That was how Seun became an instant Environment super star. The lesson is that the government reacted positively to the media reports and even followed it up with action. All that is now history!
The synergy and proactive response of the media and government brought global benefits to mankind. With General Ike Nwachukwu (retd) as Nigeria’s Foreign Minister at the time, the issue was discussed at the United Nations level. According to America’s Timeline, the following emerged from the efficient handling at the international arena:
“On September 3, facing increased pressure from international press and advocacy groups, the Italian Cabinet approved a decree that banned export of toxic chemicals to developing nations and limited future reliance on European Union countries for processing.
“Nine weeks after leaving Koko, the Karin B finally received permission to land from Livorno, Italy. The voyage had become ‘a question of national dignity,’ said Italy’s Environment Minister Giorgio Ruffolo.
“In 1989, the U.N. designed an international treaty known as the Basel Convention, intended to prevent shipment and disposal of hazardous waste from industrial to developing countries, via a procedure of strict requirements and consents. Italy is a party; America never ratified the agreement.”
All these were achieved because the media lived up to its responsibility and the government believed them. This is precisely why the current complacency of the media, governors and people of affected states is very disturbing. Covid-19 pandemic war cannot be blamed for failures of the political leadership.
Perhaps, unimpressed, the Delta House of Assembly has urged the Federal Government to investigate mysterious deaths of fishes along the shore lines of River Forcados and Escravos River in the state. This followed the adoption of a motion by Mr Emomotimi Guwo, representing Warri South West constituency during plenary on Thursday in Asaba, the state capital. Speaking on the motion, Guwor said that Forcados and Escravos Rivers and their tributaries were believed to be under the siege of a yet to be identified disease presently killing fishes along the shore lines of the rivers in Warri South West.
He said that the areas worst hit by the ugly development included Ekemetagbene in Bomadi Local Government Area (LGA), Akparemogbene, Oyangbene and all communities in Ogulagha and Iduwini kingdom in Burutu LGA of the state. “Other areas affected are the entire Gbaramatu kingdom, all Ugborodo and Orere communities in Warri South West and Ogheye and other communities in Warri North LGA,’’ he said.
Guwor urged the President to direct the federal authorities to protect the biodiversity, conservation and sustainable development of the natural resources and the eco system of the affected communities from total extinction.
Unlike Bayelsa and Rivers, the Delta House of Assembly has risen up to the challenge. But one cannot understand why they are calling on the Federal Government when the state government should be able to collect samples for an independent forensic laboratory analysis. The dead fishes are floating on their coast, and their biodiversity, people’s health and livelihood are threatened.
*Nwafo, Consulting Editor, News Express/ Environmental Analyst, an be reached on: [email protected]; +2348029334754.
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