On June 2, 2016, Acting President Yemi Osinbajo — on behalf 0f President Muhammadu Buhari — flagged off the Ogoni clean-up in Bodo, one of the most polluted regions of the Niger Delta and the entire world. Twelve months after, TheCable investigated the state of the clean-up, and found that the it is yet to take full force. In this interview with TheCable, Ibrahim Jibril, minister of state for environment, explains the state of things, and why the clean-up is seemingly slow — or delayed.
TheCable: We visited Ogoniland in June, after the first anniversary of the flag-off and found that the clean-up was not in force. What’s happening?
Jibril: We launched this in Ogoni in June last year, and by August, we were able to get the president to approve the setting-up of the governing council and the board of trustees. Believe me sincerely, we had to do a lot extensive consultation to get the right people to put on these committees and to make sure we carry everybody along. The president of MOSOP is a member of the governing council, other eminent people from that same region, like Prof Ben Nnani. After that, the board of trustees, where the money will be domiciled before it is passed to the governing council for expenditure, has a renowned financial expert in person of Wale Edun as the chair. We have the president of Khagote, the political arm of the Ogoni when it comes to agitation. It has been there for about 50 years. We have other prominent people.
This is to show we have represenation; in the board of trustees, we have Khagote president, we have a representative of the Ogoni leaders, Chief Bebe Okpabi; we have people like Dr Timi Agari; the commissioner of environment of Rivers state, who is from Ogoni. We have Nnimmo Bassey, who is a prominent environmental activist. I serve also on the board as a member, but now I am working as the chair and the permanent secretary is now in the board to make sure that everything is put in place. After the launch in June, we had to check, double-check and cross-check to get to these people. The minister of finance, the minister of Niger Delta and NDDC boss are members of the governing council. You have the minister of budget and national planning, minister of petroleum resources, you have NNPC, the oil companies who are going to bring all the money; Shell Mobil and Agip are on the governing council.
When we did that and got the president to inaugurate them in the villa, we now had to set to work. HYPREP was there, after UNEP report was received in 2007, the government then decided to set up Hydrocarborn Pollution and Restoration Project (HYPREP). They did a gazette, they started and we inherited that.
We discovered this document was faulty to a large extent, we had to review it, we asked the legal officers, we asked shell, who will be a major financier, we asked all the oil companies to review and bring out areas that are not quite clear to them or they are not comfortable with. We asked MOSOP to review, they did, we asked Khagote to review, we discussed with stakeholders in Ogoniland, with traditional rulers. Why I am bringing all these is so you will understand why we are taking this long time to do what we are doing now, after this extensive consultation to and fro.
Finally, we go to the ministry of justice to provide the final document with all the amendments. When we finished that we got to the federal executive council, they approved it, it was gazetted and the gazette document was used to advertise for the post of the project coordinator. We changed ‘restoration’ in the name to remediation, it is the same ‘R’, but this time to remedy what has happened, to clean the environment and now bring the land back to its old self, which will be about 25 to 30 years, but this project with HYPREP will be within a span of five years, and there will be a bill of $1 billion initially, as approved by UNEP and accepted by the oil companies, $200 million per year. When this was completely done, the oil companies agreed everything, we were all on agreement to the same plan.
We advertised to get a project coordinator to run this programme. We did an advertisement with the normal, standard government procurement process, it was advertised both internally and internationally, we had 300 applications, we shortlisted 30. I think 28 came for the interview, two did not make it, about five of them were interviewed via Skype, which is the first time we would do that in this ministry. At the end of the day we got the scores and Marvin Dekil came top, and incidentally, he happens to be Ogoni. He came top and you cannot deny him that advantage, we brought him to the governing council and they approved his appointment. After that we gave him a letter of appointment after getting clearance from the presidency.
They passed it to Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC), because we had to determine renumeration for him, and we finally got clearance from the head of service; we got clearance from National Salaries, Incomes and Wages Commission (NSIWC), to be sure of what we are doing so we don’t do anything wrong. After that it was clear that the minister will write him a letter conveying to him his appointment. She (Amina Mohammed) did it before he left, he accepted the offer.
We had set up a technical committee to run all these processes I’ve explained to you for over a year. We gathered in March and handed over to him the reins of affairs of HYPREP. A detailed handover was made. There was a grant approved by the HYPREP gazette, where this staffing will come from. We decided we want to have a serious, highly mobile project office, not armchair, because this is purely technical work to be done in the field not in the office. If you do work in the office, you plan, then go to the field to actualise it.
We decided we wanted a slim office, not more than 50 people. As you know that this is an era of unemployment, everybody wants to get government job, but we want the job to be done and done very well. As I am talking to you, the next thing is office. The office we have in Port Harcourt was taken when HYPREP was under the ministry of petroleum resources, and the then minister of petroleum decided that what they want is to clean the whole Niger Delta.
But the UNEP report talks specifically about Ogoniland, and there is no way you can take that $1 billion without causing ripples in this country. Because the Ogoni people are so highly sensitised, they have suffered a whole lot of deprivation, and they deserve to be taken into full consideration, and we accepted that fully. There are other parts of Niger Delta that are equaly or even worse, but we are talking about Ogoni clean-up now.
The staff that were recruited were more than 150, only 30 have employment letters, the rest have no appointment letters, and the bill they gave us for the payment was about N6 billion. Even the project coordinator was receiving about N6 million per month. So you see why we have to be careful, like I always tell people, I am not in a hurry to fail. If you don’t unravel all these nitty-gritty, you cannot move successfully. And You cannot unravel this nitty-gritty without being careful and without being a bit slow and steady.
On Wednesday, when we went to council, I asked the minister of labour, he said they have almost finished the report to advise us on this bill of N6 billion. One hundred plus have no appointment letter, yet they want to be paid. They were paid once, so it means maybe a form of contract, but formal letter of appointment is not there. If we are to address this strictly, it will be only 30, but we don’t want to start on a faulty note, people will start agitating, and if you are having problems with government, people believe what people say than what government says. So we don’t want to put yourself under that bad light. Let us see how we can resolve it amicably, so we have a clean slate.
Having done that, we have recovered all the vehicles, about 14 brand new Hilux. Why you hear this agitation is that some people want us to start buying vehicles, to rent offices, and I say no, we are not renting an office. We have NOSDRA (National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency), a big office, an agency under ministry of environment. When I was handing over to them, I told them that this is not a landlord and tenant relationship; it’s a case of two landlords owning a property. NOSDRA and HYPREP are babies of the ministry of environment, therefore they must share the property of their father.
Some of the people agitating want us to rent when we have a bill of N96 million we have not settled, they want us to recruit anyhow when we’ve not settled the so called N6 billion. That is why we have been slow, if we are, that is why we’ve been slow. We have to thread carefully. HYPREP is there, we have asked Shell to release some money, because we must have proper procurement plan. We have asked the ministry of justice; it is a federal government project and I have to oversee it well. If I leave here, after ten years they can ask me questions. This government has been arresting people; what stops another government from doing same to me, and I want to retire peacefully to my farm. I can’t do that if I am with EFCC.
We now have the project office there, and we have asked the ministry of justice to give us legal adviser as agreed, and they have deployed a deputy director. Budget and national planning for monitoring and evaluation, they have given us deputy director; finance has sent us a deputy director, head of service has sent us an assistant director to head admin, procurement has sent us a procurement officer. All these are structures that must be put in place. You need senior officers to know what they are doing to guide the coordinator, who has never worked in government but is qualified to work. He has been going round, sensitising the people. As at July 14, they were in Geneva for training and sensitisation with UNEP who wrote the report.
One of their members is an observer in the board of trustees for the finance. He comes for the meetings at no cost to us, UNEP sponsors that. That is to show you the UN is still supporting us. We have asked UNITAR to help us in training the women, about 1,200 from the four local government. They will do all sorts of training; fishing, snailery, cultivation, hair dressing, tailoring and whatever kind of trade they want, because we observe the women are bearing the brunt — not just the youth.
All the senior staff that will head the different units have been deployed. We have deployed a senior officer experienced in oil pollution from NOSDRA to be the head of operations, he has been there from day one. He has experience in the field to guide him properly.
We are supposed to take $200 million this year, but we have not finished the procurement plan proper, what we did was for the take off and we approved about N200 million, even that has not been expended. You hear national assembly saying they want to investigate us about the $1 billion. Well, I have not taken anything. We took just $10 million and it is in the account. We opened domicillary and normal naira account for them to send the money. We have HYPREP account and within the account, they have a sub-account for their operations and running around, so they dont get hamstrung and they don’t have to come here everyday to ask for something, because somebody told UN that even bottle of water, they have to come to Abuja. So long as this project is being run by government, it is not an private organisation nor an NGO, we have to go by procurement regulations, financial regulations, to save ourselves and to save the money that will be used for this people.
In the next one week (referring to this week), we would finish all these administrative structures, then I will call a meeting of the governing council and play the plan in front of them. If they approve it, we would sent to the board of trustees, the board will n0w request that the oil companies remit the monies to our account. Everything is transparent, there is nothing to worry about. You may say we are slow, yes we are slow and these are the reasons we are slow. People just wanted us to put HYPREP in vehicles and be running around with loudspeakers and I don’t work like that, I want to see tangible results.
On the first of Janaury, 2017 we were in the creeks with the minister, we spent our new year holiday there. If we are not committed we won’t go that far. 12 contractors are on site right now doing demostration and are picking baseline data at no cost to us. At no cost to us! We have more than 800 applications, we developed a database to make sure that everyone that applied or expressed interest is captured, but that does not stop us from ddoing advert when we have everything in place for people to apply. We believe that there is enough work; $1 billion is not small money. Even if it’s N1 billion, we can spend the whole of this month doing owanbe and we’ll not finish the money. We must make sure we put everything in place to protect this money from people who may not wish people well and pretend they are actually working for the people.
People want us to spend on things that are not tangible to me. People want us to buy vehicles, when I know that I have 14 brand new Hilux, three SUVs, I have about eight water tankers that are there lying idle, and all we need to do is service them change their tyres and we are on the way to move. We have brand new ambulance, we have tables, we have other things.
MANAGING EXPECTATIONS FROM FLAG-OFF
There were a lot of expectations and we knew clearly that we have to manage these expectations. I have always been in touch with the powers that be in that region; the former governor (Rotimi Amaechi) who is my colleague in the cabinet, the senator who is representing them, and the accusers who say we are doing it for politics and now that we have won, that is why we are not doing anything again.
You have done an investigative job there, believe me sincerely, going to that area and seeing the pollution there, no matter how insincere you are, you will have some conscience about the suffering of these people and I am passionate about it, and I want to make sure that we succeed this time. We will try our best, before the end of this year, you will see a lot of things happening there.
Some people say we are sharing money, I say which money? Shell gave us $10 million, and the money is there. If I am to take an office and start buying vehicles, you can imagine what will happen. If I say buy me a bulletproof (car) of maybe N100 million and keep it there; I’ve been going there without bulletproof for more than a year, nothing has happened to me and I believe that nothing will happen to me. We have to be prudent with resources. If you begin to spend money anyhow, I have my conscience to guide me and my conscience tells me that I should do the right thing for the people, that’s why I am not in a hurry to fail.
Even the president has been accused of being slow and if they accuse a minister, I don’t think I should have sleepless nights. It’s something to worry about. If there are genuine agitations, concerns and criticisms, I will address them. If I see a write-up like the one you did, I’ll look at it seriously because I know this guy has taken his time, he has interviewed those who have been attacking us, he has interviewed those who are supporting us, he has interviewed those who are indifferent and don’t even know what is happening so I’ll look at it and pick certain things.
Those who attack us, are they justified in attacking us? If they are, we’ll take a look at those attacks and try to remedy them, that is how to run a government. I may not accept it openly but if I see valid criticism or a critical one that is constructive, definitely I will address it.
Asking people to stop looking for money is not legitimate and I’m not going to do that but making money illegimately is what we will not allow but if you have a reason to go about and make legitimate money, I have no quarrel with that. If people have a company and there are services they can render in this process and they applied for it, bid and got it the right way, why do I have to quarrel? They will make money and there is no way you can do a project of that nature and ask local people not to participate.
Even if it is selling ‘pure’ water to the labourers who will do the work, they will make money out of it, same with making ogi and akara or boli. Bringing a project to a community without saying it, you know you are creating some opportunities to some people. The difference is that the elites will always want the cream of these opportunities, they will want their children to be employed, they will probably want to get a contract and we have no quarrel with that. That is why I said anybody that applied either outside or inside this country, we have put it in a database and we can give you the list and number.
We have 800 plus. We have the latest records for people who have applied so we have not left anybody behind but the fact that you have applied does not mean that you will get the job by force. You have to fufill all the criteria so that when you start, you have no reason to fail because if you fail, we’ll hold you by your words and we’ll hold you responsible. There will be contractual agreement and if there is a breach, we will start with arbitration first, we’ll terminate the contract, if you don’t like it we’ll go to arbitration if you don’t like it and you go to court, we’ll challenge it but we don’t want to get to that. So managing expectation is not the easiest thing but it is not impossible, we’re doing that because the project coordinator in the last two months has been going round all the four local governments sensitizing people, community leaders, women leaders, opinion leaders. Telling people what to expect, what not to expect, what to do, what not to do, asking them to exercise more patience in what we are doing.
If you do so much media hype, it will cost money but if you do it and do not match the action there will be problem, you raise expectation again and dash it down. The backlash will be too bad for you so what we want to do is to start the real work properly.
I’m not sure we’ll go beyond August without doing anything. Right now, what people don’t know is that even the ongoing demonstration by companies, which is at no cost to the HYPREP/ministry, is a process of the cleaning because whatever chemical they put there to remedy the place will not be taken away and it will clean that place. And they are taking data now, that’s what HYPREP is doing; we’re waiting for the first report. They have finished the first wave because it has been done about two months ago and some of these things will take about three months to get the report and assess it in a laboratory. So, I am expecting the report of all the processes by the end of this month, because some of the Companies did not take any site immediately, some took it about two weeks ago while some have finished their own about two months ago. So we have to put all these together but why we are doing this is that the Ogoni report by UNEP was submitted in 2006 so you can’t expect what they have seen in a particular place at that time to remain static even though oil companies have not been operating in that area since 1993 but you can’t expect the environment to remain static so we want the latest information and while we use the old one and when we get the new one, build it on the old one and move on. This is what we are doing.
What people expected after the launch is for bulldozers to start rolling but you’ve not put these things in place. Let me give you this story of a tortoise who stayed for a 100 years without a wife. His people decided this is not good and then decided to do something and they went round, looked for a wife, paid dowry and arranged for the wedding saying tomorrow, we’re bringing your wife then in the evening he started complaining that they were taking too long to bring her. This is the situation of Ogoniland. For so many years, these things have been going on and nothing happened and now that we are on the verge of doing something, everybody is impatient. 100 years without a wife and tomorrow they are bringing the wife and you started complaining, that is how I compare our situation now in that area.
If you have water, borehole of about 200m, you take it out and it still smells of benzene then you should understand that it won’t be a small job. To restore the landscape to it’s original state will take about 25 to 30 years. But cleaning everything now, removing the oil, putting the chemicals to restore the soil nutrients and get the mangrove back because if the traces of oil are there, it will not allow the mangrove grow and if you don’t have the mangrove, you don’t have breeding ground for marine life, that’s where they go to lay their eggs.
By the time they hatch, they can move on to the high seas and you can do some fishing. I saw in one of the report where you wrote ‘people have started preparing boats to start fishing’ I laughed at it because you don’t know that some of these boats are prepared for oil bunkery. Some boats are deeper than this office and it can take more than one trailer load of oil. They brought it in the night because there was high tide that night and the thing can’t move again so they left it there till daybreak. We came to see what it was and they told us it could take more than 1,000 drums.
I have been to the creeks. You can’t help but empathise with these people no matter how insensitive you are. But then, our second worry is that what happens the next day after the clean-up. Apart from what Shell has done, what is happening now is breakages. I as the minister of state for environment, I am concerned about the environment, people may talk about the economy, yes, they are right but we are talking about diversifying our economy. If we diversify and move away from oil and do other things like countries like Dubai are doing, what will the man in the Niger Delta creek do? He can not fish because the creeks are polluted, the mangrove is destroyed.
You take cassava and you feel oil in your throat, you wipe your face and there are traces of oil, you smell the water it’s either diesel or engine oil you are feeling. I’ve seen crabs burnt in crude oil and you can’t even eat it so no matter how insensitive you are, if you go to that area, you’ll have a rethink.
No, there is the polluter pays principle. The polluter pays means if I break the rim of your glasses without any valid reason, I’ll pay for it. So if there is an oil spill and it is found to be the problem of the oil company whether mechanical failure or negligence, they will pay for the cleaning on the basis of polluter pays, it’s an internationally accepted principle.
So in the same vein if they are able to catch someone who they know is responsible, they will have to pay and that means government will prosecute that person and compel him through the judicial process to pay and that’s why the problem of these agitators come in. If they are doing this willfully, we’ll have to pay for it.
That is why the government, you and I, have to sensitise the youth who are involved in this that in the long run, this will not pay. Shell has not been operating in Ogoniland since 1993 but the area is still remains polluted. So those breaking pipes to make a point, they may score economic points in short and medium term but in the long term, there will be worse effects. Anyone enticing them to do it is probably living in London or Abuja or Lagos or Port Harcourt, away from the destruction. With people breaking pipelines willfully, you can’t hold the companies responsible, and these companies are documenting. More so when people have said we are responsible. Under such a situation, who will pay for that? Even if you call Shell, it is a joint venture with NNPC, so who pays? Nigeria pays.