Environmental Disaster in the Nigerian Oil City of Portharcourt

Stopping the Soot: Calling a Spade by its Name

By Simeon Nwakaudu

Make no mistake, the prevalence of soot in Port Harcourt and some other Niger Delta communities is a sad reality that affects all, irrespective of status.

For several months, the soot has continued to  trouble residents, making life difficult for people over  the pollution of the air. There are clear indications that  there will be consequences should the soot continue unabated.

On this premise, the task to stop the soot is a very serious social responsibility that cuts across  party lines, social groups and economic interests.  It is a task that can only be achieved through a united platform, built on truth, transparency  and patriotism.

Fighting the soot is too serious to be left in realm of playing the ostrich and refusal to call a spade by its name. It is the tendency to play the ostrich that has negatively  affected Nigeria in several sectors.

At best, the campaign  to stop the soot has been politicised, fractured and left at the level of seeking attention, rather than addressing  the soot challenge. It has been reduced to seeking political advantage at the expense of the state.

At the level of the civil society, groups have different platforms and methods.  The confusion generated makes it difficult for them  to appreciate steps already  taken at the level of the Rivers State Government.

On 19th April 2019, the "stop the soot " march widely advertised via social media exposed the failure of the organisers  to hit the nail on the head. It further revealed the notorious subtle politicization of soot, with the nature of speech that the end the soot campaigners presented to the Rivers State Governor who was represented by his deputy.

The 14-point statement ran in circles and failed to seek concrete solutions to end the soot. The statement failed to boldly highlight the causes of soot, since "Oga will not be happy ".  The courage to speak truth to power was lacking in the presentation.

The campaigners amongst other things called on the State Government to prioritise the environment, propose a supplementary budget, conduct an environmental audit  of host and oil producing communities, force local government areas to implement sanitation laws and make local government areas use their security votes to provide local government monitors and whistle blowers.

They also called on the state government to start street health campaign, provide air quality readings and seek legal redress to compel the Federal Government to fund the Ogoni clean up.

All the points listed were steps already taken or are ongoing. None of the of the demands strikes at the heart of stopping the soot.  None  addressed the fundamental causes of the soot.

The only place the major culprit in this entire environmental mayhem was mentioned was where the campaigners urged the Rivers State Government to drag the Federal Government to court on account of the Ogoni clean up.  Governor Wike's stand on this is public knowledge.  He has mounted pressure for the Ogoni clean-up and lobbied repeatedly on all fronts.

At the National Economic Council, Governor Wike demanded the release of $1billion dollars from the Excess Crude Account for the resolution of environmental challenge in the Niger Delta and the execution of the Ogoni clean up.

The Rivers State Government has already carried out a detailed scientific investigation of the sources of the soot. The results  of this scientific research was shared with civil society organisations , environmental stakeholders and the National Council on Environment in 2017. Despite the deliberations on the soot, the APC Federal Government did nothing about the soot.

But, we cannot shy away from the truth, even if the campaigners are scared of the truth. The rest of the state remains committed  to ensuring that the soot ends. The  struggle is strategic.  It is methodical.  It goes beyond scoring cheap points.

For the avoidance of doubt, the Federal Government and her agencies are responsible for the soot.  That is the simple truth. There is no contrary data, anywhere.

Federal Regulatory Agencies like Department of Petroleum Resources, National Oil Spill Response and Emergency Agency (NOSREA)  and  Federal Ministry of Environment have failed to carry out their responsibilities.  This has been deliberate.

The Port Harcourt Refinery emits horrible gases into the atmosphere on a daily basis. This is  in addition to several oil production facilities flaring gases across the state.

The operation of illegal refineries is now part of our existence.  An Environmental Manager, Meshac Uyi said that majority of the illegal refineries are operated by security agents.  These illegal refineries throw up a huge percentage of soot.

Now, the uncivilized methods for the destruction of these illegal refineries by the security agencies also account for another high percentage of soot.

In terms of advocacy, Governor Wike has taken the fight to end the soot as a personal project.  He has  met with security agencies to change their methods of destroying illegal refineries.  The Governor also established a State Executive Council Committee to work with stakeholders to end the soot.

Only a few days ago, he met with a United Nations Delegation on the soot. He tabled the concerns of the government and people of Rivers State to the international community. 

Addressing a delegation of the United Nations at the  Government House Port Harcourt on Wednesday during a high-profile meeting  to tackle the soot, Governor Wike called on the United Nations to prevail on the Federal Government to act on the soot.

The governor said: "Thank God that the United Nations has come in view of the issues we have raised. We thank the United Nations for their concern on the Rivers Environment as it relates to the soot.

"If we must move on, we must situate the cause of the soot and the fact that the Federal Government has decided to make sure that a greater percentage of the state dies.

"The  Federal Government wants to eliminate a greater percentage of the state.  The problem of soot is not caused by the Rivers State Government.  It is caused by Federal Agencies. "

The failure of the Federal Government to take any concrete steps to end the soot is deliberate. Remember, all the levers of control are under the Federal Government.  The regulatory and security agencies to stop the soot are also under the control of the APC Federal Government.

That the campaigners swept the truth under the carpet on the day of their advertised march confirmed the political baggage that weighed them down. A baggage anchored in Abuja, the home base of Nigeria's worst performing government in history.  A Federal Government that sponsors the decimation of component parts. These campaigners  lost the opportunity to join hands with well-meaning patroits to resolve the soot challenge.

Their branded T-Shirts bore the inscription: "I am a soot slayer", turned this very serious health hazard into the "slay queen" fun on social media.

But to the Rivers State Governor and his administration, fighting to stop the soot is a solemn responsibility.  It will remain so till the soot is laid to rest.

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