(Being my shortlisted entry for the 2015 Haller Price for Development Journalism)

Whenever and wherever the history of oil exploration in Nigeria and Africa as a whole is written or discussed, the case of Ogoniland and its people will most probably be classified under a section titled ‘Man’s Inhumanity to Man’

The impact of oil exploration on Ogoniland has and will continue to be a sad one. It is one that has exposed the double standards of oil companies operating in Africa in comparison to how they operate in their home countries in Europe and the West. In Africa, things are different; no law applies to them. The Ogoni case is a special one; it is one that has done more than put a dent on the image of the Nigerian state where it is located; it is one whose ripple effect has been felt in Nigeria, around Africa and on the world stage. The Ogoni issue is a peculiar one; it is one that has raised the question: When is a resource a curse.

To best understand the impact of oil exploration on Ogoniland and its people, it is imperative that we understand how far the Ogoni people have come in terms of oil exploration. In 1957, Shell Struck oil in Bomu in Ogoniland. This was their second successful oil discovery after Oloibiri in Bayelsa state. Shell went on to mine oil from 96 oil wells which brought 9 oil fields on-stream in Ogoni from 1958 until late 1993 when protests by the Ogoni people against Shell caused the company to shut down its operations in Ogoniland. Although Shell operated in Ogoniland for 35 years, where they mined oil which represented a meagre 3% of their total production, in the 15 year period from 1976 to 1991, there were approximately 3,000 oil spills in Ogoniland alone, accounting for 40% of the total spills by Shell in its operation worldwide. The Ogoni issue peaked in 1995 when the leader of MOSOP, the Ogoni socio-cultural group, Ken Saro-Wiwa and 8 Ogoni activists were executed by the military government of General Sani Abacha. The action of the military regime of Sani Abacha caused major uproar in the international community as Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth.


The damming effect of the Ogoni struggle on oil exploration didn’t come until the early 2000’s when militant groups began sprouting up in the Niger Delta. These groups who claimed to be fighting for the ‘emancipation’ of the Niger Delta operated by kidnapping expatriate workers of oil firms for ransom and blowing up oil installations in the country. The effect of this wasn’t just visible in Nigeria alone; its effect was felt around the world as crude prices soared to over $100 per barrel. In as much as various groups picked up arms and ammunitions against the Nigerian government concerning oil exploration on their lands — which was eventually settled by the Nigerian government granting what it termed ‘amnesty’ to ‘repentant militants’ — the Ogoni people didn’t partake in this kind of protest. Two explanations exist for the seeming peaceful or silent nature of the Ogoni people all through the period when armed groups sprang up to demand for greater control of the oil beneath their soil. The first explanation is that they were yet to recover from the loss of Ken Saro-Wiwa. His zeal, intellect and leadership qualities were things the Ogoni people couldn’t replace; there was a leadership vacuum that no one could fill. The second explanation would probably be the fact that the Ogoni people felt defeated after the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni 8. Both probable explanations for the peaceful nature of the Ogoni people throughout the period of militancy in the Niger Delta area of Nigeria aren’t mutually exclusive. They can co-exist.

The resonating effect of the Ogoni issue caused the Nigerian government in 2010 to commission the United Nations Environments Programme to embark on an environmental assessment of Ogoniland. According to the UNEP report, the project lasted over a period of 14 months and involved the examination of 200 locations in Ogoni, review of more than 5,000 medical records of Ogoni people, survey of more than 122kms of pipeline rights of way and engaged more than 23,000 people at local community meetings. The 262 page document also mentions that:

‘Detailed soil contamination investigations were conducted at 69 sites. Altogether more than 4,000 samples were analyzed, including water taken from 142 groundwater monitoring wells drilled specifically for the study and soil extracted from 780 boreholes.’


The Ogoni issue once more, brought to the fore, the nonchalant attitude of the Nigerian government when it came to issues of great importance. Politics and governance are indistinguishable when it comes to government in Nigeria. This is probably the best way to explain a situation whereby despite the massive and brazen environmental degradation of the Ogoni environment — and the Niger Delta environment as a whole — the Nigerian government never felt it urgent enough to take steps to remedy the situation. This is even more astonishing in all ramifications when it is understood that oil is the mainstay of the Nigerian economy. It took the Nigerian government 52 years after oil exploration began in Ogoniland and 24 years of protest by the Ogoni people to commission a team to assess the Ogoni environment. Worse still, despite having taking possession of the UNEP report on Ogniland since August of 2011, the Nigerian government has done little or nothing to actually implement the report. The political importance of the Ogoni issue was visible in the just concluded 2015 general elections in Nigeria. Both Goodluck Jonathan of the PDP and Muhammadu Buhari of the APC made it their campaign promise to implement the UNEP report. Goodluck Jonathan who had been in office for over 4 years didn’t show enough seriousness with the UNEP report. Apart from setting up the Hydro-Carbon Pollution Restoration Project (HYPREP), nothing tangible can be said to have been achieved by his government when it comes to implementing the UNEP report. His approach to the report can best be described as lacklustre as there was no sense of urgency as things dragged on for unknown reasons. The current government of Muhhammadu Buhari has promised to be different, and as such has ‘restructured’ the HYPREP board and has also set aside $10 million as take-off fund (even though it is yet to be seen). African time deals with lateness, unpunctuality and tardiness. In this situation where the UNEP reports’ summary states that ‘The study concludes that the environmental restoration of Ogoniland is possible but may take 25 to 30 years.’ African time is something that shouldn’t apply here considering the urgency, but a dose of pessimism goes with this wishful thinking.


*This section was purposely left blank because in contrast to what is obtainable outside Nigeria

and the African continent, there’re no positives to point to in Ogoniland.


The impact of oil on Ogoniland has been both psychological and environmental. Psychological in the sense that, decades of protest against the activities of the oil firms and the government has produced little or no positive result. Instead it has culminated in the destruction of Ogoni villages and the death of thousands of Ogoni’s in the hands of government forces, sometimes sponsored by the oil firms operating in the area. The ripple effect is a people subdued not only physically by brute force, but a people that are beginning to lose hope in their own fight for a chance at survival, a people psychologically conquered by events bothering on the God given resource deposited on their land. The environmental impact of oil exploration on Ogoniland on the other hand has been more devastatingly far-reaching than the psychological impact. For a people whose livelihood revolves around fishing and farming, the effect of the near total destruction of their ecosystem by oil has taken things to a whole different level; it is now a fight for survival. With rivers clogged with oil, sources of drinking water poisoned with hydrocarbons, farms ravaged by hydrocarbons and rains almost turning acidic from the non-stop gas flaring in the area, a generation of unhealthy people abound. As the Ogoni embers seems to be gradually dying out, and as we hope that somehow, something rekindles that fire, Nnimmo Bassey best describes the curse of oil on the Ogoni people with his poem ‘We thought it was oil, but it was blood’.

The Ogoni people of Southern Nigeria will probably be in contention for the award of the most exploited people on earth. Nothing beats this more than the fact that despite more than $30 billion worth of crude oil being mined from beneath their soil; there exists little evidence to show for this. The rivers are so polluted that they are now un-fishable, the farms are now un-farmable.

The impact of oil on Ogoniland has been more than devastating. The word devastating here can only be used because there isn’t a better word yet to describe the Ogoni issue, but until there is a better word to describe the impact of oil here, the fact that the people of Nsisioken Ogale in Ogoni have been consuming water with benzene over 900 times the WHO guideline should do justice.