A former Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Bayelsa State, Chief Anthony George-Ikoli SAN has called on peoples of the Niger Delta to engage in participatory politics as a means of not only courting power but also to attain environmental justice for their lands that have withered due to oil and gas spillage over the years.
As the 2023 general elections approach, George-Ikoli, the first Senior Advocate from Bayelsa State particularly enjoins the people to come together and elect honest and patriotic representatives that will represent them well in government, particularly in the legislatures where they can table problems of the people and get results that will improve their lives. The senior lawyer also advised non-governmental organizations operating in the Niger Delta to test oppressive laws before competent courts as a way of engaging the judiciary in getting environmental justice for the Niger Delta people.
George Ikoli made these recommendations at a lecture he delivered at the second edition of the Justice (His Royal Majesty) Ambrose Allagoa Memorial Lecture series which took place in Port Harcourt, Rivers State recently. The lecture was titled: “The road to 2023, What place for environmental justice and our communities”.
In the thought-provoking lecture, George-Ikoli posited that the 2023 general elections in Nigeria will make or mar Nigeria and therefore enjoined the people to get ready and not be caught sleeping. He, therefore, enjoined leaders in the Niger Delta, particularly, the Ijaw nation to use the election to negotiate dividends of democracy for the people with other political leaders from other parts of the country so that their people will not lag behind as before.
He said: “Whilst many Nigerians from other geopolitical zones may be looking to the year 2023 as a year for them to produce the next Chief Executive Officer of the Enterprise headquartered in Aso Rock, Abuja and being run with the spoils of the depredation of our communities and environment, and for them to share in the national cake; the people of Bayelsa are (or ought to be) more concerned about something more important – their future as closely interwoven with their environment, their environmentally-challenged communities. Another year is dawning, a change in the current dispensation is imminent; and then the people ask: when and whence cometh our deliverance? Do we expect the same abandonment as of old or do we approach the year with a renewed hope of respite for our people and of environmental safety for us and our offspring?
“As we trudge on inexorably, defiantly even into the dawn of the 2023 election season, no one, from the highlands to the lowlands of this exalted plane called Nigeria can deny what is self-evident even indubitable – that this will be one election that will rank as none other before it or none long after we may have seen its twilight and eventual dispensation. As an Aboriginal people teetering on the brink of extinction all at once surrounded by the twin malaise of political and environmental devastation, the topic of discourse provides an opportunity for sober contextualisation if not early warning”.
He said that Nigerian elections have always been tension soaked, but there’s something in the coming 2023 elections that is ominously different. “Nigeria has a long history of frenzied and seemingly tension-soaked pre-election intermissions; that feeling and notion that every next Presidential election on the horizon will bring with it an end to civilisation as we know it. From the sabre-rattling of the deeply entrenched political opportunists to the devious deployments of incumbent power mongers, the sound and fury are the same; a cacophony of timpanists ultimately signifying nothing. These times, however, the omens appear different and foreboding”.
The senior lawyer lamented the lackadaisical response of the Ijaw to the political tides. “Our once proud Ijaw nation’s response to these historical epochs have been typical; the adoption of lazy armchair posturing, taking in the sights from an indulged balcony-like observatory from whence we cheer on the gladiators who bloody themselves in the arena that is the thick of our national geopolitics. It is therefore a thing of wonder how we subsequently are astonished that our traditional late-stage whimper at the table, long after the spoils of battle may have been shared, is not countenanced with the seriousness and candour that the total of our economic contributions and stark environmental condition demand”, he lamented.
He said further: “As a people, it seems that in our usual style, we have again elected to sleepwalk our way into what is the onrushing political calamity that threatens our very existence with a head-on collision; oblivious, unprepared and seemingly not bothered about what the omens portend or the imminent fallout of this cataclysmic event. We are seemingly on the move again, sluggishly sheepishly careering into the coming dispensation without a clear articulation of a collective political agenda or position. Ultimately, it seems the outcome for us as a people will be a scenario that has become all too familiar – left behind, obscured and forgotten”.
“Over decades, the Niger Delta question has been framed by two primary issues: control of our economic resources and the responsibility of and for our environment. The underlying constant of these two arguments to the rational mind reduces itself to a simple question of who actually is and who actually should be responsible for these important aspects of our natural life. The economic argument of resource control evolves from administration to administration from those who believe we deserve a greater share of our resources to those who feel we already have more than we are entitled. The issue of our environment is one that sadly has remained consistent administration in administration out across every political season and it might seem 2023 will be no different.
What many of us may not understand is the intrinsic relationship and correlation of causation between the issues of resource control and the fortunes that have befallen our environment and our environmental rights as an aboriginal people. To say that our long-suffering people yearn for justice on many fronts is to state the obvious. The continued degradation of our environment is now a seeming bequest of the Nigerian state and the oil companies that operate under their direction. This presents a rather strange conundrum where the government is both regulator and violator all at once; a scenario that enforces a seeming fait accompli on the outcome of any seeming effort at reparation”, he stated.
Going further, he said: “Recently, we were all witnesses to the shocking discoveries of miles and miles of “illegal pipelines leading out to sea” wherein our government recently made a big show of discovering across many of our communities. That these dark assets are owned and operated by characters who lurk in the shadows that lead back to characters acting in the light is not a debate we will pursue today, what I seek to draw out of those unfortunate pictures; is a shameless fiasco and celebration of state failure, is the unspoken ongoing damage to the environment that these incidents have inflicted and continue to inflict.
We are all witness to the many abandoned “refinery farms” showcased in those pictures; to imagine the continuous pounding to the groundwater, natural fauna, fisheries, and wildlife and the resultant damage to the local economies and sustainable living conditions of the people in those communities.
Yet our government in Abuja, security agencies, local governments, and local leaders ostensibly tasked with the responsibility of safeguarding, have all stood by for many years complacent, complicit, and compliant. So as the topic of this discourse queries “What place for environmental justice in our communities”?
Where do the critical stakeholders situate environmental justice in the overall scheme of things? Where do the respective government authorities from the municipal, local government, state and Federal Governments truly place the importance of the environment; its beauty and purity, its unique almost therapeutic and medicinal aura, its significance as a thing to be cherished and protected; for if these stakeholders do not understand the intrinsic role of the environment, how can they be expected to protect it, much less the individuals who are directly affected by it”.
George-Ikoli asked: “As we all journey towards the 2023 general elections which will be ushering in the new government at the centre, what is the plan or consideration for our people concerning achieving justice for the bastardisation and defilement of our natural and virgin habitation precipitated and effectuated by the despoilation of our communities by the western entities to whom our raw materials mean more than our existence to enjoy the fullest of life as do the communities where they came from. Is it still going to be the same cry without succour, yearning without satisfaction, and expectation without fulfilment?
“The evil has continued till date, and, sadly, none of the presidential candidates is putting salvaging what is left of our communities on the front burner of their campaigns. We cannot be crying for environmental justice if there was and has been no acute pain in our necks, in the necks of our people. The call for “environmental justice” naturally presupposes that there has been environmental injustice in our communities. It presupposes unfair treatment from people who ought to administer fair treatment. It presupposes a failure on the part of those saddled with the responsibility of preventing our communities from environmental danger, damage and/or injury. This has led to an uprising from various communities in the Niger Delta region and the formation of different pressure groups such as the Niger Delta Human and Environmental Rescue Organisation, Brothers Across Nigeria, Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development, Environmental Rights Action, and, we must not fail to mention the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People headed by the late Ken Saro Wiwa and many others”
There has, indeed, been environmental injustice; and this dates back to the pre-independence era – the era of the British exploitation and plundering of the wealth and natural resources of the people whilst leaving trails of wretchedness, woe and desolation behind; and has continued unabated till date. It is now common knowledge that the damage caused to the environment by the recurring cases of oil spillage and the seemingly untameable gas flaring has resulted in the communities’ economic woes considering that our people are predominantly fishermen, farmers and traders. Huge swathes of fragile wetlands have been destroyed or put at risk; water courses that local people rely on for fishing have been contaminated, and farmland has been tainted.
There is ongoing an environmental genocide against our communities. The health of the people has also been adversely affected as gas flaring has been reported to be responsible for various health crises. Oil spillages and blowout oil have also been reported to constitute other major pollutants of the environment. According to a report compiled by the World WildlifeFund, the world conservation union, with representatives from Nigeria and the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, the Niger Delta is one of the five most polluted spots in the world”.
George-Ikoli lamented the complicity of the State in the environmental pollution that continued to have on the people. “The precarious situation in which our people have found themselves is that our Government has been complicit. Our Government has, by its action and/or omission, deprived the people of the aforementioned rights and thereby occasioning injustice to its citizenry.
“We are our environment and our environment is us. Our environment has, however, been hijacked from us and our lives taken away from us; and, in their stead, sicknesses, diseases and death have been handed out to us by the players in the oil and gas industry, with our lives gravely imperilled by the very State which has been saddled with the fundamental responsibility of protecting our environment and safeguarding our air, water and land. Our people have become mere numbers required for election into the offices of the State at every election year, not lives to be protected against the dangers and evils surrounding our environment.
We are not asking for a favour by heralding our yearnings for environmental injustice; we are only asking that our rights, as enshrined in the laws of the land and the various Treaties the State is a signatory to, be effectuated in a manner that is manifestly seen to have been done. That is true justice! Justice is giving the people what is due to them, and injustice is depriving them of what is due to them. Our environment is in this horrendous state not for want of adequate laws; it is as a result of failure on the part of those to whose hands our lives have been entrusted. There has been a grave injury done to our people in utter violation of the land’s known laws; therefore, there must be a remedy because Ubi jus ibi remedium”.
The senior lawyer, therefore, calls on the Federal government to be alive to its responsibility of protecting the people. ‘The President who is the Head of the Government at the centre should take charge of his Government and the agencies under him/it. The Agencies should not just serve as a mere poverty alleviation programme for the citizenry; they should do their work as prescribed by the respective enabling statutes. The regime of penalties for gas flaring should stop as the same is not the proper panacea for the atrocious outcome of gas flaring.
The oil companies should stop gas flaring or re-injecting gas into the oil wells; if they cannot do the same, they should be shut down! There is no reason we should have agencies like FEPA, NESREA and NOSDRA and justice has continued to elude our people”.
He also called on the people to use their voting power in the coming election. “As we approach another year, and as we are now in the season of electioneering, rather than strategizing to have a bite at the national cherry, we should engage with the relevant stakeholders and negotiate our future as Niger Deltans, Bayelsans, Nembe use. We should work with our fellow Niger Deltans in insisting that our votes only go to the party/man who pledges allegiance to our environment to make it whole. We should constitute ourselves into pressure groups – community by community, street by street, house by house. We should form an army: i. whose sole weapons of war will be their voices and their pen; ii. whose conscience cannot be bought by silver or gold or any jewel of precious stone; and iii. from whose rank none will arise with the character of the biblical Judas Iscariot who earned for himself a reputation of being a betrayal, or Demas who is reputed to have forsaken his brothers and the course they had collectively agreed to pursue
In all this, George-Ikoli did not leave the judiciary out. “The Court is a place set up solely for dispensing justice. Thus, we should keep them occupied by doing justice to our demands. The Judges and Justices of our Courts are crucial stakeholders in the protection of our environment; hence we should engage them the same way we engage the politicians and our political leaders. The environmental rights of minorities within the Nigerian nation should be made justiciable through concerted acts of parliament.
We must improve the stock of those we send to represent us in our respective Government houses across the Niger Delta and with those we send to Abuja to the legislature. This can only become a reality when we improve the quality of those who control our local politics and political parties. The time for Generals and Warlords is at an end as that era of politics is no longer fit for purpose; our people now need the real intelligentsia in the mould of the eminent Chief Justice Allagoa to step forward. This is a challenge and clarion call to this August body, stand up and stand fast! Infiltrate political parties, and take a stand for the Ijaw people. It is time to protect all their rights, not just those that pertain to the environment;
I believe I have earned the right to confidently demand this of you, as I have myself seen the rot in our political system up close and personal and the need for intellectuals to take over the asylum before the mentally and morally afflicted consign it to a future we cannot come back from. I have contested twice for high office, once for the legislature and once to become Governor of Bayelsa State. Unfortunately, our politics, our people, and our version of what is practical are dysfunctional in the eyes of what is rational. We must intensify our call for proper control of our economic resources with which we can adequately install preventive and remedial environmental protection measures at the local level; as I said earlier, only one who sees and has felt up close and personal the searing effects of environmental degradation will understand the need to protect those rights aggressively.
The host communities bill must be expanded to empower the host communities with stronger monitoring and reporting standards to ensure the localization of remedial action;
As I close, I must state that I am not oblivious to the fact that I have been called upon to give a “Lecture” but I know that I am also required to give a wake-up call to all. So, I pray that we spare no effort and should not rest on our oars in the struggle for justice for our environment. Let us not lose hope in our quest to leave our communities (environment) a better place for our children”, George-Ikoli concluded.