Environmental Destruction and Human Rights in the Niger Delta

The Nigerian Delta states are blessed with rich resources in natural oil and gas. A blessing that can sometimes turns into a curse, especially when looking at the oil extractions in the Niger Delta from a human rights perspective. (1)

The Niger Delta region has a rich and diverse flora and fauna: there are vast mangrove forests and a wide variety of animals that are specifically native to the particular ecosystem prevalent in that area. The oil in the region is being extracted, mostly by international companies, by way of drilling, a technique involving unavoidable oil spills and uncontrolled gas flaring.


This alone, however, could be manageable, since there are guidelines that the international oil extracting companies operating in Nigeria have to observe. The Environmental Guidelines and Standards for the Petroleum Industry in Nigeria (EGASPIN), describe the rules to keep environmental pollution down to a minimum while extracting oil. However, in the past there have been several cases involving international corporations that did not observe those rules strictly enough, and situations in which environmental pollution was not cleaned up at all by the waste producer.(2) Amnesty International describes several examples in which international corporations have left oil spills unattended for weeks, even after the local population had made several complaints in that regard.(3)

The fact that natural gas, a by-product of oil extraction, is still currently being burnt by the oil companies, which again causes air pollution, is only one of the problems. When it comes to the consequences of oil extractions on the environment of the Niger Delta, several human rights are being violated. First of all, the right to health and a healthy environment, which is stated in the International Covenant of Social, Economic and Cultural Rights,(4) in the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights5 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights6. Because the oil makes its way into the water system of the Delta, drinking water becomes polluted and fish die.

This obviously has negative implications for the local population of the Delta, which mainly live off fishery and farming. Moreover, because of the environmental pollution caused by the oil drillings and the fact that oil companies are moving into the lands of the native population, who, in most cases have no legal means to withhold them from doing so, the right to an adequate standard of living, including the right to food and water, are also severely endangered.(7)

There have been some legal cases that have dealt with these issues of concern, showing that international companies can no longer turn a blind eye to the human rights violations on which their actions might have impacted. Corruption and Human Rights Corruption is another problem affecting the human rights situation of the people living in the Niger Delta. As the UNDP Human Development Report Nigeria 2008-2009 rightly states, “[c]orruption has under developed Nigeria.”(8) As a result, Nigeria has occupied for many years one of the last places on Transparency International’s Annual Corruption Perception Index; the case of the plundering of former President Sani Abacha9 is just one of the most prominent examples illustrating this ranking.10 Corruption is a problem that has been accepted on a national level as well, as the Nigerian Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has estimated that Nigeria’s own corruption and thef eaches approximately $420 billion.(11) With the revenues of oil and gas exportation representing 95-99 percent of Nigeria’s export revenues, one would expect the Niger Delta region to be a prosperous place. However, according to the World Bank, only one percent of those revenues actually reach the population, with the sad reason for this misdistribution being corruption.(12)

This is quite unfortunate especially since local residents would urgently need this money to be spent on food, clean water, health care, environmental protection and reconstruction. As UNDP states “Nigeria’s dependence on a single major source of exports and revenues, that is, oil and gas, is at the root of the problem of corruption in the country, presenting a large economic prize that can be appropriated with relative ease by the political elite.”(13)

Other cases that further illustrate the corruption problem, include the one of the Nigerian Health Minister, Adenike Grange, who resigned in March 2008 after the EFCC brought corruption charges against her.14 In October 2009, “Olabode George, Chieftain of the People’s Democratic Party was convicted for financial crimes.”15 Of course, these developments can also be seen as positive signs of an increasing awareness on corruption in Nigeria. Moreover, there are also several cases in which Nigerian state officials have been trailed for corruption and money laundering charges abroad; amongst them, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, Governor of Bayelsa, and James Ibori, Governor of the Delta States. Once more, this shows that corruption is not as an unattended issue anymore in Nigeria, as it used to be. However, stronger efforts are needed to bring about effective changes for the Nigerian people. Some positive steps in the field of anti-corruption have already been taken by the government itself in passing “a fiscal responsibility bill which institutionalises the use of an oil price-based fiscal rule (OPFR), with earnings above a conservative estimate of the global oil price saved in an excess crude account.”16 However, it will be crucial to use the money collected in that account for the good of the Nigerian population. Conclusion The Nigerian Delta States have a great potential for development and prosperity. However, it is clear that the fruits of the natural resources and the consequent development can be fully enjoyed only if environmental pollution and resulting human rights abuses and corruption come to a halt.

To reach this end, stronger international cooperation and monitoring is needed so that the “abundant human and natural resources” in the Niger Delta will finally have “an impact on poverty” and on human rights.17 The first steps have been taken and the United Nations Environment Programme is moving into the area to conduct assessments on the environmental situation. As UNDP rightly puts it, “rigorous enforcement of environmental laws and standards” is crucial. Moreover, all the relevant legislation in respect of human rights is there, it only has to be properly enforced.

* Anja Roth is Trainings and Research Assistant at the Basel Institute on Governance.

(1) This article is based on a paper written for the Yale University Press by Alan Bacarese and Anja Roth in December 2009

(2) See website of the United Nations Environment Programme http://www.unep.org/conflictsanddisasters/UNEPintheRegions/CurrentActivities/Nigeria/OgonilandsOilHistory/tabid/1554/language/en-US/Default.aspx

(3) Amnesty International: Nigeria: Petroleum, pollution and poverty in the Niger Delta Report 2009.

(4) Art. 12 5 Art. 24 6 Art. 25 7 UDHR, Art. 25, ICESCR, Art 11. 8 UNDP Report Human Development Report Nigeria 2008 – 2009 Achieving growth with equity, November 2009, available at http://web.ng.undp.org/documents/NHDR2009/NHDR_MAIN-REPORT_2008-2009.pdf, p. 105.

(9) http://www.assetrecovery.org/kc/node/52f770df-a33e-11dc-bf1b-335d0754ba85.0;jsessionid=2BE0F6230688C9F057C888EA352EDDD1

(10) http://www.transparency.org/policy_research/surveys_indices/cpi/2009

(11) http://www.efccnigeria.org/

(12) Library of Congress – Federal Research Division: Country Profile Nigeria July 2008, p. 10, available at http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/profiles/Nigeria.pdf

(13) UNDP Human Development Report Nigeria 2008 – 2009 Achieving growth with equity, November 2009, available at http://web.ng.undp.org/documents/NHDR2009/NHDR_MAIN-REPORT_2008-2009.pdf, p. 108.

(14) All Africa.com: Nigeria: Fired! Yar’Adua Sacks Health Minister Over N300m Scam, 26 March 2008. Available at http://allafrica.com/stories/200803260402.html

(15) Human Rights Watch, World Report 2010 – Nigeria, 20 January 2010, available at http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/4b586ce741.html

(16) UN Nigeria: Nigeria – UNDAF II 2009 – 2012 Report September 2008, available at AF_Nigeria_2009.pdf, p. 7.

(17) UNDP Niger Delta Human Development Report, 2006, available at http://web.ng.undp.org/publications/nigeria-delta-hdr.pdf, p. iii.