By Jerome-Mario Chijioke Utomi –
I remember now with nostalgia how about a year ago, precisely on Tuesday August 10, 2021, Nigeria’s Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo at a function held in Lagos, among other remarks, told the gathering that President Muhammadu Buhari led administration is determined to see through the completion of all the critical projects that had been embarked upon in the Niger Delta region.
In his words, “we have invested significantly in the Niger Delta as the region that holds the energy resources that have powered our progress for six decades as well as the keys to an emergent gas economy. In 2017, following my tour of the Niger Delta, which involved extensive consultations with key stakeholders in the region, the New Vision for the Niger Delta was birthed in response to the various challenges which had been plaguing our people. The objective of this New Vision is to ensure that the people of the region benefit maximally from their wealth, through promoting infrastructural developments, environmental remediation and local content development.”
However, even if one is tempted to bank on the above alluring but peripheral promises, despite the fact the Federal Government is not taking any practical steps that will bring it to fruition after well over one year the promises were made, a peep into a recently released 2022 study report entitled “Exposure to oil pollution and maternal outcomes: The Niger Delta prospective cohort study”, says something different, freighting and discouraging.
According to this referenced report which was carried out by Dr Onome B Oghenetega at the Babcock University, Ilishan-Remo in collaboration with Professor Michael Okunlola, Professor Godson R E E Ana, Dr Oludare Morhason-Bello and Professor Oladosu Ojengbede, women residing in areas with high exposure to oil pollution in the Niger Delta are more prone to premature rupture of membranes and severe vaginal bleeding after childbirth as compared to women residing in areas with low exposure, making pollution prevention pivotal to achieving maternal death reduction in the region. Women in high-exposure areas of the Niger Delta had a higher incidence of premature rupture of membrane (PROM), caesarean section and severe vaginal bleeding after childbirth compared to women in areas with low exposure to oil pollution’..
The research used data collected from interviewer-administered questionnaires and a review of medical records from April 2018 to April 2019, and examined the effect of maternal exposure to oil pollution on pregnancy outcomes in 1720 pregnant women aged 18–45 years.
Essentially, while this piece thanks and appreciates these researchers for this all important awareness, the question that is important as the findings itself is; as a nation, what can we make out of this report?
Aside from being perceived as backward and degraded, occasioned by crude oil exploration, exploitation and production, the latest report like similar ones delivered in recent times shows that the Niger Delta is not just a region laced with sad commentaries, but remains a geographical location with varying meaning to different people.
To some, it is a region where communal right to a clean environment and access to clean water supply is violated. By its admission, the oil industry has abandoned thousands of polluted sites in the region. Aquifiers and other water supply sources which are being adversely affected by industrial or other activities need to be recovered while communities are adequately compensated for their losses.
To others, it symbolizes a location where the government employs a non-participatory approach to development/ broad-based consultative approach that strips the people of their sense of ownership, where the government and other Nigerians have failed to see the problem of the Niger Delta as a national one.
To the rest, it is a zone where fierce war has been raging between ethnic and social forces in Nigeria over the ownership and control of oil resources. And as a direct result, a long dark shadow has been cast on efforts to improve the wellbeing and economic development of the region’s individuals, peoples, and communities.
To end these ugly narratives in the region and in other parts of the country, the Federal Government needs to be holistic in approach by doing two things- placement of strong premium on, and implementation of Nigerians’ right to health and environment.
To explain these propositions beginning with the right to health, there is an urgent imperative for policy makers in the country to start understanding health as a human right. Incorporating this new awareness will create a legal obligation on states to ensure access to timely, acceptable, and affordable health care of appropriate quality as well as to providing for the underlying determinants of health, such as safe and potable water, sanitation, food, housing, health-related information and education, and gender equality.
The Federal Government must in line with the United Nations’ advocacies internalize the fact that rights-based approach to health requires that health policy and programmes must prioritize the needs of those furthest behind first towards greater equity, a principle that has been echoed in the recently adopted 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Universal Health Coverage.
We must develop the mindset to the effect that right to health must be enjoyed without discrimination on the grounds of age, ethnicity or any other status. Non-discrimination and equality requires states to take steps to redress any discriminatory law, practice or policy. Another feature that must be adopted in this regard is meaningful participation. Participation within this context, according to the United Nation (UN), means ensuring that national stakeholders – including non-state actors such as non-governmental organizations – are meaningfully involved in all phases of programming: assessment, analysis, planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.
On environment, the Niger Delta experience should be an eye opener for the government to believe that to enjoy human rights; human beings depend on the environment in which they live. A safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is integral to the full enjoyment of a wide range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, water and sanitation. Without a healthy environment, we are unable to fulfil our aspirations.
As globally preached, it calls for the recognition of the links between human rights and the environment. The number and scope of international and domestic laws, judicial decisions, and academic studies on the relationship between human rights and the environment are growing rapidly.
The human rights and the environment mandate, created in March 2012 and extended in 2018, examines the human rights obligations as they relate to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. It also promotes best practices relating to the use of human rights in environmental policymaking.
Most importantly, we must as a nation incorporate a right to a healthy environment in our constitutions. We must stop paying lip service to these rights.
Utomi Jerome-Mario is the Programme Coordinator (Media and Public Policy), Social and Economic Justice Advocacy (SEJA), A Lagos-Based Non Governmental Organization (NGO).And could be reached via Jeromeutomi@yahoo.com /08032725374.