Port Harcourt will kill you but probably not from what you expect. For most people, it won’t be from the gunfights between the over 200 street gangs in the city or the escalating violence between Wike’s people and Amaechi’s people. Although there has been an upsurge in kidnappings, robberies, and sea (or creek) piracy, the high casualties won’t come from these either. Rather, death lurks in the air. Literarily.

From late 2015, residents of the city have filled their lungs with black soot. According to Nrior & Paul (2018)*, the soot comes mainly from “Kpo Fire” or the illegal artisanal refineries that dot the creeks, gas flares and the harmful substances released in the air, and burning of oil spills by incompetent clean-up contractors. Other factors include exhaust fumes from generators and auto vehicles, burning of discarded vehicle tyres, and incineration of refuse dumps. All of these factors are testament to the gross under-development of the region.

Although there are no credible data to quantify the health costs of air pollution in Port Harcourt, everyone in the city knows that they are literarily dying; slowly. It is with great trepidation that one contemplates what may be happening in the lungs of the children, women, and men. What we know is that data contained in the World Bank’s “Little Green Data Book 2015”** indicates that 94 percent of Nigeria is exposed to air pollution levels that exceed the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines compared to 72 percent on average for Sub-Saharan Africa. Additional WHO data indicates that ambient air pollution accounts for a lot of diseases: 25 percent of all deaths from lung cancer, 17 percent of all deaths and diseases from acute lower respiratory infection, 16 percent of all deaths from stroke, 15 percent of all deaths and diseases from ischaemic heart disease, and 8 percent of all deaths and diseases from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Port Harcourt could be hitting similar high numbers but nobody knows because there are no measures. It Is possible that the dozens of deaths in the last two years, that have been attributed to the “Will of God”, could be from the “ills of man”: black soot.

The illegal, artisanal refineries have been a problem for a long time in the Niger Delta. Government efforts to address the issue, through the deployment of the military, has been a spectacular failure. In fact, the perversion belief in the region is that the military are now complicit in the illegal activities by aiding and abetting miscreants who are willing to pay protection money. Likewise, gas flaring has been a major contentious issue between the oil companies and environmentalists. It was one of the cardinal points of Ken Saro Wiwa’s agitation. Yet, almost two dozen years after his death, the flares continue to burn; day and night. Oil spills are a combination of sabotage and equipment failure. In some other cases, it is the clean-up contractors who pay miscreants to sabotage the pipelines so the former can be engaged to clean up the resulting spills. Whatever the cause or consequences, the fact is that these challenges have endured because of the failure of development in the region. Some of the youths feel that the only way they can eke out a living is through criminality.

Realising that previous interventions have failed; Federal Government of Nigeria has announced a suite of policy options to address the fundamental issues in the region. For instance, Government of Nigeria proposes to transition the youth away from artisanal refineries into licensed, modular refineries. The fundamental idea is that bringing the boys out from the creeks and into an organised and regulated corporate world would stop pipeline sabotage and quench the “Kpo Fires”. While the government is yet to announce the modalities for this new refinery business, newspaper reports indicate that the idea may have already been hijacked by the elite. The impression in the region is that the resources required to set up the refineries would be outside the reach of the youths currently involved in the illegal refineries. More importantly, profitability in oil refinery depends a lot on a minimum efficiency scale which may be a challenge for the lads to achieve. On gas flaring, Government of Nigeria has set up the Nigeria Gas Flaring Commercialisation Programme (http://www.ngfcp.gov.ng) which seeks to attract investors to take the gas that is being flared and turn them into electric power and other industries.

Without prejudice to any of the solutions being developed, government should push for more community involvement in delivering services to the petroleum sector. Most of the challenges in the region are borne out of the fact that the communities have not been fully engaged in the petroleum industry. A dog does not eat the bone it has been tasked to safeguard. The communities can provide surveillance of the oil installations for a commercially-competitive fee. This should lead to a significant reduction in pipeline sabotage for “Kpo Fires” and also reduce pollution of land and water sources. Jobs in the oil companies should be extended to community members who have the requisite qualifications. Similarly, companies owned and managed by the communities should be engaged to provide sundry services to the oil companies. Peace and security stability will be achieved in the region when incentives are aligned and the communities realise that their well-being is tied to the success of the petroleum industry. The old practice of bribing (or empowering) a few “strong men” in the hope that they will keep the people quite has outlived its usefulness.

The Buhari administration is already exploring a community-based model for service provision in the region. This is not going to be an easy road to travel because increased community involvement in the management of the contracts means that those who have positioned as custodians of the community’s welfare would lose part (if not all) of the resources they currently enjoy. The fact is that the government and oil companies have spent a lot of resources in the region but these funds have not impacted the life of the poor widows picking periwinkles at the fishing ports. The model must change.

Government of Rivers State should do more to address the black soot problem. At least in the interim, Governor Wike should raise his head from reading battle maps (against Amaechi) and provide at least a stop-gap solution to the problem. It is really awful that there is no public awareness on the need for gas masks in the city. In fact, there is no clarity on where to buy one in the city. The government should be running adverts every day, on every platform, to educate residents on the risks of the black soot and the need never to leave home without at least a surgical mask. The government should work with the private sector to ensure immediate availability and affordability of the masks everywhere in the state, including the creeks.

With leadership from the governments, both at the state and federal levels, no one in Port Harcourt should die prematurely from preventable causes such as breathing poisonous black soot. What is required is leadership that is committed to finding both an interim and a long-lasting solution to the problem. This effort will require sincerity from the government, political and community leaders, leaders of the ex-agitators, and the boys who currently feel that they have no other option but the path of illegality and criminality.

Port Harcourt can return to its long-forgotten beauty as the “Garden City”. With some hard work, Port Harcourt can become that city that inspired many High Life musicians of the 1960s. It can return to its place as the city of Timaya’s “Port Harcourt Son”. The city can be rebuilt where the lyrics of that song will no longer ring hollow. It should be true that “All around the world, they like Port Harcourt eh”. It can become a truly international city. For now, we can start by ensuring that people do not die from preventable causes.

Patrick O. Okigbo III
May 15, 2018
Warri, Nigeria

* Nrior, R.R. and Paul, S.T., (2018). Sources of Black soot and associated microorganisms in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Research Gate. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/324643767_Sources_of_Black_soot_and_associated_microorganisms_in_Port_Harcourt_Nigeria (Uploaded April 2018; accessed May 15, 2018)

** World Bank (2015). The Little Green Data Book 2015 (English). World Development Indicators. Washington, D.C. : World Bank Group. http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/443931468189562382/The-little-green-data-book-2015 (Uploaded June 2015; accessed May 15, 2018)

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