Nalley Baridam, 33, is a native of Bodo in Gokana Local Government Area of Rivers.
His main occupation is fishing and he uses proceeds from fish sales to take care of his wife, four children and aged parents.
“On a good day, my fish catch from Bodo river fetches me a revenue of N30,000 but since 2008 when the river was polluted by an oil spill, life has not been easy for us.
“It is so terrible that all the members of my fishing crew have abandoned me and travelled to Cameroon to seek greener pastures. From Bodo river to Cameroon is a two-day journey and I don’t have the money to undertake the trip,” he said.
However, Baridam is apparently a happy man now because of the recent launch of the clean-up of the polluted creeks, farmlands and sources of drinking water in the Ogoni neighbourhood of Rivers.
Sika Wikina, a 40-year-old farmer who hails from Bera, also in Gokana Local Government Area, has a similar experience with regard to the effects of oil spills in the area.
“I went to my farm one early morning in 2008 and everywhere was covered by a black substance emitting bad odour. The cassava, yams, cocoyam, vegetables and even economic trees on the farm were all dead.
“The nearby stream, where we used to fetch water for our cooking, was not flowing again because crude oil had covered it. All the fish and crabs therein were dead.
“Initially, I did not understand the magnitude of the environmental damage until I got home and heard the similar lamentations of other families in the village,” he said.
Wikina is also visibly elated that the much-publicised clean-up programme has been launched.
As a result of the damage done to the environment of the Ogoni area, among others, former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration engaged the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to study and assess the extent of pollution.
The document presented by the team, which was tagged UNEP Report, was finally submitted to former President Goodluck Jonathan in August 2011.
The report indicated that oil pollution had inflicted a lot of damage on the environment, to such an extent that residents of the affected communities in Ogoniland now stood the risk of contracting cancer.
In a nutshell, the report recommended the immediate clean-up of the environment.
Launching the environment’s clean-up, President Muhammadu Buhari said that it was a fulfilment of a campaign promise to save the environment, which he once made to Ogoni people.
Buhari, who was represented by the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbanjo, bemoaned the fact that the same site in Bodo, where he inaugurated some fish ponds for the Niger Delta Basin Development Authority in 1984, had been polluted and completely deserted.
“I have given approval for the constitution of the necessary institutional framework that will drive the hitch-free implementation of the UNEP Report.
“Our lives, socio-economic and political interest depend, to a great extent, on the quality of our environment,” he said.
Buhari said that the implementation of the UNEP Report recommendations would be transparent, while creating jobs and wealth for the people, with its livelihood and sustainable components.
The UNEP team that carried out the assessment were not left out of the joy of the moment.
Mr Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP, said the team produced a report on what actually happened to the environment of Ogoniland.
“In the United Nations family, we are committed to stand by the Nigerian government, Ogoni people and partners like Shell to ensure that what is launched today is truly something that everybody can be held accountable for.
“For my team in UNEP, this is a great risk for us to take but it is a just cause and it is worthy we did it,” Steiner said.
The UNEP Report says the clean-up of Ogoniland will last five years, while the damaged eco-system will take 25 years to be fully restored.
The Minister of Environment, Ms. Amina Mohammed, who worked tirelessly to ensure the successful launch of the clean-up, said that its success would, however, require the collective responsibility of all stakeholders.
She said that the exercise “ requires transparency, accountability, genuine partnership and proper representation of the people in the grassroots in what we are doing in investing in their future’’.
But for Ogoni people, the launch of the environment’s clean-up is a spectacular achievement, particularly for the non-violent approach they adopted in fighting for their rights.
Sen. Magnus Abe, former APC lawmaker representing Rivers South East Senatorial District, and Legborsi Piagbara, President, Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) argued that the non-violent approach of Ogoni people in the crusade has finally paid off.
“Ogoni people are on the threshold of history in Nigeria. Without blowing up one pipeline, without kidnapping any white man; we have become the beacon of change for the new Nigeria by stubbornly insisting on what is right.
“Today, we are the ones lighting the path for the new road which Nigeria should follow.
“This is because from now on, whenever you blow up pipelines, everybody knows you are destroying the environment and judging by the Ogoni experience, you know that it is wrong to destroy the environment,’’ Abe said.
Nevertheless, ecologists like Mr Nnimmo Bassey want all stakeholders in the Niger Delta area to desist from acts capable of aggravating the pollution of their environment.
Bassey, the Executive Director of Health of Mother Earth Foundation, an NGO, argued that it always took a long time to sanitise a polluted environment, adding that pragmatic efforts should be made to ensure the implementation of the UNEP Report.
Analysts believe that the successful clean-up of Ogoniland will spur the onset of similar exercises in other affected sites or communities across the Niger Delta area.
They underscore the need to put an end to negative acts such as pipeline vandalism and illegal refining, among others, in the Niger Delta region which are largely considered injurious to the environment.
The experts, nonetheless, insist that the residents of the Ogoni neighbourhood ought to play complementary roles in the nascent efforts to sanitise their environment.
By Mike Mboye, News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)