Lagos, Nigeria – Members of Nigeria’s Nembe community have taken to the streets of Yenagoa, capital of Bayelsa state, to demand action against oil and gas spills from a leaking wellhead that has been affecting local residents for more than a month.

Crude oil and natural gas have been spurting into the dozens of nearby fishing settlements since early November, along the Nembe coastline and into the Santa Barbara River which meanders through the Niger Delta before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. Tides have reportedly carried the spill’s impact further, to communities in the neighbouring Rivers state.

The cause of the spill at the OML 29 Well 1 platform – operated by Nigeria’s largest domestic oil firm, Aiteo Eastern E&P, which took over the Santa Barbara wellhead from Royal Dutch Shell in 2015 – is still under investigation. Activists quoted in local media reports have described the incident as the biggest oil spill disaster in the history of the Nigerian petroleum industry.

“We want the world to hear our cry that we are on the verge of extinction,” Allen Jonah, secretary of the Nembe Se Congress, a nationalist group at the forefront of Monday’s protest outside the Nigerian Union of Journalists’ press centre in Yenagoa.

“Let the international community not just sit idle to see that whatever is happening will calm down by itself.”

Nigeria’s federal government, through the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, owns majority stakes in joint ventures with oil companies that operate in the country and are also tasked with running day-to-day operations.

Since the 1970s, the oil-rich Niger Delta region has accounted for an overwhelming majority of Nigeria’s earnings, turning the country into Africa’s largest oil producer.

But the region continues to suffer the multiplier effect of decades of environmental degradation, which has eroded livelihoods and deprived residents of basic essentials such as access to clean drinking water. The area’s mangroves and swamps have become uninhabitable for many species and the average human life expectancy is also 10 years lower in the Delta than elsewhere in Nigeria.

According to Nigeria’s Ministry of Environment, there have been approximately 5,000 documented cases of oil spillage just in the past six years. But the latest incident, which activists say has continued for more than 35 days, shocked industry stakeholders.

Deputy Environment Minister Sharon Ikeazor has compared the pollution scene to the World War II atomic bombing of Hiroshima in Japan and called for a review of the law backing The National Oil Spills Detection and Response Agency in order to introduce stiffer penalties on oil companies. After visiting the scene in late November, state Governor Douye Diri likened the situation to the Gulf of Mexico incident in 2010, widely considered to be the largest marine oil spill in history.

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