ENUGU, NIGERIA - The Niger Delta is where Africa's largest oil producer pumps out its most lucrative natural resource.
But while companies like Shell and ExxonMobile operate there and extract billions of dollars worth of crude oil, most of the people in the region are extremely poor. Their traditional livelihoods as farmers and fishermen have been badly affected by more than 6,000 oil spills that have damaged the environment over the past 50 years.
A 33-year-old local activist and petroleum engineer, Legborsi Yamaabana, has come out to denounce a $1 billion environmental remediation project that was launched in the community of Ogoni in 2016.
The project, recommended by the United Nations Environment Program, gets most of its financing from international oil companies, including Shell which has released an initial $10 million.
But Yamaabana says the project is plagued by corruption.
"The money is being used in a most corrupt way. Everything is being shrouded in secrecy. Everything is being done in the Nigerian way. They are not doing anything called cleanup, Yamaabana said.
Yamaabana is the president of the Ogoni Youth Federation, which claims to have 11,000 members. The federation has filed a lawsuit against HYPREP, the government agency in charge of coordinating the cleanup.
The Federation wants to know exactly how the money is being spent. It also claims HYPREP is not following the recommendations of the U.N. Environment Program contained in 2011 report.
The report advised the Nigerian government to address emergency needs in the region before starting the cleanup. This includes providing access to clean water. On this, Yamaabana says the government has failed.
"Our people still drink from polluted sources of water. As I speak with you, our people still swim and bathe in that same water, Yamaabana said.
Fyneface Dumnamene, of the Youths and Environmental Advocacy Centre, agrees, saying that HYPREP has not met the basic needs of communities. But he believes the government of President Muhammadu Buhari is showing commendable commitment to getting the job done.
"They have succeeded in bringing contractors to site. So far they have also made efforts in meeting with some of the stakeholders involved, Fyneface said.
But like many, he questions the qualifications of the 21 companies that were given contracts to do the cleanup.
Media reports say some of the companies specialize in the fashion and retail business, others in animal husbandry.
HYPREP rejects these criticisms. The agency's head of communications and community engagement, Isa Wasa, told VOA that the contracted companies do meet the criteria for doing the work.
"All the contractors are qualified because there are certain documents that they had to present, which they did, Wasa said.
Responding to claims that local communities are not benefiting from the cleanup project, Wasa added that at least 400 local residents have been given jobs to work at the sites. HYPREP says more than 20,000 people have received free health care during a medical outreach mission that the agency organized and that they're working on getting clean water to communities.
But deep skepticism over the effort remains. HYPREP signposts are being destroyed. Earlier this year, local youth burned a HYPREP bus that was carrying government staff and journalists.
Celestine AkpoBari, a veteran environmental activist, says people in the region have expected too much, too soon from the cleanup. But he acknowledged it's understandable they are disillusioned.
"The people have been pushed to the wall. They've been told lies over a million times, Celestine said
Environmentalists say it could take 30 years to sanitize and restore the region's environment. Activists warn that if the government fails to deliver, people may resort to violence.
Source: Voice of America