Nigeria's Health Contradiction Is Dividing the Country

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The success of Africa’s largest economy contrasts with its state’s failings. 

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His face wrinkled, 75-year-old Monday Ayamagah speaks in a deep, faint voice, dragging each word out with unease. He stares vacantly at the white chair in his room, his eyesight nearly gone. But the father of six in Bodo, a part of Rivers State in Nigeria, isn’t the only one blind to what lies ahead, suggest some experts.

The state is one among nine that make up the Niger Delta, which geographically feeds the Gulf of Guinea and economically sustains Nigeria. It is ground zero for the country’s oil wealth. And within the region, Rivers and its capital Port Harcourt are the center of the country’s oil industry.

Crude has helped Nigeria emerge as Africa’s largest economy, and contributes 90 percent of the nation’s external earnings and 70 percent of its total revenues. Last year, Nigeria’s external reserves rose monthly by more than 2 percent, rising to $30 billion by the end of 2017, according to the Central Bank of Nigeria. The incoming wealth has, in turn, helped Nigeria pull up key socioeconomic indicators: The country’s annual per capita income has increased nine-fold, from $270 in 2000 to $2,450 in 2016, according to the World Bank.

No one can dispute the health suffering of the people.

Ben Ordinioha, professor of community medicine, University of Port Harcourt

But growing evidence suggests that the very same oil is also deepening a health divide between the country’s oil heartland and the rest of the nation. Between 2006 and 2016, life expectancy in Nigeria increased for men by seven years, to 63.7, and eight years for women, to 66.4. Yet in the Niger Delta region, life expectancy has fallen to between 40 and 43 years, according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). Experts worry this sharpening gulf could further complicate efforts to bring peace to the conflict-torn Niger Delta. Studies by the UNEP and independent research by international analysts are now increasingly confirming, scientifically, a culprit Ayamagah and his friends had identified through their own personal experience: oil spills.

“Since we started experiencing oil spills in Bodo, things changed,” says Ayamagah, adding that it’s not just people who are dying. “The mangrove and the waters have been destroyed, and the fish are dead.”

Bodo suffered some of its worst spills in 2008-09, when according to a British court, 600,000 barrels of crude spread out across the region, ruining the livelihood of many traditional farming and fishing communities. Ayamagah, who heads the Bodo fishermen association, started fishing 60 years ago. These effects on livelihoods and the local economy have been at the heart of the armed conflict between the government and rebels over the Niger Delta’s resources that has now run for half a century.

But the impact on human health is only now becoming clear. Research led by economist Roland Hodler from the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland published in September 2017 has shown that these oil spills are baby killers. Using spatial data from the Nigerian Oil Spill Monitor and the Demographic and Health Surveys, and relying on the comparison of siblings conceived before and after nearby oil spills, the researchers found that children born close to oil spills were twice as likely to die early. Of the 16,000 infants they sampled among those who died within the first month of their life in 2012, 70 percent — more than 11,000 — would have survived at least a year in the absence of oil spills, their findings suggest. And those who survive die much earlier than peers in other parts of the country. The UNEP attributes this disparity to lifetime exposure to contaminated air, water sources, soil and sediment resulting from oil spills.

“The effect is strong,” says Hodler. “We find a doubling of the neonatal mortality rate when comparing siblings born to the same mother, some conceived before and some conceived after a nearby oil spill.” The link between spills and broader health concerns is also increasingly evident, suggests Best Ordinioha, professor of community medicine and environmental health at the University of Port Harcourt. There’s “enough evidence from published studies and numerous real-life experiences that point to the huge health issues in the region,” he says. “No one can dispute the health suffering of the people.”

After decades of litigation, activism and militancy in the Niger Delta, the country’s government in 2016 initiated a project to clean up the Ogoni region — one of the worst affected by oil spills — in Rivers State. The project could take close to three decades to complete. But experts say the government appears to be underestimating the magnitude of the challenge at hand. For one, they say, Ogoni is just a small piece of a delta that is the size of Bulgaria. Critics have accused the government of inadequate funding, while regulatory authorities have hauled up the federal administration for delays in executing plans. Worse still, leaking pipelines continue to litter the Niger Delta, potentially poisoning future generations.

The government’s failure to see this deepening crisis even as it looks to the Niger Delta for the country’s economic growth could further complicate the struggle to combat armed militants who thrive on the frustration of local communities, suggest experts.

Kentebe Ebiaridor, an environmentalist at the nonprofit group Environmental Rights Action who has worked in the Niger Delta for over a decade, says the government hasn’t been honest with the region’s people. “For this reason, trust is lost already, and young people are tempted to embrace militancy,” he says. “The people have the mentality that the only way to get the government’s attention is violence.” The government, he says, has focused on identifying rebel leaders it can turn with the promise of amnesty — without addressing the fundamental factors driving the rebellion such as poverty, deteriorating health, early deaths and unemployment.

In Bodo, says Ayamagah, many locals who have pursued fishing and farming for decades are giving up those jobs amid growing cases of partial blindness, coughing, asthma and itchy skin that local doctors are tracing to the oil slick that covers the region’s water.

He recalls a time when he had his eyesight and could see 5 kilometers out at sea. From a distance, he could glimpse crabs creeping by creeks. Now, the mangroves — once green and rich with crabs and periwinkles — are dead and gray. Ayamagah can’t see even that destruction anymore.

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