Marnix de Bruyne

The sweetheart deals of the Niger Delta

In the oil-polluted Niger Delta, Ogoniland had to be the exception: here everything would be cleaned up properly. Yet things are going wrong even there, internal documents show.

“It was the biggest shock I have ever experienced. ‘Et tu, Brute’, I could have said to the minister. We even had dinner together a few days earlier.”  Many months after it happened, Ferdinand Giadom was still protesting the unceremonial termination of his position as head of the clean-up operation in Ogoniland, known under the acronym HYPREP, one of the largest clean-up operations of oil-polluted areas ever. He had not yet been in charge for thirteen months when he received a three-line note on May 2 last year informing him that the Minister of Environment was dismissing him on the spot. Without stating any reasons.

Not long before, Giadom had queried 39 dubious contracts for remediation of polluted areas with local companies, because most of them did not have the knowledge and capacity to properly perform their task. Some of the companies in Ogoniland who got contracts earlier, were incompetent, he knew, in some cases causing more damage to the environment than the leaked oil had done. Insiders call these kinds of contracts ‘sweetheart deals’: overpriced contracts, with a lot of people down the line who get a ‘slice of the cake’.

Only eight days after Giadom's termination the minister indeed approved projects worth US$287 million, according to an internal document from December last year. The contracts mentioned were for “coastline remediation” (worth US$238 million) and for “drinking water projects” (US$49 million). The 39 contractors of whom Giadom had queried their competence and qualification in relation to their future tasks, were now included after all.


Ogoniland itself covers no more than a thousand square kilometres, just a bit less than the metropolitan area of Lagos. The area gained fame through the massive protests in the early 1990s by the marginalised Ogoni, who demanded a greater share of the oil proceeds and the clean-up of oil pollution in Ogoniland. As a result of the protests, Shell stopped oil extraction in Ogoniland in 1993, and the then dictatorial Abacha government responded with harsh repression and the execution of the well-known Ogoni leader and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, after a military show trial in 1995.

The geologist Ferdinand Giadom is a son of the soil, being an Ogoni himself. He obtained his PhD in Environmental Geology from the University of Port Harcourt near Ogoniland, and contributed to a major, groundbreaking study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which mapped out the exact extent of the damage.

UNEP’s widely publicised report recommended a major clean-up operation, with a fund of US$1 billion for the first five years. The Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project (HYPREP) was the result, a government body that is still responsible for the cleanup. Shell, who had committed itself to the outcomes of the report, promised to pay for it, through its subsidiary SPDC. By the end of 2023 the joint venture SPDC JV, in which Shell has a minority stake, with the Nigerian state oil company NNPC, the French TotalEnergies and the Italian ENI  as the other partners, had already put US$751 million into the fund.

For years, not much happened, for many reasons. But from 2018 onwards, HYPREP could count on the involvement of a team from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), to provide technical support to the cleaning. The then Nigerian Minister of Environment, Sharon Ikeazor, appointed Ferdinand Giadom as coordinator of HYPREP on March 15, 2022 following a transparent recruitment process.  However, Ikeazor was soon assigned another ministry and was succeeded by Minister Mohammed Abdullahi.

Giadom also soon noticed that he had inherited many dubious remediation contracts. “Large-scale corruption is destroying the Niger Delta clean-up,” headlined Africa Confidential in October 2022, a few months after his appointment.

“Don’t forget your walking stick”

In addition to the cleaning, Giadom also worked on three ‘legacy projects’, intended to ensure that the local Ogoni population would have lasting benefits from the cleaning operation. The first was a specialist hospital, which was still lacking in Ogoniland, “while we are seeing a big increase in cancer and other diseases due to oil pollution”, according to Giadom. The second project was the Centre of Excellence, meant for research on and capacity building for environmental restoration, and the third was the connection of Ogoniland to the national power grid to ensure power for small scale industries to create jobs and for pumping up water.

He launched the three projects on April 28, 2023, with a celebratory function attended by outgoing President Buhari and the Minister of Environment. That day, the three wore the same traditional dark blue robes, which Giadom had specially made. “The minister and I helped each other put on the clothes, we sat together on the couch and said cordial things to each other like ‘don't forget your walking stick’. I took him to the airport and shook his hand warmly.” Four days later the same minister fired him. 

“A total failure”

Meanwhile the cleaning at some of the projects Giadom had inherited, went wrong. An internal UNEP report from September 2023 stated that an area that was supposed to be cleaned, “still does not meet” the criteria to be called “cleaned”. There was still oil in the groundwater and in “many water sources”. “Even after soil remediation is completed, the groundwater is likely to continue to re-contaminate the soil.” In some places the water contained almost seven times more hydrocarbons than is considered acceptable for public health.

“Large areas of the cluster of lots have a complete absence of topsoil”, was another conclusion. “Consequently, the site is unlikely to return to productive agricultural use unless topsoil can be imported from elsewhere”, which “may incur considerable additional costs to HYPREP”.

The cleaning of another site was awarded to no fewer than fourteen companies, the majority of which had no experience with the subject. Elsewhere, UNEP had called this “scientifically indefensible” and the US$50 million the companies received for it “an inappropriate use of resources”.

According to the minutes of a ‘round table meeting’ of June 16 2023, with representatives of UNEP, HYPREP and SPDC, a representative of UNEP complained about the failed cleaning. The first phase of cleanup across Ogoniland was “a total failure” due to “incompetent contractors” and “systematic failures”. “He further posited that incompetent contractors are being engaged again in the new set of contracts” for the second phase of  the “remediation works as well as shoreline works”, the note-taker wrote.

The UN representative complained about incompetent contractors

Biologist Nenibarini Zabbey, who succeeded Giadom as coordinator of HYPREP, was also recorded as being unhappy with the remediation companies. “Contractors are not to be allowed to further degrade the environment  and put the blame on HYPREP”, he said, according to the minutes. However, a comment in the same minutes from an SPDC representative suggests that existing contracts would not be broken up anytime soon: “imposing remediation techniques” on the contractors would “probably” lead to “additional costs and possible legal claims'', he said, according to the internal minutes.

Still contaminated

Africa Confidential and the financial news agency Bloomberg link HYPREP technical director Philip Shekwolo to the dubious contracts. As ‘head of remediation’ at SPDC, he had to ensure the clean-up of oil leaks in concession areas of Shell, many years earlier. But the earlier mentioned UNEP report on Ogoniland from 2011 found that of the fifteen lots of land that SPDC had declared ‘clean’ when Shekwolo oversaw the remediation, ten were still contaminated – despite being certified as clean by the regulator, NOSDRA. Yet, since March 2022, Shekwolo was tasked with hiring the cleaning companies. Only in May this year it became clear that Shekwolo’s own contract was not renewed.

According to a source close to the project the waste of money and the suspicion of corruption caused the UN environmental organisation UNEP to end its collaboration with HYPREP as of December 31st last year: UNEP was afraid that its reputation would be damaged. Another UN organisation, the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) was asked to take over UNEP’s role. An internal letter to the then Minister of Environment shows how UNOPS also feared HYPREP’s reputation. UNOPS would only be willing to assist HYPREP, it says, if HYPREP starts meeting stringent requirements. To achieve “adequate balances and transparency”, a “major reform of the current management of HYPREP is required”, the letter says.

Currently no UN-agency is involved

Accountancy firm Deloitte did carry out a risk analysis, having discussions with HYPREP coordinator Zabbey and others. Also based on these findings, UNOPS decided not to step in. The new Environment Minister Balarabe Abbas Lawal, in function since October last year, tried to convince UNEP to come back, but the UN environmental organisation only agreed to give occasional technical advice until June this year – meaning that currently no UN-agency is involved anymore with HYPREP.

Giadom meanwhile legally challenged his dismissal. The case ended in the first week of June this year in a total “vindication” of Giadom, as he describes it. According to the verdict, Giadoms job was “wrongfully terminated, in manifest bad faith”, there was no case of misconduct established and he was not given a fair hearing. Since his job was meant to last four years, the judge ordered him to be paid his full salary until the end of March 2026 and ‘aggravated damages’ of 5 million Naira (about US$3,350).

The most oil-polluted area on earth

Ogoniland is only a small part of the Niger Delta, which is the size of Belgium and the Netherlands combined and, according to experts, the most oil-polluted area on earth. Elsewhere in the Delta residents and activists are also demanding a thorough clean-up, comparable with the plan for Oginiland. A group of 13,652 affected farmers and fishermen from the Bille and Ogale communities, for instance, are demanding this in a lawsuit against Shell, which started in 2016 at the British Court of Technology and Construction Affairs.

Shell says it is not liable for the pollution in the Bille and Ogale communities, because it maintains that most of the damage there has been caused by third parties, such as oil thieves, who illegally tap the pipelines. A study from early 2023 by research group Saerem does indeed show that oil thieves and illegal refining are the causes of the most pollution.

Fisherman Odoyibo washington standing with his fish net ready to look for fish in the polluted river in the Ogale community. Photo credit Somo/Simpa Samson.

But it is also true that Shell does not protect its pipelines in the Niger Delta nearly as well as elsewhere. As British lawyer Matthew Renshaw of the firm Leigh Day said in the Dutch newspaper NRC, which lodged the Bille and Ogale class action lawsuits, “Shell pipelines in countries like the United Kingdom have mechanisms that stop the pumping of oil automatically in case of a leak or if the oil pressure drops even slightly. There are hardly any such systems in Nigeria.”

Shell is not inactive when it comes to preventing  leakages. In its annual reports of 2022 and 2023 the company proudly states that in these two years it installed 371 steel cages around oil well closures in the Niger Delta, bringing the total number to 374 and that it equipped 52 of them with video surveillance. The improved surveillance seems to work, according to the annual report: in 2023 there were “508 recorded attempts to break through the cages, of which only 38 were successful”, it states. This does raise the question, however, why those cages and cameras are being installed only now. After all, Shell has been complaining about the oil thieves for years. It is a question Shell does not want to answer.

Western withdrawal

If international oil companies such as Shell were allowed to disinvest all their assets from the Niger Delta, their involvement, and the possibility of holding them liable for the pollution would end. Yet, that is exactly what Shell plans to do. In mid-January, Shell announced that it would sell its subsidiary SPDC in its entirety to a consortium of four Nigerian oil companies and a Swiss-based trading company for a total of US$2,4 billion.

If the Nigerian government approves the sale, the umbilical cord between Shell’s head office in London and its subsidiary on land in the Niger Delta – Shell will keep its deep water facilities – will be broken forever. Only Nigerian judges, who follow different standards and work even slower than their British colleagues, will then be able to rule on the pollution and affected citizens. The spotlight of international media will then also disappear. It is a matter of great concern to local residents and environmental organisations. In April 2024, more than forty Nigerian and international NGOs called on Nigeria not to allow this sale.

“Shell was terrible, but the Nigerian company Aiteo is much worse”

The sale by international oil companies of their concessions to Nigerian oil companies has been happening since 2010, when a law came into force in the country to stimulate investments in the oil industry by Nigerian companies. Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Total, ENI/Agip have ‘Nigerianised’ many concessions already. However, the “Selling Out Nigeria” study by the Foundation for Research on Multinational Enterprises (SOMO, in its Dutch acronym) shows that most new owners lack the knowledge and capital to clean up oil pollution responsibly.

The Bille community also noticed this. In 2014, Shell, Total and Agip sold all their shares in a concession and pipeline that runs straight through the Bille area to a group of local companies. Community leaders asked in vain for an environmental impact assessment and a share in the oil wells so that they could benefit from the profits. Since that sale, the pipeline has not been maintained, they told SOMO researcher Richard Steiner. The new operator, the Nigerian start-up Aiteo, closed the pipeline in 2021 due to numerous oil leaks, mainly caused by oil thieves. That same year, a well burst in the same oil concession and it took Aiteo more than a month to close it. “Shell was terrible, but Aiteo is much worse,” Steiner heard from local leaders.

Seventeen principles

To prevent new pollution, Steiner and a colleague, in close consultation with thirteen environmental, human rights and youth organisations from the Niger Delta, last year designed seventeen 'National Principles for Responsible Divestments in the Oil Industry’, which were presented in early December.

Among those seventeen principles are total transparency about who owns what oil resources and infrastructure, residents' involvement in contracts if resale is imminent, and the requirement that new owners prove they can apply the “best international standards” to prevent oil pollution and to clean up, especially when an oil concession is closed.

An Shell abandoned oil infrastructure in Otuabagi Ogbia local government of Bayelsa State. Photo credit Somo/Simpa Samson.

Steiner advocates an enforceable protocol for decommissioning oil wells worldwide, based on the seventeen principles for Nigeria. “In the coming decades, fossil fuels will disappear from the scene, which will only close more oil wells. That’s why such a protocol is so important, that’s why the Nigerian example is so important”, he says.

For Nigeria, the report proposes a fund that should provide for the clean-up of the entire Niger Delta, with 25 billion dollars in cash for the time being, to be later increased to 50 billion, to be paid by the international oil companies.

Steiner realises that a fund with so much money greatly increases the chance of corruption. That is why there must be thorough, independent supervision from outside Nigeria, for example by UNEP. Because he expects little from the Nigerian federal government. “It has failed in its fundamental duty to stand up for its citizens.” He expects more from state governments in the Niger Delta, though. “Together with local communities and NGOs, they can form a powerful coalition to implement change.”

Game changer

Ifeioma Ndekwu, from the Stakeholder Democracy Network (SDN) that organised the launch of the ‘National Principles’ in December, supports the idea. “If you look at the billions the big oil companies have made here, 50 billion is not too much. But let’s take it one step at a time.”

SDN, who maintains a continuously updated map of all oil leaks throughout the Niger Delta, wants the government to only approve the sale of Shell's subsidiary SPDC if Shell and the new owners promise to adopt the seventeen national principles. SDN also hopes to have the principles declared national policy through a later to be organised national conference. “They can become a game changer for the entire oil and gas industry here,” says Ndekwu. “Other countries have similarly careful policies; I don't see why that couldn't also be done in Nigeria.”

In spite of everything, the source close to the HYPREP-projects and Giadom both continue to believe that Ogoniland can be cleaned up properly. The new environment minister, political scientist and experienced civil servant Balarabe Abbas Lawal, comes across as serious, both say. Giadom: ‘I am an eternal optimist.’

Bruno Pozzi, deputy director of ecosystems at UNEP, does not answer the question whether fear of reputational damage is the reason why the organisation ended its collaboration with HYPREP. He insists it was “the appropriate” time for UNEP to leave due to “agreed dates” and to enable “sustainability” and “full national ownership of the initiatives” by Nigeria. However, he explicitly says that UNEP was “not involved in the procurement process and the award of contracts”. Ifeoma Charles-Monwuba, director for the Africa region for UNOPS, did not respond to questions about why UNOPS decided not to work together with HYPREP. Earlier she had said that the dialogue “with counterparts” about a role for UNOPS in Ogoniland was “ongoing”.

Shell does not respond to the question whether the Nigerian companies in the consortium Renaissance, that wants to buy SPDC, have enough knowledge and capital to clean up new oil pollution in a responsible manner. It states, though, that the sale is “set up in such a way” that nothing will change in the conduct of SPDC and the SPDC Joint Venture, in which the Nigerian state oil company NNPC is the major shareholder. “The roles and responsibilities of the SPDC JV partners remain unchanged”, the company states, “including those relating to health, safety, security, and the environment.” This also applies, it continues, to “all remediations” of contaminated soil, “such as those that resulted from the activities of the joint venture in the past”.  (SOMO states in its report Selling Out Nigeria, however, that there is no guarantee that SPDC will always continue to operate as it does now, after the shares have changed hands.) 

When asked whether Shell has adhered to the new ‘National principles for responsible divestments in the oil industry’, the company only says that “all applicable laws and regulations will be complied with”.

HYPREP’s current coordinator, Nenibarini Zabbey, says that current Minister of Environment Balarabe Abbas Lawal “has promised stakeholders that he will restructure the governance framework of HYPREP, which has started”. Zabbey said earlier he would have welcomed UNOPS as a new partner for HYPREP, but did not react to questions about UNOPS’ decision not to do so.

Mr. Zabbey defended former technical director Philip Shekwolo, describing allegations of dubious contracts as “unfounded”. He does not respond, however, to questions as to why Shekwolo’s contract was not renewed. “All the remediation projects of HYPREP” were tendered and awarded in accordance with the national rules and regulations, he said earlier. Moreover, he added, they were also still signed by Ferdinand Giadom.

Ferdinand Giadom himself strongly denies this: in the last two months before the termination of his position, he did not help prepare any contracts, he says. The source close to the project also stands by his previous comments and emphasises that neither the representatives of Shell, UNEP or the Governing Council of HYPREP, which also includes members of the Ogoni community, saw the contracts in question in advance, and that this was in violation of earlier agreements.

  1. This is an abridged and updated version of the story ‘Who will clean up Shells oil pollution in the Niger Delta?’, published in Dutch at De Groene Amsterdammer.

    The full name of the source close to the project is known by the editor in chief of ZAM.