Crude oil has been a major resource of the Nigerian state since it was discovered in the Niger Delta area in 1956 by a joint venture between Shell and British Petroleum. To this day, oil and gas account for over 80 percent of Nigeria’s total exports and about 65 percent of national revenue.
Shell and other multinational oil companies make billions of dollars in profits annually off the region—at great expense to the host communities. The Ogoni communities in Rivers State in the Niger Delta area have endured decades of oil spills and gas-instigated fires that have led to ecological destabilization and destruction, loss of livelihoods, migration, health hazards, biodiversity loss, and preventable deaths. Nigeria leads the world in volume of oil spilled; between 1976 and 1991, over 2 million barrels of oil polluted Ogoniland in 2,976 separate spills. The people of Ogoniland, to date, are still denied justice as it relates to their damaged environment (including farmland), health, and financial reparations. The Nigerian government has supported resuming oil exploration in the region despite years of protests and justice movements, which have been met with military brutality, court cases that have dragged on for generations, and further destruction of the environment in the form of pipeline vandalism and militancy.
In an award-winning, six-month-long investigation published in Ripples Nigeria and republished in three other outlets, Nigerian journalists Kelechukwu Iruoma and Ruth Olurounbi chronicled the devastating effects of oil development on the health and safety of the people of Ogoniland. Their investigation led them to several communities in the region whose residents spoke about their heart-rending plight living in a place where they can no longer plant crops, fish, breathe clean air, get justice, raise a family, or have a say in their communities as Indigenous people.
The reporters also obtained blood samples from area residents to test for medical evidence of oil spill–related diseases. The analysis revealed unhealthy changes in people’s livers and kidneys, which medical experts that Olurounbi and Iruoma consulted agreed were likely from exposure to oil-associated contaminants in their environment.
Nigerian journalist Amir Sadiq spoke to Olurounbi and Iruoma on the strategies, experiences, and research behind their investigation, which led to improvements in affected communities, including oil cleanup and provision of potable water, and even served as a source of evidence for communities suing the oil companies in court. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
How did you come up with this important story? And why did you decide to do it together?
Olurounbi: A few years prior, I was reading this UNEP [United Nations Environment Programme] report about the spills in Ogoni and the efforts and how much would be required to clean it up. I started to wonder if somebody actually had done something that talked about the health effects of the spills. People have talked about the economic effects of the spills and the migration parts of it and everything, but, at the time, nobody seemed to have covered the health effects of the spills. So, I thought—okay, why don’t we check [people’s] blood? That’s one of the easiest ways to confirm what effect the spills have had on their health.
I’ve known of Kelechukwu for a while. I’ve seen his investigative stories. So, I said to Kelechukwu, do you want to do this story together with me? And he said yes, absolutely.
What was the process of pitching the story and obtaining funding to report it?
Iruoma: We pitched it to the International Center for Investigative Reporting [ICIR]. The budget was high—I think it was over 2 million naira [roughly $4,444 U.S.]. The editor [of ICIR] really loved it, and it was something he was willing to commission, but the problem was that they could not provide the funding that we needed at that point in time. I kept researching and I came across a course application by the International Center for Journalists [ICFJ], based in the United States. The call was for alumni who had participated in their past or previous training programs. They call it [the] Immersive Storytelling Grant; it was a collaboration between ICFJ and Microsoft.
We reworked the pitch based on the requirements of ICFJ and Microsoft. I was able to submit the pitch and, fortunately, I received an email that the pitch had been selected for the grant. The grant was about $7,500 to carry out the investigation. We planned to publish it in four or five publications including ICIR, Ripples [Nigeria] , The Cable, [and Africa Report]. So we reached out to the editors [and told them] that we have this investigation and would like to publish it on their platform.
How did you develop your plan for the blood testing? Has this method been used in other parts of the world for health examination of oil spill victims?
Olurounbi: When an idea comes to me, the first thing is to research it. I found out that in the U.S., there was research done in a medical journal where [a] blood test was done to determine how oil spills affect people.
Iruoma: When Ruth spoke to me about the idea, the first thing we spoke about was to find out if there had been any journalistic piece that had been done that involves laboratory-test investigation to look at the health effect of the oil spills in the Niger Delta. We did all the research that we could do, and there was none.
How did you plan out your investigation and break down the coverage of this story into individual roles?
Iruoma: The first thing I did was I traveled to the region to do the research, to speak to the leaders of the community that we planned to get [blood] samples, to inform them about the investigation. And they agreed [to it]. I also tried to find out how many people they could allow us to sample. I decided to also speak to a lab in Port Harcourt, and see how they could also provide maybe two of their medical staff to go with us to the communities to take the sample[s].
Olurounbi: We needed to get the buy-in of the people. Fortunately, Kelechukwu had a lot of contacts there, having covered a lot of stories from that place, so there was an element of trust. After that was done, I joined him on the fieldwork. We did the investigation sourcing, drew the blood, asked the questions, collected the data, then we wrote the stories.
Were you concerned about any limitations in how you could interpret the data from the blood tests?
Iruoma: The people of Niger Delta, the people in the communities—most of them drink a lot. We know that alcohol will increase our level of bilirubin [and] other [liver] enzymes in the body. So when we were doing the investigation, we specifically mentioned to our fixers that we wanted people that do not drink alcohol, so that we’ll not have any challenge after the investigation is completed. We were specific about the kind of sample that we wanted and the kind of people we needed to test for us to ensure that we realize the aim of the investigation.
How did you interpret the lab data and relate it to the oil spills?
Iruoma: Before we started the investigation, we consulted a doctor in Lagos who told us what to do. And I also consulted a doctor in Rivers State, because medical doctors in the state, they know what they see. They know the patient[s] they receive. They know the symptoms. And, also, they know the diseases that the people are suffering [from]. They had been receiving a lot of patients who were complaining, who were having liver and kidney issues that were linked to the oil spills. After we did the test, we consulted another doctor who was able to help us to interpret the results.
Did you try to obtain additional data for this investigation, like hospital records or environmental data?
Iruoma: Initially, when we wanted to carry on with investigation, I went to the state to find out if there was data that the state government would provide for us to support our investigation, but there was none. Even if there was, of course, you know how it’s difficult to release medical records in Nigeria. We tried all we could, but we were not able to find any data that we could use to support our own findings.
How did you fact-check and edit this story?
Olurounbi: We had to know the process of collection and analysis of data. We had to send those [gathered data] to multiple sources to fact-check what was there and to explain it to us. I spoke with my colleagues who are in the international media to look through what we had before we sent everything out, so that we were not making any mistake, or we were not misrepresenting facts. We were setting a precedent in Nigeria, and we didn’t want to set a faulty precedent. So we had to be careful. We had to be thorough.
Iruoma: After we finished writing the story, I sent it to a couple of people to edit—a freelance colleague and one of the editors that I used to work with. I also sent it to ICFJ. They edited what they needed to edit. I completed the editing, and I sent it to [the] various publications. We gave them the power to use it the way they wanted to use it. For example, Africa Report broke the story into three sections, and they published it on three different days, unlike ICIR or Ripples Nigeria that made it a kind of a long read.
This was a six-month-long investigation. In what ways were you personally impacted by the polluted environment?
Olurounbi: I was in the field for less than a week, and Kelechukwu was there for longer. When we got to the site of the spills, you could feel the thickness of the smell of chemicals or fuel. You could feel it wrapping you and enveloping you, and I had a headache—it triggered my migraine. I didn’t tell Kelechukwu this—I fell ill for about two weeks. Another thing—for me—is the psychological effect that stayed with me for a very long time. I began to see the multiple effects of these spill as [a result of] negligence in covering it. And for days, I couldn’t sleep.
Iruoma: Just as Ruth said, the pollution there is really devastating. After that reporting trip [to the worst-affected areas], I started having black stuff coming out from my sputum. I became worried, actually, because I had inhaled a lot of chemicals. After about two days or so, I started coughing and sneezing out blood. I think it was a kind of lung infection. I had to reach out to one of the doctors that we consulted to explain to me the symptoms I was having. The doctor just told me to leave, that I shouldn’t take any drug, that when I leave the environment, I will be able to get myself [better]. And, immediately [after] I left, my lung was clear. I stopped seeing black particles.
The situation of these communities must be reported on despite these challenges. How would you advise journalists trying to report on polluted environments that are harmful to personal health?
Olurounbi: Research where you are going first. Know the health implications of those places, and try to protect yourself as much as possible. Wear protective clothing. For the psychological part, you can’t prevent what you’ll see there. See a therapist. If your organization provides mental health services, talk to whoever is in charge before you go, so they might give you some tools that will protect you.
Iruoma: Whenever I’m traveling to do any kind of story, I try to run some tests, even scans, to check my lungs. To check my heart. To be sure that I’m medically fit before going to those communities.
Make sure that you protect yourself as much as possible. Sanitize your hands as much as possible, and when you go back to your hotel, make sure you take your bath immediately. The clothes that you wear to those communities, make sure that you wash them as much as possible. And after returning from the fieldwork, do some tests to see if there were any kind of effects, just to be sure that you are really okay. Of course, you know, some of these things—the effect may not be immediate. It may come later.
What kind of impact has your article had on public understanding, public health, and policy?
Iruoma: One of the major challenges was that the communities do not have [clean] water. I was happy that our investigation actually went viral—that was why we wanted several publications to publish it, so that there could be an impact. [A] few months after we did the investigation, there was an announcement by HYPREP [Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project] that they had finally awarded contracts to some companies to provide [an] alternative water supply to some of the communities that had been affected by oil spill[s]. I remember one of our sources calling me too, [saying] that they started cleaning one of the affected areas in his community.
Some of these communities have taken the oil companies to court. I remember Goi [one of the affected communities] had taken Shell to court. When this investigation was carried out [a] few months later, there was a sitting in court. They printed the investigation, and it was part of the evidence that was submitted to the court as evidence of the devastation of their community.
You have won several awards for this work, including a Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding Investigative Reporting from the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) in 2021 for the Ripples Nigeria piece. What does this mean to you?
Olurounbi: The feedback that we got from the SEJ was that it was a story of David taking on Goliath. It was just the two of us in collaboration with other people. So it says to me that you can do anything—it doesn’t matter how small or how big you are. The impact that you can make is beyond your imagination for me.
What’s your advice on collaborative journalism?
Olurounbi: Collaboration is key. And I’m happy that we were able to do this story. It was kind of something that people were not seeing as something that could be done, because newspapers are competing with one another. Now, there’s this conversation because of our story—they’re saying that, “Oh, there is strength in collaboration.” There’s an African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, you go alone, but if you want to go far, you go with other people.”
Amir Sadiq is a writer and researcher primarily based in Abuja, Nigeria. He covers technology, science, agriculture, environment, and Africa. He is a proponent of climate and environmental justice. Follow him on Twitter @Amir_Onimisi.