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How Nigerian Hacktivists Are Taking on Big Oil

Their DIY sensor networks now trace pollution back to its sources

4 min read

In the foreground, a large number of bottles and barrels of different sizes are filed with a thick black liquid. A crowd of people stand in the background.

Villagers stand next to containers of crude oil collected days after an oil spill from Royal Dutch Shell’s Bonga offshore oil-field operation, in Nigeria’s delta on 31 December 2011.

Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters/Redux

A group of hacker-activists in Nigeria, in the wake of setbacks in the conventional court system, have taken their appeal to a higher authority—the court of public opinion. And to bolster their case that oil refinery pollution is harming the densely populated Niger Delta region, these hacktivists are engaging in their own campaign of DIY data collection and sharing.

Last March, Shell won a victory in one of its many court battles over the environmental impacts of its oil drilling in the Niger Delta. A U.K. judge ruled that the plaintiffs from the West African nation couldn’t prove that a 2011 oil spill in Nigeria’s offshore Bonga oil field had been the direct source of harm. The judge didn’t reject the existence of the harms, or even that they were caused by oil spills. Instead, the problem was attributing the harm to that specific spill.

“The next step is to create awareness.... Data, too. Everything will be sent to the government to look at and find a solution.”
—Francis Abulude, Science and Education Development Institute, Nigeria

Now, the Media Awareness and Justice Initiative (MAJI), a civil society organization in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, is building a low-cost air pollution monitoring network that could help better identify polluters. “Data has been the key,” in other, successful lawsuits, says Okoro Onyekachi, a filmmaker and the executive coordinator of MAJI. And now, he says, in MAJI’s own lawsuit for pollution reparations, as much data as possible will be needed. Starting in 2022, the group began installing the first of 15 air-quality sensors in and around Port Harcourt, Nigeria’s fifth largest city. The sensors are a mix of cellular-enabled and noncellular devices that monitor particulate matter alongside temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressure.

Air-quality sensors are important because oil spills aren’t the only source of pollution: routine gas flaring, fires caused by poor maintenance, and dirty refineries send soot into the air. Soot consists of carbon and other particles so fine they can hang in the air, reduce visibility, and stick to the insides of people’s houses and their lungs. The finest particles can pass into the bloodstream and beyond. “The health issues are innumerable. People are dying and babies are born with congenital malformations,” says Consultant Toxicologist Orish Orisakwe of the University of Port Harcourt, who has published studies on the Niger Delta’s environmental-health situation.

A man bends over as he secures a white sensor device to a wooden box with twine. The box is affixed to a stone fence outdoors.Nigeria’s Media Awareness and Justice Initiative group has installed a network of AirNote air-quality monitors to test for themselves whether different types of air pollution can be detected—and if so, perhaps, to begin to piece together where it’s coming from.MAJI

Yet policymakers at both state and federal levels are not doing enough, Orisakwe says. Nigeria is Africa’s top oil producer, and Nigeria’s federal government, which partly owns the major oil companies working in the region, has fought, sometimes violently, with protestors in the region since the beginning of the oil extraction boom in the 1950s.

The government has on occasion shut down some of the many informal refining operations in the region, which has even resulted in noticeable reductions in pollution, Onyekachi says. Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of the Environment, the Nigerian Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency, and the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency did not respond to IEEE Spectrum‘s requests for comment on Niger Delta pollution and monitoring efforts.

“In academia, we try to monitor what is going on,” Orisakwe says. “We try to do air sampling, and we collect data. All of the data we are collecting now is mainly for academic consumption. None of it is put into policy.”

Onyekachi says MAJI makes its data available through a Web portal, and via radio, social media, and print media. The hope, he says, is that this way the data may have more of an impact on polluters. Environmental chemist Francis Abulude of the Science and Education Development Institute in Akure, Nigeria, is more optimistic than Orisakwe about the potential for environmental data from civil society and academia to one day influence policymakers: “The next step is to create awareness within the people, citizens in the region,” he says. “Data, too. Everything will be sent to the government to look at and find a solution.”

Collecting and sending the data from places with little infrastructure and few economic resources is still a challenge. However, the emergence of sensors costing around US $149 as used by MAJI—replacing ones that cost thousands of dollars—makes guerilla data gathering possible. There are other sources of data as well: Abulude, for example, uses public data from Nigeria’s space program in his research, in addition to 10 local sensors his students help him deploy, and sensors foreign colleagues send him for testing.

Then there is the question of transmitting the data. “When we deployed those sensors, one major problem was Internet access” recalls Onyekachi, “so we looked at an alternative opportunity, which was to deploy community networks.” Community networks are operated by and for the community, rather than for a monetary profit. MAJI now has two pilot networks, one of which provides cellular coverage to more than 1,000 customers. “We were shocked because we are now overwhelmed with demand,” Onyekachi says. In addition to the value the network provides those users, it transmits data from the air-quality sensors to the DATACAB website, and could one day help fund the expansion of the network to other communities.

“We need to expand across the Niger Delta,” says Onyekachi of his plans for MAJI’s growing sensor network. “We need at least 200 locations.”

This article appears in the December 2023 print issue.

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