by Ben Amunwa
This article first appeared in Foto8 magazine, The Legacy of Oil edition, 14 October 2010.
Outside the plane window at the Niger Delta, the oil region of Nigeria, I can see a solid bed of rainforest with wide ribbons of water the colour of coffee dregs coiling through it. I try to orientate, but I cannot see any signs of development and the only visible landmarks are the glowing gas flares that burn 24 hours a day. In this vast region, the size of Portugal, the sense of injustice is palpable, even at 10,000ft.
The Delta’s problems are complex and contradictory. Village communities across the Delta live in perpetual tension with multinational oil companies. Over $700 billion worth of oil has been extracted and there is virtually nothing to show for it in the impoverished communities. Companies burn off billions of dollars worth of gas as a waste product, whilst people are living without electricity, clean water or adequate roads.
As the rush to exploit Africa’s oil intensifies, the Delta is a stark illustration of the oil curse, the logical consequence of corporate exploitation, environmental destruction, political repression, poor governance and corruption.
The history of oil in Nigeria is inseparable from the history of the nation itself. Nigeria started life as an idea conceived by a kind of proto-multinational corporation, the Royal Niger Company. The Company conned and robbed its way down the length of the River Niger, signing legally binding “treaties” with naive traditional leaders. After this frenzy of land-grabbing, Britain purchased the Company in 1900, absorbing the territory into the British Empire. The word “Nigeria” was coined by Flora Shaw, wife of the colonial mastermind Lord Lugard. His theory of “indirect rule” was tried and tested there when the British selected local strongmen to suppress and control the population. Any resistance was swiftly put down with brutal military force.
The creation and unification of Nigeria was a colonial affair, motivated by the economics of extraction. For centuries, Nigeria has provided the raw materials for Western capitalism and industrialisation. The same story is on an endless loop. The trans-Atlantic trade in West African slaves was succeeded by the trade in palm oil, which lubricated factories in Bradford, Manchester and Liverpool. The same ports that once packed slaves and palm oil are loading tankers of crude oil to the US and UK. Despite the regular social upheavals since independence in 1960 (including five coups and 33 years of military rule), Nigeria’s place within the global economy has remained remarkably constant. Since commercial quantities of crude oil were discovered in 1956 in the village of Oloibiri, Western oil companies, in particular Royal Dutch Shell, have poured investment into Nigeria. They are attracted by “sweet crude” – a type of oil with a low in sulphur content, cheap and easy to refine, and produced at around half the cost of the global average per barrel. Nigeria’s oil industry grew during the 1970s oil boom, expanding into the gigantic infrastructure that today sees over 10,000km of pipelines snaking through rural villages of the Delta.
Since the early 1960s, local communities have protested against the impacts of oil production on their land, livelihoods and rights. They have also agitated for a more proportionate share of the oil revenues flowing out of their land. After decades of regular oil spills, gas flaring, underdevelopment and neglect, communities mobilised. Non-violent protest came to a climax in the 1990s, when the minority Ogoni people, whose leaders included the writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa,
launched the world’s largest demonstration against a multinational oil company, Shell. Ogoni activists faced the combined might of Nigeria’s military government and Shell, and succeeded in forcing Shell out of Ogoniland in 1993.
Success came at a heavy price for the Ogoni, as Shell collaborated with the military government in a series of brutal crackdowns in which hundreds of people were killed, entire communities were razed and many were raped, tortured and detained. Like the punitive expeditions of the colonial era, resistance to the project of continuous extraction was met with extreme force. Colonel Okuntimo, then military commander in Ogoniland, boasted over the carnage and Shell provided financial support, food and transportation for Okuntimo’s soldiers, treating them at restaurants and even praising the soldiers for their “restraint”.
On November 10th 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his Ogoni colleagues were executed by the military government for their campaign for environmental justice. Allegations persist that Shell conspired
against Saro-Wiwa and bribed witnesses to provide false testimony at a flawed trial, widely condemned as “judicial murder”. A class action lawsuit was filed against the company for complicity in human rights
atrocities and crimes against humanity in Ogoni. In June 2009, Shell settled out of court, paying out $15.5 million to the families of the nine men who were executed. The military crackdown on the Ogoni
collapsed the political space for non-violent activism. A variety of armed insurgents rose to fill the vacuum – galvanised by the strong feelings of outrage and bitterness on the ground. Spectacular cycles of violence between insurgents, oil facilities and the Nigerian military led to periodic spikes in the world oil prices. The conflict claimed an
estimated 1,000 lives a year. Following the government’s “amnesty” programme in October 2009, many fighters have disarmed and are receiving monthly stipends from the government. Yet the
communities are still seething. Young unemployed men from Bayelsa State, speaking about their issues with the oil companies said that, “When the time comes, we will stop them. They will soon find out.” The government and the oil companies are yet to address the fundamental grievances in the creeks, and with elections coming in 2011 the conflict could potentially re-ignite at any moment.
Today, human rights abuses and environmental devastation are rampant
across the Delta. Washington, a hunter from the mainly Ijaw community of
Ikarama told me, “The smell from the oil spills force the animals to run far way. I have to hunt further and further from my community. If I cannot earn my livelihood, how will my children survive?” Daily oil spills are decimating already impoverished rural communities of farmers, fishers and hunters. The impact has turned once pristine rainforest into one of the world’s worst oil-impacted ecosystems. Sabotage of pipelines is part of the problem, but is a recent phenomenon and one which Shell officials are believed to be actively profiting from. Over the last four decades most of the oil spilled is the result of the rusty, leaky pipelines laid in the 1970s. Multinationals, including Shell and Chevron have exploited the lack of regulation and oversight in Nigeria to get away with environmental
devastation that would not be tolerated in Europe or the United States.
Gas flaring is another scandalous form of ongoing abuse. Companies in Nigeria routinely burn the gas that comes mixed with oil, and huge plumes of black smoke and fire burn day and night across the region. As well as being a large contributor to global CO2 emissions, flaring releases a
toxic cocktail of chemicals such as benzene into the environment, causing a high rates of respiratory disorders, cancers and a health crisis for the region. Many flares are located close to human settlements. Shell
has chosen to ignore a Federal High Court order that it immediately end this unlawful practice. Its promises to end flaring by a certain date continue to be made and broken, to the frustration of locals.
Against these heavy odds, community activists in the Delta continue to mobilise communities to take non-violent action and to expose the unacceptable impacts of oil on the rights of communities. Groups such
as Social Action, whose budget monitoring has shown absurd irregularities in the local state budgets; Environmental Rights Action, whose field reports provide a direct link to communities affected by spills and
state repression; these groups have invigorated the effort to end decades of impunity and to hold multinationals accountable for their impacts. In their struggle, international support and campaigning on the Western oil majors plays a key role. The Delta crisis is a critical global issue, in which our past and our future is closely tangled.
Ben Amunwa is a researcher with oil industry watchdog, PLATFORM, and runs the Remember Saro-Wiwa Project, which campaigns for accountability in the Niger Delta and beyond.