10 years on from Saro-Wiwa the Niger Delta remains one of the world‘s most unstable oil provinces, despite US-UK ambitions.
– This report was first published in Platform’s Carbon web newsletter, issue 2.
Ten years ago on 10th November, 9 men were hanged in a squalid courtyard at Port Harcourt Prison, Delta State, Nigeria. The leader of the nonviolent Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), Ken SaroWiwa and 8 of his Ogoni colleagues were accused of murder. Four Ogoni chiefs had been killed in rioting the year before but there has never been any evidence to link the nine men to the crime. Rather, SaroWiwa had been leading a campaign against the environmental and social devastation caused in the Delta by the operations of Shell and other oil companies. At the time the Delta was boiling with conflict precipitated by the military government’s clamp down against the protests. A decade later – despite the increasing importance of Nigerian oil to global energy security – or perhaps because of it – the Delta today is more volatile than ever.
Nigeria is the quintessential example of the resource curse. The government itself admits that most of the $350 billion earned from oil revenues since the 1960s has been wasted. It is the biggest oil exporter in Africa, the 8th biggest in the world, yet 70% of its people live on less than a dollar a day. Nigeria’s elite are fabulously wealthy, owning multi-million dollar homes in Nigeria and abroad & placing incredible sums in foreign bank accounts. According to some estimates, perhaps as much as $100 billion is sitting in foreign accounts with Nigerian names on. Tax havens, the majority of which are in British or Commonwealth jurisdictions, are central to the global money laundering infrastructure that enables Nigerian politicians to bleed the country of its oil wealth.
One such account was recently exposed causing political reverberations that threaten to further destabilise the Delta. The governor of Nigeria’s biggest oil producing state, Bayelsa, was arrested in London on 15th September for suspected money laundering. When police raided Governor Alamieyeseigha’s London home they found £1 million in cash. On 28th September, Alamieyeseigha was charged with 3 counts of money laundering and remanded in custody until 6th October.
Rarely discussed in detail is the role of London-based banks – who participate in Nigerian corruption by facilitating transfers and profiting in the process. Other UK and US companies such as Halliburton, working on the Shelloperated Bonny gas project, have admitted to corrupt business practices in Nigeria. Invariably, such companies are relatively unscathed by these revelations, whilst in Nigeria the ubiquitous corruption of government and business only serves to stoke civil disorder. Alamieyeseigha’s arrest has caused outrage amongst the Ijaw peoples of the Delta, many of whom believe he is being unjustly singled out Threats of violence, destruction of oil facilities and harassment of foreign oil workers are rife and given the level of arms in the Delta should not be taken lightly. Reports from the region claim that many villages have access to between 20 and 100 AK-47s and some groups have rocket propelled grenades and other sophisticated weaponry. The predominately unemployed youth of the Delta resent the unobtainable wealth in their midst, are frustrated with a corrupt political system and are easily attracted to militias that give them status. Many observers are concerned that the Delta could erupt at any moment, with the spring 2006 primaries for the 2007 presidential election often cited as the flashpoint that could send the region over the edge.
The role of the international community is not insignificant, neither is its interest in maintaining order. With US oil supplies heavily threatened by this year’s hyperactive hurricane season and oil markets soaring over supply fears, the last thing big oil importers like the US need is supply disruption from Nigeria. Nigeria’s plans to increase oil production to around 4 million barrels a day by 2010 is keenly anticipated by the US and UK. The time taken for a tanker to reach the US from Nigeria is five weeks less than that from Saudi Arabia. The US is already importing over 10% of its oil from Nigeria and Nigeria is hoping to increase this to 15%.
The UK is also eyeing Nigeria’s oil supply with increasing concern. Not just because of its role in stabilising global energy prices but because the UK will become a net importer of oil by 2010 as North Sea reserves decline. Further, both countries’ gas demand is set to soar while domestic supply dwindles (the UK will become a net importer of gas next year) and Nigeria is often described as “a gas province with some oil”. It is because of Nigeria’s increasingly pivotal role in global oil-politics that the title ‘The Next Gulf’ has been chosen by PLATFORM writers James Marriott and Lorne Stockman and co-author Andy Rowell for their forthcoming book. The Next Gulf uniquely draws together a number of key strands: the British colonial history in Nigeria, the events of the past decade in the Delta, the corruption scandals surrounding several UK and US companies engaged in the region, and America‘s foreign policy and military planning in relation to the Gulf of Guinea.
Since 9-11, there have been dozens of conferences and seminars in Washington and elsewhere all aimed at reorienting the attention of policy makers and oil company executives towards West Africa. The spectre of disruption in the world’s biggest oil producer, Saudi Arabia, became chillingly clear after 9-11 and the vulnerability of the US to this was stark. Consequently the Gulf of Guinea is increasingly being seen as a counterweight to the Persian Gulf – The Next Gulf. The book is part of the Remember Saro-Wiwa initiative and it explores not only the distant and recent past, but also the possible futures of the Delta. Four hundred years ago, the Delta became a key element in the global economy, forming one of the three corners of the Atlantic Triangle. This triangle was built on the barter purchase of slaves in the Delta, their transportation to the plantations of the Americas, the production of sugar and tobacco on these plantations and the export of these tropical goods to the ports of Britain and Europe. London was pivotal in this triangle, profiting from the slave trade and coordinating the export of guns and other items to the Delta as goods to facilitate barter. It was a trade system built on slavery and violence that lasted for 250 years.
The current trade in oil and gas, with the majority of Nigeria’s output again crossing the Atlantic, appears to be recreating this triangle. Once again resources pour out of the Delta and guns flow in – though this time London shares it role with Washington. The last triangle was broken by resistance in the villages of the Delta, rebellions on the slave plantations and the anti-slavery movement which began in London. Is it possible that the current triangle will be radically altered in a similar way? Are the people of the Delta doomed to follow a development path charted out in conferences in distant cities? Or will they determine their own path? `The Next Gulf` concludes with proposals for the future of the Delta drawn from activists in the region, a vision very different from those conceived in Abuja, Washington and London.