Nigeria – poverty amid plenty

Nigeria – poverty amid plenty

The Nigeria Delta, oil interests and community resistance, 10 years after the death of Ken Saro Wiwa. November 2006.


Such a common word, usually accompanied by a broad smile and hand shake. As I shuffled through the customs line at Lagos airport I spotted a sign that read “Welcome to Nigeria, home of the happiest people on earth”. And sometimes that’s how it felt. But there is also another and unmistakable truth here: the reality of massive poverty amid incredible riches.

Oil is, of course, at the heart of this wealth and I have never seen a nation so indebted and so enthralled to this resource. Oil is like a central motif of the country, from the roads crowded with tankers, to the dozens of petrol stations built side by side along great stretches of highway – now mostly family homes – to the not quite finished national capital, Abuja, started at the height of the oil rush.

Its highways that don’t link up somehow seem symbolic of the promise of wealth that must have hovered like a great cloud of optimism and hope after the World War II when Shell and other companies started to explore for and extract oil and gas from the Niger Delta.

Nigeria is now one of the major fossil fuel producers on the planet. Yet for all the billions of dollars slipping into the coffers of the local government elite and out of the country into those of major companies, about 65 per cent of Nigerians still don’t have access to safe drinking water. Poverty is getting worse, with about 66 per cent of people living on less than US$1 per day (this figure has grown from 43 per cent in 1985).

According to the World Bank, economic mismanagement, corruption and excessive dependence on oil have been the main reasons for poor economic performance and rising poverty.

I am reminded of the words of Mirrar traditional owner Yvonne Margarula who, speaking of the prospect of uranium mining in her homeland said, “the promises never last but the problems always do”.

If you fly into Abuja on British Airways, you will be struck by the fact that first and business class seating dominates the plane, with economy squeezed up the back – testament to the well paid company and government officials jetting between Nigeria and corporate offices in Western Europe. While the local political elites and oil companies have grown fabulously rich, oil has proved to be a false saviour for the majority of Nigerians.

The struggle ten years on

A little over a decade ago, when the Nigerian dictatorship murdered Ken Saro Wiwa and eight other Ogoni men for their struggle against the oil companies, there was global outrage. From pickets and blockades of Shell petrol stations to well co-ordinated international boycott campaigns, the world was aware of what was happening. Students, trade unionists, churches and investors mobilised.

Shell were pariahs. Representatives of the Ogoni travelled globally and built support for their cause: momentum grew for justice for the people of the Niger Delta; for good corporate behaviour; for an end to the deaths and displacement.

Then came the Brent Spar, when Shell made good mileage in the face of Greenpeace’s occupation of an oil rig which was going to be dumped in the North Sea. The company reinvented itself as green and responsible, investing millions in greenwash and spin while admittedly also lifting its game in many areas and sectors and increasing investment in renewables. Slowly, the world stopped paying attention to what was happening in the swampy ecosystems and isolated communities at the lower end of the great Niger River system.

In an attempt to draw back some attention to what is really happening on the ground, Environmental Rights Action (ERA) and Friends of the Earth Nigeria (FoE) have just hosted an international gathering to address issues of energy security and climate change in Africa.

While I heard the stories of relentless destruction I had expected, the level of the ecological impacts and spread of oil infrastructure was still surprising and it seemed that all the news was grim. And while many people will recall the spirited resistance of Saro Wiwa and the mass movement of the Ogoni and other indigenous peoples in the 1990s, the relentless impacts of the oil industry have worn communities down and eroded the ability to resist.

This, in turn, has moulded resistance into new and probably unavoidable directions, as armed militias have started to fill the political space as the long decades of non-violent struggle wanes. The result of this escalation of the conflict is just more grief for the communities. Caught between armed forces they just suffer more, but this time away from the eyes of the world.

The situation in Nigeria is complex and sometimes confusing, but there are things the outside world can and must do. Ultimately it is our companies who are running the operations and our lifestyles demanding the fuels. We do have the power to change what is happening.

Putting Shell back in the spotlight

Shell is certainly not the only player in the Niger Delta; ExxonMobil, Agip, Chevron Texaco, and other transnationals work in joint venture with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. Yet Shell remains the perfect target because they are the largest operator, taking more than 50 per cent of the oil. They have also had the most pressure brought to bear on the question of their operations in the Delta and have worked harder than most to paint themselves as good corporate citizens, meaning they have concerns about how they are viewed by their shareholders and, more broadly, the public.

The situation in the Delta, of course, is not as Shell would have you believe. Operations continue at standards that would not be acceptable in Australia or the UK. A massive network of pipelines and facilities snake down like an enormous river from the north and into the two main ports at the coast.

Poorly kept pipelines constantly rupture and spill, and according to ERA not a single accident has ever been fully cleaned up. The people of the Delta are poor, beyond the imagination of most Australians. They rely on land and river for their food and other necessities of life. They live with such little leeway between having enough and going hungry.

The impacts of the industry are nothing less than devastating. Gas flares burn 24 hours-a-day, year on year, just hundreds of metres from homes. Pipelines that run right through settlements rupture and ruin farmland, kill rivers, and often people as well when they catch fire.

Fuel poverty is endemic, so when a pipeline does rupture, people try and collect the fuel, usually by hand. Almost routinely dozens of people are incinerated when the oil catches fire.

When people resist, the police and army are used: most of the worst massacres in living memory have happened since the death of Owens Wiwa and after the time of the military dictatorship. The worst was in November 1999 at Odi when more than 2,400 people were murdered by the Nigerian army.

The public explanation for the army attack which obliterated the township of Odi was that it had been a response to the murder of seven police officers. But in the words of ERA the attack was “just an excuse by the government of General Obasanjo, in cahoots with Shell and the other oil companies, to summarily resolve the Niger Delta question”.

Local people see massive profits flow from their communities while they suffer ever harder lives and their fields and rivers are destroyed. Resentment is a natural response. The police and army forces are routinely used to protect oil pipelines and other facilities and put down civil disobedience, such as hunger strikes and occupations of company facilities, often in a brutal and arbitary way.

There is an undeniable link between the way the oil industry has expanded through the region and the fact that many people die each year. According to a Shell report, “annual casualties from fighting already place the Niger Delta in the “high intensity conflict” category (of over 1,000 fatalities a year), alongside more known cases, such as Chechnya and Colombia”.

Despite claims that Shell has lifted its game, it still burns rather than processes most of the natural gas that is pumped to the surface with the oil. The resulting flares contribute more greenhouse gases than all other sources from sub-Saharan Africa combined. The flaring also condemns adjacent communities to acid rain, increased asthma and cancer rates, and premature death.

When ERA and FoE International joined with local communities to mount what turned out to be a successful court case against the gas flaring in the Iwherekan community in Delta State, Shell decided it didn’t want to accept the courts findings. Despite a demand from High Court Justice C.V. Nwokorie that flaring stop by the end of 2006, the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited (Shell) and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) did not take, in the opinion of the community, sufficient action. According to Nnimmo Bassey, of ERAand FoE Nigeria:

Since judgment was passed Shell has not halted her illegal activities. What we are witnessing is a clear demonstration of the fact that Shell has scant respect for the lives of the people in whose communities they carry on their business. While the people are dying, Shell cares only for her profits. We see a multinational corporation that has no respect for the rule of law but who at every turn loves to characterise local people as vandals and saboteurs.

The judge also declared the Nigerian gas flaring law to be unconstitutional. Contempt of court proceedings began in the Federal High Court of Nigeria in December 2005 against Shell and the NNPC for disobeying the court order. This case continues.

Nnimmo Bassey is the director of ERA, and has been a relentless advocate for justice in the Delta region. He identifies the broad community demands to the oil industry as being:

  • keep oil in the ground. There should be an immediate moratorium on new developments as well as an assessment of existing operations, with a view to bringing them up to standards which would be acceptable in countries like Australia;
  • there should be community control over community resources (including the question of whether future drilling occurs); and
  • oil companies should honour the court processes.

The situation is as bad now as it was in the mid-1990s when the Ogoni struggle was known worldwide. What I heard during my brief visit was a clear call for a rebuilding of a global movement for solidarity. This can be done: we can remind our organisations, friends and community about what is going on; we can start to ask questions of Shell and the other companies about their actions in the Delta and why they still flare gas; we can demand community control over the local resources; we can make the corporations accountable.

Apart from the simple necessity of human solidarity, support for affected communities would also be a responsible action for people in places like Australia, where demand for oil is driving global warming and ecological destruction across most, if not all of the major oil producing regions across the planet.


Environmental Rights Action (ERA)/ FoE Nigeria:

Originally published in On Line Opinion
November 2006



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