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The Enemy Within: Oil in the Niger Delta


[Editor's note: More than four years ago, Nigerian farmers filed five cases against the oil tycoon Shell, for polluting the Niger Delta. Today, the Dutch Court ruled against all but one of these cases, which raises the question, will there ever be justice awarded to the Nigerian people whose ponds and streams have become nothing but oily sludge? In the current issue of the World Policy Journal, Fidelis Allen argues that until the people of oil-producing regions, like Ogoniland, Nigeria gain representation in government or other forms of control over their resources, the governments and oil companies will run roughshod over their rights.]

By Fidelis Allen

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria—It was a cool afternoon on November 10, 1995, in the Bundu Waterside area of Port Harcourt in southern Nigeria. In the local prison, the Ogoni environmental rights activist Kenule Saro-Wiwa sat awaiting execution. He had already been detained for a year, charged with murdering four Ogoni leaders. The charges were spurious. The four had actually died during a protest against oil pollution and government neglect. Saro-Wiwa had been caught between the demonstrators and heavily armed police—the real killers of the Ogoni four.

Police and army troops stood guard in front of the prison. Some distance away, townsfolk gathered, speechless with their hands folded solemnly. The atmosphere was at once volatile and sad. On this November day, the Nigerian state hanged Saro-Wiwa and eight other Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) environmental activists after a secret, stage-managed trial. “The federal government, with the support of the Rivers State government has killed these innocent Ogoni men, not for any other reason but for the love it has for oil,” snarled one resident in front of his shop across the street from the prison. “Meanwhile, oil has taken away food from the table of the rural people these leaders represented.”

The hanging of nine innocent individuals turned Saro-Wiwa into an international icon and only increased the determination of those who fight pollution by oil companies that threatens the lives and the livelihoods of the 30 million people who call the Niger Delta home. With 48 oil fields and 93 natural gas fields, the Delta region’s recoverable reserves are estimated at 34.5 billion barrels of oil and 94 trillion cubic feet of gas. At $90 a barrel, the oil alone would be worth in excess of $3.1 trillion—the equivalent of 11 years of the entire GDP of Nigeria. It is the primary resource that Nigeria’s government depends on to run the state. Since 1956, when oil was first discovered in commercial quantities at Oloibiri, presently part of Bayelsa State, the government has realized more than $600 billion dollars from oil. Yet most of the region’s people have hovered at or below the poverty level. Now, they are being threatened by a looming food shortage caused by oil pollution and gas flares.

The oil industry is the enemy within, but the government is telling Nigerians to believe that it is their best friend. Successive federal regimes have seen the oil industry as the lifeline of the nation’s economy, neglecting its impact on the people of the Niger Delta and their environment. Annual budgets of both federal and state governments hinge on expected oil money. President Goodluck Jonathan recently launched a Gas Revolution Policy using increased oil and gas production as the foundation of all national development.



[To read the rest of this article, click here.]

Fidelis Allen is a senior lecturer in the Department of Political and Administrative Studies, University of Port Harcourt in Choba, Nigeria, on leave as University of KwaZulu-Natal’s postdoctoral scholar. He is the author of Implementation of Environmental Policies in Nigeria: Government Inertia and Conflict in the Niger Delta (Cambridge Scholars Press).

[Photo courtesy of Afolabi Sotunde]

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