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World Politics Review: Crisis in Nigeria’s Niger Delta Shows No Signs of Abating

Onyema Okonkwo | 24 May 2007

WARRI, Nigeria — It takes two hours by boat to get to Deibu, an isolated outpost of about 17,000 people in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. The town is cut off from civilization by the River Nun and a thick mangrove forest, and first-time visitors who make the journey are struck by the poverty they find — a stretch of rickety mud houses, with canoes lying by the riverside.

Deibu is trapped in another age. Children and adults bath naked in the Nun. There is no electricity service or plumbing. The village’s only sign of modernity is a battered health center, a primary school built by the villagers, and a six-classroom secondary school donated by the Shell oil company.

Even though Deibu is rich in natural resources, revenue from the delta’s oil exploration has not reached the town’s residents, and environmental damage resulting from oil drilling have hurt fishing and farming, residents say.

The old cannot make their voices heard through protests, so they only fret and curse. The young often pick up arms.

Shell’s flow station is only a few kilometers away. In addition to the oil drilling that occurs there, the station serves as living quarters for the company’s offshore workers. The flow station is everything Deibu is not. All the amenities that make the difference between merely existing and living well are there: clean water, electricity, telephones, television sets and modern household gadgets — all flown in by helicopter.

While everything at the Shell flow station resonates wealth and cleanliness, Deibu, the host community, is dirt-poor and hungry. Only a short distance separates the two places, but the space seems unbridgeable: One is trapped in the past and is regressing and the other is in the 21st century and pressing ahead.
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“The Oil has been a curse” says Erebagbe Ingiabuma, a native of Deibu and lecturer at the Niger Delta University. “People now fall sick frequently and die prematurely. The water has been polluted and the [sky] has turned black because of carbon burnt by Shell,” he said.

When Shell wanted to drill another oil well in the forest, the people of Deibu gave the company a list of demands. The demands included the providing a big generator and transformer, resurfacing roads, providing clean water, and renovating the only secondary school in the village. The company agreed only to renovate the school.

Like Oloibiri (where oil was first discovered in June 1956) and Deibu, most delta communities where oil is extracted are worse off, and unemployment is higher, than in average Nigerian towns and villages. Kimse Okoko, a professor of political science and president of the Ijaw National Congress, an influential activist group, says this is because oil exploration has destroyed local economies. Niger Delta youths cannot make a living the way their parents did, he contends.

The main occupation in the delta had been fishing and farming, but pollution of the river and land means such vocations are no longer viable. “Shell promised a lot of things. But we have seen nothing,” Okoko said. “If I tell you what we suffer as a result of the exploration you will not believe. Our forests were destroyed through the drilling. Our wild life began to migrate from the area. Our rivers got polluted, no fish . . .”

But Shell says it invests a significant portion of its profit in development projects in the region.

“We invest $100 million annually to various development activities in the oil producing region,” said Alan Detheridge, vice president of external relations at Shell International.

On a visit to the oil producing communities, it is difficult to believe that such huge sums go into the community, and Detheridge, who is based in Texas, admits that “about 25 percent of the money is not properly channeled to reach the local people.”

Austin Onuoha, project manager of the Centre for Social and Corporate Responsibility in Warri, says the money is not used on projects that benefit the local people. “They build roads linking the creeks to the flow station and they call that social responsibility,” he said.

The money is spent hiring soldiers to fence off the oil drilling operations, and part of it is given to village clan heads, he claims. Onuoha blames Shell for not monitoring the activities of its operators in Nigeria. “They must be forced to adopt a more serious corporate responsibility.”

But Sammuel Desmond, head of Dickson Policy Consult, a private research company in Lagos, blames the Nigerian government more than Shell for the situation in the Niger Delta.

“A foreign oil company cannot do everything to develop your land and your people,” Desmond said.

He points out that there are other oil producing countries in Africa where Shell operates, but one doesn’t hear of militancy and hostage-taking, as in the delta, and state oil refineries operate efficiently, unlike in Nigeria.

“I think our government needs to put its house in order before pointing fingers elsewhere,” Desmond said. “I think the company can only do what is written in its contractual agreement with the federal government and not the Niger Delta communities. The company has a deal with Nigeria, Nigeria should have a deal with the host communities,” he counseled.

In August 2005, there was a move for such a deal. Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s outgoing president, called for a weeklong meeting with key leaders in the region. The meeting ended in a deadlock, as community leaders asked for 25 percent of oil money and a constitutional amendment to that effect. Obasanjo rejected the proposal.

The first Niger Delta hostage-taking occurred in April 2006, when six foreign oil workers were kidnapped, including Mason Hawkins, an American who was ultimately released on his 69 birthday. Upon his release, Hawkins told journalists he was well cared for by his kidnappers, “I do not bear a grudge against them,” Hawkins said. “I have seen their dirt-poor creeks and villages.”

Since then, up to 78 foreign oil workers have been kidnapped, mostly by jobless young men. Five oil workers have been killed. And tension keeps mounting by the day.

Many local leaders support the hostage-taking as a legitimate means to redress grievances, and insist the aim is not to harm the hostages.

“I do not believe in the hostage concept, I call them guests, we want them have a first hand experience of life in the creeks,” says Oboko Bello, president of the Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities. Often, money is exchanged for the hostages. In one case, $10 million was paid either by the Nigerian government or oil companies.

Embarrassed by the latest seizure of foreign oil workers, the Nigerian government has begun a series of negotiations with the kidnappers. But there are no signs the negotiations are making progress.

“Thing that will work is if we go back to the drawing board as a nation and address these conflicting issues in a constitutional conference,” says Lanre Sowemi, a Lagos-based legal adviser.

Sowemi thinks the way forward is an “active, sincere and corruption-free leadership.”

Meanwhile, the delta remains unsafe for oil workers, and militant groups have vowed to make the area more unsafe for oil exploration. Each time there are clashes between delta militants and soldiers who protect oil installations, Nigeria loses millions of dollars.

A recent survey from Chevron, another oil company with operations in Nigeria, indicates that 170,000 barrels of oil are lost daily due to the unrest in the region. Just last week, Chevron temporarily closed its delta operations — a discouraging signal for international investment in Nigeria.

If militant statements are any indication, the attacks will not abate any time soon.

“Our next step will be to kill hostages if the people demands are not met,” reads a press release recently sent to journalists by an unidentified leader of a militia group.

They militants are beginning to demand total control of oil revenue, but the Nigerian government has said it will not be cowed by the kidnappers.

Nigeria’s president-elect, Umar Musa Yar’dua, says the Niger Delta is a top priority for his government. “We will listen to the people and work out ways to permanently solve the problem,” Yar’dua said shortly after he won the controversial April election.

Meanwhile, the build-up of military personnel in the waterways of Delta State may be a sign that the government is planning an offensive against the area’s militants.

Onyema Okonkwo is an assistant editor at Nigeria’s National Standard magazine.

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