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AFP: Even amid record oil prices, Niger Delta struggles with its ‘curse’

20/03/2008 05:27
AGBARHA-OTOR,

Nigeria, March 20 (AFP)

Record high oil prices have done little for the people of the oil-rich Niger Delta, where many earn a dollar a day if they can find work at all and rundown villages sit neglected.

The ramshackle houses covered in corroded metal and the abandoned fishing boats in the Delta in southern Nigeria belie the fact that the country is Africa’s biggest oil producer and the world’s eighth biggest oil exporter.

Some say oil wealth has been the Delta’s curse.

Dying vegetation, infertile farmlands and blackened rivers are coupled with unrest, bitter power struggles and worsening poverty levels.

Located south of the port city of Warri, Agbarha-Otor includes some 500,000 residents scattered in many villages, according to local officials.

Many of them try to eke out a living on less than a dollar a day.

The men of this one-time fishing community now spend much of their time drinking palm wine and complaining about the lack of development. Oil, they say, has turned the water black and killed off all the fish.

Felix Onoro, a 65-year-old father of five, can talk at length about the quantity of fish his late father used to catch.

“My father was a great fisherman before his death. He made so much money that he sent two of his children abroad for study,” he reminisced.

Now Onoro gets by on the money his children send him and on vegetables he manages to grow behind his two-bedroom house. Fishing, his first love, has long been abandoned and his house, like several others in the community, paints a picture of neglect and decay.

“With the commencement of exploration activities, the waters became polluted and the fishes died one after the other,” Onoro told AFP, wiping palmwine from his moustache.

The water here is discoloured by oil, flares are visible in the distance and the smell of petroleum hangs in the air. The population of Agbarha-Otor has dropped. Young people with an education or a hope of getting one emigrate.

For Onoro and for his drinking mates it’s all the fault of the Shell oil company which operates 25 wells in the vicinity.

“Despite their huge presence here, Shell has done nothing for us,” he complains.

Shell retorts that in Agbarha-Otor alone, last year it paid out 50,000 dollars (32,000 euros) in micro-credits meant to empower local women and that it gives four scholarships to students in the community every year.

A spokesman said the Anglo-Dutch company also had the main route into the village tarred. It also furnished and equipped a local school and college, the spokesman said.

Observers say the root of the problem is that oil companies do give money to communities but that it is siphoned off by a handful of local officials and does not trickle down to men such as Onoro.

A local lawyer, Vincent Iruvbe, disputed Shell’s list of community project financing, saying that most of what has been achieved here in terms of development has been financed by local benefactors.

Local chief Joshua Udi accused Nigeria’s leaders of using the money from his region’s oil to develop the rest of the country at the expense of the Delta residents.

“We don’t have potable water, no good roads, no hospitals, no schools, no jobs. What you see is oil pollution, spills, gas flaring, neglect and environmental degradation,” he said.

“Nigerian leaders have been using oil resources to build mega cities in Abuja, Lagos and the north. No visible projects in the entire oil region. This is pathetic,” he said.

“The bulk of our oil wealth is stolen by government officials, their friends and family while our people continue to wallow in poverty and squalor,” the prominent ethnic Ijaw leader Kimse Okoko complained.

He accused past governments of paying “lip-service” to genuine development in the oil-producing areas. The new government has set up a task force to develop the region, but observers question its efficiency.

Paradoxically, as oil production rises the poverty indices get worse.

Today Nigeria is listed among the world’s 25 poorest countries and ranks 146th out of 162 on the United Nations’ social development index.

At independence in 1960, three years after oil was first found here, only about 15 percent of the population lived in poverty, according to official figures. Forty years later the figure was closer to 80 percent.

Observers estimate that some 400 billion dollars have been stolen from state coffers since oil was discovered.

“To us oil has become a curse rather than a blessing. How we wish we never discovered oil on our soil,” lamented Okoko.

In the 1999 and 2003 elections, local politicians, desperate for power, recruited hundreds of unemployed youths and equipped them with rifles and machetes to coerce the population to vote for them.

“The Niger Delta is now completely militarised — there are guns everywhere,” Joel Bisana of the Niger Delta Professionals for Development said.

After the polls the politicians dumped the youths who promptly organised themselves into self-proclaimed freedom fighters, claiming to be seeking a fairer share of oil revenues for local people but who are often more interested in fighting turf wars.

The Nigerian army recently said it seized an arms cache from a local warlord Ateke Tom.

One of the region’s best known “militants”, Henry Okah, of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), was arrested last year for alleged arms trafficking.

The area is notorious for the kidnapping of foreign oil workers and children or relations of rich and prominent Nigerians, often for ransom.

“It’s poverty and the criminal neglect of the region by successive governments in Abuja that make the youths a willing and useful tool in the hands of selfish politicians,” said Nsirimovu Anyakwee of the Coalition of Niger Delta Civil Society.

©2008 AFP

http://www.africasia.com/services/news/newsitem.php?area=africa&item=080320052702.hwyi2j2c.php

 

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