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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Nigeria, la guerre du pétrole

by Bernard Couret

Nigeria, the Oil War

Nikita Shah

Translated Thursday 12 November 2009, by Nikita Shah

By Bernard Couret, Honorary Journalist, Founding Member of the French Association of Friendship and Solidarity with the African People (AFASPA).

Why does this African giant threaten to erupt into violence again?
Good news from Nigeria is rather rare, above all in these past few weeks where fighting has been intensifying in the delta, a real haven for oil. Lagos, the ex-capital (15 million inhabitants), the second-largest African centre of activity after Cairo, doesn’t exactly enjoy one of the most enviable reputations. Over the years, it has become the dustbin of the West. Each month, more than five hundred containers filled with all sorts of toxic waste enter into its port and are dumped in open-air in huge dumping grounds, with consequences that we imagine on the environment and the health of residents, all the more so as this situation constitutes a threat which risks affecting future generations... Nigeria is the eighth biggest oil producer in the world (2.6 million barrels exported per day in 2007). This guarantees the country 98% of revenue in foreign currency, and has yielded the country more than 400 billion dollars since its independence – for their part, the junta of sponsors has pocketed 325 billion dollars from it, whether that is kept in bank accounts in Switzerland or in London, the City tops even that!

Nigeria’s reserves are estimated to be at 40 million barrels (3% of the world’s reserves), but at the same time, it has to import almost 100% of its oil products which its economy needs, owing to the inadequacy of its refining capabilities. The country’s three main oil refineries, situated in Port Harcourt, Warri and Kaduna, are always out of service, despite various works undertaken to get them functioning again. This shortage explains the never-ending lines of all sorts of vehicles, waiting for hours and hours in front of the open petrol pumps, in the hope of filling up. The cost? Millions of working hours lost. 5,000 kilometres of pipeline run across the country, which are regularly sabotaged. Also, the government’s objective to raise production to 4 million barrels per day by 2010 seems, in the current state of things, out of reach. Today, the primary gross producer of sub-Saharan Africa, it runs the risk of eventually being overtaken by Angola. So much that its crude reserves are at the same level as they were five years ago. The government however, bases its hopes for the next few years, on gas production, of which its reserves are huge (5.2 billion cubic metres, 2.9% of the world’s reserves). Nigeria has colossal public spending; paradoxically beginning with subsidies granted to the price of...oil products. Incidentally, the increase of these products during the first term of 2008 provoked a rise in inflation (11% this year).

As soon as he was elected, the new president had proclaimed that his priority was to re-establish ‘economic order’ in the delta. He gave himself three years to achieve his goals. The current assessment is rather gloomy. In October 2008, he declared that his other priority was to get his country into the top twenty world powers by 2020 (the country will then have 250 million inhabitants, against 148 million today), above all thanks to its 36 billion reserve barrels (2.9% of the world total). It is a decent programme, presented by a president who is devoid of all democratic legitimacy, and who, without the assistance of the main oil groups (Shell, Total, Exxon, AGIP, etc.) and certain Western countries, could only keep himself in power for a few months. Furthermore, the new president has publicly recognised that he only owed his election to massive fraud. The Economist characterised the April 2007 elections in this way: ‘the cause of all this (the special effect of the elections) is an extravagant corruption and mismanagement, coupled with a political culture which owes more to the principles of ‘gangsterism’ than to those of democracy (...) The April elections has been marked by violence and fraud on a scale that boggles the imagination’.

The extraction of petrol transformed the Niger delta into an environmental nightmare. Thousands of pump houses spoil the landscape. In coastal states, covered with mangroves and fairways, almost impenetrable lagoons stretch over more than 70,000 square kilometres; pipeline leaks have caused real oil spills, and have laid waste to an ecosystem which counts among the richest but also the most fragile of the planet. It does not appear that the World Bank has taken into account the needs of this country, concerning the investment necessary in food-producing agriculture, health services, school and hospitals. According to its statute, the World Bank has returned to financing development plans of the world’s poorest countries. In Nigeria’s case, it finances a minimum of social investments in order to avoid certain ‘excesses’ which plays into the hands of oil companies. It is in this way that each year, this country receives two billion dollars per year, whilst it is one of the richest countries on Earth (sub-Saharan Africa, which crumbles under its misery, has only received in the past few years, 25 billion dollars per year). A Nigerian economist, employed by the World Bank, declared, ‘Us, here, we are useless. Our requests are never taken into consideration. It is Washington that decides.’

The intricate landscape which snakes the delta shelters all sorts of unlawful exchanges. But, for some time now, a new form of traffic has developed: the theft of oil. 10,000 to 30,000 barrels of oil vanish each day. This practice, called ‘bunkering’, which causes the state and oil companies losses of hundreds of millions of dollars, is counted among the most lucrative businesses in the country. Such a form of trafficking would however be impossible without collusion at the highest level of the state. It is an occurrence by well-organised groups, operating on their preferred night, using flat-bottomed barges concealed in mangrove forests. The precious oil is then transferred in small tankers, then, after having been refined, be it in Cameroon or the Ivory Coast, it is then resold to local refineries. This kind of activity is not without its risks. Sometimes tens of villagers die burnt to cinders due to the explosion of an oil pipeline, whilst siphoning the precious liquid to resell it in small containers on roadsides, for unfortunate motorists, victims of the supply shortage. Oil companies bear a heavy responsibility for the state of bankruptcy in which Nigeria finds itself. For decades, they have contented themselves with drilling for oil, without worrying themselves the least about the squalid living conditions which prevail in the delta. Shell, a true State within a State – its white flag with its famous yellow scallop shell lined in red, flutters everywhere – produces more than half of oil, but in the eyes of a population living below the poverty line, this flag is a symbol of misery, arrogance and oppression. Because agriculture as well as fishing disappeared a long time ago.

Despite international conventions, oil palms have been stifled under black clouds of unfiltered gas that come out of flares, which burn day and night. Groundwater is on the verge of disappearing. The level of hydrocarbons in rivers is 360 to 680 times above the level accepted by the European Union. In jungles of oil-soaked mangroves, monkeys as well as alligators die, formerly the fear of fishermen. It is in this colourless, murky universe, where everyday life is punctuated with murders, that one of the bloodiest, but also one of the deadliest and secretive wars in the world unfolds. But who is talking about it? It has been conducted for more than three years, by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), which today displays a remarkable military efficiency. Federal power struggles to re-establish order in these states which teem with black oil. MEND regularly attacks companies’ facilities, notably those of Shell, which is strongly suspected to support on the logistical level, certain military operations. It disposes of a highly capable intelligence service and particularly efficient communication systems, a fleet of ultra fast Zodiacs, gifted with the most sophisticated weaponry. The murders of Westerners are frequent. Kidnappings are a real war chest, which allow fruitful negotiations. Expatriates are the favourite target. Moreover, they live clustered on oil rigs transformed into collective apartment blocks, or floating hotels. The Movement justifies its actions by the unequal distribution of revenue derived from the exploitation of black gold. The Niger delta alone is the region that supplies 90% of the country’s currency. Notably, the Movement asks that the percentage of oil expenses at the federal level returning to the area of extraction rises from 17% to 25% or even, according to the most demanding of them, 50%.

Where do these ultra modern weapons come from of which they dispose? Excluding contraband, their suppliers can only come from certain circles of a highly corrupted army. Not excluding either that MEND discreetly receives financial support from certain companies, which deliver between them a fierce competition for obtaining new concessions. We must really look to the future...all the more so as this hardly gives rise to optimism. Popular resistance has not always been so violent in this delta. The destiny of the great writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa, a militant ecologist who had organised a peaceful movement, The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), is proof. He is certainly the leader who best structured and focused media coverage to the local demands of his people. The President-General Sani Abacha, quelled the peaceful protests of the Ogoni people, ending in bloodshed, and on November 10th 1995, had Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his companions hung, provoking a general outcry across the world. It would be worth taking up again in its entirety the latter’s defence speech made before judges in Port Harcourt, which is being circulated throughout Nigeria. He concludes with the words, ‘Death matters little, we will win’. The outrage provoked by this barbaric act will only last a few months.

How do you resist the appeal of oil? On the contrary, MEND, whose military authority becomes apparent, declared on May 15th ‘total war’ on the government, after violent clashes with the army, which would have bombed the civilian population in several regions of the delta. Moreover, MEND has commanded Western oil companies to leave the country at the risk of being caught up in an ‘imminent civil war’. These words still have not been said due to the potential consequences that they intend to have upon delivery. But the majority of them have already reduced their staff to a minimum amount since the end of 2006, by reason of this latent war that is gathering momentum today, and which has already made oil production fall by a third.

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