Posts Tagged ‘resource curse’

Nigeria was in the news this past week mostly for the Christmas Day bombings perpetrated by the radical Muslim sect Boko Haram that claimed 39 lives. Amidst this terrible carnage something else happened that captured a little less coverage.

More oil spilled into the Niger Delta.

On Wednesday, December 21, Shell Nigeria announced that 40,000 barrels of crude oil was spilled while it was being transferred from a floating oil platform to a tanker 75 miles off the coast of the Niger Delta. Satellite imagery suggests that the oil has spread over 356 square miles. This spill is considered to be one of the worst within the last ten years. Shell Nigeria spokesmen have since stated that the spill has been contained and that nothing came ashore though environmental groups in Nigeria claim that oil slicks have been spotted near the coast.

Earlier this year the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) released a report detailing the damage done by oil extraction to Ogoniland – a part of the country in the Niger Delta region – and held that “the environmental restoration of Ogoniland could prove to be the world’s most wide-ranging and long term oil clean-up exercise ever undertaken.”

The report demonstrates the scale of environmental damage done to the area after 50 years of oil operations. Drinking water in some areas poses serious public health concerns with carcinogen levels 900 times above World Health Organization guidelines (WHO). Fish habitats – which local fishermen depend upon – have been devastated and regional soil is grossly contaminated. Health complaints include burning sensations in the eyes, respiratory problems, frequent rashes, bloody stools, and constant headaches. Some have even reported multiple miscarriages.

What this means is that the most recent spill was not an isolated incident. In fact more oil is spilled in the Niger Delta region each year than was spilled in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. According to the Nigerian government, more that 7,000 spills occurred between 1970 and 2000. Many of the spills only receive attention after months of inaction.

In addition to adverse health consequences, the oil spills and acid rain sound a near death knell to the local water dependent economy. Fish are also apparently driven away due to the increase in large boat traffic. The oil industry unfortunately does not offer an alternative to the locals since most of the oil related jobs go to the country’s political and economic elites. Leaving many with no incomes, residents are forced to search for means to live elsewhere.

National Geographic writer Tom O’Neill sums up the impact of oil aptly in a piece from 2007. According to O’Neill, “Oil fouls everything in southern Nigeria. It spills from the pipelines, poisoning soil and water. It stains the hands of politicians and generals, who siphon off its profits. It taints the ambitions of the young, who will try anything to scoop up a share of the liquid riches – fire a gun, sabotage a pipeline, kidnap a foreigner.”

Nigeria began exporting oil in the early 1960’s and by the late 1970’s it was the sixth largest oil producer in the world. This sudden rush of riches into government coffers sparked a mad dash for political office bringing patronage and corruption to their current infamous levels. Furthermore, as in other countries plagued by the “resource curse,” oil generates enough revenue for the state in order to make taxation of the people unnecessary. Without the need for taxes and the need for resources from its people, the government can afford to ignore the concerns of the population. 

This attitude may be one of the key causes of the area’s insurrection which threatens to turn this region of the world into the new Middle East. According to author Petter Maass in the book Crude World, “rebellion, in such conditions, is inevitable.”

Oil is now the country’s primary export, but according to O’Neill, “its annual per capita income of $1,400 is less than that of Senegal, which exports mainly fish and nuts.” According to Maass “nine out of ten citizens live on less than $2 a day and one out of five children dies before his fifth birthday.” Oil, with its superb ability to release energy and move the modern world at an unprecedented pace, seems as if it is not getting the people of Nigeria very far at all.

Oddly enough, though Nigeria is a leading exporter of oil, it has to import the refined product back into the country in order for it to be of any use to the local population due to the sub par nature of its own refineries.        

Like oil, blame is also easy to find in the Niger Delta. NGO’s, local environmentalists, and at times the UN point the finger at Shell claiming that its pipelines are outdated and poorly maintained. Shell in turn points to the acts of terrorists, black marketeers, and saboteurs.

Unlike oil generated wealth, the blame can probably be shared. 

Progressively minded westerners are now in a search for alternatives to oil mostly because of its general impact, namely climate change. Seldom do we look at the impact that oil has on the lands that it comes from. In the Niger Delta for example, life may have been better off if oil was never found, and its continued extraction doesn’t seem to be making things any better for everyday citizens.

Nigeria presents us with one more reason to turn our backs on black gold.