Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo apparently shares certain qualities with former US president Gerald Ford, of whom it was famously said that he could not go down the stairs and chew gum at the same time.
By all accounts, the Niger delta, home of Nigeria’s oil and gas industries, and source of 80 percent of its income, is in the grip of ethnic violence and industrial unrest. Yet the president’s attention remains centred on attempts to prove that he is serious about implementing his electoral promises to end corruption and punish those responsible for looting the coffers under previous regimes.
Ending the corruption for which Nigeria has become famous, and protecting the national treasury, are clearly vital pursuits. But safeguarding the industries that produce the wealth in the first place is surely just as important, and a president who cannot address more than one problem at a time is a luxury that Nigeria cannot afford. Besides, there those that argue that pursuing members of the family of Sani Abacha, the late military dictator, and the odd crooked businessman and military officer here or there, will not in itself end the corruption or recover the public resources already looted or squandered.
Even more serious than the threat to the country’s energy wealth is the damage that the unrest in the Niger delta poses to the unity of the federal state, which was nearly undone by a civil war in the 1960s when one ethnic state tried to form a breakaway republic. The federal government is not underestimating the threat, which the president admits is due to the ‘grave injustice’ caused by the unfair distribution of oil wealth. However, Obasanjo, a retired general himself, is concentrating on sending troops to keep a lid on the violence instead of addressing the issues at the heart of the problem.
The industrial violence is mainly directed against Shell and other western oil companies, which extract oil worth an estimated $150 billion a year from the area. But very little of this is ploughed back and the local inhabitants are among the poorest in the world. Moreover, not only are the people of the Delta region robbed of their wealth, they are also suffering from the multinationals’ pollution of their environment. Not only are the companies not cleaning up the pollution they have already caused; they are also neglecting new oil spills. Such spills, some due to sabotage by angry activists, but the responsibility of the companies nonetheless, are being reported at a rate of two a week.
The unrest in the region is spearheaded by the Ogoni ethnic group, whose leader, Ken Saro-Wiwa, was hanged by the Abacha regime in 1996. But it has been taken up by the largest group in the area, the eleven million-strong Ijaw, and now involves virtually every other ethnic group as well: the Itsekari, the Ogba, the Ikewerre, the Urhobo and the Andono. According to Asibaola Robert of the Human and Environmental Rescue Organization in Port Harcourt, they have reached the limited of their patience and are even contemplating secession from the Nigeria federation.
“The have had enough of pollution, grinding poverty and promises. They see that they have no tomorrow. They are entering a new stage in their struggle for self determination,” he said recently.
The scale of the poverty and the neglect in the region is staggering. People have no access to electricity and hospitals, and unemployment is very high. This explains why the activists and saboteurs find it easy to recruit large numbers of disaffected youths, including university graduates. But their justified grievances are exploited by ambitious and unscrupulous politicians and businessmen, as well as numerous members of the Nigerian diaspora, many of them non-Muslims who portray the issue as one of religion in which the country’s majority Muslim community is persecuting its Christian minorities.
Western human rights organizations, although occasionally noting the role of the oil companies, tend to concentrate on the Saro-Wiwa issue, presenting the situation as a purely political problem and obscuring the social and economic aspects of it. This distortion is also covered by the fact that the western companies are not only looting the resources of the country, but are also deeply involved in the state corruption and violence.
Now that a Christian and non-northern president is at the helm of the country, the people of the region are venting their anger mainly at the oil companies, and in some areas are preventing the production of oil altogether.
Shell, which is by far the biggest producer, bears the brunt of the unrest. The company says that in the past year, 150 of its installations, depots and pumping stations have been taken over by demonstrators, and disrupted or closed down. According to Shell, there have been 50 cases of its workers being kidnapped in the last six months, while its operations are disrupted somewhere in the region at least once a day.
Other western oil producers in Nigeria ï including Chevron, Mobil, Texaco and Agip ï are also victims of the unrest, although to a lesser extent because their operations are mostly off-shore. Like Shell, they say that kidnappings and other disruptions have been stepped up against them. These operations are largely the work of youth movements demanding aid, compensation for oil spills and other environmental damage, or simply work and some benefit from the oil in their own country.
But the disruptions are not aimed only at the production of oil. The government’s new gas project, designed to reduce Nigeria’s dependence on oil, has also been targeted. In September, protestors successfully occupied the new natural gas plant on Bonny Island, causing millions of dollars of damage. Apart from the physical damage to the plant, the episode also caused massive embarrassment to the government, which had been planning to inaugurate the country’s first liquid gas exports on October 1, the country’s national independence day. The failure to produce the gas on schedule also drew attention to the triumph of the demonstrators and is certain to encourage further protests throughout the Delta region.
Unfortunately the unrest is not confined to attacks on the companies and security forces. The recent clashes between the Ijaw and the Itsekari ethnic groups, which have claimed many lives, show that ethnic demands for a greater share of the region’s oil wealth can lead to competition for whatever share is conceded. This also means competition for land. The risks of more serious ethnic clashes are very real.
The government’s response is to send more troops and to bolster the region’s police forces. That is liable to prove a recipe for disaster rather than a remedy for the environmental, economic and ethnic issues crying out to be properly addressed.
Muslimedia: October 16-31, 1999