One small positive that may come out of the Deepwater Horizon spill is the slender beam of reflected light cast on the fascinating, tragic story of oil drilling in the Niger Delta.
On Sunday The Observer rather stunningly announced that “more oil is spilled from the Delta’s network of terminals, pipes, pumping stations and oil platforms every year than has been lost in the Gulf of Mexico”. Given the scale and longevity of the disaster in Nigeria the disparity in publicity is troubling.
Under normal circumstances it would be easy to peg the general global apathy shown towards the Niger Delta situation up to the usual melange of ignorance and casual racism, which allows us to ignore so many other disasters in the developing world. But this case is different. We should hear more about Nigeria — and make no mistake in the coming decades we will — because Nigeria means oil.
In West and Central Africa, Nigeria is a superpower, with a population of more than 150 million. Staggeringly for a country where the vast majority of the population make a living out of agriculture, up to 90% of Nigeria’s GDP comes from its hydrocarbon. More importantly for the global economy, 40% of United States crude oil imports come from Nigeria. Ironically, although perhaps not unexpectedly, Nigeria’s massive oil wealth seems to actually be contributing to regional instability.
For at least the past 20 years the Niger Delta has been ravaged by armed conflict between government, militias and oil companies over oil rights and compensation for environmental devastation. In 1994, oil-related violence in the region was so bad that state forces were found to have executed at least 2000 civilians, and up to 100,000 people were left homeless. Since then life in the Delta seems to have settled into a steady cycle of stabilised lawlessness, punctuated by occasional bouts of violent government retribution.
It will come as no surprise that the origins and minutiae of this conflict are devilishly complicated, but at their core they can be reduced to two points. Residents of the Niger Delta want a larger share of the wealth generated by the oil in their backyard, and they want to be compensated for the environmental damage caused, which results from commercial oil operations. Imagine the amount of oil spilled in the infamous Exxon-Valdez disaster, and then think the same amount of oil has been leaked in the Niger Delta every single year (on average) for the past 50 years. It is understandable that a fair bit of resentment has built up.
The Nigerian government relies on revenue from commercial oil for its viability. It is in no position to make the kind of demands that the Obama Administration has made in recent weeks. As Obama suspends offshore oil exploration in the United States, jeopardising his promise to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, pressure on Nigeria is only likely to increase.
Two weeks ago Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathon signed a $US23 billion deal with China to build three new oil refineries (at present Nigeria imports 85% of its refined fuel). Negotiations over increased Chinese access to Nigerian oil exports are ongoing.
The situation in the Niger Delta has long been intolerable for the local population. It seems likely that a global economy reliant on a stable oil supply will find the Nigerian situation increasingly hard to ignore.