Oil slicks in Nigeria: capitalism is a world-wide plague

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While the oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico has become the biggest environmental pollution in the history of one of the most developed countries, the USA, and while it has made the consequences of the failure to protect the environment apparent, the pollution of the environment in a gigantic scale has almost become part of daily life in Nigeria. "In fact, 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, the site of a major ecological catastrophe caused by oil that has poured from a leak triggered by the explosion that wrecked BP's Deepwater Horizon rig last month." (The Guardian, 30/05/10).

Daily oil slicks with disastrous consequences

In the wetlands of the Niger delta, which with a size of 20,000 square kilometres is the biggest of its kind in Africa, oil companies extract on average 2 million barrels oil every day. Nigeria is the seventh biggest oil exporting country of the world and one of the main suppliers of the USA. Because of its low sulphur contents the product of this African oil producing country is very much in demand. Around 95% of the income of the country stems from the oil production in the southern region. Most of the 7,000km of pipelines that link the 1,000 pumping stations in the 300 onshore-oil-sites in the Niger delta, were built in the 1950s and 60s. Between 1976 and 2001 some 6,800 oil leaks were reported. In 2009 alone, over 2,000 leaks from oil drilling and, above all, from pipelines, were registered. Each year some 300 leaks of some kind occur. About 50% of the oil leaks occur because of corroded pipelines and tanks, approximately 30% because of 'sabotage' and 20% during regular operations. The scale of pollution is unbelievable. The national authority (NOSDRA) in charge of the investigation and cleaning of oil pollution says that between 1976 and 1997 more than 2.4 million barrels of oil contaminated the natural environment.

Independent oil experts and environmental organisations assume that during the last 50 years between 9 and 13 million barrels of oil were spilled into the environment, ending up in the mangrove forests and swamps of the densely populated Niger delta instead of pipelines and tankers. This corresponds to more oil than leaked during the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 into the shores of Alaska.  Fields and the tributaries of the river are chronically polluted. There are areas where the ground water has become black, and others where the sky has been dark for years due to the burning of the petroleum and natural gasses emitted during oil production. Respiratory diseases, skin rashes and eye diseases are widespread amongst the local population. They are attributed to dioxin and other carcinogenic agents, which are emitted during fires close to the soil.

The damage to both humans and the environment is very high in the delta. Innumerable river courses, mangrove forests, fertile cropland and waters formerly rich in fish have been heavily damaged or destroyed. Overland pipelines cross villages or often run in front of houses, so that the residents of the houses have to climb over them to reach their homes. The oil trickles into the ground water or forms lakes as big as football pitches. In many cases the drinking water is poisoned and vegetation destroyed. Life expectancy has fallen to 46 years for women and 45 years for men

With reserves of 6.5bn cubic meters, Nigeria is the seventh biggest producer of natural gas. According to the State run oil company NNPC every year 23 billion cubic meters, or 40% of the gas extracted in Nigeria is burnt-off; sometimes the entire quantity of gas that is generated during oil production is burnt-off. During this process a lot of methane gas is generated, which is one of the main causes of the green house effect and 64 times more dangerous than CO2 for global warming.

Which explanation for the hell in the Niger delta?

How is it possible that a country so rich in raw materials has created possibly the worst polluted eco-system on earth? Why is it that the existence of such large amounts of precious raw materials does not lead to prosperity but instead to the strangulation of nature and to a living hell for human beings?

"In 1958 oil was discovered in Nigeria above all in the Niger delta near Port Harcourt. Particularly large amounts were discovered in Ogoni land, in the north-eastern Niger delta. Ever since oil has counted for about 90% of the export income of the country. Often it is estimated that in this area some 900 million barrels of oil have been extracted (...). It is estimated that since 1960 the oil income amounted to 600 billion dollars, and yet 70% of the Nigerians have an income of less than one dollar a day. (...) 35% live in extreme poverty."

Enrichment through oil for the ruling class, poverty and diseases for the oppressed

Life expectancy in Nigeria, where at least half of the population has no access to drinking water, has been falling during the past two generations to just over 40 years. The local population in the Niger delta or near the pipelines and oil drilling stations is ruined. The people have not gained anything from the oil riches, on the contrary. Driven into poverty, tormented by terrible diseases due to pollution, many people are forced to tap the oil pipelines every day - putting their lives at risk. At the same time in the background of increasing poverty, more and more people are driven into the fold of armed gangs, which kidnap employees of the oil companies and hold them for blackmail or ransom and sow terror in daily life.

Despite the gigantic oil revenues of more than $300bn that have fallen into the hands of the Nigerian state, no significant industrial zones have arisen, nor has any solid infrastructure been developed. After an initial 50/50 division between the foreign oil companies (Shell, which initially held a monopoly position, later Gulf, Mobil and Texaco) and the ruling Nigerian class, around half of the oil revenues were usurped by foreign capital. Nigerian rulers, and above all the army, snatched the lion's share of the revenues, without investing money in the development of production, so there is no industry worth mentioning. Nigeria has been prevented from becoming a competitive industrial power. A similar situation exists in several other oil producing countries, whose oil resources were plundered for decades (e.g. Venezuela, Iran) and where no modern, competitive industry has arisen. The local population has never benefited from the oil riches; instead more and more people have been driven into migration. After the collapse of the oil prices in the early 1980s Nigerian oil revenues fell from $26bn in 1980 to $5bn in 1986. The response of the Nigerian government was to kick out migrant workers from the neighbouring countries. Some 700,000 Ghanaians were forced out and in 1985 a quarter of a million people were expelled.

Within the country several factors drove people into migration. Desertification, environmental pollution, pauperisation all spurred a rural exodus and drove people into migration abroad. Nigerians form a large part of the African refugees living in Europe and the USA.

Thus the country has not become an industrial power but a cemetery for nature and a hell for most of the people. How can we explain the contrast between wealth and poverty, between the potential and reality?

The country in the grip of war and militarism

Some claim that the whole calamity is due to the corruption and incapacity of the army. If the army was not corruptible, bribable and so ‘selfish', the whole country would be better off. Indeed the influence and the weight of the army since the discovery of oil have increased tremendously. But the development of Nigeria results from much stronger forces in society than the mere parasitic life of the military.

Barely 10 years after the beginning of the oil exploitation in 1958 the land was ravaged in a disastrous war from July 1967 to January 1970.

The Nigerian State - an artificial national construct with a religious-ethnic mosaic - in the context of militarism

As with many other African countries, Nigeria is an artificial nation constructed by the former colonial power, in this case Britain. Nigeria, which in October 1960 gained independence from Britain, counted some 60 million inhabitants with about  300 different ethnic and cultural groups. In many other parts of the former British empire, Britain governed through the practice of  "divide and rule" (e.g. on the Indian subcontinent through the partition of India and Pakistan/Bangladesh that led to war a short time later). In Nigeria too it sought, to maintain a fragile equilibrium between the most important ethnic-religious groups on the one hand, while, on the other, it exploited divisions to set them against each other. The new African rulers inherited and continued these practices after independence in October 1960. Ever since, the struggle for power and a balancing of the interests and positions of the respective groups has dominated daily life in the multiethnic state. The different ethnic groups were coexisting and fighting with each other, while the religious divides were mainly between Christians (most of them living in the south) and Muslims (mostly living in the north). After the end of colonial rule there was no ‘united' national ruling class that could have acted in a unified manner for the defence of the interests of a ‘united' country and the country was split into many regions, where the local rulers depended on a specific source of income, such as a particular agricultural product, and the interests of regional groups (who often belong to an ethnic and/or religious group) collided. In short, the country was a fragile construct with a number of ethnic, religious and regional provincial chiefs and it was only a question of time before this formation was shaken and torn apart.

In the mid 1960s ethnic tensions had sharpened so much that in 1966 ferocious pogroms against the Christian Ibo, who lived in the Muslim dominated north, were perpetrated. Some 30,000 of the 13 million Ibo lost their lives, which provoked a wave of 1.8 million refugees from the North towards the South-East. On May 30th 1967, with the support of civilian political forces of the South-East, parts of the army declared the south-eastern region of Nigeria to be an independent state - Biafra. The Nigerian government, with the support of Britain, the USA and the Soviet Union opposed this split with all its force. More than two million people lost their lives in the fighting or starved to death.

But the cancer of militarism stretched far beyond the fighting over Biafra, because since then violence and marauding gangs have become a daily phenomenon that is not limited to Nigeria but constantly ravages the neighbouring states of the Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Congo etc.

Instead of equipping the local population with energy and capital for investment in infrastructure and oil production sites, the exploitation of oil has led not only to a disaster for the environment and to a spiral of misery for most of the people in the region, but has also stimulated the rapacious appetite of other vultures, which in turn take the local population as hostage. In the meantime ‘rebel movements' have also arisen. "The biggest rebel movement (Mend - Movement for the emancipation of the Niger delta) after the first military clashes proclaimed ‘total war' and the ‘general mobilisation of all men in fighting age'. This made it easier for the army to consider the entire civilian population as enemies. And Mend has announced it will block all water ways, in order to strangulate Nigerian oil exports. [In 2009] oil production has fallen to 1.2 million barrels a day, compared to 2.17 million barrels in 2007." (www.counterpunch.org/watts08122009.html).

Nigeria could produce 2.6 million barrels a day. But in reality only around 2 million barrels are produced. At least 600,000 barrels are lost due to political turmoil and other problems. The UN-Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that in Nigeria every year some 55 million barrels of oil are stolen. This helps to feed a shadow economy upon which many high-ranking officers and politicians thrive. Now armed gangs are waging a war against the oil multi-nationals and against their own government.  The rebels destroy oil installations, attack company headquarters, and destroy businesses linked with petrodollars. 10,000 highly radicalised fighters have swollen their ranks. Attacks, hostage taking and acts of sabotage have made large areas of the oil production zone inaccessible - and the oil production of Nigeria has fallen behind that of Angola. Moreover, in this region pirates spread terror, much as on the shores of Somalia. "America tries to protect the oil. Along the Nigerian coast US-troops train African special troops who are supposed to prevent an extension of the struggles. The ‘war against terror' has also reached the oil producing country Nigeria." (www.3sat.de/page/?source=/boerse/magazin/94491/index.html)

This is what daily life in the seventh biggest oil producing country of the planet looks like. The population suffers not only from environmental pollution but is repeatedly taken hostage by marauding soldiers and the by the police, who regularly extort money. This decomposing state drives more and more people into flight. Militarism and war are becoming an increasing plague. Since 1988 the OPEC states have spent 18% of their state budgets or about 6% of their GNP for military purposes. According to SIPRI in recent years military expenditure has doubled.

Even if the situation has not yet deteriorated as far as in Somalia, all the elements exist which could turn Nigeria into a ‘failed-state'. The country, which gained independence more than half a century ago, and which is always gnawed by pogroms between different groups, contains the risk of a ‘lebanisation' or ‘balkanisation', where it falls apart into hostile different groups that wear eachother down through endless fighting. Nigeria thus may join the chain of decomposing countries such as Sierra Leone, Congo, Somalia etc.

And the conclusions?

If we draw all these elements together - the incredible ecological destruction, the strangulation of the economy under the weight of militarism, the permanent threat of ethnic-religious pogroms, the pauperisation of the population and the extremely low life expectancy, and a nation state, in the grip of militarism and the opposing interests of different groups - we have to see the deeper explanation in the imprisonment of society within the capitalist mode of production. While the bourgeois media always report, sometimes very clearly, the almost apocalyptical, conditions, they never establish a link between the different elements. This task must be accomplished by revolutionaries. 

Dv.    21/6/10


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