The news report by USAfricaonline.com about the July 5, 2010, ruling by a federal court in Asaba (Delta State of Nigeria) which awarded N15.4 billion to the small but traumatized Ejama-Ebubu community as special and punitive damages against Shell, Shell International Company Limited and Shell International Exploration and Production, especially its Nigeria operations, Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited (SPDC) calls for a wide angle insight. We go back to my heavily referenced special report across the networks and blogs of USAfrica on October 19, 1998. Here:
I toured Owaza on a news documentary assignment in the early 1980s as a staff of the Nigerian Television Authority, NTA. The Niger Delta, inland and other riverine communities have fared almost worse. Nigeria is the world’s sixth-largest oil producer, its petroleum industry lays the golden egg as well as sticks out like a sore thumb, the fertile ground for mega-corruption and abuse of Nigeria’s resources by a few. The battle over who controls the oil money is the key to understanding Nigeria’s business, politics and future. Hence, I must state the political dueling and ethnic jostlings seek the privatization (not capitalism, in this context, but raw control and abuse) of State power and control rather than a competition for responsibility and performance. The consequence is partly reflected in the underlying reason(s) for the wreckage and mangled landscape and tortured lives and burnt psyches in Jesse, the village of Apawor and others which occured on October 17, 1998. The inferno which raged Sunday October 18, 1998, remains a sad metaphor and reminder of the sad state of affirs in Nigeria’s oil and gas business and the lot of Nigeria’s poor. The fire left decimated farmland, burnt livestock made bonfire of human beings, men, women and children, in the most macabre mix of crude oil and fire.
All the decades of environmental sludge and destruction, and more, have combined with wonderful announcements of billion dollar contracts and deals with the multinational corporations and their Nigerian collectors and agents to raise and dash, every passing year, the tortured hopes of the same poor, dispirited folks on whose lands the oil and gas sit. Is there any wonder why they, like me sometimes wonder whether oil is Nigeria’s liquid gold or just a petro-dollar curse?
A conservatively estimated 375 unidentifiable dead persons were buried (after one week) since the October 17, 1998 explosion in the Delta cities of Jesse and the village of Apawor. An estimated 320 others also died from the impact and devastation of the inferno.
Meanwhile, medical support teams from parts of the African continent, christian relief support groups, the state of Israel, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Red Cross and the World Health Organization emergency medical teams are offering assistance as part of multi-faceted effort in the task of saving the dying in hospitals around Warri, Benin and smaller units around the area of the recent explosion. While medical support services go on, it is important to note that the inferno which raged into Sunday October 18, 1998, left decimated farmland, burnt livestock and human beings turned into bonfire of human beings, men, women and children, in the most macabre mix of crude oil and fire.
It is necessary, against the background of these difficult events and deaths, to look a little deeper, beyond the staggering, running numbers of the dead and the dying.
First, crude oil which was first explored in commercial quantity in 1958 by Shell BP, in the tropical, serene environment of Owaza, the Igbo-speaking area of the riverine part of south eastern Nigeria, has left gulleys of degradation, dangerously exposed pipelines, abandoned farmlands, worse, it accelerated the corrosion of the collective values and interests Nigerians.
The Ogoni and other riverine communities have fared almost worse.
Oil accentuated and, in fact, set the theme for ethnic competition, economic and religious warfare between the more powerful segments of the country (with less economic resources) and the relatively less powerful or at best more docile sections of the country (location for the vast oil reources and minerals). Hence, this avoidable problem of crippling scarcity of fuel and even basic kerosene/gasoline led many to pursue other means to reach some of the product, unfortunately, illegally, must be be put in its past, present and future policy context. I shall attempt such, briefly, here.
Second, although Nigeria is the world’s sixth-largest oil producer, its petroleum industry lays the golden egg as well as sticks out like a sore thumb, the fertile ground for mega-corruption and abuse of the resources of all Nigerians by a few. The battle over who controls the oil money is the key to understanding Nigeria’s business, politics and future. Hence, I must state the duelling and ethnic jostlings seek the privatization (not capitalism, in this context, but raw control and abuse) of State power and control rather than a competition for responsibility and performance. The consequence is partly reflected in the underlying reason(s) for the wreckage and mangled landscape and tortured lives and serrated psyches in Jesse, the village of Apawor and others.
Third, the explosions and the circumstance of the death of many of these folks animated for the clear-headed the fact that the issue of Nigeria’s future republic (promised by Gen. Abubakar) should address the issues of poverty, real empowerment and blinding deprivation faced by many Nigerians. Otherwise, it will be turn out to be a like another candle in Nigeria’s whirlwind- gharish images and sordid twists, punctuated by terrible turns from one debilitating situation into self-inflicted wounds.
In terms of the quality of life, the burnt beings and the charred bodies of several dozens of the citizens of the oil-rich country which littered many paths before their mass burial will remain a terrible and poignant reminder to the misuse and abuse of the oil and energy resources of the country of nearly 110 million. Fourth, political stability in Nigeria must address the issue of an equitable political economy, a fairer sharing of the resources and riches of a very fertile country. Nigerians must address, urgently, the location and quality of economic rights rather than drown the entire country on their religio-ethnic fixations.
Nigerians are an interesting lot. They will be consumed (and have been for 38 years – at this time- since they achieved political independence from Britain) with perennial, self-preening huffing and puffing about whether the next president should come from Islamic Sokoto caliphate and the Sahelian Kanuri stock, from the capitalistic, Christian Igbos or from the culturally sophisticated Yorubas?
Fifth, the recent deaths, sadly the mass burial of those folks; the mass burial in this age (!) of someone’s mother, another’s sister and father, and may be brother offer postcards of how Nigerians have devalued the lives of their compatriots; even at the point of death.
Cry, for my beloved (?) country! A sad reminder of the dysfunctional state of the country’s oil industry is the fact that although Nigeria has the finest Bonny Light crude, most of the country’s refineries are not operational; at best, they have become landmarks for siphoning foreign exchange and international funds.
As if the structural incompetence all those impose on the country and its deprived and burdened citizens are not enough, the same country with abundant, rich oil resources have sunk, for the past 9 years or more, into the unbelievable position of importing gasoline. A by-product of military misrule, especially under former head of state Gen. Ibrahim Babangida and the late dictator Sani Abacha. Sixth, three gallons of gasoline is almost the equivalent of a month’s salary for a high-school graduate in Nigeria, since former head of state Gen. Ibrahim Babangida pushed the country into its socio-economic and political logjam following his cancellation of the June 12, 1993 elections, widely believed to have been won by his friend and businessman Chief Moshood K.O Abiola
Meanwhile, military ruler Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, who has visited the scene of the disaster has directed an investigation by the government-run oil company. According to him, “NNPC (Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation) is presently looking into the matter and will report back to the government.” But the NNPC has not been an organization known for its ethical investigations and conduct.
Remember $2.6 billion dollars “vanished” for a short while from the NNPC’s coffers when possible presidential aspirant retired Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo was head of state of Nigeria. Nigerians have never received a straight, reasonable answer for that magical financial shenanigan. Also, sources in the NNPC say that key officials of company have already blamed the disaster on “a growing pattern of pipeline vandalism for theft.”
Beyond that, we call for an international, professional, reputable group of scientists, ecologists and engineers to address the three issues of questioning and getting answers regarding:
1) the quality of the NNPC pipes;
2) environmental degradation and,
3) the despoliation of the lives of Nigerians around the flaring gas points in Nigeria. Eye-witness account in the area indicate that thousands of gallons of fuel remained in the Jesse section of the pipeline — which runs nearly 600 kilometers (380 miles) from Warri in the south to the northern city of Kaduna.
According to the AP, the surface pipeline is not protected, not even with coils of barbed wire. In a comment which is said to have infuriated many Delta people and other Nigerians, Gen. Abubakar said during his visit to the scene on October 19 that the government would pay for medical care, but that no compensation would be paid to the families of the dead, apparently because many were believed to be scavenging fuel. Robert Efenakpo, an eyewitness to the disaster told the BBC: “A lot of bodies lying around, most burned beyond recognition… Several of the corpses were found still clutching plastic cups, funnels and cans they had been using to try to scoop up the fuel.”
The CNN and Reuters on October 19 quoted Joy Aigbe, a nurse in the nearby oil town of Warri where many of the victims were taken, as saying that “the casualty (toll) is bigger than initially thought and more are still dying. At least 500 people are so far dead.” She said many of the dead were women and children who had thronged the area with cans and buckets to collect spilled gasoline from the burst pipeline. The report notes that many of the dead were said to have been trapped in a ditch where a pool of gasoline had collected. A wide patch of land the size of a soccer field was charred as the fire trailed the flow of the volatile liquid.
Latest reports said the disaster scene was still littered with unidentified bodies burnt beyond recognition, while plumes of thick black smoke still rose from the persisting fire being battled by firefighters. The charred body of one woman was found with her dead baby still strapped to her back.
Many other victims were farmers and villagers sleeping in their homes. The oil pipelines in Nigeria have recently come under the alleged oppositional activities of many environmental and pro-democracy activists inside Nigeria. They have charged Chevron, Shell BP and a few other operators of being wickedly indifferently to the developmental needs of the communities they operate.
For example, the environmental group ‘Friends of the Earth’ has blamed oil companies operating in Nigeria for the disaster. “This tragedy underlines how the oil companies and Nigeria’s corrupt government have put screwing as much money as possible out of the oil industry before public safety,” said Friends of the Earth director Tony Juniper.
“The fact that people are scrabbling in the streets to collect fuel from a burst pipeline shows how Nigeria’s awesome oil riches are still being controlled by a few, rather than benefiting the many,” he added.
Shell Oil corporation has been the primary target of these complaints and confrontations. Its corporate responsibility and image became entangled with the hanging by death of riverine Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and sullied in the aftermath of the international environmental awareness campaigns, afterwards. Shell, like Chevron, and others have since returned to do business in riverine, oil-rich Nigeria.
All those, and more, have combined with wonderful announcements of billion dollar contracts and deals with the multinational corporations and their Nigerian collectors and agents to raise and dash, every passing year, the tortured hopes of the same poor, dispirited folks on whose lands the oil and gas sit.
Is there any wonder why they, like me sometime wonder whether oil is Nigeria’s liquid gold or just a petro-dollar curse?
What do you think?
• Chido Nwangwu, Founder of USAfrica, and first African-owned, U.S-based newspaper published on the internet USAfricaonline.com, The Black Business Journal, CLASSmagazine, PhotoWorks.TV, AchebeBooks.com, Nigeria360, USAfricaTV and several blogs, assessed by The New York TImes as the most influential multimedia networks for Africans and Americans. He served on the editorial board of the Daily Times of Nigeria in Lagos and worked for the Nigerian Television Authority (news) in the 1980s; publicity committee of the Holocaust Museum, Houston; recipient of an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree in May 2009; adviser on Africa to Houston’s former Mayor Dr. Lee Brown. Chido appears as an analyst on CNN, VOA, SABC, CBSNews, ABCNews, FOXNews, NBCNews, etc. e-mail: Chido@USAfricaonline.com. wireless: 832-45-CHIDO (24436). Office: 713-270-5500. Archiving of this updated essay on another web site is not authorized; only web links are allowed. Written and first published on USAfricaonline.com on October 19, 1998.
CNN International profiles USAfrica’s Founder Chido Nwangwu