China, Nigeria and oil

Oil’s curse sends millions abroad in search of opportunity.

I’m back from China where  I spent a few weeks working with the Nigerian community of Guangzhou on a project that has nothing to do with oil. That said, oil came up in virtually every conversation I had with Nigerians: The oil money that has corrupted the country, killing off business enterprise and agriculture. The oil pollution that has ravaged the Niger Delta for decades, ruining countless lives and the environment.

Many people asked me when I would go to Nigeria to report on that country’s oil curse. Over and over again, people asked me why the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster was covered by the media and — most importantly — cleaned up, while the Niger Delta disaster is left untouched and rarely gets mentioned in the international press.

In a recent interview, Nnimmo Bassey of Friends of the Earth, Nigeria, had an answer to that question:

The global neglect of the environmental disasters that oil companies continue to wreak on the Niger Delta is a big scandal. The deafening silence over this level of ecological assault makes some of us reach the conclusion that human and environmental rights are only important when abridged in rich, powerful countries. Where these abuses occur in less powerful nations, especially in far off places, the offending companies earn accolades at home when they haul in their plunder to feed high consumption requirements. No questions asked. It is a replay of the abuses entrenched from colonial past, the  ugly face of imperialism.

Although U.S. imports of Nigerian crude are down (Africa’s largest oil producer shipped 337,000 barrels a day of crude to the U.S., the least since December 1996, according to the data released yesterday. That compares with an average of 768,000 barrels a day for 2011), the U.S. still consumes close to half of Nigeria’s daily oil production. This, if nothing else, ought to make Americans pay a little more attention to what’s happening in the Niger Delta. Shell may not be an American company, but that doesn’t prevent Americans from putting pressure on Shell. And, again, ExxonMobil and Chevron (as well as other American oil and oil service companies) are also firmly implanted in Nigeria.

I met a few Nigerians in China who plan to stay in that country, but they were the exception. Most dream of returning home and doing something to help Nigeria. But for now, that dream seems more like a pipe dream.  As one man put it, “You finish your school, there’s no jobs. The government doesn’t look out for its people. The youth have nothing. What can you do, except leave?”  This man now runs a business in China, employing both Nigerians and Chinese. Would he rather run a business in Nigeria? Of course, he said, and when there’s light, that’s what he’ll do. In a country swimming in oil, the lack of electricity keeps many entrepreneurs away.

Friends of the Earth Netherlands has launched a campaign to hold Shell accountable, Worse than Bad. The campaign demands a clean-up plan, clean-up, an end to gas flaring and meaningful compensation for communities. Visit the campaign here:


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