Crude Violations: Oil, Human Rights, and Environmental Devastation in Nigeria

abby jean posted a link this morning on her Tumblr, putting the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in perspective. While this oil disaster is attracting a great deal of attention in the United States right now thanks to BP’s foot-dragging and prevarications, there isn’t much coverage in the United States on the situation in Nigeria, and there hasn’t been, and there isn’t likely to be. Nigeria holds an estimated three percent of global oil reserves, in the form of highly desirable light sweet crude. As a result, it’s been heavily exploited. Nigeria’s oil infrastructure is not keeping pace with the rate of drilling, however, and as a result, the equivalent of an Exxon-Valdez1 is spilled every year in Nigeria.

The situation in Nigeria is a complicated one. In a nutshell, the government nationalised large portions of the oil reserves once it realised their value. Oil wealth quickly became concentrated in the hands of Nigeria’s most powerful as a result of corruption2, and this angered ethnic minorities such as the Ogoni and Ijaw, who argue that their lands have been taken from them and polluted and they are seeing none of the benefits. These groups began protesting, protesting turned to violence, and, recently, a negotiated amnesty fell apart.

Nigeria is heavily dependent on oil. 95% of the country’s export earnings are from the sale of oil. So are 85% of government revenues. There are some very high stakes here. People talk about ‘oil economies’ and in the case of Nigeria, this is literal. The heavy reliance on oil turns into big profits for officials in the right places, as well as the numerous heavy players in the oil industry who are involved in Nigeria.

Helpfully, most of the news articles I see on Nigeria focus on the potential problems the United States might expect if oil production in Nigeria is cut as a result of violence. Because, clearly, this is the most important priority; who cares about the environment, who cares about poverty, who cares about state-sponsored violence, who cares about our complicity. Let’s focus on whether or not we will be able to import adequate supplies of oil from Nigeria. In 2009, the US military invested $310 million United States Dollars in ‘security’ in oil-rich regions of Africa. To ‘protect our interests.’

It is Nigeria’s most vulnerable who pay the high price for the oil industry in Nigeria. Many communities in regions where oil is drilled are living in poverty. Infrastructure like roads, clinics, electricity, and schools is thin on the ground. Meanwhile, pollution ruins crops and destroys fish stocks. Communities wait for days for oil personnel to respond when leaks occur. Sometimes, leaks develop and impoverished people swarm the section of broken pipe to collect oil. There are explosions and deaths. Respiratory diseases and malnutrition occur at extremely high rates inĀ  oil-affected communities.

Reprisals for outspoken communities can be swift and devastating. Communities suspected of harboring militants are burned to the ground. Oil companies are also involved. Attempts to run critical ad campaigns in the mainstream media have been rebuffed; the ‘Shame Shell’ Campaign, for example, was recently refused by the Financial Times. Consequently, many people are not aware of the situation in Nigeria, let alone their own involvement; citizens in nations with high oil consumption, like the United States, don’t realise the not-so-hidden costs of the petrol they use to fill their cars.

Nigeria ranks 158 on the Human Development Index. When oil was initially discovered in Nigeria, there were hopes that it could be turned into a model nation where profits from oil were distributed throughout the population and everyone benefited from the country’s oil reserves. This is not what happened. Instead, Nigeria has been saddled with environmental pollution, an increasing poverty rate, violence, and extremely high political corruption even as it, on the surface, rakes in substantial profits every year. Those profits stay firmly at the top of the social and political power structure, though, instead of providing real benefits to communities.

Oil, some Nigerians say, is a curse.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, BP, a company with a lengthy history of environmental and human rights violations, claims that it will be paying for the costs of the Deepwater Horizon incident. The media is filled with haunting images. Oiled birds. Slicks of oil on the water. Dead sea turtles washing up on beaches. Nigeria, where sustained environmental damage has been occurring for decades, is a nonentity for the US media unless it comes to grim warnings that ‘ethnic violence’ might disrupt our oil supplies.

Human rights are a social justice issue. Environmental devastation is a social justice issue. Exploitation of oil reserves, by extension, is a social justice issue because of the astoundingly abusive and corrupt practices heavily tied in with the oil industry. You should know about what is happening in Nigeria and many other oil-rich nations, where the most vulnerable are hung out to dry while the most powerful profit.

And you should be angry about it.

  1. This 1989 oil spill in the Prince William Sound in Alaska resulted in the release of 250,000 barrels of oil. It became a cause celebre of the environmental movement, and much to the infuriation of Exxon, it’s often used as a unit of measurement for oil spills to put things into context for the public.
  2. It is estimated that as much as 70% of oil revenues is ‘lost.’

1 Comment

  1. Exxon may soon be able to breathe a bit easier with BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster involving a good deal more oil spilt and a more populated coastline affected by it. Frog knows it’s been enormous on the local news here and Dallas is pretty far from the coast.

    But yeah. Bad as the Prince William Sound spill was, bad as the Deepwater Horizon spill is shaping up to be, at least there are mitigation and remediation measures in place to deal with it. (Attempts to frame the disaster as ‘Obama’s New Orleans’ have failed due to the government actually functioning.)

    The people of Nigeria don’t have FEMA. They have oil companies who don’t bother with environmental protections. A little bit of that, maybe, is the responsibility of local governments. Most of the responsibility is on governments like the US and the European Union who nudge and wink at the appalling behaviour of companies like Shell and Exxon and BP because they depend on cheap oil and cheap oil depends on not taking extensive and expensive measures to prevent harm. The multinational oil companies won’t do these things without the intervention of governments with power on the scale of the US and the EU; protecting the lives and health of poor non-white people almost never enhances shareholder value.