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Niger Delta Blues

I arrived in the US on 2 May, just two weeks after the Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded killing 11 people and leading to the horrendous oil spill. Eight weeks on and BP have still been unable to cap the well. Watching the unfolding damage to the Gulf eco-system has been shocking, the destruction relentless in its intensity. Wildlife destroyed, livelihoods devastated, reports of illnesses by those working on the clean-up operation, the silencing of employees by BP, the use of security guards and the US National Guard to prevent the media or anyone else uncovering the truth, corporate greed in cutting corners and corporate lies flowing as free as the oil which is being spilt.  

Everything about this ecological tragedy is familiar to me and all those who live or have worked in the Niger Delta over the past 40 years. Millions of people have been forced to live with polluted waters and land, oil fires, leaking pipelines, toxic gas flaring, unregulated, irresponsible and arrogant transnationals along with a succession of repressive and brutal military and civilian governments. John Vidal recently wrote in the Guardian that more oil is spilled in the Niger Delta every year than in the Gulf oil spill.  

‘On 1 May this year a ruptured ExxonMobil pipeline in the state of Akwa Ibom spilled more than a million gallons into the delta over seven days before the leak was stopped. Local people demonstrated against the company but say they were attacked by security guards. Community leaders are now demanding $1bn in compensation for the illness and loss of livelihood they suffered. Few expect they will succeed. In the meantime, thick balls of tar are being washed up along the coast.’

What is unfamiliar about the Gulf are the daily media reports, including in-depth investigations into every aspect of the oil spill, from the response of BP to the actions of the US government and reaction of the people. Unlike in Nigeria, their voices are sought out by the media to try to discover the truth and lies. Vidal and others who have compared the Gulf to the Niger Delta make the very valid point that if the spill was in Nigeria no one – not oil companies, the government or the national / international media – would be paying any attention. Whilst I am the first to hold the government and oil companies responsible, we need to name the Nigerian media, who also have a responsibility. Even now, they and bloggers fail to make the comparisons, fail to be outraged, fail to demand more from our government and the transnationals operating in the region. This is left to a handful of human rights and environmentalist activists and a few foreign journalists such as Vidal. At this very moment the Niger Delta remains an occupied land under siege from the military and oil companies. As I recently wrote on my blog, the amnesty deal negotiated by the late President Yar’Adua and the militants is a sham.  

‘The assessment of the Amnesty agreement six months after its implementation is one of substantial failure. For some it has been profitable – contractors and some militants – but for the majority nothing has improved. The training and job opportunities for ex-militants are practically non-existent, at least in terms of quality. And the promised changes towards development of the region have not materialized; the oil companies continue to pump out oil, flare gas and leave the environment covered in oil sludge.

The deal included a $500-per-month payment to an undisclosed number of militants that could run into thousands of dollars a month. The fact that no one seems to know the exact number of recipients or even the number of weapons handed in, is of great concern. The promised rehabilitation through training and job creation for the militants which was supposed to immediately address the underdevelopment in the region has not taken place, at least not in any meaningful sense.'

But to return to the US. After weeks of watching the news I am finding it difficult to be truly sympathetic towards the Americans. In all but a few cities the pubic transport system is negligible and there is an almost complete reliance on private cars. But it’s not just the lack of public transport. People drive around in enormous 6 and 8 cylinder gas guzzling vehicles. I never see people walking on the streets and only a few cyclists – the excuse being that it is too hot. But its no hotter there than in the Niger Delta or anywhere else in the tropics and people still walk and cycle. The US has four per cent of the world’s population yet it consumes 25 per cent of the world’s oil, and up until this oil spill had not a care in the world regarding where and under what conditions their oil was produced. Despite this tragedy, the US media still fails to make the connection between the Gulf oil spill, BP and the oil-producing countries in the Global South.  They still fail to make the connection between their over-consumption and over-reliance on oil and the impact this has on the eco-systems of the Global South and particularly on women. It’s all about ME, ME, ME! Initially I thought this would be a wake-up call for the American people.  Now I am wondering if they even want to be woken up to the reality: that they do not exist alone on this planet and we are not all here to serve their needs.

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