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Oil and Politics Clash in Nigeria


Nigeria's Delta Region is in conflict over oil production and that area's demands for a share of the revenues, a discord that also affects the global energy market.

When immense wealth and stark deprivation exist side-by-side, conflict inevitably results. That's the situation in Nigeria's Delta Region, where oil is extracted on a massive scale and its revenues pour into the federal government's coffers. But many people in the delta say nothing comes back to them.

Niger Delta oil provides the country with 65 percent of its federal revenues, and represents 20 percent of Nigeria's gross domestic product, which last year was an estimated $76.5 billion.

Poverty and Oil

Paul Wee is with the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace. He recently visited Nigeria and says that despite the country's oil wealth, the situation in the delta is deplorable."Down by the coastline, the Ogoni people live - - 500-thousand people. They sit right on top of the oil. When you go through this territory, you go through towns that have absolutely no electricity. There's no hospital and no school. People [are ] very frustrated [and] very angry," says Wee.

The Ogonis are one of a number of ethnic groups living in the delta. Others include the Ijaws, the Itsekiri, the Urhobo, and farther inland, the Ibos. Combined, they make up more than 10-million of Nigeria's total population of more than 130-million. The groups say their demands that the federal government share its oil revenues have been all but ignored. They also say oil production has caused pollution on such a massive scale that traditional farming and fishing has become difficult if not impossible, making the economic situation in the delta even worse.

But the people of the delta have primarily focused their anger at the foreign oil companies rather than the government. Analyst Josephine Osikena at the Foreign Policy Center in London says that is because of perceptions of where power lies in Nigeria. "People increasingly recognize these multi-nationals [i.e., foreign oil companies] to be much stronger politically and economically than the central government. That's why people antagonize the extractive industries. And that's why you are seeing acts of sabotage and kidnapping. That's when they feel the government actually listens," says Osikena.

Chris Albin-Lackey, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in New York, says attacks are directed at oil companies instead of the government out of a sense of futility regarding their elected officials. "Corruption exists on a massive scale at every level of government in Nigeria. And, state and local governments in the Niger Delta have a reputation which, unfortunately, is probably quite richly deserved, even by Nigerian standards, for being quite corrupt. Money [i.e., the government's revenues] goes into opportunities for self-enrichment on the part of the politicians," says Albin-Lackey.

Attacks on Oil

The first major round of violence against oil production facilities took place in 1997 and continued until 1999, when newly elected President Olusegun Obasanjo visited the delta region and promised to find solutions to the area's problems. Violence flared again in early 2003, ahead of that year's federal and state elections. As many as 200 people are believed to have died then and by March, oil production fell by more than 800,000 barrels a day - - about 40 percent of Nigeria's total output at that time. Today, full production is estimated to be just under two and a half million barrels per day, but output frequently dips. Along with attacks on oil facilities, another factor affecting production is the ongoing theft of oil, so-called "bunkering," by which oil is drained from pipelines, loaded onto boats and then sold to refineries. The cash helps sustain and equip the factions attacking oil installations.

In recent times, another group has emerged - - the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND. The group claims that its attacks on petroleum facilities and kidnappings of oil workers are meant to press their demands that foreign petroleum companies as well as the government bring development to the delta.

But Chris Albin-Lackey at Human Rights Watch says MEND appears to be a different type of militant group. "Because they aren't directly connected to any obvious attempt at self- enrichment, much of what this MEND organization is doing is a bit more political and a bit less openly economic in motivation than what has generally been the case. But at this point, I think it's very difficult to say to what extent it is or will prove to be a coherent group as opposed to just a convenient coalition of major players in that part of the country," says Albin-Lackey.

Ethnic Tensions

With next year's federal and state elections approaching, many analysts expect to see a rise in ethnic-related violence. One of them, Thomas Cargill at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London, says the two are connected. "Tensions between ethnic groups within the Delta Region are really fueled by local politicians who want to create these distinctions and tensions for their own political purposes," says Cargill and adds that he doesn't expect changes and improvements in the delta, for now. "In the central government, thoughts are being taken up by the elections next year. So I think we're really going to have to wait until after the elections to see if the people in power then have a fresh approach to the problems of the delta. Although, you often need a change in government to have a new approach."

The problems of the Niger Delta aren't confined to that region. As attacks on petroleum facilities continue to cut Nigeria's oil output, the resulting shortfall on the global energy market has contributed to today's high energy prices. Because of that, some observers have called for a stronger international effort to pressure the Nigerian government to address the delta's problems and bring peace to the region. There are also those who insist that the foreign oil companies should be compelled to address the ecological problems their presence has created. But cynics respond by saying the status quo is so beneficial to both government and "big oil" that substantive change may be long in coming.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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