WASHINGTON — (Analysis) On May 26, Chevron announced that it was shutting down its onshore operations in Nigeria due to “terrorism.” In the third assault targeting a Chevron facility in the country last month, the main electricity pipeline to one of Chevron’s facilities had been blown up.
The “Niger Delta Avengers” are claiming responsibility for that incident and others in an ongoing wave of attacks this year that have targeted Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron, Western oil giants operating in the country.
Yet many important facts about Nigeria, its history and its economy, are being left out of the media coverage of these events. The harsh living conditions of the 30 million people who live in the Niger Delta are the direct result of actions of foreign-headquartered oil giants operating in the region.
There is a long history of armed conflict and separatist movements in the Niger Delta, and the horrific conditions, and the international community’s failure to address them, are a primary factor in the continued unrest and rising violence in the region.
Nigeria is resource-rich, Nigerians are poor
In the aftermath of the destruction of Libya, Nigeria is now the top oil-producing country in Africa. It’s also home to vast natural gas and mineral reserves.
However, despite all these lucrative resources, Nigeria’s 173 million people are some of the poorest on Earth. According to the CIA World Factbook, Nigerians have an average life expectancy of just 53. Illiteracy is rampant, infant mortality rates run high, and roughly 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Of Nigerians ages 5 to 14, 29 percent work as child laborers.
So why is it that Nigerians, who live in a country with such an abundance of human labor and natural resources, live in such horrific conditions? The reason is that these economic assets do not belong to them and they are not controlled by them. Western corporations like Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron — not the Nigerian people — have control of the country’s wealth.
According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the Niger Delta region itself contains “20 billion of Africa’s proven 66 billion barrels of oil reserves and more than 3 trillion cubic meters of gas reserves.” The region accounts for some 70 percent of Nigeria’s national income. Though Nigerian oil production is dropping, the exports continue to rise. U.S. imports of Nigerian crude oil are currently rising. In mid-March, the U.S. was importing an average of 559,000 barrels per day, up from just 52,000 barrels for all of 2015.
Yet the people of the Niger Delta region live in shacks. Photographs published by the Daily Mail in 2013 showed Niger Delta residents drying their clothes on the oil and gas pipelines that crisscross their neighborhoods. Niger Delta residents feed themselves by slaying wild animals, and fishing from heavily contaminated ocean waters. Children play on beaches blackened by crude oil spills.
Residents of the Niger Delta region live under the gun, not just of the Nigerian military and police, but also by Shell’s private militia, which has over 1,200 active soldiers. According to internal financial data leaked to The Guardian, Shell has spent tens of millions of dollars on “a 1,200-strong internal police force in Nigeria, plus a network of plainclothes informants.”
“The documents show that nearly 40% of Shell’s total security expenditure over the three year period [2007-2009] – $383m (£244m) – was spent on protecting its staff and installations in Nigeria’s volatile Niger delta region,” Afua Hirsch and John Vidal reported in 2012. “In 2009, $65m was spent on Nigerian government forces and $75m on ‘other’ security costs – believed to be a mixture of private security firms and payments to individuals.”
Meanwhile, while the oil giant shells out billions to bolster security, the environmental conditions of the Niger Delta are widely decried. Oil spills and fires are an everyday occurrence. The air is heavily polluted and dangerous to breathe. Water contamination in the Delta Region has reached alarming levels. Tens of millions of barrels of oil have been spilled in the Niger Delta over the last few decades. Shell has been caught deliberately fabricating the extent of environmental damage and the health impact on the population, and not fulfilling its obligations to clean up oil spills.
Nigeria only recently became Africa’s top oil exporting country. For most of the past few decades, Libya was the continent’s top oil exporter, exporting as many as 1.2 million barrels of oil per day. Prior to the NATO intervention in 2011, Libya had the highest life expectancy on the entire continent. It boasted universal housing and literacy, along with free healthcare and education for the entire population. The “Islamic Socialist” government that ruled Libya from 1969 to 2011, nationalized the country’s oil resources and used the proceeds to fund the development of the country.
When the foreign-backed uprising broke out in 2011, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was floating the idea of establishing a new currency for the African Union. Libya convened two international conferences to discuss the idea of establishing the “Gold Dinar,” and selling Libyan oil with a currency based in Africa that could rival to the dollar and the euro.
The reason behind the divergence in the standard of living in Libya and Nigeria is clear: Libya controlled and exported its own oil resources, while Nigeria’s economy was left at the mercy of international conglomerates based in the West.
A repressive, U.S.-backed regime
The impoverished, oil-rich Nigerian nation is presided over by a government that has shocked the world with its human rights violations.
The current president of Nigeria is Muhammadu Buhari, who served as the country’s military dictator from 1983 to 1985 after seizing power in a coup d’etat. He armed his police with whips, executed people for petty crimes like counterfeiting, and sent university students to prison for 21 years for cheating on their exams.
Buhari routinely imprisoned and executed his political opponents, attempting to establish credibility as a “strong man” before being removed by one of his generals in 1985.
Buhari assumed office as president of Nigeria last May, bringing the lengthy, corruption-laced presidency of Goodluck Jonathan to an end.
Nigeria’s problems with human rights were highlighted in 1995, when Ken Saro-Wiwa was convicted of murder and summarily executed. The Nigerian activist, who led a peaceful movement for recognition of Nigerians’ environmental and human rights, was a recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize and the Right Livelihood Award.
In 2009, Shell was forced to pay millions of dollars of reparations to Wiwa’s family. It was made apparent in U.S. Federal Courts that Shell had manipulated Nigeria’s legal system in order to have a prominent critic of their environmental policies killed.
On Jan. 9, 2012 the U.S.-backed Nigerian government once again demonstrated its knack for repression when Nigerians held a general strike opposing the cuts in fuel subsidies. The response of the government to the peaceful, country-wide work stoppage was a brutal crackdown in which live ammunition was fired at protesters, and several people were killed. Roaming armed squads were deployed to forcibly end the general strike.
In December of 2015 the Nigerian military perpetrated the Zaria massacre. The Nigerian military stormed the neighborhood where the Islamic Movement in Nigeria was headquartered, killing many unarmed residents. Amnesty International estimates that at least 350 people were killed, while others estimate that it could have been nearly 1,000. Ibrahim Al-Zakzaky, a Shiite cleric who had been working to bring Christians and Muslims in Nigeria together and to oppose the terrorism of Boko Haram, has been held in military detention ever since.
Today, the Salafist terrorist organization called Boko Haram, which calls itself the African affiliate of Daesh (an Arabic acronym for the extremist group commonly known as ISIS or ISIL in the West), continues to wage a campaign of terrorism across Nigeria. A growing body of evidence suggests that local government officials in Nigeria support Boko Haram.
Interestingly, Hillary Clinton, the current Democratic presidential frontrunner, refused to list Boko Haram as a terrorist organization when she served as U.S. Secretary of State. Her reasons were unclear.
Even despite its frequent human rights violations, Nigeria is among the top recipients of U.S. foreign aid. U.S. military advisors are in Nigeria, working with the government in anti-terrorism efforts. After being elected, the former dictator Buhari visited the U.S. and met with President Barack Obama. Obama described Buhari, who tortured and repressed his people as a military dictator from 1983 to 1985, as having a “reputation for integrity and a very clear agenda.”
‘Terrorism’ after years of plunder
U.S. media reports about the “terrorism” of the Niger Delta Avengers are ignoring the context. Nigeria, an oil-producing country, has been subjected to the theft of its natural resources — robbery that’s enforced by foreign-backed governments that violate human rights.
The people of Nigeria, especially those of the Niger Delta region, have been subjected to great suffering at the hands of international oil companies and their allies.
Peaceful movements such as Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky’s “Islamic Movement in Nigeria” have been ruthlessly crushed.
A statement from the Niger Delta Avengers describes their intention with attacking Chevron facilities. It says:
“To international Oil Companies, this is just the beginning and you have not seen anything yet. We will make you suffer as you have been made the people of Niger deltans suffered over the years from environmental degradation, and environment pollution.”
The statement goes on to demand change and justice for their region:
“We want a country that will turn the creeks of the Niger delta to a tourism heaven, a country that will achieve its full potentials, a country that will make health care system accessible by everyone. With Niger delta still under the country Nigeria we can’t make it possible. So we are calling on the Ban Ki-Moon Secretary General United Nations and all Heads of the government of the five Permanent Security Council members to come to the aid of Niger delta people. We are calling on world leaders to come to the Niger delta to see the atrocities committed by the Nigeria government.”
The people of Nigeria, especially the oil- and natural gas-rich Niger Delta, have plenty to avenge. If the international media and the leaders of the world bothered to highlight the scandalous reality of everyday life in an oil-rich country, and if world leaders bothers to do something to improve these conditions, it’s likely that the violence unfolding in the Niger Delta would not be happening. Of course, these details are ignored in continued sensationalist coverage about “terrorists.”