Originally Published 2003-11-29 08:54:41 Published on Nov 29, 2003
A week ago, oil giant Chevron-Texaco's Nigerian unit decided to keep its production of 23,000 barrels a day shut till its oil facilities attacked and damaged by members of the Ijaw tribe are found to be in order. Disruption of oil operations, hostage taking, inter-ethnic clashes are not new for Nigeria¿s oil-rich Niger Delta.
Oil and Violence in Nigeria
A week ago, oil giant Chevron-Texaco's Nigerian unit decided to keep its production of 23,000 barrels a day shut till its oil facilities attacked and damaged by members of the Ijaw tribe are found to be in order. Disruption of oil operations, hostage taking, inter-ethnic clashes are not new for Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta. Nor is it the first time that the clashes have forced international oil companies like Chevron-Texaco, Royal Dutch/Shell and Total-Fina-Elf to cut oil production in the country. Violence had substantially disrupted presidential elections held in March this year. Widespread violence and subsequent shortage of oil production had also forced the country's second largest oil refinery to stop operations also in March this year.

The ethnic Ijaws who are mainly behind the attacks demand better political representation and damages from the oil companies for polluting their environment. The ongoing clashes in Nigeria are also related to the fact that most of the profits from the country's oil boom only benefit country's elites. Also important is the fact that though the minority ethnic groups in Nigeria's multi-ethnic federation have asked for carving out new states and local governments from the national entity, the Nigerian federation has only become ever more centralized and power and money have been concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people. The root cause of most of the problems that the country faces today is that while the country's oil boom has ensured steady inflow of foreign exchange, the oil wealth has benefited only a few people.

Nigeria is the largest oil producer in Africa, and the fifth largest in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). For the past two decades, oil has accounted for 90% of foreign exchange earnings, 80% of federal revenue and 40% of the GDP. Nigeria also has large amounts of unexplored natural gas. Almost one third of Nigeria's oil is shipped directly to the U.S. Most of the balance is sold mainly to Europe leaving very little for domestic consumption or refinement further pushing the country down the ladder of development. During the past four decades, hundreds of billions of dollars worth crude oil has been extracted from the Nigerian Delta wetlands but profiting only a privileged few.

The international media's obsession with sustaining Nigeria's nascent democracy and lucrative oil production has somehow pushed the real story of the Ijaws and human rights violations perpetrated on them to the background.

The inhabitants of Niger Delta, mostly people who belong to the Ijaw ethnic community, claim that while they have faced the adverse effects of oil extraction from their land, they have benefited almost nothing from the oil wealth. Since the creation of the Nigerian state by the British, the people of the delta have complained of marginalization by the regional and federal governments. Despite the vast wealth produced from the oil found under the delta, the region remains poorer than the national average. Successive governments, known for their ruthlessness and authoritarianism, have only squandered the oil wealth. Tensions in the Nigerian Delta continue to erupt into violence as natural resources vital to the survival of local communities are destroyed by oil operations. Occasional large oil spills kill fish and agricultural crops, and pollute water, with adverse effects for the neighboring Communities and families.

Apart from the monetary and environmental mismanagement, the government also violates basic human rights of the people of the region. The Niger Delta for some years has been the site of major confrontations between the locals and the government forces resulting in a number of extra-judicial executions, arbitrary detentions and draconian restrictions on the rights to the freedom of expression, associations, and assembly. Reports of various Human Rights organizations show that in almost every oil-producing community, there have been occasions when the paramilitary mobile police, the regular police, or the army, have beaten, detained, or even killed those involved in protests, or individuals who have asked for damages. These violations of civil and political rights have been in response to protests against the activities of the multinational companies operating in the region. There is a tacit profit-driven understanding between multinational oil companies and the various Nigerian governments.

The rampant environmental degradation caused by oil exploration and extraction in the Niger Delta has gone unchecked for the past three decades. Evidence presented by human rights organizations like the Human Rights Watch shows that the oil companies operating in Nigeria have not only ignored their responsibility towards environment but have also acted in complicity with the government's repression of common people. Not only have the oil companies disregarded environmental standards but have also not provided adequate compensation for damage resulting from oil exploration and production in the Niger Delta region. Locals also say that the oil multinationals have not cared to compensate the traditional landholders from whom land was taken for oil production.

When 80 unarmed civilians were killed and hundreds of homes were destroyed in Umuechem in central Niger Delta region in 1990, it was reported that a Shell manager had made a written and explicit request for protection from the Mobile Police (a notoriously abusive force). Shell, in fact, has been accused in a number of instances of complicity in human rights violations by the army and the police. During the height of the Ogoni crisis, allegations of Shell collaboration with the military were regularly made. In 1996, newspaper investigations had revealed that Shell had been negotiating with the government for importing arms for the Nigerian police. Many such instances of human rights violations in which Shell and other oil companies were involved have been documented by the Human Rights Watch and the New York-based World Policy Institute.

Former Ogoni members of the Shell police have claimed that they were involved in deliberately creating conflict between different groups of people, and in intimidating and harassing protesters during protests in 1993 and 1994. This has been confirmed by the Ogoni detainees. Chevron-Texaco, the firm which has currently shut its production in the country, has also been accused of committing human rights violations in the Delta.

Until the problems of uneven distribution of oil revenues and political power, human rights violations by both the government and the oil companies, and environmental degradation are addressed and solved, there cannot be lasting peace in the country.
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