Nigeria's oil curse

Nigerian separatist rebels brandish their weapons in a show of strength for reporters.

KAI RYSSDAL: Nigeria is the fifth-largest supplier of oil to the United States. Bigger, in fact, than Iraq and Kuwait combined. The delta of the Niger River is one of the richest oil regions in the world outside the Middle East. But for the people who live there, crude has been more of a curse than a blessing.

SANDY CIOFFI: Over the past 50 years, the oil production in the Niger Delta has meant gas flaring, oil pipes leaking, dredging, acid rain and the consequences of those things have created villages where the men have moved to cities to have jobs. Many of the women are struggling to do things like sell gasoline on their front porch instead of fishing. You have a very, very high infant mortality rate. You have terrible disease.

RYSSDAL: Documentary filmmaker Sandy Cioffi is just back from the Niger Delta. She found the people there have had enough.

CIOFFI: In the last year, there has been a consolidation of the militant movement to call attention to the poverty of the people who live in the oil-producing communities. And those militants have begun to kidnap oil workers, to threaten the pipelines themselves. And they have the support and the means to potentially shut down a good deal of the percentage of production of oil in Nigeria.

RYSSDAL: For all the wealth that's pumped out of the ground in the Niger Delta, very little of it ever winds up with the locals.

CIOFFI: Not only is Nigeria considered among the top five corrupt nations in the world, but there's also a legacy of it having been a military dictatorship. And so it's a fledgling democracy in which almost none of the actual revenue that comes out of the ground is ever seen by the people who live there. What I saw happening is that the group of people who over the years have tried in organized ways to do nonviolent protests have begun to say, "You know, all that nonviolent protest, all the political attempts are not working." So they've joined forces with groups of largely young men who are armed resistance.

RYSSDAL: Are the oil companies arming themselves, I guess. Do they have private armies?

CIOFFI: Yes. Part of the request of Chevron as a U.S. major there is to consider a ramped-in plan of demilitarizing the area. It is one of the immediate things that they could do to give it a signal that they're interested in some real change. Part of what they do that's been so difficult on the ground there is they really count on the Nigerian military, the JTF, as a sort of private security force for them. All of the facilities on the rivers, when you travel around there, you see men with AK-47s everywhere. And for women and children who live and fish in canoes in these places, it's become that kind of symbol of feeling like you're living in an occupied country and that the occupier is Chevron. So even when Chevron does do things as a decent player in a community, it's not seen as such because of that kind of presence. So, one of the first things that the militants are asking for is that local security be hired versus having Nigerian officers from the north of the country who want to come in and take bribes, who want to come in and rape the women in the village — I mean, this is not an uncommon practice. So, I think that a very quick win for oil companies could be to show that they're going to demilitarize, and I think they may very well be able to de-escalate the situation and they had better do it in a hurry.

RYSSDAL: What about these oil companies? And we'll pick on Chevron, just because they're the U.S. major that's over there . . . Have you talked to them and what do they say about what could be the end of their production there if this doesn't get any better.

CIOFFI: Yeah, and I just want to underscore that that's a very real threat. Shell has actually lost a good 20 to 30 percent of their production on any given day. And Chevron has faced a pretty decent amount of that as well. Although there's been a little bit of what almost looks like corporate Passover in the Niger Delta, Chevron is viewed in Nigeria as one of the better players. That having been said, they're certainly at their wits end with all of the oil companies. And even though the Nigerian government is culpable for a good deal of the destruction, they're not in the community the way oil companies are. Oil companies are ubiquitous in the community. You can't go anywhere without seeing pipes, without seeing signs, without seeing gas flares. The consequences of the gas flares all around you. So, when people act out, they're certainly gonna act out directly on the oil companies. I have spoken with Chevron and I'm hoping that it's possible that they may very well at this point put some pressure on the U.S. government, put some pressure on the Nigerian government to sit down and actually have these talks.

RYSSDAL: If I hear you right, a lot of what you said leads me to believe that you think the corporate world can fix this.

CIOFFI: Well, it's a curious thing. I mean, I wouldn't have imagined myself sitting anywhere in 2006 and imagining that a corporation should even be called to do that. But the reality is that the corporations have a kind of power there that the IMF doesn't have. That the U.N. doesn't have. That having been said, in concert with the IMF, the United Nations, the Nigerian government, the corporations can be a party to an actual binding set of agreements that could be a model. The Niger Delta could be a model place that turns to the right direction. It would not happen unless it came in part from the corporations. If the corporations are only seen as a force of sucking the oil out of the ground and not as a player that understands that they have to be a part of the solution, then I can't imagine it would happen.

RYSSDAL: Sandy Cioffi's a documentary filmmaker in Seattle, Washington. She's in post-production on her latest documentary. It's called "Sweet Crude," about the Niger Delta. Sandy, thanks a lot for your time.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, the most widely heard program on business and the economy in the country.

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