Nigeria’s Delta Problem

C. Payne Lucas was president of Africare from May 1971 to June 15, 2002. This article was written in October 1999.

Six months after taking office, Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo is winning well-deserved praise at home and abroad for his bold and sincere leadership. Within a month of his inauguration on May 29 [1999], Obasanjo had moved decisively to rid the military of overly politicized soldiers, quickly removing scores of officers who held political positions during the period of military rule. As a former army officer and military leader himself, he knew the destabilizing effects of military intervention.

Obasanjo is tackling corruption, a serious problem that has held Nigeria back for a generation. He has appointed a commission to examine egregious human rights violations that occurred during the years of military dictatorship. And he is eager to win back Nigeria's leadership position in Africa, its rightful role on the world stage.

However, the biggest challenge facing the Obasanjo administration may be lurking in a corner of Nigeria most people tend to overlook. It is in the Niger delta, home to vast oil deposits, rutted roads, decrepit schools and few health clinics, polluted creeks and farmlands — home to 15 million impoverished, rather angry people.

The oil produced in and around the Niger delta — two million barrels each day — accounts for more than 90 percent of Nigeria's export revenue. But the people of the delta have been complaining for years of being denied their fair share of the oil wealth.

When the writer Ken Saro Wiwa was hanged by the late Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha in 1995, it brought home to many people around the world just how much is at stake in Nigeria's delta region. Saro Wiwa was a thorn in the flesh of the military. He led a well-organized movement seeking to compel oil companies and the Nigerian government to pay more than lip service to the needs of rural communities where Nigeria's oil is produced.

Nigeria's military rulers considered Saro Wiwa a threat to the flow of oil money that kept them in power. First, they tried to intimidate him and his Ogoni people into submission. When that failed, Gen. Abacha rounded up Ogoni leaders, tried them before a military tribunal on trumped-up murder charges, then hanged Saro Wiwa and eight others.

The Ogoni of Rivers state may have received most of the attention in recent years, but they are not the only Nigerian community seething with anger over the way they have been treated. Elsewhere in Rivers state, and in such other oil-region states as Bayelsa, Delta, Edo, Imo, Abia, Cross River and Akwa Ibom, the outrage runs deep. In their frustration, individual communities have sometimes turned against one another in bloody clashes over land, fishing rights and competition for power at the county level.

A visit to Nigeria's oil region quickly brings the problem into sharp focus. Just a few miles outside such cities as Warri and Port Harcourt, surface pipelines snake around village roads and houses. Farmlands, crops and waterways damaged by oil spills abound; and these are communities where fishing has always been a major source of livelihood.

And then there is the gas flaring. More natural gas is flared in Nigeria's oil fields than anywhere else in the world. “The gas that is being flared is very heavy in carbon,” explains a community leader in the region. “The flames rage non-stop, day and night. Then when it rains, the carbon falls back as black soot. This adds to the pollution of streams and farms, in addition to damaging the zinc roofing of people's homes. In our communities, people have to change the roof on their houses every four or five years.”

Nigeria's ongoing liquefied natural gas project, which is expected to end gas flaring by 2007, should be helpful. But that's only one part of the problem. Nigeria's oil region needs help with environmental cleanup programs to mitigate the damage already done by oil spillage. European and American oil companies operating in Nigeria can afford to provide major funding for such efforts, and they should. Better still, they need to adopt the same strict environmental standards they follow in their exploration and production activities in Europe and the United States.

The delta problem is a minority-rights issue. Most of Nigeria's oilfields lie in the ancestral homes of members of minority ethnic groups. (The relatively small deposits in Igbo-speaking Imo and Abia states are the only exceptions.) Unlike the big three ethnic groups in Nigeria — the Hausa, the Igbo and the Yoruba — the people of the Niger delta do not wield much political clout. This, they maintain, is the major reason why their grievances have been largely ignored over the years.

It is not a good idea to keep waiting for this problem to go away. With democracy now restored, Nigeria has a great chance to tackle the delta issue head-on. Sure, every Nigerian is entitled to the opportunities that the nation's oil wealth provides. But the people of the delta need special attention, not just because of past neglect, but because they bear the brunt of the negative environmental impact of oil production activities.

A comprehensive clean-up and damage-mitigation project would be a good way to start. Along with this, the Nigerian government and the oil companies could see to it that Niger delta communities get improved educational and health facilities through a combination of corporate philanthropy and an increased share of oil revenue.

The U.S. government and the EU can encourage this effort with their aid money and political clout. Environmental groups can help, and so also can such international financial institutions as the World Bank, the IMF and the African Development Bank. To ignore this problem is to risk watching it escalate. Nigeria and its friends cannot afford to let that happen.