In the late 1950s the British discovered oil in Nigeria. Vast amounts of oil. When Nigeria claimed its independence in 1960, it continued to allow foreign operators to run the oil concession, in return for a 50/50 split in the profits. In the early years, British Shell was the sole operator, but soon others, like Mobil Oil, Texaco, and Gulf had also purchased oil concessions.
In the 1970s, Nigeria nationalized a majority holding in the country’s oil production as part of it requirement to join OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries). Over the next few decades, it would continue to increase its share, all the while working with foreign oil companies, including Royal Dutch Shell and several others. These foreign shareholders are required to create Nigerian owned corporations, in which the parent company holds a substantial stake, with the remainder being owned by the Nigerian government.
While there are off-shore deposits of oil, the easiest to access, and richest, are to be found in the Niger delta. This has set the stage for rampant corruption and exploitation, at the expense of the desperately poor people living in this biologically-rich region.
The Niger delta is 70,000 square kilometers of wetlands, the largest wetland and third-largest drainage area in Africa. The region is home to over 20 million people, in 40 different ethnic groups. Most of these people depend on the waters and forests of the delta for their food and livelihood.
Unfortunately, thanks to the oil industry, the delta region is slowly being poisoned. The government controlled Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation estimates 300 spills per year, with an average loss of nearly 16,000 barrels (25 million litres) of oil. However, the World Bank estimates run much higher, at up to 10 times the official amount.
Of the amount spilled in an average year, NNPC estimates that pipeline corrosion accounts for 50% of all spills, another 28% is from sabotage, usually involving theft as well, and 21% just from oil operations. Shell has admitted that many of its facilities are inadequate for the current scale of operations, and most were not intended to last more than 25 years, though it has been 40 years since they were built.
All of this spilled oil is killing the delta. Mangrove stands have declined by 5-10%, fish are dying due to a lack of oxygen (oil-eating bacteria in the water are consuming oxygen as well). The oil poisons the fish and other marine life that were the centre of the economy for the people who lived there prior to the start of the oil industry. They are still there, living in squalid slums, drinking water with a sheen of oil on it, and breathing air contaminated by countless flare-offs of “waste” natural gas.
The yearly spillage of oil into the Niger delta is greater than what has spilled out of the Deepwater Horizon disaster site to date, but it is a death of a thousand cuts. Unlike the Gulf of Mexico leak, in Nigeria there are dozens of leaks every year, and no one seems overly inclined to prevent them. They have no incentive. It will cost money to fix, but it doesn’t cost them anything to spill the oil. The oil companies maintain that they clean up their spills, but the oil fouling the mangrove swamps, the oil on Gio Creek, and the oil on the bodies of children as they swim in the polluted estuaries, gives lie to the statement.
The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a disaster, there is no doubt. A disaster of a similar scale has been unfolding across southern Nigeria every year, for the past 50 years. It’s time the developed world started paying attention to how our addiction to oil is affecting the rest of the world.