A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how familiar the Gulf oil spill was to those of us from the Niger Delta and of the failure of the Nigerian media to expose the environmental and human rights violations committed by the oil companies and Nigerian government over the past 50 years. I also mentioned how the international media, particularly in the US, had to a large extent colluded with the oil companies in failing to expose the realities of oil production to US consumers. I have now just finished watching Riz Khan interview Oronto Douglas, an adviser to Nigeria's new President and human rights lawyer, and Alaskan marine biologist, Rick Steiner. The programme raised a number of points in my mind - the promise of the new President to prioritize the Niger Delta; the relationship between the Nigerian government and the oil companies; and the case for compensating Niger Deltans as BP pays out millions to US citizens whilst we have to take Shell and Chevron to court on lengthy legal suits that are constantly delayed.
With regard the first point - the promise of the new President, there is no evidence to date that he has even begun to address this issue. In the few months since he became President he has taken an entourage of some 120 people to attend the G8 summit and extended the Nigerian 50 years of independence celebration costs to N10 billion ($70 million] with N75 million going to his wife alone. Hardly the actions of someone who is supposedly so concerned with addressing the underdevelopment of the Niger Delta.
The second point in many of the discussions around the Niger Delta and oil production, namely the complicity and close relationship with the Nigerian government at Federal, and to a lesser extent State, level is conveniently avoided. I call this relationship an 'unholy alliance' and the 'militarization of commerce'. Although officially Nigeria is a democracy, the country remains a militarized state, where solutions to genuine protest are to deploy paramilitary or military forces. The Niger Delta has effectively been under military occupation since the early 1990s, long before the rise of the recent militancy from groups such as MEND. The militarization of the region has facilitated the irresponsible and illegal actions of the oil companies as well as being used to suppress genuine protest. In addition, the oil companies have themselves been able to use the Nigeria military as its own private army, a fact well documented and even admitted by the US government. (See 'Where Vultures Feast', Ike Okonta & Oronto Douglas and Bowoto v Chevron.)
Finally whilst BP has already begun to pay out compensation for oil spills in the US, Niger Deltans have had to fight and continue to fight to receive compensation. When it is given, it is paltry; the inadequate sums further undermine communities and, in fact, are an insult. Two lawsuit decisions have been made in the past two years after many, many years in court. The first, Bowoto v Chevron, related to the killing of protesters in 1998 by the Nigerian navy and whether or not Chevron where complicit in the killings. The case was lost but the plaintiffs are presently seeking the right to appeal. The second was the 2009 settlement by Shell in the Wiwa v Shell suit. The third case is possibly the most interesting as if won it would set a precedent in terms of compensation from oil companies. Four farmers from three communities in the Niger Delta are suing Shell Netherlands:
'A unique court case, brought by four Nigerian victims of Shell oil spills, in conjunction with Friends of the Earth Netherlands, begins on Thursday 3 December in the court at The Hague. This is the first time in history that a Dutch company has been brought to trial before a Dutch court for damages abroad. The Nigerian farmers and fishers, who lost their livelihoods after oil from leaking Shell pipelines streamed over their fields and fishing ponds, are claiming compensation from the Anglo-Dutch oil giant. They also want Shell to clean up the oil which remains in the land, so that they can return to farming and fishing. They have subpoenaed both Shell's subsidiary in Nigeria and Shell's Dutch headquarters. They allege that as the result of Shell's negligence, agricultural lands have been devastated, drinking water polluted, fish ponds made unusable and the environment and health of local people harmed.'
Nonetheless, millions of people in the Niger Delta have lost their livelihoods, their land from oil spills, gas flaring and land purchase by government and oil companies and remain inadequately or uncompensated after 50 years; compare that to the quick response to compensation in the Gulf of Mexico! Nigeria exports 44 per cent of its oil to the US and as such the US government and people have a direct responsibility to ensure that Niger Deltans receive justice from the US transnationals and that those oil companies operate under the same standards as in the US.