Thursday, May 24, 2012

High crimes & misdemeanors in the Niger Delta

(Top photo) A man carries a bucket of crude oil from an illegal refinery in the village of Isuini-biri in Bayelsa state, Niger Delta.  (Photo by Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters)
(Bottom photo) Residents check on an oil fire eruption from a leaking wellhead in Ogoniland in the Niger Delta. The wellhead had been spilling oil for a week, coating the ground around it before catching fire. The fire burned for more than two months before the oil company made arrangements to quell it. Fifty years of oil spills have turned the delta into one of the most polluted areas in the world. (Photo by Ed Kashi)

Last week, Shell Petroleum in Nigeria raised an alarm over what it called an unprecedented scale of crude oil theft from illegal bunkering in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. They estimate the theft at 43,000 to 100,000 barrels a day. (Hold your shirt on; the story only goes downhill from here!) In their denouncements, Shell called for greater security for their pipelines & said such sabotage & theft were responsible for the environmental blight of farm lands & rivers in the area. He explained that Shell flyovers spotted unknown persons tapping pipelines & installing valves to waiting barges & trucks. Following the announcement (which brought tears to the eyes especially of those living on the Gulf of Mexico), headlines added to the cacophony of denouncements: Nigerian pirates, militant groups, & criminal gangs are killing their own economy, sabotaging their government, threatening the very foundations of Nigeria’s petroleum industry. In the barrage of condemnations, it was revealed that after 58 years of oil exploration in Nigeria, the government neither meters nor monitors the volume of oil production by Shell & other oil companies, has no functioning regulatory agencies, & doesn’t have a clue what is produced & loaded on to tankers. It is an open secret that after bribing corrupt government officials, the oil companies simply loot thousands of barrels. Nigeria is a major oil producer & 80% of government revenues come from oil exports. Instead of going after this massive corruption, the government announced this week it will go after corruption in the fuel subsidy program to keep petrol prices low, which Nigerians see as the only benefit of the oil economy. Actually, Nigeria imports most of its fuel ostensibly due to lack of refining facilities. (That’s got corruption written all over it too.) What most likely concerns the government is not official corruption but small time operators buying subsidized oil in Nigeria & smuggling it to Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso, & Mali. All this, while 70% of Nigerians live on $2.00 a day & when, in January (at IMF insistence), the government reduced the fuel subsidy despite massive popular resistance. Shell has a long history of collaboration with the Nigerian government to use deadly force & repression against opposition to their presence in the Niger Delta, which is an environmental & human rights disaster (see the bottom photo). In a US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, another collaboration is exposed: politicians & military officials, not militants or small time operators, are responsible for the majority of oil thefts. They’re the ones who can commandeer & control access to barges & tankers to help oil companies loot thousands of barrels a day. The diplomatic cable reads: "The military wants to remain in the Niger Delta because they profit enormously from money charged for escorting illegally bunkered crude & from money extorted in the name of providing security on the roads.” And yet the media goes after the small time operators like this man carrying a bucket of crude oil at an illegal refinery (illegal refineries yet no capacity for legal ones!?) rather than oil companies like Shell whose criminality is notorious & beyond dispute.

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