Oil-Damaged Waters: A Nigerian perspective on the Gulf Spill

Non-Western voices have been, as usual, quite absent from the important conversations on the oil spill in the Gulf. So here is one perspective: that of Ms Uloma Onuma. At the time of our conversation, this young, eloquent (and elegant) change-maker was a researcher in a civil society organization working to bring a green economy fueled on renewable energy  for sustainable development to Nigeria.

Nigeria has a long and largely troubled (and hardly sustainable-development-orientated) relationship with oil. 80% of its GDP comes from oil. As international oil prices have risen, Nigeria’s GDP has risen steadily. Not surprisingly, when international oil prices fell in 2007 and again with the financial crisis, GDP dropped. Still- don’t be fooled by a ‘positive’ GDP. To say that the government is captured in oil is like saying that fresh water fish are captured by oil spills. The government, despite attempts at recent reforms, is corrupt and notorious for not bringing the oil-profits into the pockets of its citizens. As a result, 70% of the population lives below the poverty line. Their own energy supply is appalling; many businesses have moved to neighboring countries. In 2009, 40 million were unemployed. Further, Nigeria is rated as the world’s biggest oil-flarer. In 2004, the World Bank estimated that Nigeria looses about US$2.5 billion annually as a result of the flaring.

And Nigeria has had its share of oil spills. Just this month, a Shell Trans Niger pipeline has had leaks and fires.  Between 1976 and 1998, 2.5 million barrels of oil were spilled into the Niger Delta. Leaking pipelines that run through villages, farms and creeks are a major source of pollution, sickness and economic ruin. Contaminated fish cause sickness. Minor leaks can run for months. In a desperate attempt of poor people to fight back against the oil-government partnership that rarely serves their needs,  they sometimes sabotage the pipes. Because of this, it is not always clear who caused the spills; but it is clear that they are not getting cleaned up, and local communities fear further human rights violations from oil companies and their government-counterparts.

So the people of Nigeria know of the horrors of oil spills. Yet the Gulf spill, which has consumed much of Western media, has barely reached the headlines in Nigeria. Most of Uloma’s colleagues are concerned with pressing matters at home – the recent death of their president; the energy crisis; the recent Shell spill in their own backyard. Uloma, fortunately for this readership, has a strong interest in global affairs. In addition to feeling great sympathy for the communities and ecosystems of the Gulf regions she is struck at the level of response that this spill has had.

“There is a strong correlation between the spill in the United States and what we have experienced for years in the Niger Delta, albeit without the same degree of visibility until the militancy and unrest in the Delta. We have had and still have spills that threaten marine life, livelihoods and even the health of people in the Deltas. I was particularly struck by the magnitude of the response measure with the United States President, pledging and giving the support of the military and the deployment by both BP and the US of over a 100 skimming ships – and so much personnel needed for this huge clean up exercise, all (of whom were) deployed almost immediately. This has never happened in Nigeria. A Joint Task Force was set up a few years ago, but only to hunt militants who were agitating against the injustices in the Deltas. BP has accepted liability for legitimate claims – there isn’t a way out (in the US). In Nigeria, a way out remains.” While many US activists chide Obama for not being stronger with the oil companies and not banning all offshore oil drilling and immediately launching a stronger renewable energy campaign, it is a far cry from what Nigeria has done. So long as 'a way out' remains, sustainable development remains nearly impossible.

And then there’s technology. She said that “it’s fascinating that BP is able to build the dome/containment box at such costs and deploy it in deep sea conditions even though it has never been done before. They have also come up with alternative solutions, in most cases utilizing 2 or 3 options simultaneously: the booms, the robots to deploy the safety valve e.t.c. I liken it to the case of gas flaring in Nigeria, it shows that most of these oil companies have the means and resources to deploy these technologies, why don’t they do so in Nigeria?”

Good question. Her own answer: “Laws, policies and government laxity. Here, spills are always blamed on vandalization and it takes years - if ever- to complete a cleanup exercise in Nigeria.”

Uloma’s perspective reminds us of the grave discrepencies in what corporations – and, indeed, governments - can get away with in different parts of the world. It suggests the need for global as well as national regulation. More so, it speaks to the real danger of continuing an oil addiction that is damaging people and the planet - the world over.