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If oil exploration and Nigeria were a relationship status on Facebook, it would have to be "It's complicated." Sure, things really "heated up" in the late 1950s when the British discovered oil in the Niger Delta, but that's like saying your marital problems started when hubby ransacked the house after you filed for divorce. Like so many former arranged colonial marriages the roots of current conflicts run deep and may be impossible to disentangle completely.

So while last week's peaceful transfer of power to Goodluck Jonathan to replace ailing President Umaru Yar'Adua (who has been in a hospital in Saudi Arabia since Nov. 23, leaving a huge power vacuum) came as welcome news to a country with a long history of political instability, repression and military coups, it is but a small tile in a fragile mosaic.

One thing, however, is certain: Oil has not been a blessing to the Delta and her people, and nowhere has this been documented more luminously than in photojournalist Ed Kashi's book, Curse of the Black Gold.  

Oil creates the illusion of a completely changed life, life without work, life for free.... The concept of oil expresses perfectly the eternal human dream of wealth achieved through lucky accident.... In this sense oil is a fairy tale and, like every fairy tale, a bit of a lie.

- Ryszard Kapuściński, Shah of Shahs

Scenes in Oloibiri Town, Niger Delta

Scenes in Oloibiri Town, Niger Delta

An oil spill from an abandoned Shell Petroleum Development Company well in Oloibiri, Niger Delta. Wellhead 14 was closed in 1977 but has been leaking for years, and in June of 2004 it finally released an oil spill of over 20,000 barrels of crude. Workers subcontracted by Shell Oil Company clean it up.

photo & caption by Ed Kashi

Pictures are worth a thousand words, they say, and it wasn't until I first saw Ed's stunning and heartbreaking photos that my ribcage exploded. We've all become numb in some ways to the plights of people and cultures around the world, and who could blame us? With tragedies competing daily for space on page 7 of our local newspapers, another attack on a pipeline gets quickly relegated to the "been there, read that" file in our brain.

What makes this different though and why it is so important to see and feel these images is that this is not some isolated quarrel between local tribes half way around the world. Exporting 948 thousand barrels per day to the United States, Nigeria was the third largest supplier of U.S. crude oil in 2009, right behind Canada and Mexico, and ahead of Saudi Arabia. So every time we get in our cars or look at the plethora of neatly packaged products in the aisles of our supermarkets it's good to remember this parallel view from Okrika.

Community Life in Okrika


Okrika is a troubled area near Port Harcourt that has oil, refineries, pipelines and violence. Factional fighting is common here. Fishing is struggling, like in most of the delta, but was once the main source of employment. Scenes of community life around the NNPC (Nigerian National Petroleum) pipelines that run directly through this community.

photo & caption by Ed Kashi


Michael Watts, Director of African Studies at UC Berkeley and editor of Curse of the Black Gold - 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta, writes in the introduction: "When the first helicopters landed in Oloibiri in 1956 near St. Michael's Church to the astonishment of local residents, few could have predicted what was to follow." By 1967 Shell-BP (now Shell Petroleum, the Nigeria-based subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell) had constructed 300 miles of pipelines and sunk one and a half million feet of wells across the entire Niger Delta, and by 1973 crude oil production had reached its present output of 2.4 million barrels per day. According to Watts, the oil and gas industry now accounts for over 80% of government income and virtually all of Nigeria's export revenues, and the industry estimates that the Nigerian treasurer takes in over 1.5 billion in oil revenues each and every week.

Scenes of the Oil Rig

The Impact of Oil in the Niger Delta

Scenes of the oil rig "Auntie Julie the Martyr", run by the Nigerian company Conoil, off the coast of Sanghana town in the Niger Delta.

photo & caption by Ed Kashi

According to a June 30, 2009 report by Amnesty International, "Oil has generated an estimated 600 billion Dollars since the 1960s. Despite this, many people in the oil-producing areas have to drink, cook with and wash in polluted water, and eat fish contaminated with oil and other toxins." It talks about how the effects of oil spills, waste dumping, and pollution have decimated fish stocks and seriously damaged agricultural land, destroying the natural environment that over 60 percent of people in the region depend on for their livelihood. When I look at photos like these I'm reminded of that old faithful fallback of capitalism, externalities.

Urohobos Bake Tapioca In The Heat Of A Shell Gas Flare Site

Urohobos Bake Tapioca In The Heat Of A Shell Gas Flare Site

In the oil town of Afiesere, in Warri North district of the Niger Delta, local Urohobo people bake "krokpo-garri", or tapioca in the heat of a gas flare. Since 1961, when Shell Petroleum Development Company first opened this flow station, residents of the local community have worked in this way. Life span is short for these people, as pollutants from the flare cause serious health problems.

photo & caption by Ed Kashi

Sometimes I wonder whether Shell or the various Nigerian governments that over the last 52 years have leased most of the land to Shell ever considered that the Niger Delta is one of the world’s 10 most important wetland and coastal marine ecosystems and home to some 31 million people. I don't mean this in a touchy feely sort of way — I'm not naive enough to project motives of respect and compassion for one's fellow man onto corporations and dictatorships — but I just wonder whether it was ever considered in the corporate boardrooms and lavish government palaces that it wouldn't be a good business strategy to ravage the land with impunity, thus leaving its people with nothing left to lose.

The scale of pollution and environmental damage has never been properly assessed. The figures that do exist vary considerably depending on sources, but hundreds of spills occur each year. According to the UNDP, more than 6,800 spills were recorded between 1976 and 2001. According to the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency some 2,000 sites require treatment because of oil-related pollution. The real total may be higher.

from Oil industry has brought poverty and pollution to Niger Delta, Amnesty International


The Impact of Oil in the Niger Delta

Workers subcontracted by Shell Oil Company clean up an oil spill from an abandoned Shell Petroleum Development Company well in Oloibiri, Niger Delta. Wellhead 14 was closed in 1977 but has been leaking for years, and in June of 2004 it finally released an oil spill of over 20,000 barrels of crude oil.

photo & caption by Ed Kashi


It's no wonder the people have fought back and made things "complicated." From Isaac Adaka Boro's battles with Federal forces in the mid-1960s and Ken Saro Wiwa's nonviolent Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) against environmental degradation of the land and waters that ended in his 1995 execution, all the way to the current militant Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), when you're deprived of the land you depend on to survive and you see your natural treasures disappear into corrupt government officials' and foreign corporate coffers, you're left with little choice but to push back. As Sasha Chavkin recently reported for The Nation in Shell Games in Nigeria, "Last summer MEND's attacks on the oil industry crippled production and threatened to bring the Nigerian economy to its knees."

Like a big dysfunctional family, the relationships are convoluted and clandestine, not only between Shell, the Nigerian government, oil workers and local communities, but between rebels and the outside world. As Ed Kashi, veteran of bloody Kurdish and Iraqi conflicts, writes about his work there:

The Niger Delta is one of the most difficult places I've ever worked. The people are hesitant and suspicious of outsiders, the terrain is tricky with remote areas reachable only by small boats and along every road and waterway danger lurks for the intruder.

It's the curse of the black gold that seems to have sucked the soul out of everyone. Not surprisingly, the person who could make sense of it all and put the heart back into the story is a jester. I have not seen the Nigerian cast of characters better described than in Dan Hoyle's comic and profound one man act Tings Dey Happen, the story of Nigeria's oil madness based on his year there as a Fulbright Scholar:

There might yet be reason for hope, and not only because a man named Goodluck Jonathan has taken the reigns (though no surprise, his assembly vote is already being contested). Sasha Chafkin wrote that last August a shaken government launched an amnesty program for rebels and opened negotiations on the militants' demands, including a greater share of oil proceeds for the Delta. The amnesty led to several breakthroughs: in October the government proposed to grant a 10 percent stake in oil revenues to Delta communities, MEND declared an indefinite cease-fire and Nigerian Defense Minister Godwin Abbe told reporters that more than 15,000 rebels had registered to demobilize and turned in their weapons.

I'll leave the last word to Ed, who sent me two emails last week:

The main thing that seems to be happening in the Niger Delta these days is the stalling of the amnesty program for militants due to no follow through by government to teach skills and get jobs for the former militants, which means they'll go right back to what they were doing, which in many cases was no more than criminality... And MEND renounced their ceasefire last week, so those kinds of attacks directed at the oil industry have been stepped up.

15 minutes later:

check out the latest news from Nigeria....Yardua finally transferred power and it's to his vp, who is a Niger Deltan, Goodluck Jonathan!

The saga continues...


crossposted at A World of Words

Many thanks to Ed Kashi for letting me use these images and for doing such courageous and important work. Please keep this kind of photojournalism alive by buying the truly stunning Curse of the Black Gold or any other of Ed's countless masterpieces at


Curse of the Black Gold - 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta by Ed Kashi, edited by Michael Watts
Oil industry has brought poverty and pollution to Niger Delta, Amnesty International
Nigeria at a Tipping Point, by Michael Watts
Shell Games in Nigeria, by Sasha Chavkin

KuangSi2Since the colonial period, empires have plundered, drilled, and mined the African continent with patent disregard for the dignity, living conditions, and human rights of native populations. Today, Africa suffers from severe deforestation and drought, erosion, famine, and disease: UNEP describes the continent as one of the region's most vulnerable to the ravages of climate change. This essay is the fourth in a series by the Daily Kos EcoJustice Team on environmental injustice in Africa.

Some earlier diaries on Africa by the EcoJustice Team:

By boatsie: Kampala, Uganda. Case Study I

By rb137: The Spoils of Oil in the Sudan.

By rb137: Conflict Metals in the Democratic Republic of Congo

EcoJustice hosts on Monday evenings at 7PM PST.

Originally posted to Ecomusings by Sven Eberlein on Mon Feb 15, 2010 at 07:04 PM PST.

Also republished by EcoJustice.

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Comment Preferences

  •  tips for the African diaspora (20+ / 0-)

    and check out the previous diaries written by the EcoJustice team in this month's spotlight on the world's second-largest and second most-populous continent:  

    boatsie: Kampala, Uganda. Case Study I

    rb137: Blood Stains on Green Technology

    rb137: Conflict Metals in the Democratic Republic of Congo

    To us, the people of the Niger Delta, we see all these as mere cosmetics, which have not solved the problems of poverty, underdevelopment, neglect, alienation, and, most especially, environmental pollution and degradation. We want our autonomy to enable us to shape a suitable destiny for ourselves and our children yet unborn.

    Emakpor Ajise, Isoko Ethnic Minority Rights and Environmental Protection Council.

    Live life. Not too fast. Mostly walk. (or bike)

    by citisven on Mon Feb 15, 2010 at 06:36:48 PM PST

    •  Speaking of the population of the continent... (5+ / 0-)

      I think a lot of people don't realize that the population of Nigeria is somewhere between 15-20% of the total population of Africa, with most of that falling in one city, Lagos. It's an interesting fact with a lot of ramifications for Nigeria.

      Starboard Broadside: Firing all guns at the Right since September 2008!

      by Cpt Robespierre on Mon Feb 15, 2010 at 07:30:05 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  wooooww... remember when (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      peace voter, trashablanca, citisven

      calls to mind Sebastian Unger's incredibleVF piece in '07 and  above mentined Watts writes of MEND ... the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta)

      A spectacular escalation in violent attacks on oil installations and abduction of oil workers beginning in December 2005 and January-February 2006 by a shadowy and largely unknown militant group MEND (the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta), have thrown into dramatic relief the enormous fragility of the Nigeria's oil economy. Among MEND's demands were the release of two key Ijaw leaders but as their operations became more brazen and daring so did their political demands. MEND claimed a goal of cutting Nigerian output by 30 per cent. Within the first three months of 2006, $1 billion in oil revenues had been lost and over 29 Nigerian military had been killed in the uprising. By early July 2007, 700,000 barrels per day were shut (deferred) by growing political instability and insurgent attacks. The situation across the oilfields is now as fraught as at any time since the onset of civil war in 1967. How did this instability and political order arise and does it reflect, as some have suggested, an oil insurgency draped in the garb of organised crime?

      "And the dream lives on" Edward M. Kennedy

      by boatsie on Mon Feb 15, 2010 at 07:48:01 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Watts has been front and center of this (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        peace voter, allep10

        I didn't have enough space in the diary but there is so much more that Watts writes about between the photos in the book. The whole colonial history, all the way back to when the Delta was first settled by these warrior spirits. They had to be fierce and tough just to survive in the swamps, and in a sense that's what MEND is all about. It ain't no picnic for sure, and it's not as simple as good natives vs. evil oil company either. I'm still learning a lot more about this...

        Live life. Not too fast. Mostly walk. (or bike)

        by citisven on Mon Feb 15, 2010 at 08:01:36 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Mind if I make it even a bit more complicated? (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Nulwee, citisven

      I'm a pretty hardcore greenie -- early on the waiting list for the Aptera 2e electric vehicle, founded a company making software for EVs, compulsive hypermiler, house full of CFL and LED bulbs, organic gardener, etc.  

      My father is a former president/VP of Shell and CEO of a Shell joint venture.

      No, he wasn't nearly as highly ranked during the buildup to what went on in Nigeria -- the start of the hostilities, the government crackdowns, the executions, etc.  And he never was in charge of Shell's Nigerian operations.  But to say that at no point did he have no ability to influence outcomes would be unfair as well.

      I've talked to him a number of times about Nigeria.  And I really can't say exactly what would be the best thing for them to do, or fault them for their current course of action.

      Let's back up a bit.  Contrary to what one might think, Shell actually gets only a small fraction of the oil revenues.  The lion's share of the money goes to the Nigerian government.  And it's like a money pit; very little of what goes to the government ends up helping their people, especially the people of the delta.  

      When Shell went in, despite having the small share of the income, they decided to fund aid for the people of the delta.  It's a mix of standard corporate charity (believe it or not, oil companies really are run by humans with feelings) and cold realpolitic (they don't want people revolting and destroying their hardware).

      In their hubris, they started off with one big mistake: thinking that they could do this better than the NGOs who offered to help, organizations that were already established within the country and familiar with how things worked.  Shell went in and threw money around to various local leaders in key areas.  They made promises in some cases that they were poor to follow up on.  And the net result was only the increase in corruption and jealousy.  The leaders they paid just kept the money, and in some cases pretended like they never got it.  People who weren't paid off got mad and insisted that they get paid.  Armed groups formed and threatened violence.  Shell paid them off.  This only encouraged more armed groups to form.  In short, they really screwed up off the bat.

      As production accelerated, some groups began tapping the pipelines.  About 3/4ths of the oil spilled in Nigeria these days is the result of tapped pipelines and sabotage.  The hostilities heated up and the rebels began attacking and kidnapping Shell workers.  Shell has no private army or anything like that.  The government, on the other hand, was more than happy to provide troops to defend their cash cow.  Once again, Shell screwed up by accepting the offer without any provisions for training or supervising the troops, who turned out to be relatively trigger happy and only made the locals madder at Shell.  And god, do I even need to go into the government roundups and executions?

      Shell started backpedaling, but way too late.  They now try to provide funds and projects more directly to individuals than to leaders, to rely less on the military and to supervise them more, and so forth.  But the damage is already done.  And each spill, whether sabotage, tapping, or Shell's fault, is automatically blamed on Shell -- and then the locals come demand money.  They've caught locals on camera damaging pipelines and then coming up to them demanding money for the damages.  These are desperately poor people, and I have trouble blaming them.  And they don't even realize that it's their own government that's getting most of the money.

      At one point my father asked me, "So what should we do?"  Rhetorical or not, I don't know.  And I really didn't have an answer.  What should they do?  Pull out?  The government will just bring in another oil company.  In a heartbeat.  And would that even be best for the country, taking away 80% of its GDP?  Yes, the government wastes most of it, but I have trouble believing the country as a whole would be better off.  So what do they do?

      I ask that not rhetorically, but seriously.  What should Shell do?  They can't undo the past.  What do they do from here?

      Here's another related question -- more general.  Where do you want to get oil from?  Don't say, "let's just quit oil".  As though we can do that overnight.  My father has often said, and I think him sincere, "I look forward to the day when something comes along and puts us out of business."  And heck, I personally am working toward that future.  But it's going to take a long time.  We have most of a billion oil-guzzling vehicles on the road.  We're not even close to commercial electric air travel or shipping.  It's going to take decades for EV production to ramp enough to even seriously start replacing gasoline cars.  And most biofuels have huge problems of their own, and similar (if not as big) ramp-up issues.  So just saying "stop" isn't the answer.  "Push hard on the process of stopping", sure, but that doesn't answer the question: for the transitional next 1-3 decades, where do you want us to get the oil from?  Alaskan plains?  Nigerian rainforest?  Arabian deserts?  Siberian tundra?  Canadian tar?  Where do you want us to get it from?  Heck, like we even have the ability to be that choosy with how tight the market is right now, with China and India's endless growth...

      Anyway, just some issues for you to think about.  I really don't have the answers, and I'd be curious to hear all of yours.

      •  If you build it, they will come. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        The effects of a car-based layout for communities will stifle economic prosperity in the US for ages.

        Had communities been built along ways that natural influenced residents to drive significantly less, such an economic state, with its housing collapse, would not be so severe.

        Would Nigeria still be badly off? Yes. But we would begin that venture into sustainability. We can't fix Nigeria if we ourselves have a corrupt, crooked and wicked system in the US.

        (-7.00, -6.21) Jobs, Liberty, Peace.

        by Nulwee on Tue Feb 16, 2010 at 10:07:59 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  Thanks Rei (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        for your thoughtful and thorough response. Thanks also for providing some first hand background through your father about Shell and their role in this. I definitely don't think that there are the good guys and the bad guys in this, and I hope I didn't leave that impression. I guess you could say it's not Shell's fault that the Nigerian government is so corrupt, but it usually takes two (or more) to tango. I guess anyone who says they have the one great answer to this, I say step right up. My closest source to this mess has been Ed, who got some incredible access to both the rebels as well as the government and the oil fields, and he didn't have any real good answers either. What he did say though goes to the second part of your comment about what to do about oil in general. I agree that we're not going to wean ourselves off of oil completely any time soon, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to get started on this. Whether we like it or not, or whether we're ready for it or not, this is a finite resource and we better get serious about finding alternates. That's why I think it's really important to use the oil that we still have to explore more solar, wind, algae, hydrogen, etc. And I totally understand the people who say we should open up the California coast to drilling, after all, it's not right that our standard of living is at the expense of these poor Nigerians. Perhaps if we have it right in our backyard we will care more about how it's handled. But that shouldn't be a "drill baby drill" blank check. I think any further oil exploration will have to be at least in large part dedicated toward developing and installing clean energy. It'll of course be a gradual process, but better to get started now rather than saying it can't be done and then watching the shit really hit the fan. I hope this makes at least partial sense.

        Live life. Not too fast. Mostly walk. (or bike)

        by citisven on Tue Feb 16, 2010 at 10:14:24 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Sorry I missed this gem, citisven. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Really well done. Nigeria is a lynchpin of the future.

      When the Niger tributaries have their natural stock of fish again, and the Sahel stops moving southward, and people are no longer being stoned to death, and people are no longer nearly beaten to death for a rumor of homosexuality, than the world will have real hope.

      (-7.00, -6.21) Jobs, Liberty, Peace.

      by Nulwee on Tue Feb 16, 2010 at 10:03:07 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  another outstanding diary (9+ / 0-)

    pipes in town, fires in town. when will americans wake up to the impacts of their unsustainable consumption lifestyle of convenience.

    Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Mohandas K. Gandhi

    by Patriot Daily News Clearinghouse on Mon Feb 15, 2010 at 07:18:00 PM PST

  •  Thanks for this (5+ / 0-)

    incredible diary. I first started reading about this region a few  years ago, and some of what I read was heartbreaking, whole communities awash in pollution with nowhere to go.

    Lets hope the tides begin to change. Any business that takes from the land without having to plan for its replenishment (strip mining, clear cutting, etc) is doomed to corruption, and oil is the ultimate example of this - the easiest money, the most money, the least regard for the future.

    •  As I was doing the research for this (5+ / 0-)

      and looking through the book's gutwrenching photographs I was reminded a bit of the tragedy in Haiti. Some of the villages and people look exactly like the post-earthquake images we've been seeing. It's just that when it's a gradual degradation of the habitat, people don't pay as much attention. Though you could argue that 50 years isn't that gradual in the grand scheme of things for the extent of the destruction you see in the Niger Delta.

      Live life. Not too fast. Mostly walk. (or bike)

      by citisven on Mon Feb 15, 2010 at 07:24:29 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Goodluck Jonathan is personally fascinating to me (5+ / 0-)

    because of his history. He's literally risen out of almost nowhere to become acting president through a series of amazingly timed fortuitous events... good luck, as everyone has to call it with his name.

    And to relate it to this (great) diary in particular, Mr. Jonathan is a former environmental minister and is a trained zoologist and hydrobiologist... so perhaps there's hope that he can try to mitigate and maybe reverse at least a bit of the Delta damage from the oil exploration and oil wars.

    Starboard Broadside: Firing all guns at the Right since September 2008!

    by Cpt Robespierre on Mon Feb 15, 2010 at 07:27:35 PM PST

  •  amazing diary as usual citisven! (7+ / 0-)

    Can you explain the context of the first picture?

    It kinda looks like those two guys went for a swim, and ended up covered in oil, perhaps because the water has been contaminated... but that is just my first guess.

    "The more the Democrats pursue the center... the further to the right the "center" moves." -fellow kossack vacantlook

    by Hopeful Skeptic on Mon Feb 15, 2010 at 07:31:09 PM PST

  •  one more for the record books, Sven. (7+ / 0-)

    tweet, FB and WE ing you now... Great job. Your pictures, your research, the mood you create, the horror.... oh, our Africa series is gonna open some eyes wider than they ever thought possible.

    Absolutely magnificent work!

    "And the dream lives on" Edward M. Kennedy

    by boatsie on Mon Feb 15, 2010 at 07:50:27 PM PST

    •  Thanks boatsie (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      peace voter, Ebby

      Yes, I think that this whole series is going to be an invaluable resource for anyone who wants to take a closer look at what's going on in Africa and how it relates to the global problems everyone is talking about.

      Live life. Not too fast. Mostly walk. (or bike)

      by citisven on Mon Feb 15, 2010 at 08:03:19 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Oil Curse (3+ / 0-)

    This is really a human tragedy. a big curse. This is just shameful and this will not happen in the Western World. Another exploitation of the powerless people. Thank you for the posting.

  •  Kos -- May I suggest (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    AlecBGreen, citisven

    that the program be changed to allow Rescue Rangers to extend the period for Tipping for a diary that's rescued?  Anyone who writes an article this good deserves another chance to pick up some mojo.

    Political liberal / Bible believing Christian / Lousy at litmus tests

    by VirginiaJeff on Tue Feb 16, 2010 at 08:47:25 PM PST

    •  Thanks for the suggestion (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      citisven, VirginiaJeff

      But that's an automated feature that's totally out of the control of the rangers.  Recs and tips expire after 24 hours (I think); because of the timing of rescue shifts (3 pm to 2:59 pm the next day), the earliest diaries in that time period won't be available for tipping.

      But I'm sure diarists appreciate comments just as much!

      "What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them"

      by ItsJessMe on Wed Feb 17, 2010 at 05:31:51 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  damn fine diary (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I learned some things.

  •  well written, thx (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    one thing to edit: nigeria exports 948 thousand barrels per day, not 948 million. that would be a heckuvalotta oil!

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