The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico
dominated the environmental agenda for months, yet in the Niger Delta the world's other
major oil spill story has been raging for decades without any where near the
same level of coverage. The Niger Delta, forming 7.5% of
Nigeria's land mass, is about 70,000 square km, and is home to around thirty one
million people. Originally the home of a major producer of palm oil, petroleum
oil was discovered there making Nigeria Africa's biggest oil producer.
for oil in a dangerous, messy occupation even in the regulated west, as events
in the Gulf of Mexico have amply demonstrated, however in the relatively
unregulated environment of the Niger Delta, its impact has been catastrophic
with over 600 oil fields in the region alone. The Nigerian head of 'Friends of
the Earth International' recently commented that "In Nigeria, oil
companies largely ignore their spills, cover them up and destroy people's
livelihoods and environments." The situation is so desperately bad that the
equivalent of the BP Oil spill occurs in the Niger Delta every year and has
occurred for decades. The Nigerian government estimates that there were 7000
spills between 1970 and 2000 alone.
Whilst major oil companies such as
Shell are held by the locals as responsible for the leaks and damage, there is
widespread acceptance that many of the spills are caused by vandalism and
criminal activity. Despite this it is acknowledged that around half the spills
are caused by corroded pipe work and decaying tankers.
The spills are affecting the entire
River Niger ecosystem, and ravaging farm lands and forests as a
thick skin of petrol
permeates into the very fabric of the region. As a local leader commented "The
land is devastated. The drinking water and streams are polluted. As it rains, we
use the rain water but cannot drink it, because even that is full of crude oil."
The resentment at this activity, whilst foreign companies accrue millions in
revenue, led to the establishment of a group called MEND (Movement for the
Emancipation of the Niger Delta ~ above) which is committed to taking the oil industry
back for the local Nigerian people and using revenues to help clear up the
environmental disaster in the Delta.
Using guerrilla type tactics, it has attacked oil installations across the Delta
in what it calls an 'oil war' warning "Leave
our land while you can or die in it.... Our aim is to totally destroy the
capacity of the Nigerian government to export oil." More recently MEND has
taken to kidnapping oil workers and blowing up supply vessels.
Other armed groups in the area include the NDPVF (Niger Delta People's Volunteer
Force) and the NDV (Niger Delta Vigilante) which have hundreds of sub-groups
within them, many of which aren't just at war with the oil companies but amongst
themselves reflecting ethnic tensions in the Delta between the Ijaw, Itsekiri
and the Urhobo peoples.
In 2008 the Nigerian government moved in to protect its oil revenues with an
armed crackdown on rebel activity and an amnesty in June 2009 was partially
successful with many armed youths surrendering their weapons, however the
underlying issues have not been addressed resulting in on-going conflict that
erupts from time to time and has the potential to flare once again into open