Africa: The Next Victim in Our
Quest for Cheap Oil
by Scott Thill
www.alternet.org/, July 14, 2008
Whether or not we have fully arrived at
peak oil can be left to the nitpickers and bean counters to decide.
What we know for sure is that the cost of black gold has exponentially
risen in just a few short years, and the global economy it is
built upon is currently straddling a razor waiting for the inevitable
slice. That final cut may come from Nigeria, where all the major
oil companies have done business, dirty and otherwise, for the
last five decades, degrading the environment and depressing the
general population along the way.
That disturbing feedback loop is the subject
of the new book Curse of the Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the
Niger Delta, which juxtaposes the arresting graphics of award-winning
photojournalist Ed Kashi with the geopolitical insights of UC
Berkeley professor Michael Watts to present Africa's most populous
nation as a possible epicenter for the full-blown resource wars
to come. [You can watch a short multimedia presentation of Kashi's
photographs on the right-hand side of this page.]
They are wars that are already well under
way. In mid-June, a Shell facility was attacked by local militants,
disrupting production and sending the already sky-high price of
oil to further heights before coming back online a week later.
Attacks like those have increased in frequency, as Nigerian factions
have fought for control of the nation's lucrative petroleum resources,
which are the largest in Africa.
The problem, especially as indigenous
populations caught between Nigeria's prosperous rich and their
oil industry's environmental devastation see it, is that viable
land and resources have been wasted on a handful while the majority
of the country falls into further disrepair and depression. From
natural gas flares and oil spills to the destruction of native
plants, animal species and other salable commodities, Nigeria's
oil industry has wreaked havoc across the land and its people.
And it's only getting worse. And if you
think it doesn't affect America, think again.
"The United States has been concerned
with its own post-1945 global oil strategy, involving Saudi Arabia,
Iran and Venezuela," Watts explains in our interview below.
"But this strategy has fallen apart, and now Africa plays
a key role at a time when oil is beyond $100 a barrel."
It is a role that will only expand, as
increasing demand, ass-backward environmental policy and diminishing
resources send nations and multinationals scattering for control
of what's left of Earth's black gold. America's disastrous war
in Iraq is one example of this panic at work. President Bush's
2006 plan to establish the United States African Command (AFRICOM),
an ominous Department of Defense program to network operations
and combatant command across the African continent, is another
such example, especially since not one African country has come
forward to offer America permission to build a base on its territory.
For now, AFRICOM is on the outside looking in on Africa from a
base in Germany, an arrangement that can be seen both as a geopolitical
reality and as a suitable metaphor for U.S.-African relations
But the United States won't be outside
Africa for long, as climate crisis and peak oil take further hold.
And when it comes calling, it will most likely call on Nigeria
Scott Thill: What is the nature of Nigeria's
oil industry, and when did it get started?
Michael Watts: Commercial oil production
began in 1956, and the first exports in 1958. Since that time,
perhaps $600 billion in oil revenues have been accrued by the
Nigerian government. The government takes a share through a legal
joint venture contract with the international oil companies of
about 80 percent of the value of each barrel of oil. Since oil
accounts for 90 percent of all Nigerian exports and 80 percent
of government revenue, and about half of GDP, oil is the Nigerian
economy. The country is a classical petro-state dependent upon
one resource. The book shows how this vast wealth has been stolen:
Estimates from the World Bank vary from $100 (billion) to $200
billion. It has also been wasted. The International Monetary Fund
says that oil has probably not added to the standard of living
of average Nigerians. This is a stunning indictment.
ST: What has been the ecological impact,
especially to the immediate region?
MW: The ecological impact has been felt
in the Niger Delta, which is the oil-producing region. According
to the World Wildlife Fund, it is one of the most polluted places
on the face of the Earth. Nigeria has the highest gas flaring
rates in the world; until recently, over 80 percent was flared
as a product of drilling. The consequences for carbon emissions,
air pollution and public health are severe. Plus, there are roughly
300 oil spills a year, and over 7,000 since 1960.
ST: Between conflict in Africa and the
Middle East, this battle is going to heat up as peak oil and climate
change kicks in. When do you see that happening?
MW: The future of Nigeria and the Niger
Delta in the short and medium term will be that more oil and gas
will be produced. There are perhaps 40 more years of oil left,
much of that offshore in deep water, and the government and oil
companies will continue to produce it at high prices.
ST: What's America's stake in the region?
MW: Nigeria is a major supplier to the
U.S. market, as well as a major plank in America's energy security
policy. The Gulf of Guinea in West Africa is a major new oil supply
area in the context of the instabilities in Venezuela and the
Middle East. It will be business as usual. And the establishment
of AFRICOM is part of the U.S. interest.
ST: But AFRICOM is entering enemy territory,
is it not?
MW: We document in the book how the consequences
and costs incurred by the oil-producing region over the last 30
years, including neglect and marginalization by the federal government,
have produced resistance to both the industry and government from
below. Since 1999, it has developed into something like an oil
insurgency led by militant groups. So the future of oil in Nigeria
is now in question in an unprecedented way. As we speak, something
like 25 percent of Nigerian oil is locked in or deferred because
of the attacks by militants. Can the companies and the government
operate under these circumstances, in which oil workers are taken
as hostages and federal forces cannot control the fields?
ST: It seems that this is precisely why
AFRICOM was launched.
MW: The insurgents have shown that they
can close down the industry. The new government in 2007 was expected
to enter into negotiations with the militants, but that has broken
down. So the future is very much an open question. If Nigeria
were to enter into a deeper conflict, the implications for the
world oil market and oil producers would be catastrophic.
ST: What drew you to this project?
MW: I have worked in Nigeria as a scholar
for 30 years and written about oil issues. I drew Ed Kashi into
the project several years ago, and he realized that there was
an important and untold story here about African oil, its growing
global significance and the costs of oil-based development compounded
by geostrategic interests by global powers. The story has since
forced its way onto the pages of the international press, first
with the struggles of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni people in the
early '90s, but mostly since 1998 when these popular struggles
assumed a militant cast. With the emergence of Movement for the
Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) in 2006, it has become
clear that the Nigerian, and African, oil story is of enormous
ST: Is Africa the unsung warrior of our
MW: The United States has been concerned
with its own post-1945 global oil strategy, involving Saudi Arabia,
Iran and Venezuela. But this strategy has fallen apart, and now
Africa plays a key role at a time when oil is beyond $100 a barrel.
So yes, the African oil story -- the consequences, the oil companies,
the geopolitics -- all of this is largely an untold story.
ST: What have you learned from your experience
on the book?
MW: I have learned several things. The
first is that oil is not always a curse, meaning that oil dependency
does not always produce poverty or conflict or corruption. It
did not in Norway or the U.K. But vast oil wealth captured by
oil-producing governments always places the question of how that
wealth is to be allocated and spent at the center. If oil is inserted
into a corrupt federal system, then the combination of non-transparent
Big Oil and authoritarian Big Government produces a perfect storm
of violence, corruption, ecological destruction and poverty. And
this storm will have a huge blowback.
ST: Are you hoping your book prepares
us for that blowback?
MW: I hope that this book lays out the
dynamics of oil and development in Nigeria and Africa, that it
reveals the complicity in this perfect storm of international
oil companies, foreign governments, corrupt oil-producing states
and U.S. consumers. Perhaps in the same way that the "blood
diamonds" issue showed our complicity and need to assess
the conditions under which the resources we use are produced.
In a sense, this book documents "blood oil."
I hope that the book will contribute in
some way to the struggle in Nigeria for a more democratic and
transparent political system in which oil wealth can be deployed
for productive purposes in a socially and ecologically just way.
I also hope it contributes to a much wider debate in the U.S.,
and everywhere else, about the consequences of dependency, as
well as the vast costs of hydrocarbon capitalism.