Shell’s Nigeria ecocide is creating a refugee crisis

An oil-polluted river in the Niger Delta.

Sixty million people are on the run worldwide, most from countries in the global South. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says one third of the refugees originate from Africa.

Wars, human rights violations, political instability, discrimination, poverty and the consequences of climate change and natural disasters are often named as causes for flight. But there is also ecocide — the destruction of livelihoods through the ruthless exploitation of raw materials and the subsidy politics of industrialised countries in the West.

The ecosystems in many African regions are being systematically destroyed to maximise profits and secure and expand the West’s prosperity.

The peaceful use of ecosystems by the people who live in these areas has almost become impossible. Life has become unbearable in most of the resource rich regions in Africa, so that many people leave their homes desperately.

Environmental destruction and the destruction of livelihoods in Africa are not new. What is new is that many experts regard the ecocide as the most important cause for flight and migration in light of its devastating consequences.

However, those who flee are not protected by the Geneva Convention on Refugees. They are usually defamed as “economic refugees” — while the consequences of criminal economic activities by western companies are being camouflaged.

Poverty in the oil-rich Niger Delta in Nigeria, for example, is a direct consequence of an ecocide. Oil extraction started in 1958, promised to the population as the basis for future wealth.

But the announced blessing turned into a curse: “Our oil, your prosperity, our death and extinction!”

Indeed today, the 70,000km² Niger Delta is one of the most polluted regions in the world. The results are devastation, expropriation, poverty and social marginalisation.

Nigeria, with about 170 million people, is the most populated country in Africa and has the largest African oil reservoir. At 2.5 million barrels a day, the country is the biggest oil exporter in Africa and the sixth biggest of the world.

The country’s economy is extremely dependent on the black gold that provides 90% of its public revenue. Despite the wealth, nearly two-thirds of the population live in absolute poverty. A small corrupt elite plunders the state’s treasury.

The Shell Petroleum Development Company, a joint venture between Royal Dutch Shell and the Nigerian State, is responsible for the oil extraction. The actual extracting activities are, however, conducted by several oil companies, such as Royal Dutch Shell (47%), ExxonMobil (22%), Chevron Texas (19%) and ENI/Agip (5%).

During the past 50 years, nearly 7000 oil accidents have occurred in the Niger Delta. The several billion litres of spilled oil have transformed the former natural paradise into hell on Earth.

The area is Africa’s third largest water reservoir. Its soil, as well as its water, is extremely contaminated, with the soil being damaged up to five metres deep.

Rusty and outdated pipelines run unprotected and above ground across villages. Tank reservoirs are responsible for half of the damages followed by acts of sabotage and oil extraction activities. Closed down drilling rigs and illegal diversion of oil are further causes of the oil pollution.

The groundwater is heavily contaminated. In 2011, the World Health Organisation (WHO) found an extremely high concentration of hydrocarbon. It was more than 900 times higher than international standards allow and 1000 times higher than the limits defined by the Nigerian State itself.

Every year, more than 400 million tons of carbon dioxide is pumped into the atmosphere by burning gas. Air pollution is one of the main causes of cancer in the world.

According to the United Nations, it will take at least 30 years to repair the damage, which would cost about half a billion euros. And yet, a further 13 million barrels of crude oil contaminate the Delta every year.

The oil companies disregard all Nigerian environmental protection laws and get away with it almost with impunity. To pay a ridiculously small penalty fee is more profitable than following the law.

Critics accuse the companies of racism and demand that they follow the same operative standards as in their respective countries of origin in the West. The corrupt political elites do not act against the intrigues of the oil multinationals as they benefit hugely from them.

At the end of the 1980s, the government brutally attacked peaceful protests against multinationals and the military regimes. The Ogoni people led the protests, guided by author and human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa.

To suppress the emerging protests, Shell-Nigeria asked the military for help. A massacre followed, along with large-scale jailings without charges and a mass exodus from the Delta. Saro-Wiwa was arrested and put in solitary confinement.

Together with eight others, Saro-Wira was sentenced to death and executed in 1995 — despite international protests.

More than 20 years after the executions, there has been little improvement in the Niger Delta, despite the return of democracy. The devastation of the environment continues unimpeded.

Nigeria’s poorest of the poor live in the Delta region. Child mortality is at 20%. Soil, rivers and water are contaminated to such a high degree that agriculture and fishing, the former livelihood base of the people, are almost impossible.

The consequences are disastrous: high unemployment rates and hopelessness especially among youth, mass exodus, extremely high crime rates and forced prostitution. There is no end in sight to the ecological horror.

In April 2010, the worst oil spill in US history occurred in the Gulf of Mexico. It evoked protests and resentment all over the world.

The corporation responsible, BP, was forced to clean the oil pollution as soon as possible and pay a US$20 billion fine. In the Niger Delta, however, images like these have been the grim reality since the oil production started in 1958. In comparison to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the permanent and lasting ecological disaster in Niger Delta receives almost no media attention.

[Abridged from Pambazuka News. Peter Donatus is a Nigerian journalist and human rights activist forced to flee Nigeria 26 years ago for opposing Shell’s destructive activities.]

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