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Blood Flows With Oil in Poor Nigerian Villages

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  • Teresa Binstock
    January 1, 2006 Blood Flows With Oil in Poor Nigerian Villages By LYDIA POLGREEN http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/01/international/africa/01nigeria.html [foto]
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 1, 2006
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      January 1, 2006

      Blood Flows With Oil in Poor Nigerian Villages


      [foto] Michael Kamber for The New York Times - A woman from Odioma and
      her sick child traveled to a distant town for care because Odioma has no
      medical facilities. The area is oil rich but both villages are poor.

      [foto] Michael Kamber for The New York Times - Odioma, a Nigerian
      village, was damaged by the army last year in a dispute over oil rights,
      residents said.

      OBIOKU, Nigeria - At first glance, it is hard to imagine anyone fighting
      over this place.

      Approached by a creek, the only way to get here, a day's journey by
      dugout canoe from the nearest town, it presents itself as a collection
      of battered shacks teetering on a steadily eroding beach.

      On Sunday morning, the village children shimmy out of their best clothes
      after church and head to a muddy puddle to collect water. Their mothers
      use the murky liquid to cook whatever soup they can muster from the
      meager catch of the day.

      Yet for months a pitched battle has been fought between communities that
      claim authority over this village and the right to control what lies
      beneath its watery ground: a potentially vast field of crude oil that
      has caught the attention of a major energy company.

      The conflict has left dozens dead and wounded, sent hundreds fleeing
      their homes and roiled this once quiet part of the Niger Delta. It has
      also laid bare the desperate struggle of impoverished communities to
      reap crumbs from the lavish banquet the oil boom has laid in this
      oil-rich yet grindingly poor corner of the globe.

      "This region is synonymous with oil, but also with unbelievable
      poverty," said Anyakwee Nsirimovu, executive director of Institute of
      Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in the Niger Delta. That combination
      is an inevitable recipe for bloodshed and misery, he said. "The world
      depends on their oil, but for the people of the Niger Delta oil is more
      of a curse than a blessing."

      Africa is in the midst of an oil boom, with companies and governments
      pouring $50 billion into projects that may double the continent's oil
      output in the next decade.

      In the world's thirst for oil and the United States' efforts to obtain
      it outside the troubled Middle East, African oil has become essential.
      Africa is expected to provide the United States with a quarter of its
      oil supply in the next decade, compared with about 15 percent now, and
      much of it will come from the Gulf of Guinea, where the Niger Delta sits.

      But much of that oil will come from places like Obioku, and with it a
      tangled and often bloody web of conflict marked by poverty and a near
      abdication of responsibility by government.

      Even though Nigeria elected a democratic government in 1999, which
      raised hopes for the long-suffering delta region, almost none of the
      enormous wealth the oil creates reaches places like this. The isolation
      of Obioku is total. With no fast boats available, the nearest health
      center or clinic is a day's journey away. No telephone service exists
      here. Radio brings the only news of the world outside. Nothing hints
      that the people here live in a nation enjoying the profits of
      record-high oil prices.

      "It is like we don't exist, as far as government is concerned," said
      Worikuma Idaulambo, chairman of Obioku's council of chiefs.

      Nigeria is a longstanding OPEC member that exported nearly $30 billion
      of oil in 2004, the United States Department of Energy said. Nigeria
      sends 13 percent of revenues from its states back, a hefty sum for the
      underdeveloped ones where oil is produced. Much of that is siphoned off
      by corrupt regional officials who often pocket the money or waste it on
      lavish projects that do little, if anything, for ordinary people.

      A result has been a violent struggle over the jobs, schools and other
      aid that oil companies have offered to encourage local residents to
      cooperate. Here in Obioku, as in many towns in the delta, an oil
      company, in this case a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, has brought the
      only signs of modernity. In 1998, Shell bought the rights to drill for
      oil near a small fishing settlement at the edge of Obioku, no more than
      a handful of rough shelters made of grass and wood.

      Shell signed agreements with the chiefs of Obioku and with leaders in
      the nearest town, Nembe-Bassambiri, to help develop Obioku. In time,
      Shell built a water tower, gave the village a generator and built a
      primary school. In return, the village agreed to allow Shell and its
      contractors to work freely.

      For years Shell did nothing with the field. Then, early last year, a
      Shell contractor arrived to begin work, and trouble started.

      Officials in a nearby town, Odioma, laid claim to the land, and demanded
      that the oil company pay tribute if it wanted to drill.

      "This is Odioma land," said Daniel I. L. Orumiegha-Bari, a member of
      Odioma's council of chiefs. "It belongs to us. Anyone claiming otherwise
      is an interloper wanting to revise hundreds of years of our history."

      Chiefs in Nembe-Bassambiri, who were receiving payments on the premise
      that the land was theirs, rejected Odioma's claim.

      Human rights and environmental groups have long criticized the practices
      of Shell, the oldest and largest of Nigeria's oil producers. As a result
      of a stinging internal report in 2003 that said Shell, whether
      intentionally or not, "creates, feeds into or exacerbates conflict," the
      company revamped its community relations strategy. Shell immediately
      withdrew from the Obioku area and referred the dispute to local
      government authorities to resolve.

      In this serpentine labyrinth of rivers and creeks, where fishermen eke
      out a living casting homemade nets, who owned Obioku was academic to the
      chiefs of Odioma and Nembe-Bassambiri until Shell arrived. But with the
      sudden promise of payment, the dispute escalated, first in increasingly
      belligerent letters among the three villages.

      Words soon gave way to action, and blood began to flow into the rivers
      and creeks. In February, a boat filled with local government councilors
      on a mission to broker a deal among the feuding communities was
      attacked, and a dozen people were killed.

      Officials in Nembe-Bassambiri blamed a militant youth group in Odioma
      for the slaughter. The group is believed to be involved in bunkering:
      stealing oil by breaking into pipelines.

      As is common here, group members had been hired by an oil company
      contractor to provide security on the waterways, chiefs in Odioma and
      other villages said. Such contracts are often a way to buy cooperation
      from youths who would otherwise attack oil installations and harass workers.

      Contending that it sought to arrest the members of the youth group, a
      unit of the Nigerian military known as the Joint Task Force, charged
      with security in the Niger Delta, went to Odioma on Feb. 19.

      Thinking that the task force was coming to help them, Odioma's chiefs
      had gathered in the village king's palace to receive it. But shots were
      fired, and the chiefs scattered.

      "We thought they came in peace," said Mr. Orumiegha-Bari, the Odioma
      chief. "But they destroyed our village."

      The army flattened Odioma, residents said, leaving behind a barren
      moonscape covered with a carpet of ash, broken glass and burned concrete
      where an idyllic village once stood. At least 17 people died in the
      raid, including a 12-year-old boy called Lucky, Mr. Orumiegha-Bari said.

      Ayebatari Silgbanibo had been sitting in the tiny office of his computer
      business, which he started with a grant from Shell, when the gunfire
      started. "I didn't want to leave my computer because it is all I have,"
      Mr. Silgbanibo, 22, said. "But I was afraid."

      When he returned, his computer and printer had been destroyed. He is a
      fisherman now, like his father and most of the men in this village,
      earning about a dollar a day. The computer, which he received because
      Odioma has its own oil wells, apart from Obioku, was supposed to lift
      him out of generations of poverty.

      "How can I ever buy a new computer?" he said. "It is impossible."

      Brig. Gen. Elias Zamani, commander of the Joint Task Force, said his
      soldiers opened fire on Odioma only after being fired upon. "They were
      lying in wait for the arrival of our troops," he said of the youth group.

      He said some houses had been destroyed when stray bullets struck
      buildings where petroleum was stored. The army disputes the death toll,
      saying army officials asked to see bodies and graves and could not find
      any. But a report on the attack by Amnesty International in November
      concluded that the destruction seemed to have had specific targets,
      destroying the houses of the village king and other officials.

      And yet, Mr. Orumiegha-Bari said he was grateful that it was the Joint
      Task Force that had attacked his village and not their neighbors in

      "If Bassambiri people came first you wouldn't have seen anybody here to
      talk to," the chief said. "They would have slaughtered every last man."

      The village has asked the army to stay to protect residents from their

      "We don't like that they are here, but it is better that they stay," Mr.
      Orumiegha-Bari said. The arrival of the soldiers, village leaders said,
      is the first time any federal government representative has had a
      presence in Odioma.

      It is hard to say who is to blame for the violence that has wracked this
      pocket of Nigeria. Some villagers and human rights groups blame the oil
      companies and their contractors, which pay for economic development and
      employ youths, creating an incentive for communal violence. Still others
      blame the federal, state and local governments, which collect and
      distribute millions of dollars in the names of local residents yet never
      seem to produce much benefit.

      "These conflicts are a direct result of the abandonment of these
      communities by their government," Mr. Nsirimovu said. "If their
      government took care of them they wouldn't be fighting over these little
      scraps and rewards from the oil companies."

      Federal officials acknowledge that corruption is a big problem but point
      out that even if Nigeria is having an oil boom, it does not amount to
      great wealth per capita. In 2004, after costs were deducted, Nigeria's
      oil money amounted about 50 cents for each of the country's 130 million
      people, they said.

      Shell officials defended their role in the crisis, saying they withdrew
      from the area as soon as a conflict over ownership arose. They said it
      was primarily the job of Nigeria's elected officials to develop the
      country, but added that in addition to taxes and royalties, they
      contributed 3 percent of their annual operating budget to a fund to help
      develop the delta. In 2004, the company's contribution to that fund was
      nearly $70 million.

      "Government is so removed that they see the oil companies as being the
      nearest government to them," said Don S. Bonham, a spokesman for Shell
      in the oil capital of Port Harcourt. "The expectations of government
      have not been met."

      The communities fighting over the oil fields are in Bayelsa State, which
      produces a third of Nigeria's oil and has an annual budget of more than
      half a billion dollars to spend on its three million people. But most of
      it goes to white elephants like a mansion for the governor and his deputy.

      "This is what we eat," said Paulgba Tekikuma, an Obioku resident,
      gesturing to a small bowl half-full of tiny fish and crustaceans she
      would mix with milled cassava. "The water, sometimes it get the babies
      sick when they drink. But we no get any other."

      Corruption is largely to blame. The state's governor, Diepreye
      Alamieyeseigha, was arrested in London on money laundering charges in
      September, then fled to Nigeria, where he enjoyed immunity even from
      prosecutors, in November. He is suspected of stealing hundreds of
      millions of dollars from the state since he was elected in 1999. He has
      since been impeached, and as a result charged with corruption and money
      laundering in Nigeria. After an inquiry in 2005, Amnesty International
      concluded, "As with many violent disputes within communities in the
      Niger Delta, access to oil resources is at the root of the Odioma incident."

      Mr. Nsirimovu, the human rights advocate, said the underdevelopment of
      the region both caused and exacerbated the violence. Until real
      development begins, "blood will flow freely in the Niger Delta," he
      said. "Mark my words."

      * Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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