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THE NEW YORK TIMES: Africa’s Oil Comes With Big Downside

THE NEW YORK TIMES: Africa’s Oil Comes With Big Downside

“…Shell spokesman Simon Buerk said the company has never paid royalties to local potentates, but ”homage payments” are allowed — limited to $1,000 per project since 2003. A Shell report said it spent $100,000 on such payments last year in Nigeria.”

Posted Monday 29 August 2005

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

BUGUMA, Nigeria (AP) — The capital of the ancient Kalabari kingdom is vivid testimony to the downside of Africa’s oil.

A gutted local government building stands by the central square, near a smashed statue of the town’s founding king. Soldiers patrol the streets.

These are scars from a three-month occupation last year by a private militia accused of rapes and random killings, and dozens of villages in the oil-rich Niger River delta have suffered similar violence.

”We are in a state of emergency,” said the head of Buguma’s Council of Chiefs, 62-year-old Mangibo Amachree. Soldiers are keeping the peace for now, and Amachree prays they will stay until the 2007 presidential election, which already is raising fears of more fighting.

Often, oil money is a driving force in heating long-standing political rivalries to the boiling point.

Buguma’s unrest is at least partly over royalties that Amachree says are paid to King Theophilus Princewill by Shell, the major oil producer in Kalabari. Four rival militias, one calling itself ”the Germans,” another ”the Italians,” have fought over who should be king and therefore get the royalties.

In London, Shell spokesman Simon Buerk said the company has never paid royalties to local potentates, but ”homage payments” are allowed — limited to $1,000 per project since 2003. A Shell report said it spent $100,000 on such payments last year in Nigeria.

President Olusegun Obasanjo also has angered Nigerians by approving fuel price hikes to reflect high global oil prices, drawing strike threats from labor unions. Most Nigerians see cheap fuel as the only benefit they ever got in a country with no welfare system and where more than 70 percent of the people live on less than $1 a day.

Nigeria is the world’s seventh-biggest oil producer, exporting nearly half of the 2.4 million barrels it pumps every day to the United States. Africa’s biggest oil power, home to more than 250 ethnic groups, is only one example of how oil can be a curse on the continent.

The development group Catholic Relief Services and a World Bank watchdog office said in a report on Chad, which began exporting oil last year, that adding oil to repressive, corrupt and poor countries too often results in simply more repression and corruption.

Equatorial Guinea, Africa’s fifth-largest oil producer, is known for human rights abuses and mismanagement, and its oil wealth is believed to have attracted foreign coup plotters. It sentenced 24 European and African mercenaries to lengthy prison terms last year for scheming to oust the tiny nation’s leader.

In Nigeria, disputes over oil have been causing bloodshed for years. This was brought to the fore in 1995, when writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists from his Ogoni tribe were executed under the brutal regime of then dictator Gen. Sani Abacha.

They were hanged for the murder of four political rivals, but Saro-Wiwa’s supporters say he was really targeted because he led protests against environmental damage by Shell. The company, Nigeria’s largest oil producer, is still negotiating its return to that area.

Hundreds of people were killed in Rivers state last year in fighting between two ethnic Ijaw militias, one led by secessionist Moujahid Dokubo-Asari and the other by a man who describes himself as a vigilante leader, Ateke Tom.

Conflict involving other militias continues near Buguma. Soldiers were sent recently to the similarly named Bukuma village after eight people were killed by a youth militia called D12, local residents said.

School attendance has halved in Buguma since fighting broke out in February 2004. Fishermen’s catches are reduced because they no longer dare venture far out into the delta’s rivers and creeks, where attacks have become common.

Ayachi Emesiobi hid in her home when militia fighters allegedly allied with Tom came calling. Her mother, Monima Atiboba, opened the door. They ”called her out and shot her,” said Emesiobi, 29. ”I heard it — one shot.” When she went outside, her mother lay dead.

School shut down during the three months of occupation and girls were raped. Classes resumed after Dokubo-Asari’s Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force and an allied local militia chased out the invaders. Three days later, the army ran off Dokubo-Asari’s fighters.

In his hometown of Okrika, next to the major oil city of Port Harcourt in Rivers state, Tom said reports of summary killings in Buguma by his group were ”lies.”

He denied having anything to do with Buguma’s three-month occupation, although he acknowledged participating in a brief raid there after Dokubo-Asari set up a camp. Any civilians killed would have been hit by stray bullets, he said.

A year after that fighting, Dokubo-Asari and Tom signed a peace agreement and gave up thousands of weapons — including assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers — in a disarmament deal backed by Nigeria’s president.

Tom and Dokubo-Asari say they are now allies, and both warn of more trouble, saying they have been threatened by new militias that they claim are backed by the Rivers state government.

”Things are going wrong,” Tom said. ”These things can provoke us.”

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