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The Cornell Daily Sun (Cornell University): Another Oil War

Brutal Honesty
By Jeff Purcell
Aug 27 2006

Some argue that the Estados Unidos and the U.K. overthrew Saddam Hussein because his regime sat on top of one of the world’s largest reserves of petroleum. Looking at Nigeria’s experience with guns and gas can help us understand the idea of going to war for oil.

If we multiplied the price of crude oil by Nigeria’s estimated reserves, the country should be one of the richest in the world. Oil makes up over 95 percent of the country’s exports, and provides over 60 percent of the country’s budget. The most populous country in Africa has enough oil under its southern and eastern delta for its citizens to enjoy free schools, health care and basic services. But for that to happen, Nigerians would have to share in the benefits of Nigeria’s wealth. And for over a century, that prospect has been assiduously and violently avoided.

In the early years of the twentieth century, a thug called Lugard, working for the British, decided that several regions in western Africa should be “amalgamated” into a “unified” Nigeria. So he raised armies and attacked all those who opposed a united Nigeria under the British flag. He succeeded and eventually was knighted for his brutality.

Several years later, the British government awarded Royal Dutch Shell (now based in Houston) and British Petroleum (BP), two of the so-called “super-major” oil companies, every drop of oil in Nigeria. Those who lived on top of the barrels were ignored, except when they mustered the audacity to oppose the destruction of their environment and the theft of their country’s wealth. When Nigeria became independent in 1960, Shell and BP were forced to surrender their monopoly, but only a few years later they were draining over 60 percent of the country’s oil.

Sub-surface minerals, like diamonds, oil and coal, are technically the property of the country on top of them, but become “owned” privately as soon as they reach daylight. Shell and BP, the British government working for them, made sure that Nigeria entered into production agreements that were favorable to the exporters, not to the indigenous. Writing in 1978, one specialist concluded, “past colonialism and post-independence collusion of the privileged classes combined with imperialism have combined to secure Nigeria as a continuing veritable citadel” in which “the giant multinational corporations are the basic units of imperialism in its contemporary neo-colonial stage.”

And it wasn’t just the theft and corruption of oil wealth that damaged communities around the oil-producing region. Des D’Sa, a South African environmental activist, visited the Niger Delta a few years ago. He remembers, “knowing what Hell looks like, for I have seen it in Nigeria.” Shell, which now drains about 80 percent of the oil from the country, has laid pipelines around the delta that leaked the equivalent of four Exxon Valdez disasters in the 1970s alone. These spills destroy farmland, water sources and fisheries. Shell also regularly “flares” its natural gas and chemical facilities. Flaring means burning excess or unwanted chemicals and toxins and distributing them across the air and water and lungs. People die early and painfully. It’s called externalizing the costs.

Of many movements that have emerged to fight Shell and its Nigerian lackeys, MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People) and MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) are particularly important. The former was led by Ken Saro-Wiwa, a playwright and activist who organized non-violent marches of hundreds of thousands to protest Shell’s mercenaries and oil theft. In 1995, after years of harassment and threats, Saro-Wiwa was executed along with eight other MOSOP leaders, provoking international outcry, but nothing more. MOSOP had called for the Ogoni people to share in the wealth that was extracted at the cost of their lives, but the Nigerian government responded with nooses. Shell has been sued numerous times since then for its role in funding and arming the Rivers State Internal Security Task Force, a militia that works for the multinational corporation that recruits at Cornell several times a year.

MEND is newer, and represents an evolution of tactics. They are called terrorists because they have publicly declared war on the companies that have been attacking their lives for decades. Their strategies include kidnapping foreign oil executives and workers and sabotaging oil production facilities, hoping to force an end to Shell’s tyranny over the Delta. If that sounds like “terrorism” to you, consider what Shell did to cause it: in a classified 1996 memo, Shell’s mercenaries, the Rivers State Internal Security Force, described its plans for “psychological tactics of displacement/wasting” and stated that “Shell operations are still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken.”

In the past two weeks, the Nigerian government has attacked MEND members and communities ruthlessly, and in the past week it attacked villages it claimed were “supporting” MEND. The tactics of the government were barbaric collective punishment. Mercenaries dumped gas and oil on hundreds of shacks and lit a match. One desperately poor man told the BBC, “They came here, poured petrol and set fire to our property and houses to kill us. What offence have we committed?”

The next time MEND is called a group of terrorists, read more closely. Like MOSOP, it is fighting the destruction of the indigenous people in the Niger Delta, the slow carcinogenic murders of hundreds of thousands, perpetrated by Western oil companies in collusion with corrupt local elites.

The Niger Delta resembles “hell” and its government has recently enacted a scorched-earth policy of incineration. Thousands of Ogoni and Ijaw have taken up arms and are no longer protesting their government and its foreign backers, but instead are attacking it. This is an oil war, and its extreme violence is indicative of the enormous wealth at stake. Successive regimes in Nigeria have worked with Shell to ensure that Nigerians stay poor and unable to change how petrodollars are shared between shareholders and stakeholders. The crude oil and blood can keep flowing, with dollars for the elites and misery for the masses, based on the chaos of everyday life preventing democratic opposition. If you think “oil wars” are preposterous, there are a few million Nigerians with a lot more common sense.

Jeff Purcell is a graduate student in Africana Studies. He can be reached at [email protected]. Brutal Honesty appears Mondays. and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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