Amnesty International has released a stinging critique of the oil industry in Nigeria, concentrating on the woeful conditions for ordinary people in the oil-rich Niger Delta. The report, whose findings echo similar studies stretching back many years, calls for an end to abuses. But like other critics, Amnesty offers few practical solutions and underplays the role of poor governance.
The government of Nigeria receives most of the oil revenues from the operations of private companies, such as Shell and Chevron. The failures of these private oil companies, while undeniable, remain far less damaging than the government’s own misdeeds, ommissions and calluous disregard for its fellow Nigerians, many of whom would experience quality-of-life improvements through straight-forward government actions.
Amnesty and many otherEuropean activists would like to see Shell out of Nigeria for good. The news this week that Gazprom wishes to operate in Shell’s historic stronghold in Nigeria thus opens the potential for some healthy competition, which ought to lead to better outcomes, however small.
Ever since traveling for 10 days in the Niger Delta seven years ago, I’ve been haunted by the tragedy of Nigeria’s wasted natural gas. Gas is plentiful in the Delta but human failures have resulted in this precious gas being flared — burned above ground to the harm of the people living around it. The Western oil companies — Shell and Chevron mainly — who have rights to the gas have long claimed it is uneconomical to capture this gas and market it via pipelines. Instead, these companies have burned this gas above ground, causing fires the harm the environment — and keep burning all day and all night, giving parts of the Delta an otherworldly quality.
Enter Russia’s energy behemoth, Gazprom, which this week announced a significant deal with the government of Nigeria. The deal will create a new partnership that hopes to reduce gas flaring — and harvest the gas (in some form) for human use.
Russians have little history in West Africa. The Cold War gave the Russians a good deal of incentive to put stakes into Central and Southern Africa, but West Africa — the most densely populated part of the sub-Saharan — remained out of Russia’s orbit. Predictably, the announcement of the Russian-Nigerian deal ignited complaints from Europeans about another attempt by Russia to further dominate a gas market it already monopolizes. The thinking in Europe is that Gazprom will market the gas to Europe, perhaps in liquid form.
An interesting aspect of this deal is that Gazprom would replace Shell as the oil-and-gas exploiter in “Ogoniland,” the ancestral homeland of the Ogoni people and an area of the Delta made infamous by the execution of the great Ogoni writer and activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa. If Gasprom does indeed replace Shell on the ground, a sad chapter in the history of independent Nigeria will come to a welcome end.
Whether Russians provide a better deal for the Ogoni than the Anglo-Dutch have remains to be seen of course. But for Nigerians, the deal makes great sense and is a victory of the country’s beleagured national government. Now the hard work of making Gasprom’s plan a reality must begin.
I said goodbye last Sunday to the important Zambian writer and thinker, Chanda Chisala, who returned from California to Lusaka this week, visiting his home base for the first time in six months. Having just finished an academic year at Stanford University as a prestigious Knight journalism fellow, Chisala will return this fall to the Hoover Institution in order to write a book about his libertarian political ideas. I first met Chisala in Lusaka about a year ago. Not yet forty years old, he thinks deeply about the role of freedom and individual responsibility in Africa — a relationship very much neglected by many African intellectuals. Calling himself a “radical capitalist,” Chisala is drawn to the ideas and writings of Ayn Rand, the conservative avatar and idol of Alan Greenspan who is currently experiencing a vigorous revival. He has plenty to say of interest about Barrack Obama as well — and not always favorable. Chisala deserves wider recognition and, if he puts his time at Hoover to good use, he may get it.
I’ve had an extended period without posting, chiefly because of technical difficulties — my posting software collapsed — but also because I’ve been busy moving from one house to another. I’ve missed writing about so many developments in Africa — the elections in Malawi, notably, and the continued wrangling in Kenya over police killings. I’ve also missed commenting on visits from Africans to my patch of northern California. I’ll be posting again soon, having restored my capacity to do so through the help of a canny technician in Utah.