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Throughout the continent, ‘oil has correlated with imperial subjugation, local authoritarianism and flagrant human rights abuses’, writes Oilwatch Africa. Citing examples of the devastating consequences a growing global hunger for energy has had for communities and ecosytems in oil-bearing regions, the advocacy group calls for the world to start weaning itself from its ‘addiction to oil’ by ‘investing more in renewable energy, energy efficiency, better public transportation and small decentralised energy projects.’

Throughout Africa, oil has correlated with imperial subjugation, local authoritarianism and flagrant human rights abuses. It is now no longer in doubt that there are absolutely no guarantees that extractive activities are safe. One accident could jeopardise an entire ecosystem. It has been common knowledge in many oil-bearing communities in Africa that the discovery of oil in a local community is akin to a declaration of full-fledged war on such a community.

In the last few years, high energy demand has led to an upsurge in exploration and drilling of new oil wells both onshore and offshore in places where it would have been highly unprofitable to prospect for oil a few years ago. Nothing is sacred in this breathless search for new oil; pristine forests, sacred groves, ecologically fragile environments and even internationally recognised conservation sites are not spared the oily embrace. For many African communities their already desperate situation is compounded by the depleting oil reserves in easily accessible areas in the global north, the unending conflicts in the Middle East, the ongoing re-nationalisation of oil assets in South and Meso America, the reawakening of Russia, the huge appetite of China and the Asian Tigers and India for oil.

The desire to capture more oil reserves is driving exploration and development of oil and gas fields in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somaliland, Puntland, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Mozambique, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, the Comoros, Seychelles and the coast of Durban in South Africa.

The discovery of oil and gas in commercial quantities often overwhelms the ruling elites in many countries in Africa and in their rush to begin production and access the windfall oil revenue, scant regard is paid to the social and environmental costs of oil extraction. Over the last half a century of oil exploration and development in Africa, aside from the elites, the vast majority of people have been left worse off by the negative impact of oil.

The Nigerian marine and coastal environment is very rich in biodiversity. The Niger Delta is the third largest wetland in the world and it contains 7,000 kilometres of Africa’s 9,000 kilometres of mangrove swamps. The Niger Delta is considered one of the ten most important wetlands in the world. Scientists in Nigeria posit that 60 per cent of the fish and seafoods caught in West Africa and around the Gulf of Guinea have their breeding areas in the mangroves of the Delta.[1]

The Niger Delta has been systematically and repeatedly destroyed, by years of oilspills, discharge of untreated toxic waste water into the sea, gas flaring and the reckless disposal of radioactive materials in the environment. This veritable breeding ground for the fishes and other sea foods that populate some of Africa’s oceans supports over 30 million people in the Niger Delta who depend on the environment for their livelihood, and millions more in West Africa. In a 2007 report compiled by the Nigerian Conservation foundation, WWF UK, representatives of government agencies in Nigeria, researchers and civil society groups such as Environmental Rights Action Nigeria, it was disclosed that as at 2006, over 1.5 million tons of crude oil had spilled into the Niger Delta environment. This is equivalent in volume to one Exxon Valdez spill a year for 50 years. Furthermore statistics from the department of petroleum resources in Nigeria shows that within a 30-year span (1970-2000) there had been over 7,000 recorded oil spills in the Niger Delta.[2]

The National oil spill detection and response agency (NOSDRA), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) have identified over 2,000 spill sites that need to be remediated. Some of these spills happened over 40 years ago. The Ebubu spill that occurred in 1970, has not been cleaned up and Shell, the company implicated in the disaster, is vigorously appealing a judgement of a federal high court which ordered it to pay US$40 million compensation as at 2001.[3]

As oil reserves dry up and access to new oil becomes difficult owing to the combination of factors already listed above, oil companies are moving to pristine, ecologically fragile and potential conflict areas to explore for oil. In the Gulf of Mexico, BP struck oil at a depth of seven kilometres from the surface of the water. It was hailed as yet another technological feat that will continue to keep oil flowing, until a little over a month ago when the oil platform exploded killing 11 people. This spill is attracting international attention and already the US president, under fire for not appearing tough enough on regulations, has announced the commencement of criminal and civil investigations and has promised to bring everyone involved in the making of this disaster to justice. This is despite the fact that over 20,000 people and 1,300 vessels have been mobilised to join the mitigation and cleanup effort.[4]

Exploration is at present ongoing in such ecologically fragile places like the Rift Valley and Lake Albert in Uganda, which along with Lake Victoria, is the source of the Nile. A spill around Lake Albert would affect all the countries that share the Nile up to Egypt. The dramatically increased revenues that Uganda is expected to rake in from these oil wells would not be sufficient to address a spill on the Nile caused by either equipment failure or rebel attacks given the tensions in the great lakes regions.

Greg Campbell, a freelance reporter, was in Nigeria in 2001; the following quotes from his article in ‘These Times’ magazine were his own description of the oil spill cleanup process he witnessed in Nigeria:

‘Shell the biggest operator in Nigeria…claims to adhere to the highest standards of practice in cleaning oil spills, but even a cursory visit to the Delta shows that those standards are far lower than in other countries… On the side of the highway leading to the town of Biseni, two separate 2 year old oil spills turn the jungle black… Chief Diekivie Ikiogha, the head of Bayelsa state Bureau of pollution and Environment says …we have a lot of spills; at this spot alone, we have had three spills. Even though Ikiogha is the government bureaucrat in charge of penalising Shell for the spill and signing off on the cleanup, he is also the contractor hired by Shell to do the cleanup… His cleanup operation consists of four shirtless men scooping oil from the surface of the polluted river with Frisbees… he claims that most of the oil had earlier been removed with absorbent foam and blankets.’[5]

The creative impulse of people in many oil rich countries in Africa has been replaced by a rent-seeking mentality; government and governance has become a zero sum game with power blocks and cliques employing foul and vile means to capture power and even viler means to retain their hold on power. Tens of thousands of lives continue to be lost to wars that have their origin steeped in the struggle to retain control over revenue from extractive activities. Corruption has been elevated to an art form and this has percolated down to ordinary people, with many exhibiting a gatekeeper mentality impeding the progress of very simple processes and procedures or making them nigh impossible to achieve until they have been bribed.

Many of these issues led to the mass mobilisation of the Ogoni people in the Niger Delta in the early 1990s, calling for a cessation of oil activities on their land because it had made life intolerable. Ken Saro-Wiwa, the arrow head of that movement building process in Ogoni, was judicially murdered by the Nigerian state to silence an idea whose time had come. 20 years on, Ogoni people are as determined as they were in the 90s to keep their land free from the greedy and destructive clutches of oil business. The idea of leaving oil in the ground within the Yasuni forest was taken up in far away Ecuador by no less than the government of the country itself and is receiving widespread acceptance.

Oilwatch has been at the forefront of spreading this campaign ‘to leave new oil in the soil’. The spill in the Gulf of Mexico apart from reiterating the fact that with oil there are no guarantees, also speaks to the fact that we must with deliberate speed begin the difficult process of weaning ourselves from our addiction to oil. The world’s ecosystem is one and we have merely scratched the surface in understanding the intricate interconnectedness of nature at different levels. It is therefore short sighted to continue the reckless expansion of drilling around the world because in the long run the revenue we may earn today from oil extraction would not be sufficient to adequately return our environment to what it was before extraction when incidents like these occur.

The cleanup operation in the Gulf of Mexico according to BP has so far cost them US$1 billion and this may increase to US$5 billion ultimately. Analysts are expecting litigation cost to BP of US$20-50 billion.[6] But tragically there is no guarantee that even after expending this sum and more that the damage to the Gulf’s ecosystem can be reversed.

Insisting on first setting out clear alternative energy templates before extricating ourselves from oil dependency would be a tragic waste of time. Although the need for certainty about the financial, legal, scientific and political architecture required to drive the process of librating ourselves from this oily embrace is critical, it is pertinent to remember that the world has evolved to this point as a matter of necessity. This is a challenge that ought to set our creative and innovative juices flowing. The human race has surmounted greater obstacles than this and would continue to break new grounds in the future.

We must begin by acknowledging that the sensible use of our ecosystem has the capacity in the long-term to provide much more benefits and revenue than oil can ever provide. We must individually and consciously take up the responsibility of drastically reducing our use of oil and its by-products. We must also set up international tribunals that would try entities and individuals for their role in destroying the ecosystem. But more importantly we must begin to have the consciousness and think along the lines of building capacities within our communities to ensure as much as possible that the role of oil our energy matrix becomes inconsequential by investing more in renewable energy, energy efficiency, better public transportation and small decentralised energy projects. Our salvation in the final analysis lies in igniting powerful political movements through community-to-community interaction, CSO to CSO interaction, linkages with faith based groups, networking with CBOs and other civil society groups in the global South and global north to take actions that would bring about the change we desire.


* This article first appeared on [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.


[1] ‘Niger Delta named the most polluted ecosystem’ (accessed June 1, 2010) [4] ‘Attempts to Stop the Oil leak’