AFRICA/NIGERIA - The “curse” of petroleum: what happened to the 400 billion dollars booked by the Nigerian government since 1960?

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Rome (Agenzia Fides)- The issue of the distribution of oil revenues is at the centre of Nigeria's political life. For decades Nigerians living in the south (mainly Christians) where most of the oil fields are situated, have demanded that the profits from the sale of crude oil be invested in schools, hospitals, roads and opportunities for real economic development.
Nigeria is 158th on the list of human development issued by the UN Development Programme. Life expectancy is 43.3 years, the infant mortality rate is 98 per thousand, one of the highest in Africa. Yet the country has the resources necessary to change this situation: it has no need to beg. According to official statistics, since independence in 1960 the Nigerian government has booked more than 400 billion dollars from the 'manna' of petroleum. Nevertheless Nigerians have seen no improvement in their living standard, indeed in the case of the Niger Delta, the living conditions have deteriorated. Farming and fishing, traditional local economic activities, have been heavily affected by the pollution caused by the extractive activities.
“In the 1970s, the equivalent of four Exxon Valdez (the super oil tanker which in an accident in March 1989 poured 38 million litres of crude oil into the Alaska Sea) was poured into the delta waters annually” writes Xavier Harel in his book on embezzlement in the petroleum sector in Africa (“Afrique, pillage à huis clos”, Paris, 2006). According to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation NNPC between 1976 and 1990 there were at least 2,676 episodes of petroleum pouring into the environment, and studies carried out in the 1990s revealed that the percentage of hydrocarbon in the local waters varied between 360 to 680 times higher than the percentage permitted by European Union laws.
Nigerians in the south feel frustrated and the knowledge that for 20 years high government positions have been held by people from the northern tribes (mainly Muslims) threatens to cause new fractures on the grounds of tribal or religious origin. And in actual fact these factors are exploited in a political struggle in which the division of the petroleum manna is at stake, and which is conducted also with illegal means. It is no mystery in fact that at Port Harcourt, Nigeria's oil capital and where the multinational oil companies present in the country have their offices, at least two criminal gangs fight with increasingly powerful weapons for control of what is called “bunkering”: the diversion of crude oil by making holes in the local oil pipes. The stolen crude oil is collected and sent on its way to the markets via special tankers. This is a complex operation which presupposes an organisation which extends over Nigeria's borders and the complicity of the authorities. It is estimated that between 100,000 and 300,000 barrels of petroleum (10% of the national production) disappear in this manner every day. The damage caused is both economic and ecological.
For its part the Catholic Church in Nigeria has frequently stressed the importance of transparency and honesty in the management of the country's oil resources and for the profits to go towards promoting real development. (see Fides 13 November 2006). (L.M.) (Agenzia Fides 4/9/2007 righe 44 parole 538)