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Simon Pirani
The Next Gulf
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The Next Gulf : Washington and Oil Conflict
in Nigeria (London, Constable, 2006) by Andy Rowell,
James Marriott and Lorne Stockman.

A new generation of popular militia is taking
shape in the Niger Delta in south east Nigeria,
around demands for greater local control of
the oil-rich region’s natural resources. The most
prominent organisation, the Movement for the
Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), is made
up largely of young men from the Ijaw, the Delta’s
largest ethnic group. MEND’s tactic of choice is
kidnapping foreign oil workers: there were reports
of more than 60 hostages being taken in 2006, of
whom one was killed, one injured and all others
returned unharmed.

The kidnappers’ demands are aimed at the
multinational oil companies, at corrupt local
government, and at releasing arrested leaders.
Those who in January this year seized 24 Filipino
seamen (later released unharmed) asked Shell
to pay $1.5 billion to the residents of the Bayelsa
state in the Delta, “as compensation for oil
production-related pollution”. Those who took four
Italian oil company Agip employees, three Italians
and one Lebanese (later released unharmed),
demanded the release from prison of militia
leader Asari Dokubo and local politician Diepreye
Alamieyeseigha; an accounting by “corrupt” state
governments of what they had done with £1.2
billion worth of oil revenues accumulated since
2000; and that members of those administrations
be barred from standing as election candidates.

The call to free Alamieyeseigha is an anomaly,
a reminder of the complicated local politics of
the Delta, which are hard to understand from a
distance. He is the leader of a rebellious clique
in the ruling political party led by president
Olusegun Obasanjo, and wanted in the UK
on charges of laundering millions of dollars.
Nevertheless, the demands in general seem
moderate to me, when I recall the Delta, to which
I travelled in 2003. It was shocking not for its
extreme poverty – no more or less mind-numbing
than poverty I’d seen elsewhere – but for the fact
that forty years of oil production had not made the
slightest dent in that poverty. In many respects,
it has made things worse. Oil spills poison water
supplies for communities that rely on that water
to live; the spills are not cleaned up properly
and the effects last for years. Oil companies fund
community projects that too often go wrong, that
development agency staff view with contempt, and
that add insult to communities’ injury … while the
money goes to local elites’ foreign bank accounts
or to buy guns for criminal gangs. While most
people in the Delta – like most people in Africa
– are without electricity, billions of cubic metres
of gas that could produce electricity are instead
flared, polluting rain clouds and damaging crops.
(The gas comes out of the ground with the oil,
and flaring, i.e. setting light to it at the wellhead,
is the cheapest way to dispose of it – to date, the
gas flared is “more than the UK’s total natural gas
reserves in the North Sea in 2004”. [1]

Before going to the Delta, I read so many
hundreds of pages of propaganda by oil
companies, about what great neighbours they are
to local people, that I started to wonder whether
community groups and NGOs that monitor oil
industry abuses weren’t exaggerating a little,
to make their just case to the outside world.
The reality was actually far, far worse than their
protests had conveyed. [2]

Take Umuechem, a 10,000-strong community
near which Shell built an oil flow station. In 1990,
after a quarter of a century of oil production,
Umuechem still had no running water, electricity
or secondary schools. When local people staged a
peaceful protest under Nigeria’s brutal military
dictatorship, Shell managers requested protection
from the protestors and the notorious mobile
police responded by killing more than 80 people,
including some dragged from hospital beds. They
burned Umuechem to the ground, destroying 495
homes. There is a dispute about the exact order of
events: Shell says some young protestors staged
an occupation of the flow station before managers
called in the heavy mob, while a Human Rights
Watch investigation concluded it was the other
way round. In any case, monstrous repression
was heaped on this peaceful, impoverished rural
community for demanding even a small share of
the oil wealth.

I visited Umuechem 13 years after the massacre
and four years after the military dictatorship had
fallen. An official inquiry had by then ordered
state compensation for the community, but not a
penny had been paid. There was still no running
water, no electricity and no secondary school.
Shell had funded a water supply system, but it
never worked, and women had to collect water
from a polluted stream, the only water source. It’s
a typhoid risk, but their families have to drink
something.

This humiliation, this cynical contempt for
communities on whose land the oil was discovered,
and this collective poisoning of the population,
is the background against which, in the 1980s,
protest movements arose in the Delta. These
culminated in the confrontation between Shell and
the Ogoni people that ended with the company
withdrawing from the Ogoni region and the
dictatorship executing the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa
and eight other community leaders in November
1995. Two decades on, indignity piles upon
indignity, the oil price has climbed higher, and
young men in the Delta have taken to the gun.

Some join the politically-inspired militia such
as MEND, which the Nigerian writer Ike Okonta
calls “the violent child of the deliberate and longrunning
constriction of the public space […] in
which ordinary citizens, now reduced to penurious
subjects, can exercise their civil and political
rights”. [3] Others join criminal gangs that sabotage
oil installations or steal huge volumes of oil from
pipelines (“bunkering”), filling whole tankers
offshore, and often adding to the environmental
damage. Still others engage in ethnic clashes or
are recruited by local elites to do their dirty work.

The web of connections through which the
Delta is linked to the centres of world capitalism
is the subject of The Next Gulf. Where Okonta and
another Nigerian campaigner, Oronto Douglas,
passionately set out the Delta’s case against the
oil companies, [4] the authors of The Next Gulf follow
up with a survey of the connections, collusion
and complicity of governments and markets in
the north. They show how the oil companies’
pillage of the Delta was built on a history of
colonial exploitation: they argue that the 17th-
and 18th-century “Atlantic triangle” (consumer
goods and guns from Europe to Africa, slaves to
America, tobacco and rum to Europe) has been
superseded by a more complex “new Atlantic
triangle” – investment from Europe and the US in
to Nigeria; oil and liquefied natural gas the other
way; oil proceeds from the US to Europe; corrupt
funds and capital flight from Nigeria to Europe.

They show how the City of London and other
financial centres not only fund the oil companies,
but also provided the conduit for the looting of
billions of oil dollars from Nigeria’s state budget
by the late dictator Sani Abacha and others, and
the mechanisms used by lavish bribery schemes
operated by oil company executives and Nigerian
officials. They show how the oil companies,
vulnerable in the global north to criticism of their
barbaric behaviour in the global south, responded
to the outrage of their employees, their customers
and of public opinion over the killing of Saro-
Wiwa with a cynical PR exercise that gave birth
to the fraud of “corporate social responsibility”.

The authors provide both an overview and
substantiating detail, down to the addresses of
crooked lawyers and the career paths of Shell
Nigeria’s bosses, backed with references.

The book’s final argument, alluded to in its
title, is that the would-be masters of the universe
in Washington DC – the State Department
wallahs, oil company lobbyists, think tanks and
neo-conservative consultants – are urging the
US administration to consider a military build
up in the Gulf of Guinea, largely with a view to
safeguarding energy resources in Nigeria, Sao
Tome and Equatorial Guinea. Moreover, they are
being listened to, and there have been joint USNigerian
naval manoeuvres. All this makes The
Next Gulf vital reading for those in the north who
feel themselves to be part of movements to change
the world and challenge those who rule it, and who
believe that that involves uniting with resisters
and fighters in the south.

My question to The Next Gulf’s authors is about
their hesitancy in analysing and contextualising
the new form of imperialism they describe so well.
There’s no hint at what sort of ideas will enable
us (I mean we, who want to change the world) to
understand this imperialism and ways to resist
it. They want their readers to hear what voices
from the Delta say, and that’s important; but
their own conclusions are disappointingly vague:
Rowell describes “the dreadful feeling that the
international community had let Ken [Saro-Wiwa]
down. I still believe that we failed him in his
darkest hour” (p. 40). The international community
of who or what? Obviously not the same one as
the oil companies’. … Marriott writes: “This is our
Empire. We were born in it, we inherited it, its
comforts and cruelties. This is our Empire, ours
to retreat from, and ours to dismantle. I try to
imagine a life without oil”. [5] In which respect is this
empire ours? Who are “we”? How do we retreat
from or dismantle empire?

Perhaps this is partly a generation thing. When
I became politically active in the early 1970s,
everyone told me that changing the world involved
reading theory, and specifically, Marx and the
Marxists. The activism that The Next Gulf’s authors
are involved in – the alliance of environmental and
social protest sometimes called the “anti-globalcapitalism”
movement – appeared in the 1990s, on
the back of the USSR’s collapse and the so-called
“death of socialism”. (The authors are prime
movers in the Remember Saro-Wiwa campaign,
and two of them are affiliated with Platform (www.
platformlondon.org), a combative NGO that aims
at “environmental and social justice”.)

It’s dangerous to generalise, but I’d say that
some “anti-global-capitalism” activists, on the
rebound from the alleged failures of grand
socialist narratives, eschew theory for a let’s-getthings-
done approach. And they do get things
done: many single-issue NGOs rooted in this
movement are sufficiently tenacious, and expert,
that governments and international institutions
listen to, and fear, them. Nevertheless, a book
about the economic and social connections of
which the new imperialism is composed, bereft of
analytical context and its concepts, has its cutting
edge blunted. The Next Gulf’s authors don’t need
a lecture from me about the value of reading
Marx … or writers on imperialism from the south,
from Jose Carlos Marategui and Walter Rodney
to Kwame Nkrumah and Edward Said. Rather, I’ll
press my point with a couple of examples.

First, corruption and transparency. One of The
Next Gulf’s strongest chapters gives an account
of corrupt relationships (involving, specifically,
payment of bribes, opaque disposal of revenues
and laundering of funds alienated from Nigerian
state) between oil companies, money markets
and Nigerian regimes. The issue is not politically
neutral: demands for transparency are used by
the US and other great powers, and not only in
Nigeria, to keep local elites on a tight leash. (The
neo-con Paul Wolfowitz, now in charge of the
World Bank, is accused by development experts
of just such a use of the ideas of transparency and
anti-corruption.) The Next Gulf’s authors quote
Pamela Bridgewater, US ambassador to Ghana,
on the need for oil industry transparency in order
to enhance US energy security, [6] and point out:
“Transparency thus [in her hands] becomes a
means to an end, not an end in itself.” Right. But
then what is transparency for us, who want to
change the world? I’d venture that it’s not an end
in itself for us either.

Do we believe that the state has a greater right
than private capital to control revenues generated
by oil production on land robbed from the Delta’s
people, at the expense of its communities and
their environment, and against their will? Do
we believe the megaprofits are more properly
assigned to Shell’s north American and European
shareholders, or filched by corrupt Nigerian
officials? I’m almost neutral on both counts.
Transparency, though, is a powerful weapon for
organisation by communities, whether in Nigeria
or in the north, by oil workers, by campaigners,
in the context of positing our control of resources
against that of both state and private capital.

One of the most interesting passages in The
Next Gulf reports the National Political Reform
Conference in Nigeria in 2005, where exactly
these issues were discussed. Oronto Douglas
called for “total resource control, which is about
allowing the communities and the people to
be in charge of their lives”. [7] The Delta-based
journalist Patrick Naagbanton said of greater
derivation (a larger proportion of oil revenues
going to local government): “My trouble is with
accountability and good governance. It is OK to
have greater derivation, but not if it is under the
same governance system. Then there is no point,
as the people will never see any of the money”. [8]
In this context, transparency makes sense as an
organising issue. How that can be developed on an
international scale needs to be considered in its
proper context.

A similar point may be made about debt relief.
The Next Gulf’s authors argue that, for governments
and policymakers of the north, debt relief is “not
only a tool for reducing poverty” but also “a tool
for resource exploitation”, [9] and that Nigeria’s 2005
deal – which was loaded with the understanding
that Nigeria would make its energy resources
even more open to exploitation by multinationals
– was very much a double-edged sword, [10] until then
the most indebted nation in Africa. It’s a point
that needs developing, especially in view of the
U2 singer Bono’s politically obscene and widelypublicised
assertion that the deal confirmed Tony
Blair and Gordon Brown as the “Lennon and
McCartney of development”. How does the new
imperialism use debt to keep the Nigerian and
other African elites at its beck and call? What
place does the issue have in the broader totality
of relationships that enable the oil companies to
trample Delta communities? How will these be
challenged? What part can people in the north
play? All this deserves a more robust analytical
framework.

Notes
1 The Next Gulf: London, Washington and Oil Conflict in
Nigeria (London, Constable, 2006) by Andy Rowell,
James Marriott and Lorne Stockman, p.67.
2 I wrote a section on Shell’s relations with Delta
communities to a report by Christian Aid, Behind the
Mask: the real face of corporate social responsibility.
<http://www.christianaid.org.uk/inde...>
3 Full article at <http://www.blacklooks.org/2006/10/
...
>
. See also <http://www.pambazuka.org/en/
categ...
>

4 Ike Okonta and Oronto Douglas, Where Vultures Feast:
Shell, Human Rights and Oil in the Niger Delta (London,
Verso, 2003).
5 The Next Gulf: London, Washington and Oil Conflict in
Nigeria (London, Constable, 2006) by Andy Rowell,
James Marriott and Lorne Stockman, p. 246.
6 Ibid., pp. 187-188.
7 Ibid.,p. 219.
8 Ibid., p. 220.
9 Ibid., p. 186.
10 Ibid., pp. 226-227.

Notes :

[1The Next Gulf: London, Washington and Oil Conflict in
Nigeria (London, Constable, 2006) by Andy Rowell,
James Marriott and Lorne Stockman, p.67.

[2I wrote a section on Shell’s relations with Delta
communities to a report by Christian Aid, Behind the
Mask: the real face of corporate social responsibility.
<http://www.christianaid.org.uk/inde...>

[4Ike Okonta and Oronto Douglas, Where Vultures Feast:
Shell, Human Rights and Oil in the Niger Delta (London,
Verso, 2003).

[5The Next Gulf: London, Washington and Oil Conflict in
Nigeria (London, Constable, 2006) by Andy Rowell,
James Marriott and Lorne Stockman, p. 246.

[6Ibid., pp. 187-188.

[7Ibid.,p. 219.

[8Ibid., p. 220.

[9Ibid., p. 186.

[10Ibid., pp. 226-227.

P.S. :

Simon Pirani is a journalist, covering oil, Russia
and other things, and author of Russian Revolution
in Retreat, 1920-24: Soviet Workers and the New
Communist Elite (forthcoming from Routledge).


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