Thursday, August 14, 2008

Ogoni memories over the transom

I am digging out from under email at work after being away from more than a week visiting family in North Carolina and hanging out at the Bascom Lamar Lunsford archive and at Mitch Easter's studio.

A lot piles up in an editor's inbox in ten days. It's tought to slog through it all. But I'm glad I found this one. This opinion piece trying to connect rising international oil prices with unrest in the Niger Delta brought back some vivid memories.

In the early- to mid-'90s I did quite a bit of support work with some Ogoni exiles living in St. Louis. They were political refugees who had fled Nigeria after the military government there hanged Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni leaders and got away with it.

Ken had courageously left the comfortable life of a successful writer in London to organize the members of his tiny minority tribe. He called attention to the environmental degradation of Ogoni villages by Shell Oil and evidence that Shell was conspiring with the Nigerian military government to raid Ogoni villages and arm neighboring tribal groups against them, in the time-honored tradition of divide-and-rule.

When the writer of this opinion piece speaks of the "Dutch disease," there is a veiled allusion to Shell Oil, which is a Dutch company. Back when we were organizing protests at Shell stations in St. Louis once a month, Shell flew representatives to meet us from Nigeria and Dallas. We lobbied the State Department and the Congressional Black Caucus. We caught Carol Mosely Braun - who had befriended Gen. Sani Abacha, the man who gave the order for Ken to be killed - sneaking guiltily out of her Senate office, when we had been told she was out of town and couldn't meet with us. Adam Long and I produced rebel radio for the Ogoni that was broadcast in Nigeria and eventually landed us, too, on Abacha's death list.

Those were heady days. They are not yet over, as this piece makes clear, though they quieted down, some, for the Ogoni after Abacha died - reportedly, in bed, during the act of coitus. Now the Ogoni in St. Louis can go back home without fear for their lives, though they have become entrenched here in the U.S. and everything has changed so much in so many ways that they really can't ever go back home again, not to the world they left.

The picture of the Niger Delta oil works is from Oil Change International. It reminds me of the time I took the Ogoni leader Noble Obani-Nwibari to see my hometown, Granite City, which is dominated by a steel plant with a big, ever-burning gas flare. Noble said, "Chay. This place, it looks just like Ogoni."


Why the Crisis in the Niger Delta Matters to the World
By Osamede Okhomina
(LAGOS) --- Nigeria derives some 95 percent of its foreign earnings from the oil industry. Until very recently, Nigeria was the largest oil producer in Africa and the sixth largest in the world. Petroleum accounts for 40 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, while the vast majority of the country’s oil production, onshore and offshore, comes from the Niger Delta region.
Among African countries, Nigeria has the largest population and the second-largest economy (following South Africa), making it a magnet to foreign investors and trade, no matter the risks it presents as an "emerging market," to use investment-analyst jargon. It is a giant compared to its West African neighbors and, compared to virtually anywhere else in Africa, it has a larger market with more money to spend on goods and services.
Nigeria is thus a linchpin in attracting investors to the continent. Its banking, insurance, and other service industries help run its economy and are used not only by Nigerians but by foreign companies and neighboring countries.
Looking at our recent history, Nigeria has suffered particularly from the so-called "Dutch Disease." This term was coined in the 1960s by The Economist to define the relationship between exploitation of natural resources and a decline in other sectors of the economy.
In the course of time, many countries have suffered from Dutch Disease, with parts of their economies undeveloped or allowed to atrophy. There’s no need to mention examples: they exist on every continent. The Nigerian experience has not, however, simply been one of mere neglect of other economic sectors. Since the discovery of oil in 1957, there has also been a more insidious influence.
In fact, owing to the overweening importance of oil, other parts of the economy have been ignored outright.
So, for example, the formerly vibrant agricultural sector, which still employs 60 percent of the workforce, once grew Nigeria’s own food as well as made the country a net exporter of agricultural products. Today Nigeria imports the crops that once built her reputation as Africa’s largest exporter.
Despite the mining sector’s huge potential, its story is also largely one of neglect. Nigeria has large deposits of coal, tin, iron ore, limestone, niobium, lead, and zinc. These constitute a remarkable collection of resources to turn one’s back on, and this from a country with major leather, textile, car, and truck manufacturing industries – even a national space research and development agency. Our potential is enormous, if unfulfilled.
Sadly, Dutch Disease went to the core of Nigeria’s body and soul. While the Delta may be the beating heart of the economy, after recent civil unrest there, it cannot be made "healthy" again by applying bandages or painkillers. For that is mere tokenism. Recent efforts by Nigeria’s government have been tireless in seeking to address this central issue. But years of neglect mean that there is now a daunting task ahead, at every level. Goodwill is by now in short supply; confrontation has become a way of life.
Let us now imagine things getting worse, a lot worse – accidentally or otherwise. What if oil production fell, as it did in April and May this year, but even more dramatically?
Think about attacks on oil installations, strikes by workers, and resulting blockages in delivery of crude oil – suddenly, unexpectedly, rapidly, like a perfect storm. We might then see government’s financial targets, centrally and locally, not being met; the banking sector would soon get nervous and perhaps, instinctively, slide towards a meltdown in a sub-prime style crisis of its own. Within days this could affect investor confidence in the country’s entire energy market. It would spread well beyond Nigeria’s borders to push up prices worldwide, in an attempt to balance supply and demand.
In today’s global market, such a Doomsday in the Delta is not some far-off, theoretical possibility. It started happening this spring – and with further strikes and demonstrations still promised, as well as the breakdown of negotiations between protest groups and the government, the specter is returning. The fall in Nigeria’s output has had a direct impact on peaking fuel prices worldwide, hence also on the sudden emergencies that hit the smallest and the largest countries alike – from South East Asia to the United States.
If we seek assurance that a perfect storm could never happen, the indicators are not inspiring. Our Dutch Disease needs a rapid cure, if we are to survive, let alone if we’re to build a better, stronger energy industry.

Whatever our individual motives are, we have to get it right. We had better sit down in the villages, around a table, and not get up until a common way forward has been forged. We needn’t pretend it will be easy – life isn’t easy. But I don’t believe we have a choice any more. We must find the answers; and we must find them together.
The snapshot bio of Osamede Okhomina identifies him as "CEO of Energy Equity Resources (, a London-based Anglo-Norwegian oil and gas exploration company that partners with Chevron and ExxonMobil in the Gulf of Guinea." The connection to competitors of Shell, of course, puts the criticism of the "Dutch disase" in context!

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