Bright Lights, Hard Lives

Bright Lights, Hard Lives

Attorney and activist Mohammed Yamah says the people of the Niger Delta lack basic health care and education. (Photo by Angilee Shah)

The people of Nigeria's southern delta region benefit little from oil wealth. UCLA panel discussions focus on the causes of their distress.

I think until we as Nigerian citizens acknowledge that there is an insidious [corruption] problem, then we cannot attack it and solve it.

Although most Nigerians in the southern region known as the Niger Delta do not have electricity, their sky is lit up at night. The lights come from the burning off or "flaring" of natural gases, a byproduct of the two million barrels of oil pulled from the ground every day.

It's like having a jet engine next to your home, explained Jimmie Williams, an attorney in the Africa unit of the Burnham Brown law firm, at a Sept. 21, 2006, panel discussion sponsored by the UCLA African Studies Center, the UCLA Globalization Research Center–Africa (GRCA), the UCLA Anderson School of Management, and the Africa-USA International Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

And while Nigeria, with $45 billion in oil export revenue in 2005, is the fifth largest oil producer in the world as well as the fifth largest U.S. supplier, the average per capita income of Nigerians has been on a steady decline since the 1970s. According to Dr. Godwin Duru, a candidate for the proposed senatorial representative position of the Niger Delta, 80 percent of Nigeria's budget and 98 percent of its exports depend on oil, but as of 1999 only 13 percent of oil revenues makes it to the region. A 2004 Amnesty International report says that 70 percent of Nigerians live on less than a dollar a day.

"With the discovery of oil, the region became very rich but the fact is that they remain very poor," said GRCA Director Edmond Keller, a UCLA political scientist.

Nigeria's enormous contradictions animated back-to-back panel discussions at UCLA that were part of a three-day conference featuring events around Los Angeles. The Sept. 21 panels were marked by an unusual mix of participants: a Nigerian politician, an activist and lawyer born in the Niger Delta, a U.S. lawyer representing Nigerian expatriates in a lawsuit, and UCLA scholars. An ongoing armed conflict in the delta region and fresh allegations of corruption in regional governments were part of the discussions' backdrop.

Duru said that the Niger Delta is almost completely militarized. Government troops regularly clash with local militias that are demanding a share of the oil money and basic human rights for inhabitants. Earlier this year a series of kidnappings and attacks, some claimed by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), reportedly shut down about a quarter of the country's oil production.

Armed conflicts rooted in inequitable distribution of oil wealth are not new to Nigeria, Duru said. The Ogoni conflict of 1992–95 was sparked after the government began forcing the people of Ogoniland in the southeast of Nigeria to give their land up to oil companies for little compensation. When the Ogonis began to fight back, military repression ensued, culminating in the executions of nine activists, including the famed Ken Saro-Wiwa.

According to Mohammed Yamah, an attorney and human rights activist who was born in the southern state of Edo, the actions of MEND and other militant groups have arisen from the frustration of youth living in abject poverty in the region. They do without basic schooling and health care and suffer from the tremendous environmental damage perpetrated by oil companies. Yamah called on the government to invest in "peace building" and education and to stop doling out contracts to elites.

It is not enough to insist that the government spend oil money on public services, suggested Andrew Apter, a UCLA professor of history and a scholar of the Yoruba ethnic group in southwest of Nigeria. When oil prices soared in the 1970s, he explained, Nigeria's government became more centralized. Although it used some oil wealth to promote education and health, money was not put into industries that could generate capital. As people eventually became poorer, unemployment and unrest grew, said Apter.

Yamah and Duru agreed that a "veil of secrecy" around the activities of Shell, Chevron, and other oil companies contributes to residents' disenfranchisement. In 2005, Transparency International ranked Nigeria as one of the ten most corrupt countries in the world. "Oil wealth is particularly corrupting because it is easy wealth," said Robert Spich of the UCLA Anderson School, which hosted the event.

According to Williams, foreign direct investment will be very important to Nigeria's development, and "businesses do not want to be subject to laws of foreign governments that will not operate in a transparent manner."

Williams is representing the BFI Group, a Los Angeles–based consortium of Nigerian businessmen, in a lawsuit involving alleged official corruption in the country. The complaint charges that the Russian aluminum producer Rusal conspired with the Nigerian government to ensure the rejection of a $410 million bid by BFIG on an aluminum smelter plant in the Delta region state of Akwa Ibom. Rusal's $250 million bid was accepted. The Russian company has denied charges of bribery and said that BFI Group was disqualified by the Nigerian government for "non-compliance with the tender conditions."

Mukosolu Onwughalu, a Nigerian-born graduate student in the School of Public Health at UCLA who attended the event, said that corruption is the main problem in the Niger Delta. "I think until we as Nigerian citizens acknowledge that there is an insidious problem, then we cannot attack it and solve it," she said.

Published: Wednesday, October 11, 2006