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The Fire: The Price of Oil in Africa


ISSUE:  Winter 2007

Nigeria should be a massively rich country. It’s the most populous nation in Africa and the world’s sixth leading oil producer. Over a quarter trillion dollars in oil has been lifted from Nigerian soils and waters in the last four decades. But after years of military rule and rampant corruption, fueled by these oil monies, the country is mired in billions of dollars in debt and is wracked by poverty.

This especially is the case, ironically, in the region from which 100 percent of Nigeria’s oil comes—the Niger Delta region. Filled with dozens of traditional farming villages and ethnic minorities, the Delta region has almost no representation in government and yet provides 80 percent of Nigeria’s revenues with its oil. Villages without basic services watch helplessly as billions of dollars in oil flow from their lands—and then are left to deal with the environmental and health effects of oil spills and towering gas flares.

Let me point out that huge amounts of natural gas emissions are an inevitable by-product of oil drilling, but there are several options for dealing with it. Gas can be harnessed for power, or, if that’s not possible, be reinjected into the ground. The cheapest—and most destructive—alternative is simply setting the gas on fire, a practice known as flaring.

Gas flares never go out—there’s enough gas from even a modest oil well to burn off for decades, day and night—and they are everywhere in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. But few are dramatic as the Oshie flare, owned by the Italian oil company Agip. The Oshie flare is almost on top of a village of 1,700 families, the traditional farmers and fishers of Akaraolu. The villagers were promised jobs and money when Agip first erected the flare in 1972. But none of it materialized, leaving Akaraolu with foundering fishing and agriculture and health problems as a result of the two-hundred-foot-high roaring column of flame in their midst. Constant appeals to Agip and the Nigerian federal government for respite have gone unheeded. Most villagers don’t even remember a time before what they simply call “The Fire” loomed over their lives.

Unfortunately, the situation in the Delta hasn’t changed much at all since these photographs were taken. In 2001, the government and oil companies together pledged to “flare out” by 2004. When that deadline was missed, a Nigerian court gave Shell Oil until April 2007 to end the practice—a ruling that led Environment Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria to declare, “We expect this judgment to be respected and that for once the oil corporations will accept the truth and bring their damaging and wasteful flaring activities to a halt.” But in a recent report, ERA/FEN has curbed its expectations. “It is tempting to believe that the flaring will end by 2008,” the board writes, but “[n]ot only is that date too late, the history of Nigerian flaring suggests that such a belief would be naive.”

Meanwhile, the people there grow more and more angry with each passing year. Eventually, the region is sure to explode into madness.

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