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As Hundreds Die in an Oil Pipeline Explosion in Lagos, a Look at the Fight over Nigeria’s Natural Resources

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Sandy Cioffi, the director of the film “Sweet Crude,” joins us in New York just hours after she returned from Nigeria. She talks about how the popular resistance movement in the Niger Delta continues to fight multinational oil companies for control of the country’s natural wealth. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Nigeria, where at least 200 people have died after an oil pipeline exploded early this morning in the country’s commercial capital of Lagos. It’s feared the final death toll could be much higher. The explosion comes at a time when tension has been rising, especially in the Niger Delta, over who controls the region’s vast natural resources. Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil producer and the United States’ fifth-largest oil supplier.

Last week, two car bombs exploded outside an oil company compound. On Saturday, a car bomb exploded outside the state governor’s office in Port Harcourt. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, claimed responsibility for the bombing. In an email to the press, the group stated governors in the Niger Delta and other political figures, quote, “have acted against the interest of the people of the Niger Delta, sabotaging all efforts at resource control for selfish reasons.”

Saturday was the first time MEND has targeted a government building in over a year. The group has kidnapped foreign oil workers and occupied pumping stations run by multinational oil companies. MEND has also held four foreign oil workers hostage since December 7th. The group has said the hostages will not be released until the government releases two jailed leaders from the Delta, gives compensation to villagers for oil pollution, transfers control of oil resources to local communities and provides reparations for 50 years of enslavement by the oil industry.

In a minute, we’ll be joined by Sandy Cioffi. She’s a documentary filmmaker who returned last night from Nigeria. But first, this is an excerpt of the trailer of Sandy’s documentary Sweet Crude, a film about the Niger Delta.

NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 1: The effect of the oil pollution on the water, too. You be seeing it floating on the river, OK? So people cannot drink this water, and because of the floating effect of this oil that is on the surface, it kills the marine life and the aquatic life. And so, you see that people cannot even fish. People cannot do anything. Their livelihood is being destroyed.

NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 2: When you lose everything, you lose the environment, you lose everything. You lose your land. You lose the facility. You lose the health of the land. What do you have left?

Telling people the way forward, and the way forward is peace and prosperity and partnership.

NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 3: We will come together as educated and learned people with the support of [inaudible] people here, who can move forward.

NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 2: We’re not talking about partnership in terms of the Niger Delta. I speak about the people, the people in the communities, including the women I’ve spoken with, the youths.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The students are out on their march this morning through town, and they’ve got placards. One of them says “Obasanjo” — which is the president of Nigeria — “Obasanjo out of oil resource control.” One of them says, “South-South movement for resource control supported by students.”

NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 3: Could this peace process be real? Is it real?

NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 4: We’ve had some very violent inter-ethnic strife in the area, and when I say violent, I mean really violent. So there are some communities that are no longer in existence, because they’ve been burnt down.

NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 5: Well, the people of the [inaudible] in this area, they decided to build a clinic that the people of the area can use. You know, it was unfortunately during the crisis, it was burned down.

NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 6: Can you imagine in a situation of conflict, of real war, like we’ve had in this area, and then you’re stuck here, and then you have — you possibly have an enemy or two, you know, two boats out there waiting for you, can you imagine? I mean, where do you go?

CHEVRON REP.: Niger Delta is providing almost one-third of the oil that we are producing, and a lot of that oil is shut in because of ethnic unrest, so we have flow stations, pipelines, platforms, where we can’t produce the oil, because of this enormous community unrest.

NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 2: To begin the move away from chaos and violence and death to life.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from Sweet Crude, directed by Sandy Cioffi, who joins us now in the firehouse studio. Sandy is also a professor in the Film and Video Communications Department at Central Community College in Seattle, Washington. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

SANDY CIOFFI: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ve just got the news out of Nigeria, this in the commercial capital Lagos, that at least 200 people — it looks like the number could be higher — have died in yet another oil pipeline explosion. Talk about the politics of what’s happening in Nigeria now.

SANDY CIOFFI: Well, Nigeria is the largest producer of oil in Africa, and actually it produces more oil than Iraq and Kuwait combined. And the people of Nigeria have seen none of the revenue from that oil. So what happens, the danger in the bunkering, which is the word that’s used for people who steal oil — some people say it’s not stealing because it’s the oil that comes from their land, and they have no income. So very desperate people will actually get the equipment and go to pipelines, and they’ll puncture them to take oil and sell on the black market. It’s a very complicated thing, because you can’t just sort of walk up with a drill and do it. You have to have fairly complicated equipment. And the government claims that it’s all thieves, but they have to be involved in what’s happening, because people get in and out of the rivers in huge tankers and pass Nigerian navy. So it’s very common that people are stealing oil. It’s extremely dangerous, and explosions are not that uncommon. And that’s likely what occurred.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about who controls these pipelines and particularly the activism that is going on right now in the Niger Delta.

SANDY CIOFFI: For the last 50 years, oil has been produced in Nigeria, and that 50 years is also the period of time during which Nigeria has been free from being a British colony. The truth is that the legacy of that colony has the same structure laid on it, in terms of the corporate life now, so that what happened is that the corporate politics intersected with the existing illegal dictatorships. And those dictatorships were just happy to sign laws that said, OK, if there’s oil under your feet, the government and the oil companies own it.

So in the last 50 years, what has happened to the people in the Niger Delta is that they have had dredging, they have had a loss of their environment that’s unprecedented in one lifetime. They have no ability to fish, to farm. But all of the oil under their feet is owned in a joint collusion relationship in these what are called venture partnerships between corporations, one of which is an American corporation, Chevron, and several others. Shell is the largest actually. And they are essentially in a relationship where the government and those oil companies own all of that oil, the revenues of which are almost never seen by the people who are suffering from the consequences of it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Sandy Cioffi, who has just returned from Nigeria. Talk about the organization, MEND.

SANDY CIOFFI: MEND stands for the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. In Nigeria, there has been activism over the last 20 years that some people may recognize some of the names, Ken Saro-Wiwa being the most famous activist. He was an Ogoni activist who was executed in 1995. And in his footsteps came some people who began to, instead of believing in nonviolent activism, began to believe in more violent response to their choice of how they would resist what they consider to be the enslavement of their people.

There was actually one significant nonviolent protest in 2002, which was led by a group of women who commandeered an oil platform. But in the Niger Delta, the relationship of people who, to us, we would consider to be in very separate categories — students, mothers, elders — those people are all related and all work together. MEND is an outgrowth of the group of young men who have no future, no jobs, who saw their mothers beaten within an inch of their lives on those oil platforms. And some of them were volunteer force members under Asari Dokubo, who has been in jail for the last two years, but they really only formed about a year ago. It’s almost exactly a year ago that MEND formed, and it formed originally in what is called Delta State.

It’s very confusing right now, because there is a group called MEND that is claiming responsibility for some of what is occurring, but the original members of MEND, who are recognized as MEND by the United States government, Chevron security, those people are claiming that some of what’s occurring is by counterfeits.

AMY GOODMAN: And the women, the role that the women have played in this?

SANDY CIOFFI: Well, the women in Nigeria, as you can imagine, much like in many countries that have been exploited as a one-resource economy, the women have really suffered the most. The infant mortality rate is extremely high; the life expectancy, very short; the disease level, very high. And these women have suffered. The men often go off to the city to have any income at all, and they’re left alone to care for their families.

These women came together in 2002 and decided that they had had enough, and they would paddle wooden canoes up to huge oil platforms and climb on them and actually threaten to take their shirts off, which in Africa is a very big threat, and actually scared — the oil workers said, “Well, we’ve been trained for every possible security threat, but we were never trained for hundreds of women to come in here and threaten to take their shirts off.” And it was very effective. And for the first time, something called an MOU was signed, which is a memorandum of understanding.

And those women were demanding fairly basic things, like jobs, some remediation of the environment, water, electricity, healthcare, basic infrastructure that you would expect, that if you have $38 billion annually of revenue going to your government, that you would have, and they have none of those things. In fact, they have quite the opposite. They have their livelihood taken away from them. The huge rivers of the Niger Delta used to yield fish that were just enormous. One day’s catch could feed your family for a week. Now, the fish are — and I’ve filmed this, I’ve seen it — the fish are tiny. They have almost no meat. And they’re pure poison. They’re just soaking up oil, acid rain. So these women have suffered an enormous amount.

They commandeered these oil platforms. They got the MOUs signed. Very sadly, those MOUs have mostly gone —

AMY GOODMAN: Memos of understanding.

SANDY CIOFFI: Memoranda of understanding have largely gone unfulfilled. So many of those women have sons and have, through those women’s groups and then student groups, have said, “We have to step this up to another level.” I was actually under the impression before I was there this summer that many of the women would take issue with the choice to move toward violence. I was surprised to find that many of them actually feel that that’s necessary at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: Sandy Cioffi, we’re going to break, then come back and also hear a clip of Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Literature Prize winner talking about his country, Nigeria. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. Sandy Cioffi is the director of a new film she’s making called Sweet Crude. She’s just returned from the Niger Delta. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We are continuing with Sandy Cioffi, documentary filmmaker, director of a new film called Sweet Crude. I wanted to play a clip of Wole Soyinka. He is a renowned writer from Nigeria, won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his writing. He joined us in our studio in April. This is what he had to say about the situation in the Niger Delta.

WOLE SOYINKA: Well, some of these companies and the governments that they represent, in some cases, make a mistake when they think that the indigenous of the land from whom this wealth is extracted, illiterate, not knowledgeable, uninformed, this is the fundamental mistake which they make. The thing they do not — those who actually live there and whose land has been degraded, whose fishing ponds are being polluted, whose farm lands have been totally rendered useless for farming purposes, whose very air has been completely toxified by decades of gas flaring, they make a mistake when they think they do not observe the digits of profit, the statistics of profit being turned in by the companies, in other words, to the detriment of their own existence.

And so, the militancy in the oil-producing region has escalated in recent months. You must have heard of hostage-taking, and I personally, I’m in a position to tell you that I have participated in the efforts to release those hostages, which came to a successful conclusion. So I am in touch with some of these people, these young people, highly motivated. They are not thugs. They are not riffraff, as they are sometimes portrayed. They are disciplined. And they are determined to correct decades of injustice, and that’s all they’re really after. You may disagree with their methods, but believe me, nobody should underestimate the very deep motivation that impels these people.

AMY GOODMAN: Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka, in our studio this past April. Sandy Cioffi, he’s talking about the original MEND, the activists. He participated in some of the negotiations around hostage release.

SANDY CIOFFI: Mm-hmm, as did Oronto Douglas, a fairly well-known environmental activist, who we’ve interviewed. I think this really brings up an important question about the role of legitimate resistance movements post-September 11th. It is mass media’s inclination to instantly start using the word “terrorist.” And what seems to be true on the ground right now for the best of our ability to just determine what’s going on, is that there are some either splinter groups or some people are accusing the Nigerian government, with the support of U.S. intelligence, in intentionally muddying the waters of this resistance movement, which was beginning to get fairly strong pan-Delta support. And as the elections are looming in Nigeria, this would be the first peaceful election if it were to occur in April. The stakes are quite high right now. And having a very strong legitimate resistance movement gaining some international sympathy seems to be very dangerous to the forces that want continued unfettered profits with absolutely no spotlight on looking at these land-use laws.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s something Ken Saro-Wiwa was leading before he was executed November 10, 1995, by the Nigerian dictatorship, when he was protesting Shell in Ogoniland. I did a documentary with my colleague, Democracy Now! producer Jeremy Scahill, called Drilling and Killing: Chevron and Nigeria’s Oil Dictatorship. What do you think is the role of these oil companies and the responsibility of corporations like Chevron?

SANDY CIOFFI: Well, since the time of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s execution, some of their role has been the same, but I think there are some important changes for us to look in terms of what U.S. citizens can and should be doing right now in a very urgent moment, in what we have to call one of the most preventable tragedies in Africa. The role of the oil companies at this point is quite simple, but they talk about it as being very complicated. They are a major player in the future and the current state of this country. They claim, whenever you ask them critically what they’re doing, they claim that they should not be involved in the affairs of a foreign nation, which is of course absurd, because they’re engaged in influencing the affairs of foreign nations every day. In Nigeria, they literally sit down at the table with the Nigerian government and work with them every day to determine what’s going to happen with petroleum-use laws, with the environment, with actually how to deal with the resistance itself. So —

AMY GOODMAN: With the military as their own security.

SANDY CIOFFI: Oh, absolutely. The JTF, which means joint task force, serves as private security forces in, in essence, occupied villages. These villages are the places where pump stations are right literally in the middle of town. Gas flares right next to where people live. And the JTF is serving as security for Chevron and Shell.

I will tell you that those companies are starting to hear that — because they’re right there on the front line, they are behaving as if they know that the time might run out for their ability to produce. In fact, Shell is down 25 percent in their production, because of the unrest. When I was there this last two weeks, the night sky, instead of being lit by seven gas flares, was only lit by two, because that many facilities have shut down.

So, the other interesting thing to note, is that what the people are saying is that with these oil facilities shut down, the environment is actually coming back, that there is some relief from some of the acid rain. You would think that people would say, “Well, if the oil companies leave, then, well, where will we get any revenue at all?” But I’ve heard many village people say, “Just fine. Just go ahead. Leave. We would prefer to see the environment be remediated and go back to fishing and farming.”

AMY GOODMAN: And so, the responsibility of the oil companies, not only there, but they are chartered in the United States. One of the stories that we exposed in 1998 was Chevron bringing in the Nigerian military, who opened fire on protesters who were protesting yet another oil spill, and they killed two villagers, critically wounded a third, rounded up others, put them in the notorious Nigerian jails, where some were tortured. Part of charters in this country are corporate responsibility.

SANDY CIOFFI: Mm-hmm. And it seems pretty clear right now that Nigeria is a fledgling democracy. And there is an election coming. It seems clear that there has been, I think, some hope in the corporate world that we still just wouldn’t be paying attention. The Niger Delta seems to me one of those top 10 untold stories in the mass media, given the importance of the place and the potential humanitarian crisis. And the fact of the matter is that Chevron should be held responsible by U.S. citizens to behave as a corporate player in the same way they would have to in San Francisco. And they would not be able to behave — we would hope, certainly, they would not be able to behave as a player in this way in San Francisco.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. As we are doing this broadcast, we’re seeing the numbers mount in the Lagos oil pipeline explosion. It looks, at this point, like there are at least 500 people that have died. Sandy Cioffi, I want to thank you for being with us. Sandy Cioffi is the documentary filmmaker who is doing the film Sweet Crude. She is a professor of film and video at the Video and Film Communications Department at Central Community College in Seattle, Washington, returned last night from Nigeria.

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