The Next Gulf: London, Washington & the Oil Conflict in Nigeria

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In recent months, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta — MEND — has intensified its conflict with the Nigerian government and its largest commercial partner, the oil giant Shell. Government forces have bombarded villages and oil rigs in its attacks on MEND’s ethnic Ijaw rebels. We speak with James Marriot, author of “The Next Gulf.” [includes rush transcript]

Several unarmed civilians have been reported killed in the attacks. Meanwhile, MEND has kidnapped foreign workers, killed Nigerian troops and attacked major oil installations. Their incursions have led to a 20% decline in Nigeria’s overall oil production.

MEND is demanding the release of imprisoned political leaders, an end to government corruption, a greater share of oil revenues, and compensation for environmental damage caused by Shell’s activities in the Niger Delta. Last month, a Nigerian court ordered Shell to pay $1.5 billion dollars in environmental damages. But the oil giant refused to pay the fine and is now appealing the ruling. Rebels have also made similar demands of oil conglomerate ExxonMobil.

Last week, MEND released six kidnapped foreign oil workers. Three other hostages — two Americans and a British citizen — remain in captivity. One of the freed workers, U.S. citizen Macon Hawkins, was released on his 69th birthday. Hawkins said, “I think the U.S. needs to keep up the pressure on the Nigerian government to pay attention to these people, and do something about their poor conditions.”

The rebels’ complaints of government corruption were bolstered Wednesday with the announcement the top military commander in the Niger delta has been removed for his alleged involvement in the theft of crude oil. Rebel groups have long accused Brigadier General Elias Zamani and other top military officials of being key actors in the $100 million-dollar stolen oil trade. Analysts say the market for stolen oil is one of the leading issues at the heart of the region’s conflicts.

Despite the country’s oil wealth, most of Nigeria’s citizens live in abject poverty. Nigeria is the world’s eighth largest oil supplier and the fifth largest supplier of crude oil to the U.S. President Bush has said he wants to see oil exports from the region increase. The Nigerian government recently asked Britain and the U.S. for military help in its fight against the rebels. Today, we take a look at the situation in the Niger Delta and how the British and the United States governments have become involved in its fate.

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

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by James Marriott. He is co-author of the book, The Next Gulf: London, Washington and Oil Conflict in Nigeria. He’s a part of the group, Platform, which is a social and ecological justice organization based here in London. Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. Talk about what we’re seeing right now in the Niger Delta.

JAMES MARRIOTT: One of the things that I think is very striking is the exactitude of the rebels’ actions. Just today, there’s a news release of rebel action that’s been stopped, ceased to carry forward in the east of Niger Delta. Most of the stuff that we’ve seen in the recent period has been in the Western Niger Delta, near Warri. The most recent stuff that’s been happening is in the Eastern Niger Delta. And there, the rebels have ceased holding kidnaps and restraint and acts on a terminal called Qua Ibo.

And one of the things that’s most interesting about it is that their demand — they have a clear, specific demand to Exxon, that they should pay compensation for an oil spill that was made in 1998. So here they were, they were making an action, which was for compensation to be paid for something which was eight years ago.

A lot of the media representation of the rebels, and so on and so forth, in the West, in London and Washington, tends to be of people, you know, crazed kids with AK-47s running around. But, actually, if you look at the detail of the thing, you realize just how exact their actions are, and you can see that they’re demanding very specific things.

What you mentioned before about $1.5 billion claim for oil compensation against Shell, the senate, it was passed through the senate, the Nigerian senate, that this should take place. Shell said, as they have in many, many other cases, “Well, we’re going to appeal against this. We want something to do.” The rebels said, “No, we need this paid now.” So it’s very, very precise actions that are being taken by the rebels in the Delta.

The thing that strikes us, the writers of the book, in the work that we do at Platform is one needs to emphasize the complicity of the oil companies in this process. There’s often the case that we tend to dress up the way in which we look at Nigeria as being a chaotic state, even a failed state in the southern part of Nigeria. And there’s nothing to be done, and the poor oil companies are, you know, at the mercy of the winds there. But they are fundamentally actors in this process. They’re fundamentally part of the problem.

This year is a significant year. It’s 50 years since oil was commercially discovered in Nigeria. Shell/BP, in fact, struck oil commercially in 1956. 50 years this year. 50 years, $300 billion estimated worth of oil coming out of the Niger Delta. And as you say, people live in abject poverty. And the companies are complicit in that, not just the government of Nigeria, and so on.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think needs to happen now, and how organized is the resistance? And in the British press, I’m wondering if it is like the U.S. press, in vilifying those that take a stand against. It’s always militants, kidnappers, thugs. That’s usually how — vagabonds.

JAMES MARRIOTT: Yeah, absolutely. What needs to happen? Well, the first thing that needs to happen is that the corporations, the oil corporations, particularly Shell and then Chevron and Mobil and so on, need to be held accountable for what they’ve done, need to be held accountable for 50 years of environmental despoilation, human rights abuses that they’ve been implicated in. They need to be held accountable, and there needs to be a just process by which the revenue from the oil that’s extracted from the Delta is distributed. But first and foremost, I think, is that the accountability of the companies, and also the individuals within the companies. Let us think specifically about the individuals who have made these choices. To give a specific example, after the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa, which I’m sure your listeners will know about —

AMY GOODMAN: Ken Saro-Wiwa, who died just over ten years ago, who was a spokesperson for the Ogoni people, who were taking on Shell in the early 1990s.


AMY GOODMAN: And executed in a military tribunal with other minority rights activists in Nigeria.

JAMES MARRIOTT: Just after that, Shell instituted a whole series of what some people call Greenwash, the company called “social responsibility processes.” And one of those was that there should be a series of letters, whereby the heads of the oil company in Nigeria, for example, would write to the head of the exploration and production unit in the Hague and London, and say that the company was abiding by the principles of the company — the good — the basic principles, which was respect for human life, respect for the environment, etc., which was laid down in a set of new principles published in 1997.

So every year the head of Shell Nigeria had to write a letter saying, “We’re going to apply — we’re applying to those, we’re abiding by them.” And every year, the head of Shell would say, “Good, we’ve received this letter. That’s good.” One of the interesting things about this new principle is that they had to accept personal responsibility for the accuracy of those letters. So, how come the heads of Shell in Nigeria, who we can name as Philip Watts, Basil Omiyi, Chris Finlayson, how come they can have written those letters in the circumstances that we’ve seen over the last ten years and get away with it? It’s appalling.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have any hope, as we wrap up right now?

JAMES MARRIOTT: Yes, I think there is. There is hope, if we can keep the momentum of public view on this. We need to get public understanding of the situation in the Niger Delta. That’s one of the reasons we’ve been organizing a project called the Remember Saro-Wiwa Project, which is to create a living memorial for Ken Saro-Wiwa and all the people in the Delta who have been affected by our oil production over the last 50 years, in London. It’s a sculpture and an education project to educate citizens here in London.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve talked about Shell. There’s also, of course, ExxonMobil and Chevron. Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill and I went in 1998 to Nigeria and produced the documentary, Drilling and Killing: Chevron and Nigeria’s Oil Dictatorship, but in ten seconds, the whole group of oil companies in the Niger Delta.

JAMES MARRIOTT: Yes, I mean, one needs to look at this as a web. One of the ways, I mean, we understand this work is it’s a carbon web. It’s a web of all these companies working together and all the security agencies and the advertising agencies, and so on and so forth. The whole lot needs to be looked at.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you, James Marriott, co-author of The Next Gulf: London, Washington and Oil Conflict in Nigeria.

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