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Free from Nigerian Military Custody, “Sweet Crude” Director Sandy Cioffi on Oil Politics in the Niger Delta

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The Nigerian government, along with foreign oil companies, have reaped enormous profits over the years from the sale of oil and gas reserves, while the residents of the Niger Delta live in abject poverty. We speak to Sandy Cioffi, director of the the upcoming documentary Sweet Crude. She was recently arrested by the Nigerian military and held for a week before being released following international pressure. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryJul 11, 2003Transcript of Drilling and Killing Documentary
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Nigeria, militants are calling for former US President Jimmy Carter to mediate talks between rebels and the government to end hostilities in the oil-rich Niger Delta. A statement reportedly from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, says the group has offered to stop attacks on oil production facilities if Carter intervenes. Carter said he would consider stepping in if he was also invited by the federal government to do so.

MEND has claimed responsibility for attacks on oil installations in Nigeria this past week. The group emerged in 2006, when they kidnapped oil workers and emailed pictures to news desks to bring attention to the plight of the inhabitants of the Niger Delta.

The Nigerian government, along with foreign oil companies, have reaped enormous profits over the years from the sale of Nigeria’s oil and gas reserves, while the residents of the Niger Delta live in abject poverty. The region is plagued by high unemployment, environmental degradation due to oil and gas extraction, and a lack of basic resources such as fresh water and electricity. Nigeria is Africa’s number one oil producer, accounting for more than a million barrels a day.

This is an excerpt from the upcoming documentary Sweet Crude that highlights the plight of the people of the Niger Delta.

    NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 1: The one thing that people need to know is that for every barrel of oil that comes out of the ground in the Niger Delta, 60 percent goes to the federal government, 40 percent goes to the corporations. And the understanding was that, OK, the federal government will, out of the 60 percent, plant some back into the region. But that is not happening.

    UNIDENTIFIED: 90 percent of the resources that sustain Nigeria are being tapped for majorly oil and gas. No medical attention. No food commodities. No housing. No roads. No electricity. Nothing at all you can talk about, when we’re talking about the inhabitants. There is absolutely nothing. It’s a hundred percent zero.

    NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 2: If they leave, it will not affect us, in any form. Fine, we’ll feel the impact of their presence, as the environment will become normal again.

    NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 3: Yes. If they leave, the better. If they leave —-

    NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 2: If they leave, we will feel the impact of their absence, in the sense that our environment will become normal again gradually.

    NIGER DELTA ACTIVIST: We should be given the right to control our resources, because resource control is our right. We are not beggars. It’s not a privilege. It’s our right to control our resources.

    NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 3: This environment existed for generations, yet all gone. When the generations come, they will miss something on the ground.

    NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 1: Over time, the activities of the oil companies are not helping the people of the Niger Delta. And if this situation is not changed, the future generation will be wiped out.

    CHEVRON WORKER: Yeah, I care. And, I mean, it’s a passion I have. And I appreciate that you are giving me this opportunity to express that passion.

    NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 4: Close to thirty years ago, it was not like this.

    AMERICAN: If you’re driving around the States, you go into Costco, and you sort of stop thinking about, you know, what you just saw in the Delta. And then you look at your children, and you say, my god, you know, this is -— these are things that my children are growing up in this wonderful sort of American environment, and they’re great, but — and then you look at the children in the Delta, you say, they are — but for the grace of God, could have been my children.

    NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 3: Right now, we are borrowing from our grandchildren. I don’t even know what we are going to live.

    NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 2: It is our concern. Where are we going to go? Where do we go?

    NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 3: Where do we go?

    NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 2: Any kind of flood now, you see everybody here being swept out.

    NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 4: If they can have the means of actually having money to train the children, then to have a better livelihood, I would be very happy.

    NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 5: There is no school. Even the schools that are there, there are no teachers to protect these people.

    NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 1: The motivation to even go to school is not even there. Even if you go to school, you won’t get a job, because the companies are not employing locals.

    CHEVRON WORKER: We — given the institution we’re in, imagine if I was a totally different kind of fisherman, [inaudible].

    NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 4: I’d like the American people and people all over the world to realize there’s a segment of humanity that’s here in the Niger Delta suffering as a result of oil production — ordinary men, women, children. They should think about them and not think simply of energy and all that. But think of them as people. That’s more important than anything.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from the upcoming documentary Sweet Crude, directed by filmmaker Sandy Cioffi. She was in the Niger Delta last month, finishing work on the film, was arrested by the Nigerian military, along with her crew, held for a week before being released following international pressure. Her film is slated for completion this summer.

Sandy Cioffi joins us here in the firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!

SANDRA CIOFFI: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Who arrested you? Who detained you?

SANDRA CIOFFI: Originally, we were arrested by the JTF, which stands for Joint Task Force. But after one day of the JTF holding us, our custody was switched to what’s called the SSS, or State Security Services, which is very disconcerting, because that’s sort of the CIA, FBI, Homeland Security all rolled into one.

AMY GOODMAN: Where were you?

SANDRA CIOFFI: We were originally just north of what’s called Wari Nigeria, and that’s the creeks area of exactly where the oil is produced. And we were plucked from there, taken to an army headquarters in Wari, and then driven eight-and-a-half hours to Abuja.

AMY GOODMAN: Did they know who you were?

SANDRA CIOFFI: Not when they first took us. I think it might have been garden-variety harassment, which local people deal with on a daily basis. I think it’s important to say that even though Nigeria was officially a democracy as of 1999, in the Niger Delta it feels like an occupied land. So, for regular people on the waterways fishing, etc., they face daily harassment. We were just plucked, I think, probably for money, for some kind of — it’s possible that the JTF also stopped us because they might have had activities up in the waterway that they didn’t want us to see.

But after they Googled us, when they had us in detention, and they saw the title of the film and my name and they looked online and saw some things, including actually a Democracy Now! piece from a couple of years ago, they made it very clear that they didn’t appreciate the perspective in the film.

AMY GOODMAN: And why did they release you?

SANDRA CIOFFI: Actually, I think we were very fortunate, I mean, when you consider that we were detained for one week, when most Nigerian journalists face brutality that’s at a whole other level. I think we were released because we had a lot of international pressure. I’d been working with some members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, trying to push them toward international mediation. And because they were aware of what we were doing and who we were, we actually had fourteen lawmakers sign onto a letter to the president of the country.

I really feel incredibly lucky. I mean, there are journalists detained, as you know — I know you’re working on that — all over the world right now, including some by the US. So this is, you know, a very dangerous time to be someone working in a place where there’s a story that people don’t want told. So I’m not only fortunate that these lawmakers stepped up, I’d like to convert what they did into a net positive relative to the question of the human rights abuses of journalists.

AMY GOODMAN: Sandy Cioffi, can you talk about this demand of MEND, Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta? Explain who they are and why they’re calling on Jimmy Carter to intervene.

SANDRA CIOFFI: Yeah. I think it has to be a fantastic twist to see a militant organization in a third world country that has been almost begging for international mediation. They were floating the idea that Barack Obama might intervene. Then they’ve been floating the idea that George Clooney would intervene, once he was named the UN ambassador for peace, and now Jimmy Carter.

MEND is considered the sort of pan-Delta umbrella movement, almost an open-source militant movement, if you will. There’s been some controversy about whether MEND is mostly a criminal, corrupt gang of thugs or a legitimate political resistance. I would urge everyone to consider that it’s not a spectator sport, how this will play out. There are, like in any situation where there’s so much abuse and so much cash, there are criminal and political elements. But if there is credible international mediation, then the criminal elements will be marginalized, and the political elements will be more legitimized inside Nigeria. I think it’s not entirely unlike the Northern Ireland situation in 1997, ’98, where you had eleven splinter groups of the IRA, but when the Good Friday Peace Agreement came in, Sinn Fein elements of the IRA were able to win out. So I think if the Carter Center, Jimmy Carter, many of the other parties that have been called upon were to intervene, I think the federal government of Nigeria might be held to task for real legitimate mediation.

AMY GOODMAN: Did they also call on Barack Obama to intervene?

SANDRA CIOFFI: They suggested that he did. They float these ideas. They send a press release out, and they say, “Barack Obama is interested in intervening.” Barack Obama hadn’t initiated that, but my understanding is that he said, well, if it were an Obama administration, certainly the Niger Delta and other preventive diplomacy would be a part of that administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Sandy Cioffi, you have on your website an interview between ABC’s Brian Ross and a MEND leader. Explain why that’s there.

SANDRA CIOFFI: Because in December of 2006, when I was going back to interview one of the heads of MENDMEND really has five heads, and everyone on the ground, including regular women and children, know this, but people in the international press seem to glom onto one leader, and it was a pseudonym name, it was an email name, “Jomo Gbomo,” and all the attention was going to Jomo Gbomo. And it struck me as suspicious that the person who was writing the most incendiary language that could be used for a narrative that MEND is simply a terrorist organization was getting all the international attention.

So when I went there as a freelance person doing the documentary, I was also there shooting for ABC News. The original agreement was that I would be in a hotel room in Wari, Brian Ross would be in New York on the phone and interview him. This was the first person in MEND, unmasked, to identify himself on international television and say, “I am MEND.” It was very brave, and it was a very difficult thing for him to do. ABC chose to leave that footage on the floor. And the story they went with instead was simply an email chat with Jomo Gbomo calling for blowing up car bombs and pipes, etc., when — and the reason I placed the interview on the website is you can see that Brian is asking this guy, who’s name is Paul, over and over again, “Do you have hostages? Where do you get your guns? Are you going to blow anything up? Might you consider doing that tomorrow?” I mean, it almost seems like a Saturday Night Live skit. It’s quite surreal.

So, I mean, I wouldn’t purport that Brian has a particular agenda in the Niger Delta. I just think it was a classic example of the mainstream media going towards the sensational rather than the complexity of a place that is quite literally hanging in the balance, and how these stories are told will impact how they turn out.

AMY GOODMAN: The Bush administration has been pushing to establish AFRICOM forces in Africa. Explain how that fits into the oil-rich Niger Delta.

SANDRA CIOFFI: Oh, it fits in very much. It’s a very important story. The Gulf of Guinea is the water that’s right off the coast of Nigeria, where there is, by some estimates, more than ten times the untapped oil that’s in Saudi Arabia, and the AFRICOM base is proposed for Nigeria. So, what I think, part of the narrative that we have to be very careful about right now is this idea that MEND and the corruption mean this place is just an intractable mess, and without some greater level of US Pentagon intervention we won’t have the kind of stability there we need.

I’d also like to point out that oil production is down by 30 percent in the last two years. Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News are naming now the Niger Delta militants as typically a number one or two reason for the increase in the price of oil. I think that the sad truth is that MEND has known this, and that’s why their tactics have been violent, because it’s the first and only time in a decade they’ve gotten any kind of attention for the story.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the companies that are there? When Democracy Now! then-producer Jeremy Scahill and I went to the Niger Delta in 1998, we focused on Chevron and did this documentary Drilling and Killing: Chevron and Nigeria’s Oil Dictatorship. Ken Saro-Wiwa, the well-known Nigerian Ogoni activist, died taking on Shell in his area of the Niger Delta, in Ogoniland. What are the companies now?

SANDRA CIOFFI: Well, some of the very same suspects. Shell is the largest oil company in the Niger Delta, but Chevron is substantial, and it’s an American-held company. And I think that, for this audience, that makes it really significant.

I’ll say that I actually think this is a unique moment with the oil companies. It’s not to say they are not culpable in large part for where we are, and it’s bizarre to listen to oil company executives portray their situation as if they’re powerless. They talk about this moment in the Niger Delta as if they’re on the other end of something horrible happening to them. That said, because of the instability and because of this current moment — and when I say “current moment,” I mean the escalation in both the real violence and the potential violence — they’re actually at least indicating an interest in being brought to the table as one of the stakeholders in real mediation. I think they would like the appearance of being forced into doing that.

And not that I necessarily trust Chevron to be a great player in the future, but I do think that they would be a better player than some of the other oil companies, particularly from China, for example, that have already indicated that they’d love to come in, and they have no concern about the human rights abuses in the Delta.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, these oil companies posting record profits right now, compared to the level of poverty for the people of the Niger Delta.

SANDRA CIOFFI: It’s unforgivable, and it’s unconscionable. I don’t know how we can deal with it any longer. When we were released from detention after a week and I read the price of oil at that time had hit the all-time high of $119 a barrel, I had the realization that for the first time in my life I had paid the actual price of oil: that kind of denial of humanity that I only tasted that the people there live with every day. It’s unforgivable. And I do think that there is a solution. I think that it is possible that this is the time that both the oil companies and the Nigerian government can be held accountable to pay for what they’ve been pulling out of the ground all these years.

AMY GOODMAN: Sandy Cioffi, I want to thank you for being with us. Her film, Sweet Crude, will be out this summer.

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