Such a common word, usually accompanied by a broad smile and hand shake. As I shuffled through the customs line at Lagos airport I spotted a sign that read “Welcome to Nigeria, home of the happiest people on earth”. And sometimes that’s how it felt. But there is also another and unmistakable truth here: the reality of massive poverty amid incredible riches.
Oil is, of course, at the heart of this wealth and I have never seen a nation so indebted and so enthralled to this resource. Oil is like a central motif of the country, from the roads crowded with tankers, to the dozens of petrol stations built side by side along great stretches of highway - now mostly family homes - to the not quite finished national capital, Abuja, started at the height of the oil rush.
Its highways that don't link up somehow seem symbolic of the promise of wealth that must have hovered like a great cloud of optimism and hope after the World War II when Shell and other companies started to explore for and extract oil and gas from the Niger Delta.
Nigeria is now one of the major fossil fuel producers on the planet. Yet for all the billions of dollars slipping into the coffers of the local government elite and out of the country into those of major companies, about 65 per cent of Nigerians still don't have access to safe drinking water. Poverty is getting worse, with about 66 per cent of people living on less than US$1 per day (this figure has grown from 43 per cent in 1985).
According to the World Bank, economic mismanagement, corruption and excessive dependence on oil have been the main reasons for poor economic performance and rising poverty.
I am reminded of the words of Mirrar traditional owner Yvonne Margarula who, speaking of the prospect of uranium mining in her homeland said, “the promises never last but the problems always do”.
If you fly into Abuja on British Airways, you will be struck by the fact that first and business class seating dominates the plane, with economy squeezed up the back - testament to the well paid company and government officials jetting between Nigeria and corporate offices in Western Europe. While the local political elites and oil companies have grown fabulously rich, oil has proved to be a false saviour for the majority of Nigerians.
The struggle ten years on
A little over a decade ago, when the Nigerian dictatorship murdered Ken Saro Wiwa and eight other Ogoni men for their struggle against the oil companies, there was global outrage. From pickets and blockades of Shell petrol stations to well co-ordinated international boycott campaigns, the world was aware of what was happening. Students, trade unionists, churches and investors mobilised.
Shell were pariahs. Representatives of the Ogoni travelled globally and built support for their cause: momentum grew for justice for the people of the Niger Delta; for good corporate behaviour; for an end to the deaths and displacement.
Then came the Brent Spar, when Shell made good mileage in the face of Greenpeace’s occupation of an oil rig which was going to be dumped in the North Sea. The company reinvented itself as green and responsible, investing millions in greenwash and spin while admittedly also lifting its game in many areas and sectors and increasing investment in renewables. Slowly, the world stopped paying attention to what was happening in the swampy ecosystems and isolated communities at the lower end of the great Niger River system.
In an attempt to draw back some attention to what is really happening on the ground, Environmental Rights Action (ERA) and Friends of the Earth Nigeria (FoE) have just hosted an international gathering to address issues of energy security and climate change in Africa.
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