Nigerian oil – people versus imperialism

Dribs and drabs of news come out of Nigeria which build up to a country in turmoil, but a turmoil of which little is known. In October this year, Nigerian trade unions called a general strike, which brought Nigeria’s major cities to a halt for the four days the strike had been scheduled to last. The strike was in protest at an increase in the price of petrol, with the unions involved threatening that if their demands were not met, then in November they would start an indefinite general strike.

At the beginning of November, a demonstration in support of the projected indefinite general strike is said to have been over 10 km long. The organisers had exempted the oil industry from the October 4-day strike, but in the indefinite strike they propose to target the oil companies, especially Shell which produces half Nigeria’s output and which has been dubbed by them an Enemy of the People. Oil workers who ignore the call to strike will, they say, be abducted.

We also heard that in the Niger Delta, the oil producing region in the south of the country, a guerrilla organisation issued a statement that if the oil multinationals did not pull out by 01 October, a full scale war would be launched against them, and that foreign workers could expect to be targeted. This is just the latest in an unending battle on the part of local people to ease the double burden they carry of imperialist and local kleptocrat looting.

According to The Times of 30 September 2004 (‘Nigerian troops prepare for oil war after rebels threaten attacks’) “Expatriate workers are frequently kidnapped for ransom. Two Americans working for ChevronTexaco were killed in May”.

According to Nigerian author, resident in the US, Okey Ndibe, writing in Nigeria’s The Guardian on 7 October 2004 (‘History’s dark stare’), no fewer than 10,000 people have perished over the last 5 years in the conflicts that have beset the region – conflicts that are often diverted into religious or ethnic strife, but which have as their cause the dire impoverishment of the people as a result of the looting to which they are subject.

What lies behind this unrest?

Ever since oil was discovered in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, it has been a source of conflict. It has created Nigerian billionaires and millionaires, but the vast majority of the Nigerian people see no benefit from it at all. Not only does no part of the oil wealth come their way, but the ruling elites who help themselves to such of the oil profits as are allowed to remain at home open their economies to imports from imperialist concerns in return for imperialist protection,. Hence what small proportion of the oil wealth is spent in Nigeria trickles down not to local people but to imperialist multinationals operating in the country. Furthermore, competition from the multinationals drives local producers out of business, escalating poverty. Friends of the Earth Nigeria activist Oronto Douglas has pointed out that before the oil giants arrived, the average yearly income in the delta was around $2,000, but now it has been driven down to just $300 (Morning Star 16 Oct report on ESF conference). In other words, the sorry story is the same in Nigeria as it is in very many other countries which have ‘benefited’ from the discovery of oil.

Even the Daily Telegraph, hardly known for its radical views, is obliged to note “Oil has proved a decidedly mixed blessing to Nigeria. Exports are a phenomenal foreign exchange earner … but have created a dangerous dependency. A net exporter of food has become a net importer. Industrialisation has been pitiful. The wildly uneven distribution of wealth, exacerbated by rampant corruption, has led to ethnic unrest, particularly in the eastern, oil-producing states” (‘What oil costs Nigeria’, 12 October 2004). And the Guardian of 9 October (‘The oil grab’) notes: ” … All leading economists know that when a poor country finds oil, it is more often a curse than a blessing. The history of all the other oil-producing countries in the region – Nigeria, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Congo, Chad, Cameroon – shows that sudden petro-wealth can swamp a poor country, rip apart its culture, divide its people, destabilise its governments, lead to massive corruption and human rights abuses, encourage coups and militarisation, and wreck the environment.” Of course, the tendency of the bourgeois media in the imperialist countries is to blame the local kleptocrats for the poverty-stricken situation of the masses, and they do indeed bear a great deal of the responsibility. Okey Ndibe, indignantly denounced this kleptocracy (op. cit):

“Let’s face up to the simple paradox. Nigeria is filled with millionaires and billionaires, a good deal of them primitive accumulators who simply transferred … public resources into their private pockets. How many of these corrupt money bags are from the Niger Delta? What Nigerian official, from the President down to his spokesmen, can go to Warri or Port Harcourt [the main cities of the Niger Delta region] and openly argue that the region has benefited from the oil wealth generated from the delta? What is the state of roads in the area? Or of hospitals, schools, and other social amenities? What jobs have been created for the youth of the oil-rich basin? Yet can Mr Obasanjo [the Nigerian President] deny that the same oil wealth has bought a few indolent men and women mansions in England, Europe, and North America? Can any former Nigerian leader, military or civilian, deny the unconscionable rape of the people of the Niger Delta” – and, we might add, the rest of Nigeria.

Never to be lost sight of, however, is that the kleoptocrats are only puppets. The billions they enjoy are but a drop in the ocean compared to the vast profits appropriated by imperialist multinationals. The puppet masters are the imperialists who, as they loot these countries of their oil, invade their economies and loot everything else as well. Any puppet who is panicked by the local discontent surrounding him into thinking imperialism should reduce its take so that concessions can be made to the masses in order to keep them quiet is, in normal times at least, likely to find himself replaced. Madame Lucie Bourthemieux, a Paris-based Cameroonian lawyer representing the Ministry of Justice of Equatorial Guinea pointed out to the Guardian: “Today, if America does not like a President, it takes him out”.

The struggle of the Iraqi people creates opportunities for the world’s people

The Nigerian people have never ceased to struggle against these dire injustices, but their struggles have always been suppressed by brute force, use of chemical and other weapons, mass arrests, judicial and non-judicial murders. The Glasgow Herald of 29 September 2004 (‘Oil rebels hold the world to ransom’) tells us that “the oil multinationals who operate in Nigeria [are not] the kind of outfits who scare easily. Risk is factored into the profit equation, with large amounts paid out each year to consultants to assess changing levels of risk and tailor security accordingly” (our emphasis). “Tailoring security” is a coy phrase which actually means financing the Nigerian armed forces. Each act of repression, however, has intensified the resistance until the people of the Niger Delta have built up sufficient forces to cause severe problems to imperialism and its henchmen. In March 2003 the unrest in the Delta forced oil companies to shut down 40% of Nigeria’s oil exports for weeks, and much of that oil remains shut off. If one considers that Nigeria, with proven reserves of some 27 bn barrels and producing 2.3 million barrels a day (mbd), is the world’s seventh largest crude exporter and fifth-largest source of US imports, it will be appreciated to what extent the unrest is making its contribution to the present soaring price of oil.

Since then the attacks on pipelines have been increasing in the Delta region, organised by the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (centred round the 8 million-strong Ijaw tribe – the dominant tribe in the region – and headed by Dukobo-Asari). The situation was described in the Independent of 29 September 2004 in the following terms:

“…A guerrilla war between rival gangs and government troops has been steadily gaining pace, now spilling on to the streets of Africa’s oil capital, Port Harcourt. Amnesty International says more than 500 people have been killed in the past month.

“Armed gangs, using the 3,000-odd rivers and creeks to manoeuvre and hide, are demanding more local control over resources. …

“The recent violence is their answer to military crackdown on the gangs and has forced Shell to evacuate 250 non-essential staff … Shell has lost 30,000 to 40,000 barrels a day from the normal supply of a million barrels a day.”

And The Times of 30 September (‘Nigerian troops prepare for oil war after rebels threaten attacks’) states that “Until now, the illegal trade has never been allowed to threaten legal business, but recently gangs have become more demanding and the Government has been losing the struggle to protect oil production.”

It seems that the March 2003 unrest was not, if one is to believe reports in the bourgeois media, clearly targeted against imperialism or even the puppet Nigerian regime, but contained, it is alleged, a measure of tribal rivalry over control of oil illegally redirected from pipelines (apparently amounting to some £2 billion-worth a year – £5.5 million a week). If that is so, one can just imagine the damage that could be done to Nigerian oil production and to world supplies by a prolonged struggle clearly directed against the imperialist looters and their local puppets!

On September 28, however, Dukobo-Asari announced that his Force would launch “a full-scale armed struggle” to wrest control of the region’s oil from the Nigerian government with effect from the first of October. He issued a warning to oil multinationals and all foreign workers to leave or face an operation he called Operation Locust.

With Iraqi oil supplies seriously restricted as a result of pipeline sabotage by the heroic Iraqi resistance to Anglo-American occupation, the Nigerian government’s response to renewed unrest in the Niger Delta suddenly changed dramatically. Instead of the usual repression, accompanied by the contemptuous designation of the rebels as criminals and warlords, there were not only offers of dialogue, but even an apparently successful outcome to that dialogue.

By October 1, the Nigerian government had offered talks to the Delta militia leaders, and the ‘full-scale armed struggle’ was called off. By October 3, the talks had been held, and the Nigerian government had, according to Dukobo-Asari, “accepted that the Ijaws have the right to self-determination and access to their oil resources”, although he also said that the Ijaws would continue to press for common control of their resources. It is thus far from clear what, if anything, the Nigerian government has conceded, although it looks probable that, with the situation in Iraq posing such a great threat to future supplies of oil, along with the associated destabilisation of the entire Middle East, a large sum of money has been put at the government’s disposal by imperialism with a view to it being deployed to defuse Delta region unrest. In the circumstances, imperialism is ‘tailoring its security’ by spending some of its vast oil revenues on concessions to blunt the edge of mass struggles. In return for what appear to be rather vague promises, Dukobo-Asari has declared peace and promised to disband all militias and “totally disarm” under a cash for arms deal, which, however, he is claiming will only raise as much money as was paid for the arms in the first place.

If disarmament does take place, a reduction of levels of resistance in the region must be the immediate result. However the thousands who turned out in Port Harcourt to hail Dukobo-Asari’s triumphant return from his talks with Obasanjo, will soon return to the warpath if significant improvements are not made in their conditions of existence. But even if there is a temporary lull in the resistance put up in the Niger Delta, the Nigerian unions have now taken up the cry against the oil multinationals, especially against Shell, and are also now demanding that they should cease operations. Shell sought a court order outlawing the indefinite general strike due to commence on 16 November, but the case was adjourned by order of the court until November 18. No doubt the judges are waiting to see whether any order they might make has the slightest chance of being observed.

The mass mobilisation to keep down the petrol price was triggered by the government in September increasing it still further than the 23% it has risen in recent months – namely from $1.19 a gallon to $1.50):

“While Nigeria virtually floats on oil, it still imports petrol and diesel fuel, which is then sold to the public at subsidised prices, a system of colossal waste that defies logic. Within Nigeria there are frequent allegations that fuel is being imported from foreign companies connected to former Nigerian leaders and politicians, a possible explanation for the lack of a domestic fuel production industry.

“The present Government has invested some $700 million (£382 million) in Nigeria’s four state-owned refineries, to little effect. Their assets looted and their pipelines periodically attacked by criminal gangs, Nigeria’s refineries can supply at capacity no more than 17 million of the country’s daily requirement of 30 million litres of fuel. Currently they are running well below capacity. One plant has been idle for four years while another, restarted amid much fanfare last spring, has ceased operations.

In an effort to promote investment in new oil refineries the Government raised the price of petrol and diesel by 20 per cent, provoking a public outcry and yesterday’s strike call.” (Carl Mortished, The Times, 02 November 2004, ‘Shell fights unions as strike call hits Nigeria’.

According to the IMF, quoted in The Business of 03 October, every $5 increase in oil prices reduces global growth by about 0.3 percentage points after a year. As the price of oil on the international markets continues its rise, there must be a possibility that imperialism, to forestall the threat to oil supplies, will make cash available to buy off the unrest, as they almost certainly did to try to quieten the Niger Delta region unrest.

All proletarians must give their full support and backing to the Nigerian people in their struggles against imperialist looting – be they armed struggles, as in the case of the struggle led by the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force, or trade union struggles such as the general strike now due to commence. Every successful struggle is a blow against our common enemy, imperialism, and improves our own chances of successful struggle in due course.

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