the crouching tiger and the curse of black gold

Oil fouls everything in southern Nigeria. It spills from the pipelines, poisoning soil and water. It stains the hands of politicians and generals, who siphon off its profits. It taints the ambitions of the young, who will try anything to scoop up a share of the liquid riches—fire a gun, sabotage a pipeline, kidnap a foreigner.

What more can I say. The National Geographic article lays it all out in the first few lines. Nigeria represented a story of hope and promise, NG asks ‘What went so wrong?’ “Everything looked possible – but everything went wrong.” The NG article goes on to describe a trash heaped scene with black smoke filling the sky, streets with craters and ruts, peddlers and beggars crowd car windows, and vicious gangs rule the streets. This is a description given about Nigeria’s oil hub, Port Harcourt, right in the middle of oil reserves bigger than both the US’s and Mexico’s. But where does the oil money go?

Nigeria’s oil boom began back before their independence in 1960. Still a British colony, oil was discovered in a creekside village not far from Port Harcourt. Few people at the time ever thought that Nigeria would become a world oil giant from this seemingly small discovery. Decades later multinational oil companies moved in and turned the inaccessable wetlands into an industrial jungle of 4,500 miles (7,200 kilometers) of pipelines, 159 oil fields, and 275 flow stations, their gas flares visible day and night from miles away. This was an amazing technological achievement, but the physical environment was the easy hurdle as the social and cultural environments remained to high to jump. WIth over two dozen ethnic groups having a history of fighting over the riches of the delta, the oil companies had no idea what they had just jumped into for the idea of a sweet profit. Laying of pipelines and construction of oil infrastructure disrupted the fragile environment of fishing seasons, animal habitats, as well as splintering ethnic tensions.

Oil in the delta looked so promising and held so much potential, but Nigeria still failed to help its people. Addicted to oil money, the people grew increasingly corrupt, using sabotage and murder to get a fix of the wealth. The people who could have lived better lives are now left nearly hopeless and poorer than before the discovery. The world has reached its peak oil production so we will see prices rise from here on out, but every time there is a killed security guard, an attack on a pump station, kidnapped foreign oil worker, car bomb set off, or oil rig overrun the market price of oil shoots up. It is not difficult to see why these frightening occurances happen. This increased frustration among the people of the Nigerian delta is creating a worrisome environment teeming with militias ready to escalate violence. With little or none of the oil money reaching the people how can they remain satisfied? The oil money grows on trees and remains in the uppermost branches without getting to the roots (Micinski 2007).

In July, the shining example for Africa, Ghana discovered oil deposits. Ghana has been in an energy crisis for a while now. While I studied there in May and June we expereinced frequent power outages. When we visited the Okosombo Dam, which provides all the power for the country as well as some for Togo, Benin, and Cote d’Ivoire, it was explained to us that with such low water levels at the dam, enough power could not be produced. President John Kufuor has said that this find will make Ghana the ‘crouching tiger’ of Africa since its discovery of oil. I only hope that Ghana does not become another Nigeria.

Index of blog post series on Ghana.

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