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Oil: ‘City States’ of Niger Delta, South-South, Nigeria – Part 3


Continued from last Tuesday

Some say that oil has always been a corrupt business. It started with corruption; it grew with corruption, it dominates through corruption; its DNA is corruption: it cannot and does not exist without it. Oil is dirty business literally and figuratively. It would be tedious to catalogue the corrupt practices of oil companies from the very beginning. Now that the Chinese have come into the business, their activities speak volumes about corruption.

Oil activities in Persia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and the rest of the Middle East were characterised by corruption. Right from the outset, the Anglo Persian Oil company was born at the beginning of the 20th century on Oil corruption. The Oil cartel used its position to topple a lawfully elected government in Persia sending its own Prime minister to exile. The West then carved the oil producing areas into states of their own liking. Oil was important and strategic; it was used to drive the navy and the western industry oil was needed at any cost, the exploitation in the U.S. saw unprecedented corruption from scions of the Rockefellers, Du Ponts, etc .There was too much money in it for it not to be corrupt. There is more U.S. legislation against oil companies than even against the mafia: Anti-trust laws had to attempt to break up Standard Oil Companies. Even then, the breakup was merely cosmetic but it took the United States several decades before waking up to the fact that this monster oil had to be tamed. It has still not quite succeeded even today.

The ethos of oil (a misnomer) is corrupt; it is like the Railways Barons in the U.S., with gutter morality, all based on corrupt entrepreneurs; skillful and born liars, dissimulators who never intended to keep to their contracts, who diddled and fiddled and deceived land owners and stole their land from them and consequently their wealth.

In the U.S., in the Middle East, in Africa – everywhere, the story is the same.

No honest man ever made money from oil. Every single oil entrepreneur we know – Standard Oil, Texaco, Esso, BP, Total and all others were ruthless double dealers.

What has oil done to Nigeria? Oil pushed everything else to secondary place: this was detrimental to all Nigerians, both the oil producing states and the rest of “Nigeria-oil enjoying states,” in the latter, agriculture suffered. They farmed less and less; lost the ability to get income from their farms, the expertise in that enterprise and all the auxiliary benefits of farming, good nutrition, hides and skin leather factories, growth of cotton, groundnuts, millet, sorghum, etc. vanished. Manufacturing became less important as everybody depended on importation of goods; our own industries could no longer cope; resulting in loss of technical know-how, growth in unemployment while at the same time the existence of extravagant conspicuous consumption of foreign goods.

More people wanted to be educated – more schools were built, more went there to use that education in the pursuit of oil. The belief is that education opened the gateway to jobs and related interests in oil. Unethical activities were encouraged to acquire less than good education: All wanted certificates and would pay for them. Universities adapted to the new demands.

In politics, to rule Government is a life and death affair: to govern is to have or control oil revenues and therefore all else. Young “graduates” became political thugs – the first rung of the political ladder. No crime was too heinous to achieve success. Nor would the desire for success allow the law enforcement authorities to work. They were simply subdued and bought over to smoothen their ambitions.

The pay of National Assembly members is US$1.5 million per annum, State Assembly is US$1.0 million per annum; Chairmen of Local Governments receive US$ 750,000 – US$ 1000,000 per annum, other councillors were equally richly rewarded directly by salaries or other non-ethical means. If National Assembly and State Assembly members, Local Governments Chairmen earn over US$ 1.0 million annually, what do you pay doctors, lawyers, civil servants, everyone else?

How can the society maintain any rules or values in such an atmosphere? How do we see ourselves? Is Nigeria a country where you can succeed to the highest of your potential regardless of class, gender, tribe, and religion? This is the U.S. model and idea: to succeed you must take powers (which are the Nigerian reality) – i.e. oil, whether you are a civilian or in the military? So you must be a Northerner or Westerner, or a “politically useless and powerless minority”, occasionally propped up by the North and the West to have powers in Nigeria. This paradigm has no place for service of the people, their freedom or development.

How about the Igbo? Are they not Nigerians? They have used their undoubted abilities to carve a niche for themselves in the oil business.

What has oil done for Nigeria? Many books have attempted to answer this question – “This House Cannot Stand”, “A Swamp Full of Dollars”, “Thieves of State”, “The Looting Machine,” etc. Oil sets up national appetites and mentality which is more like a gambler’s mentality: with the concomitant inability of the gambler to stop himself. He must go; he is propelled to go on because he believes his luck will change, despite the clear indication, scientifically proved, that the gambler has the odds stacked against him, he cannot beat the house.

In the South-South there is resentment; jealousy, youth anger whereas the impoverishment of the North, its underdevelopment, is blamed on the South-South. The South-South claims all the wealth has gone to the North and the West. People are now beginning to compare who exactly is making money from oil – the debate between Arewa/Emir of Kano and Alabo George is heating up.

The truth is that everybody is a loser. But those who live where the oil is produced have added losses. Compare the aborigines of Australia where minerals are developed: they are poor, neglected and a mere curiosity in the Australian landscape. No aborigine has any mines or interest in these mines. The native people in America where gold, silver, oil were developed suffered a similar fate. Each success story of mineral exploitation and development in areas occupied by the Red Indians and other indigenous tribes of the North, Central and South America, Brazil, Peru, Columbia, Venezuela, Ecuador, etc. have pushed native people backwards. Bolivia is the exception. There are experiments in indigenous wealth building programmes; the evidence of history is that this experiment may not succeed. Bolivia is also peculiar having produced more bullion in silver than any other country for more than a century. Indigenous politics is awake in Bolivia. The glare of oil wealth, the pursuit of it will never give those in whose land it exists any chance; that glare is like a light in darkness: it attracts insects most of which carry diseases and kill off the inhabitants.

Maybe if oil is found in North East in Nigeria, there may be a change. I doubt it: the same will happen to the indigenous population who may not be Kanuri where the oil is located. Even if there are Kanuri, they would not be able to escape the destiny of poverty so evident in the South-South as we can see even now in Southern Sudan and Angola. A few corrupt people would make money: the people will remain poor just as they are in Cameroons.

There was Arabia before the House of Saud. There was Persia before the House of Pevlavi. There was Jordan before the House of Hashemite. Oil would continue to destabilize these states and no one can or is willing to stop that. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a construct – all these are glued by the highest glue of all – religion. What would happen when the glue begins to disintegrate? More fundamentally the present day Middle East was the creation of Britain, France, Germany and the United States – i.e. the West – because of oil. Its chronic instability is because of oil. Nigeria cannot escape its fate.

The knob of the argument here is that the oil is doing harm to all of us. That harm is endemic in the enterprise. We would be unable to progress unless we change our attitude to the addiction of the evil of oil: a seductive, destructive temptress. We cannot even make a Budget without an oil benchmark and a political mechanism for dividing what they call “excess crude account”.
The North cannot be developed without oil from the South-South; nor can the South-South be developed from the very oil under its lands and rivers without a fundamental change in our attitude to oil.

•Ambassador Cole is a consultant to The Guardian Editorial Board.

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