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Paying for oil with their lives

People are enjoying a national holiday in Kenya today to mark Barack Obama's family connections with the country and across Africa millions look hopefully towards the USA and its new African-American President-elect. Also today, in San Francisco’s District Court, the oil company Chevron is fighting a case brought by a group of Niger Delta villagers. The company is accused of using soldiers to attack a peaceful demonstration, killing two people and wounding many others.

In May 1998, Larry Bowoto – one of the plaintiffs – led 100 villagers who occupied Chevron’s Parabe oil platform, nine miles off shore. Other plaintiffs are the wives and children of Arolika Irowarinum, who was killed, and of Bola Oyinbo, who the villagers say was detained by the soldiers, hung by his wrists and tortured to death.

Chevron claims the villagers took 150 workers hostage, and demanded money and employment. The villagers say they were protesting against the devastation caused by leaks, gas flaring and pollution and that they were demanding compensation, not a ransom. They were unarmed, and say they were preparing to leave at the moment the troops arrived by helicopter and opened fire. These were Nigerian soldiers, stationed in the Delta and housed and fed by Chevron. They arrived in helicopters leased by the company.

Based on the iron law of private property, the oil companies view with contempt any demand from the 20 million people who live in the Niger Delta to share in the wealth generated by oil production. Tribal leaders try to use the courts to prise compensation for their ruined land and livelihoods out of the oil giants, with little success. There are around 14,000 outstanding compensation cases. The compensation sought amounts to about $100 million. The Chevron Corporation’s net income for the first nine months of 2008 was $19 billion.

Not surprisingly, a number of militant movements have sprung up in the Delta, including the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta whose leader Henry Okah is currently facing trial in Lagos. They take hostages and blow up pipelines; they are characterised by the US and Nigerian governments as terrorists when they are actually fighting for what belongs to the people.

The oil companies pay the Nigerian government to station thousands of troops in the Delta to protect their operations from the militants. They have little success in doing that, but are entirely indiscriminate in attacking the civilian population who are living under brutal occupation.

The US Government is clear that Africa will be its major source of oil in the near future. One of the decisions that Barack Obama will have to make is about the future activities of AFRICOM, a special military command centre set up by George Bush which began to function in October this year. Whilst for the moment its headquarters are in Stuttgart there are strong rumours that is planning a base of operations in Nigeria.

Another of its special areas of interest is Equatorial Guinea. One might wonder why the focus on Africa’s smallest country which consists of a tiny coastal strip and a group of offshore islands. But in the sea off those islands there are major oil deposits, ripe for exploitation. Will Obama be halting the quasi-imperialist activities of AFRICOM? Don't put money on it.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
6 November 2008

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