To cook a continent
Destructive extraction and the climate crisis in Africa
2011-11-02, Issue 555
There are some in Africa who argue that having a valuable resource is not necessarily a curse. They say that nature’s wealth is a blessing and that the curse happens only in relation to how resources are grabbed, owned, extracted and utilised. In other words, the curse is located firmly in the social structure of the world.
Let us start with a caveat about the word ‘resource’, which implies that nature’s wealth is a bounty, ready for corporate robbery. But we as humans frame this dilemma of extraction incorrectly if we don’t point out the intrinsic right of nature to survive on its own terms. Most importantly, we are part of Mother Earth, not apart from her. Her rights to exist and reproduce the conditions for all species’ existence are not to be violated.
That said, everyone acknowledges that Africa is resource rich. That the continent has been a net supplier of energy and raw materials to the North is not in doubt. That the climate crisis confronting the world today is mainly rooted in the wealthy economies’ abuse of fossil fuels, indigenous forests and global commercial agriculture is not in doubt. What has been obfuscated is how to respond to this reality. Indeed, the question peddled in policy circles is often what can be done about Africa. And, in moments of generosity, the question moves to what can be done for Africa.
This book looks at what has been done to Africa and how Africans and peoples of the world should respond for the collective good of all. The resource conflicts in Africa have been orchestrated by a history of greed and rapacious consumption. We ask the question: must these conflicts remain intractable? We will connect the drive for mindless extraction to the tightening noose of odious debt repayment and we will demand a fresh look at the accounting books, asking when environmental costs and other externalities are included: who really owes what to whom? Isn’t Africa the creditor of the world, if we take seriously the North’s ‘ecological debt’ to the South?
What makes possible the lack of regulation in Africa’s extractive sectors, the open robbery and the incredibly destructive extractive activities? Leading the multiplicity of factors are unjust power relations that follow from and amplify the baggage of slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism. From a Nigerian stand-point, but within the tradition of Pan-Africanist political economy and global political ecology, this book unpacks these issues and sets up bins for these needless and toxic loads.
Because of my own experiences, the pages that follow pay close attention to the oil industry in Africa, to the history of environmental justice struggles in the Niger Delta, to the discovery of oilfields in Uganda’s rift Valley, and to the big pull of the offshore finds in the Gulf of Guinea. As we examine the impacts of fossil fuel extraction on the continent, we also look at massive land grabs for the production of agrofuels and foods for export.
What can Africa do? And once our peoples decide, can the rest of the world act in solidarity? If not, will we continue on the path laid out by elites, a path that brings us ever closer to the brink? Must we live in denial even at a time of a rising tide of social and ecological disasters?
One of the worst gas flares in the Niger Delta is at a former Shell facility at Oben, on the border of Delta and Edo states. They have been roaring and crackling non-stop for over 30 years, since Shell first lit them. The flared gas comes from the crude oil extracted from the oil wells in the Oben field. As at more than 200 other flow stations across the Niger Delta, these gas flares belch toxic elements into the atmosphere, poisoning the environment and the people. Globally, gas flares pump about 400 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. Here in Nigeria, the climate is brazenly assaulted both in the short term by gas flaring and over the long term because of the CO2 emissions from this filthy practice. In the hierarchy of gas flares infamy, Nigeria is second only to Russia.
Gas flares and oil spills have attracted the attention of the world as the two most visible assaults on the Niger Delta. It was no surprise that when the Dutch parliament decided to hold a hearing on the activities of Shell in Nigeria, journalists and parliamentarians from the Netherlands decided to visit the region to see things for themselves.
I was at Oben on 18 December 2010 just after the United Nations’ climate negotiations disaster at Cancun, accompanied by Sharon Gesthuisen, a Socialist Party member of the Dutch parliament, along with a Dutch diplomat and Sunny Ofehe of the Hope for the Niger Delta Campaign. Our journey started in Benin City early in the evening after the parliamentarian had flown in from Lagos. escorted by a team of Oben community people, we set out on the hour-long ride along the highway from Benin City to Warri, a road noted for the high number of military check- points. They would make anyone think that Nigeria was at war. We meandered through the hazardous roadblocks made with trash hurled from nearby bushes and veered off the highway at Jesse, just before Sapele, from where we took a narrow winding road to Oben. Jesse is important in the tragic history of the Niger Delta: it was the community where a petrol pipeline fire killed about 1,000 poor villagers in 1998.
We got to Oben at about 7pm and were waved through a military checkpoint set up to guard the oil flow station and the belching dragons. Gaining entrance to the heavily guarded facility was easy; leaving was not. As soon as we arrived, a worker whom we happened across gave us a little talk about what went on there. People from the community complained about how they had had to put up with the flares for more than three decades while their dreams of jobs and development projects faded away.
The Dutch MP was amazed by what she saw. She was happy she had made this trip, otherwise she would have had to depend solely on the chaperoned visits arranged by the oil giant Shell in a bid to show how environmentally friendly they are. The flames leapt and roared relentlessly. We inched as close as we could before having to turn away because of the unbearable heat. As we turned to leave, the brightness of the village sky contrasted with the darkness of the homes that lacked electricity. But we could not leave.
Our cars were surrounded by soldiers of the Joint Task Force (JTF), a military force that became infamous when an armed unit was created specifically to punish the Ogoni people in the 1990s. The soldiers demanded to know by what authority we visited the gas flare site. They would not let us leave without producing an authorisation letter from the JTF headquarters. All our explanations that we were there at the invitation of the community fell on deaf ears. The presence of a Dutch parliamentarian as well as a diplomat meant nothing to these guys, who apparently knew their script. Hours went by. The darkness of the night struggled with the glow of the gas flares. The soldiers stuck to their guns.
The JTF men demanded our car keys and threatened to deflate the tyres. We would not leave the location that night, they insisted. Threats followed. Rifles were raised and then lowered. They would not call their superiors. They were the lords working at the behest of capital.
Eventually a Nigerian journalist who was on our team placed a call to the media relations officer of the JTF. After much foot dragging the soldiers wrote down the numbers of our cars and took our names, addresses and statements before letting us go at midnight. We rode back to Benin City in silence, each mulling over the hazards faced by communities living in the oilfields and the human rights abuses inflicted regularly on those who monitor or question the evils that go on in the land. To the Dutch parliamentarian, the events of the evening were a good introduction to the Niger Delta and the operations of the oil companies: exploit, degrade, abuse and punish the environment and the people. The scenario replays across the continent.
BROUGHT TO YOU BY PAMBAZUKA NEWS
* This article forms the preface and beginning of chapter 1 from Nnimmo Bassey’s forthcoming book ‘To Cook a Continent – Destructive Extraction and the Climate Crisis in Africa’, published by Pambazuka Press (ISBN: 1-906387-53-2)
* Nnimmo Bassey is a Nigerian environmentalist activist and poet, elected chair of Friends of the Earth International and executive director of Environmental Rights Action. He was named co-winner of the Right Livelihood Award in 2010.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.
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