Nigeria's Deadly Days

  • Share
  • Read Later

LINE OF DEATH: Pipelines in Nigeria are often sabotaged. A blast outside Lagos last week, right, killed more than 150

Teeming with bird and marine life, giant ferns and towering mangrove plants whose roots straddle land and water like the legs of lumbering animals, the creeks and swamps of the Niger Delta lie over one of the biggest reserves of oil on the planet: 34 billion bbl. of black gold. The region, a watery maze flung across 50,000 sq km in southern Nigeria, is also home to some of Africa's poorest people, and some of its worst environmental destruction. There are villages without power, water, health clinics or schools; pipelines that scar the earth; oil slicks that shimmer on rivers; flares that blaze bright and loud, burning off the gas that gushes to the surface along with the sweet crude. So poor are most who live in the Delta that some are prepared to risk their lives for a bucketful of fuel. Last week, more than 150 people died when an oil pipeline on the outskirts of Nigeria's biggest city, Lagos, west of the Delta, exploded in a massive fireball. The inferno left dozens of bodies charred beyond recognition. Police say that the explosion was most likely caused by vandalism. The pipeline, which ran under a beach, had been uncovered. Small holes had been drilled in it through which thieves could tap off fuel. The leaking pipeline had attracted local villagers who were filling containers when it blew. Nigeria's Red Cross said that the explosion ignited hundreds of cans full of fuel.

Yet incidents like last week's tragedy are not the greatest danger to Nigeria's oil industry. Nigerians have long vandalized pipelines, and some of the operations are organized and professional. In the Delta, gangs of bandits have prowled the brackish swamps for years, stealing oil, harassing oil workers and making millions of dollars. But over the past few months an even deadlier threat has emerged. Frustrated that they remain poor after decades of oil production, locals have begun attacking foreign oil companies, their workers and the Nigerian soldiers who protect them — not, as in the past, for money, but as part of an armed campaign. Unless there is change, they say, there will be war. The government and oil companies "don't listen to words," Delta militia member Richard, 27, told Time three weeks ago, the dull roar of a gas flare in the background. "So perhaps they will understand the language of the gun."

The nascent insurgency has made Nigeria's oil fields among the most dangerous in the world — and helped push global oil prices past $72 bbl. Nigeria was meant to be part of the solution to the insatiable demands for more oil from the U.S. and fast-growing China and India. When the country returned to civilian rule under President Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999, it was pumping around 1.8 million bbl. a day. Daily capacity had expanded to 2.5 million bbl. before the recent attacks; Nigeria is now the sixth biggest oil exporter in the world. Western oil companies, eager for a supply from outside the Middle East, want to increase production from Africa.

On a visit to Nigeria three weeks ago, Chinese President Hu Jintao signed deals to increase Chinese exploration and production. But Nigeria's role as a stable producer has taken a hammering of late. Militant attacks have cut production by 20%, hitting companies such as Royal Dutch Shell, and costing the oil majors and Nigeria hundreds of millions of dollars. "There used to be clashes and other problems, but in the past five or six months things have gotten much more serious," says Manouchehr Takin, senior analyst at the Centre for Global Energy Studies, a London-based consultancy. While it's impossible to work out exactly how much that contributes to rising oil prices compared to the crisis over Iran and increasing demand, Takin says production losses in the Delta are "a major factor" in the high price of gas.

The militants' campaign kicked off on Jan. 11 when three speedboats packed with gun-toting men attacked a Nigerian navy boat and a vessel leased by Shell. No one was killed. But the attackers, who said they were part of a new group called the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (mend), kidnapped four foreign contractors. Since then the group, which numbers just a few hundred people, according to a local human-rights campaigner and militant members, has kidnapped at least eight more foreign oil workers and attacked several oil installations, killing some 14 Nigerian soldiers posted to guard them. In the past month, militants have also exploded two car bombs as "warnings" of coming chaos. When I set off with three guides in a cigar-shaped fiberglass boat into the swamps last month, a Nigerian naval officer aboard a warship in the port city of Warri warned me not to go on. "Even we don't go there," he said, motioning along the Warri River. Then he slowly drew a finger across his throat.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3
  5. 4