The day oil was discovered in Nigeria

Mar 20, 2009 01:00 AM

by Andrew Walker

Chief Sunday Inengite remembers the day the foreigners who had come to his village in Nigeria's Niger Delta struck oil.
"They made us be happy and clap like fools, dance as if we were trained monkeys," he says. Years later, the 74-year-old now looks back on his youthful enthusiasm with sour regret. Nigeria has become Africa's biggest oil producer, but the people of Oloibiri complain they have not seen much of the money made in the 52 years of oil production.
"It smacks of wickedness, hard-heartedness," he says.

Inquisitive
Mr Inengite was 19 years old when the foreign engineers came looking for oil in 1953. An inquisitive young man, he made friends with the British, German and Dutch engineers during the years they were exploring the area around Oloibiri, now in Bayelsa State.
"I was trying to know why they were all here, going into the forests and into the swamps." The village elders thought they were looking for palm oil -- a valuable edible oil that had been exported from West Africa since the first European traders arrived hundreds of years before.
"It wasn't until we saw what they called the oil -- the black stuff -- that we knew they were after something different," Mr Inengite said.

The explorers threw a party at their house-boat and invited everyone from the village to see samples of the oil they had been looking for.
"You can imagine the jubilation, after all they had been looking for oil in commercial quantities for years." But now he says the environment has been damaged, affecting fish catches, and the small plots of land where people had grown crops are polluted by oil spills and gas flares.
"You see fish floating on the surface of the water, something we didn't know before." "It may be difficult to make a catch that will be enough for your family for one day."

Government corruption
But the problem is not caused just by the oil companies. The government gets tax and royalties on the oil the companies produce.
The government is also a majority shareholder in Nigeria's oil industry and has made over $ 1.6 tn in revenue over the last 50 years, according to analysts at Standard Bank.
"I don't only blame the whites that came here, what about the government?" Mr Ingenite says. "People in the government get nearly all the money from the economy."

When we visited the first oil well a few km down the road, we were approached by men working as commercial motorcycle taxis. They all insisted oil companies, especially Royal Dutch Shell, should give them money as compensation for taking the oil. But as we spoke, a local government official drove up in his brand new luxury four-wheel-drive car, an expensive gold watch dangling on his wrist.
Why don't people ask their leaders where their money is?
"They have hearts as black as coal, they are evil people -- what would be the point?" said Julius Esam, 27.

"Oil museum"
A nearby mosquito infested swamp was being cleared to build a 300-bed hotel and conference centre with an oil "museum". The contractor told us the project was costing the state government naira 90 bn ($ 592 mm, £ 298 mm.)
Dimeari Von Kemedi, in charge of scrutinising contracts made by the Bayelsa state government said he would stop the project.
"But it's very difficult to prevent every badly conceived or corrupt contract going through," he said.

The access to corrupt money allowed by political office in the Niger Delta is also responsible for the emergence of violent groups in the area. Groups of "boys" were armed by government during the 2003 elections. Their job was to ensure the ruling People's Democratic Party held onto power and therefore the oil money. These groups later got involved in oil theft, stealing tens of thousands of barrel per day for powerful syndicates, kidnapping and extortion.
Although groups like the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) use their contacts with journalists to promote a political agenda, most armed groups are criminalgangs who want their own share of the money being divided among the powerful.

Mr Ingenite says in his old age, he now understands what the militancy wants.
"We frowned at violence because we are very hospitable to those that come," he said. "But it can't be so today, and if they act the way they do, you can't blame them, because their blood is hot, not like old men's that is cool."

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