The Tradegy of the Niger Delta

Boy on pipeIn his article “Righteous Oil? The Oil Complex, and Corporate Social Responsibility,” Michael Watts weaves a pretty scary web in his portrayal of the “oil complex,” The oil complex could take many forms but the goal is always the same: get as much oil out as quickly and cheaply as possible. In the Niger Delta it has manifested as a complicated convergence of transnational oil companies, a state oil company and state and foreign militaries, and local paramilitaries all operating in a region that has multiple indigenous ethnic groups who live in abject poverty. Human rights are non-existent and the shear numbers of documented cases of human rights abuses are probably dwarfed only by the undocumented cases. It’s a very sad and disturbing situation that is one consequence of free unregulated globalization and the dogged pursuit to capitalize on the ever increasing demand from consumers and industries for fuel to run our cars, boats and machines.

If I were to devise a set of principles that governed the process of problem solving I might start with a First Law which would say something to the effect of “the complexity of the solution has to match the complexity of the problem.” Then there might be a Second Law of Problem Solving which would say more or less that, “once a solution is identified, to successfully engage it, the sum of all energies invested in the solution must be able to overcome the energy invested in creating the problem along with its self contained inertia.”

The chaotic and inhumane maelstrom that exists in the Niger Delta is extremely complicated. The energy that has been invested in its creation along with the inertia that holds together the system in which the problem is embedded is almost incomprehensible in scope. But to give up because the problem is overwhelming would be unconscionable. We have to double down our bet and go all in if our solution is to overcome the complexity, energy and inertia of the problem. Its critical to address this immediately and forcefully on multiple fronts.

The energy that has been invested in the Delta has come from profit seeking capitalist. From my perspective on the outside looking in these oil drilling cowboys seem to be working within a global market free-for-all rodeo in which few rules and regulations to limit the pursuit of their passion- to accumulate as much wealth and power as possible before they die. It would be easy to hate them and think they must be inherently evil. But I suspect it’s not their fault any more than it’s an alcoholic’s fault for taking another drink after they’ve already pissed their pants. Maybe greed and power cause a disease that destroys a person’s moral compass. If so it seems to be highly infectious. It must have infected everyone in the board room of Shell during the 1990s while they were complicit in the brutal suppression of the Ogoni (twenty-seven Ogoni villages destroyed, 2,000 Ogoni killed, and 80,000 people displaced according to this article: Were there no voices of reason left in the board room? No one left to ask the question, “What is the real cost of this project in terms of human suffering or environmental devastation and is it worth it?”

Another part of the problem:
One of the unintended consequences of the free market is that decisions made in corporate have historically been judged only on their ability to generate profits for their stockholders. And these stockholders are like absentee landlords, or slumlords, caring only about a return on their investment and not on the means by which that return is achieved. But the non-monetary effects of these decisions are rarely felt by stockholders who only see a quarterly or yearly report of their financial holdings. The communities where the company operates are usually the beneficiaries of the majority of the consequences of the decisions made in corporate headquarters. These communities have the most a stake and yet they are usually excluded completely from the process. Only when they take arms and rise up in violent revolt attacking the infrastructure if the oil-complex do they have their voice heard. This is a cycle of violence that will lead in a downward spiral. Its not just bad for people and the environment, but its bad for business too. Not to mention morally wrong and completely unsustainable.

Part of the solution:
If these cowboys are beyond cure then they need a sheriff to come to their town and break up their party of destruction. This enforcer should be an internationally recognized arbiter in the same vein as the international criminal court and it needs to be backed by an army of well funded prosecutors, investigators and lawyers seeking to follow the crime wherever it may lead. All countries, starting with the US, must sign on to these regulatory and enforcement mechanisms or face stiff embargoes on non-essential imports and exports. The UN Draft Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights (, released in 2003 seems like a good place to start. As Watts points out it addresses “non-discrimination, protection of civilians, laws of war, use of security forces, worker rights, corruption, economic and social and cultural rights, the environment, and indigenous people’s rights.

In section H. General Provisions for Implementation, item number 17 says ”states should establish and reinforce the necessary legal and administrative framework for assuring that the Norms and other relevant national and international laws are implemented by transnational corporations and other business enterprises.” Of course that makes the most sense if the state has an independent judiciary. But in the absence of that and without clear and decisive leadership from a state, we need to haul the perpetrators in front of an international tribunal and convict them and repatriate their money back into the communities that they screwed over.

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