Oil's Shame in Africa

By Baird, Julia | Newsweek, July 26, 2010 | Go to article overview

Oil's Shame in Africa


Baird, Julia, Newsweek


Byline: Julia Baird

In Nigeria, spills are weekly events.

It was hard to believe BP when it announced oil had stopped gushing into the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday, July 15. It had taken 87 days. There was relief but little jubilation: it will take many years to clean the shores and the birds, and for the sea to begin to repair itself from the onslaught of poisonous oil. Surely we can no longer call it a "spill"--it seems too light and trite a word.

What's even more troubling is that in Nigeria, the country that has arguably suffered most from oil drilling, oil "accidents"--large and small--occur almost weekly, and we hear little about it. A lethal combination of sloppiness, corruption, weak regulation, and lack of accountability has meant that each year since the 1960s, there has been a spill the size of the Exxon Valdez's into the Niger Delta. Large purple slicks cover once fertile fields, and rivers are clogged with oil leaked decades ago. It has been called the "black tide": a stain of thick, gooey oil that has oozed over vast tracts of land and poisoned the air for millions of Africans. In some areas fish and birds have disappeared: the swamps are silent.

Americans consume a quarter of the world's oil--and 10 percent of the oil we consume comes from Nigeria. Why are we not worried and angry about this? Or at least demanding global accountability from companies we support? Especially now that we can see how destructive it is for those who depend on the sea for their livelihood, how foul the impact is, and how devastating the results of poor decisions and ill-equipped response teams are.

Many Nigerians watched, amazed, as Americans berated BP for the Deepwater Horizon spill, then saw progress: our president visited the site and demanded immediate action and compensation. Not so in Africa. According to a group of independent experts, between 9 million and 13 million barrels of oil have been spilled in the Niger Delta since drilling began in 1958. Cleanups have been halfhearted, and compensation has been paltry. The Nigerian government estimates that 7,000 "spills," large and small, occurred between 1970 and 2000. Locals complain of sore eyes, breathing problems, and lesions on their skin. It's sickening stuff: a 2009 Amnesty International report found many have lost basic human rights--health, access to food, clean water, and an ability to work.

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