Connect to share and comment

Income inequality is surging, and there are few countries where it is rising faster than the United States. The distance between rich and poor is greater in America than nearly all other developed countries, making the US a leader in a trend that economists warn has dire consequences. GlobalPost sets out on a reporting journey to get at the ‘ground truth’ of inequality through the lenses of education, race, immigration, health care, government, labor and natural resources. The hope is to hold a mirror up to the US to see how it compares to countries around the world.

In Nigeria, oil divides the rich and poor

In Warri, Nigeria, oil barons bunker themselves off from the desperate poor, who are left without a steady income or basic services.

Comparing the Divide: The oil that lies underneath Big Spring, Texas, and Warri, Nigeria, creates economic distance and physical barriers between workers who extract the crude and their privileged bosses. Big Spring and Nigeria also share similar Gini coefficients — the standard measure of income inequality — of .431 (Big Spring) and .437 (Nigeria).

WARRI, Nigeria — On the outskirts of Warri, the brooding commercial capital of Nigeria’s oil-rich Delta State, the streets leading into brand new multi-million dollar developments reek of crude oil.

In a casual display of excess, gallons of the delta’s “light and sweet” crude — possibly the most valuable commodity on the planet — are dumped daily into the open gutters to suffocate the mosquitoes breeding in the stagnant water.

Starting in 2009, when the government enacted an amnesty program that saw several thousand Delta fighters exchange weapons for cash, followed by the election of President Goodluck Jonathan, a native of the Niger Delta, there has been an overall effort to redirect oil wealth back to the communities that host Africa’s largest oil industry. Since then, a small, emerging segment of the population — primarily politicians and former militants with access to government contracts and revenues — has grown spectacularly wealthy and powerful, while most Nigerians remain poor and beholden to the generosity of the elite.  

In communities like Ubeji, a neighborhood in Warri, wealth from oil rents fuels the construction of mansions at a furious pace, bypassing the building of roads and other public infrastructure, like water and electricity. As a result, there is no urban plan. Bumpy dirt paths weave through a random scattering of lots featuring custom metal gates, electric security fences, private water towers, industrial-sized generators and paved driveways. Black luxury cars with dark tinted windows slink through the jungle maze and disappear into fortresses.

“The government doesn’t provide anything. So we have build it ourselves. We are the government here.”
~Moses Okotie

“The government doesn’t provide anything,” explained Moses Okotie, a resident of Ubeji who works for a local oil company operating between Warri and the nearby Escravos terminal – Chevron’s largest oil tank firm in the country, one of the largest oil producers in the world. “So we have build it ourselves. We are the government here.” 

Every morning, throngs of people gather outside the steel gates of these homes to wait for a possible meeting with the community’s “chairmen,” oil barons who sit atop vast hierarchies upon which thousands of people depend, both formally and informally, for a lifeline. Their “boys” man the entrances, dressed in high fashion purchased on recent trips to London, Paris and New York City. Many of the new oil rich here own second homes in Texas, close to expat American oil workers who work on their land.

“The people who are here are really trying,” explained another woman lingering at the gate, seeking support for a talent show for disadvantaged youth in Warri. “I’m happy with anyone opportune to penetrate the oil industry here. These are the people that allow our community to eat.”

Along with increasing the numbers of mansions, the rise of wealth has increased investments in malls, movie theaters, hotels and mega churches throughout oil boomtowns such as Warri and nearby Port Harcourt. Luxury hotels such as the Protea Ekpan in Warri cater to the Nigerian and expat oil and gas elite and to Nigerian politicians with rooms priced between $400-600 per night.

A man waits at the bar of the Protea Ekpan Hotel of Warri. Luxury hotels such as the Protea Ekpan cater to the Nigerian and expat oil and gas elite and to Nigerian politicians, with rooms priced between $400-600 per night.
(Samuel James/GlobalPost)

In the evenings, politicians in flowing gowns file into the marble lobby flanked with armed military escorts, rifles double- and triple-clipped with duct tape – protection against the constant threat of kidnapping and armed robbery, the Delta’s other booming commercial industries. In the hotel’s gourmet restaurant, oil company workers hold muffled conversations with security consultants over champagne and fresh fruit.

“We call it padi-padi politics,” explained Ramzen Edema, while waiting on his boss — a local chief and pipeline contractor — to finish a meeting with an oil company representative at the Protea Ekpan bar, “you have to know someone to get something.”

“That’s why I am here,” he said. “Education doesn’t mean anything in this country, what’s necessary is loyalty to your chairman. You just do what he says. You don’t think, you don’t argue, you follow the leader.”

And while the interior atmosphere matches that of any five-star hotel globally, its back view abuts a smoky, grey expanse of rusting refineries and constantly burning gas flares. Just outside the gates — along a road lined by the head offices for Chevron, Texaco, Shell and the residential camps of their employees — homeless vagrants live in smoldering refuse dumps between the express lanes. Polio victims crawl on their hands and knees begging for stray bills from cars leaving the garrisoned compounds.