LAGOS, Nigeria — During a scene in the Leonardo DiCaprio film "Blood Diamond," an elderly African man surveys a village destroyed in Sierra Leone's vicious civil war and laments the violence tearing his country apart as rebels and government forces fight for control over access to diamonds and the wealth and power they bestow.
"All this for some little stones," says the old man. "Let's hope they never find oil."
A Nigerian audience howled with laughter at this line in the cinema where I happened to see Blood Diamond during a visit to Lagos, Nigeria’s main city.
Nigerians are all too familiar with the curse of vast oil wealth, which largely bypasses local villagers and flows into the pockets of the urban elite, grasping politicians and multinational corporations.
The riches of oil are blamed for funding violent conflict, such as the recent attack on an oil pipeline by the rebels who demand a greater local share of the oil wealth. Also the Nigerian government has launched a large military campaign in the Niger Delta to try to flush out the rebels. Local civilians appear to be victims of the violent conflict.
With an estimated 140 million people, Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country. It is also the world’s eighth largest exporter of petroleum, pumping billions of dollars worth of fuel into the global market. Yet most Nigerians live in grinding poverty, whether in the oil-rich Niger Delta or the bustling slums of Lagos, where people build makeshift shelters on stilts above fetid malarial swamps.
Poor Nigerians are often killed in explosions while trying to scoop buckets of fuel spilled from damaged or sabotaged pipelines running through their neighbourhoods. One such explosion killed hundreds of people in 2006.
Meanwhile, Nigeria’s politicians and businessmen breeze through choking traffic in plush new 4x4s enjoying the trappings of the rich.
Anti-graft watchdog Transparency International consistently ranks Nigeria as one of the world’s most corrupt nations and, although there has been some recent improvement, the culture of corruption runs deep. The late military ruler Sani Abacha stole between $2 billion and $5 billion during his years in power from 1993 to 1998, according to Transparency.
Nigeria is America’s biggest trading partner in sub-Saharan Africa and the United States imports about 20 percent of its oil from the West African country.
The Niger Delta's vast network of mangrove swamps, one of the largest wetlands in the world, has been producing oil for half a century, yielding billions of dollars in profit for the government and foreign oil firms but leaving locals in squalor.
Villages in the delta are frequently polluted by oil spills and gas flares and often lack roads, clean water and electricity. Even in Lagos, which has between 10 million and 15 million inhabitants, electricity is erratic and unreliable. The teeming city hums with the constant drone of generators.
The disparity of wealth has driven groups of unemployed young men, many from the delta’s local Ijaw tribe, to take up arms and declare war on the government, demanding a slice of the action.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) began a wave of attacks and kidnappings of foreign oil workers in early 2006, knocking out close to a quarter of Nigeria's oil output in a matter of weeks.
Continued bombings of oil pipelines and abductions of oil workers by armed gangs in the creeks have cut Nigeria's crude oil output sharply over the past three years.
More than 200 foreigners have been kidnapped since MEND began its attacks. Most hostages are later released unharmed, but oil production has dropped below 2 million barrels per day, compared to 2.4 million bpd before the attacks and a potential 3 million bpd.
The unrest has forced oil giants such as Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil and Chevron to move all but their most essential foreign staff out of the region, while the drop in oil output has eaten into Nigeria's foreign earnings, compounding the effects of the global economic slowdown.
MEND says it is fighting for greater local control of oil resources, but after three years, the local communities it claims to be fighting for are just as impoverished and even more insecure than before. The oil market has largely factored in the cost of all but the most spectacular unrest and hostage-takings have become an endless cycle of kidnappings for ransom that seem more criminally motivated than political.
After a failed attempt at offering amnesty to the militants earlier this year, Nigeria last week launched its biggest military offensive for years in the Niger Delta. Suspected camps of the oil rebels have been bombed from the air and sea and after hundreds of ground troops have been deployed to try to flush rebel fighters out of local communities near the oil port city of Warri.
Local rights groups have urged security forces to exercise restraint in order to avoid civilian casualties, possibly fearing a scenario similar to that of Sri Lanka, where civilians were casualties when the government recently used a controversial military offensive to defeat the Tamil Tigers rebel movement and end decades of war.
Three people were killed in fighting in Warri on Wednesday, Owen Nanakumor, an Ijaw community leader told Reuters. He said the dead included a woman and a 45-year-old man in a market and added that about 30 people had been arrested.
"It was just a normal cleansing of areas which were thought to be harbouring criminals," military spokesman Colonel Rabe Abubakar also told Reuters. "We are applying minimum force .... There are no casualties on the civilian side.”
It’s unclear what will happen next — whether the government will step up its offensive to wipe out the militants, or whether the rebel fighters will buckle down and harden their stance, possibly plunging the country deeper into violence and unrest, which could have an impact on global oil prices.
Only one thing seems certain: The Niger Delta will remain prey to piracy, kidnappings and violence so long as the population is deprived of the benefits of the wealth flowing underfoot.
More GlobalPost dispatches by Finbarr O'Reilly:
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Congo struggles to move from conflict to peace
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