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Nigeria's oil curse

The story in photos behind the fight for Nigeria's oil wealth.

A man rinses soot from his face at the scene of a gas pipeline explosion near Nigeria's commercial capital Lagos December 26, 2006. Up to 270 people were burned alive when fuel from a vandalised pipeline exploded in Nigeria's largest city, Lagos, emergency workers said. Hundreds of residents of the Abule Egba district went to scoop fuel using plastic containers after thieves punctured the underground pipeline overnight to siphon fuel into a road tanker, locals said. (Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters)

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.