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Nigeria: The Corruption of Oil

Nigerian militia men with automatic weapons in boat.

Members of the militant group, MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta), patrol the oil-rich region.

During three weeks in one of the most corrupt countries in the world, I managed to pay only one bribe, and that was to get the hell out. Sure, I had paid "area boys," as young Nigerian hoodlums are known, for "protection" and I gave a little cash to the Big Man of one slum because that was the price to "snap, snap," or film in his territory. But I never actually paid an official. Not that I wasn't asked.

The military and police operate a comical number of checkpoints on Nigerian roadways. And each one is an opportunity for them to collect.

"Happy Easter! Do you have a little something for us?" one policeman asked.

"Sorry, I gave away all my chocolate bunnies to your friends at the previous 15 roadblocks," I replied.

"Happy Easter! Do you have a little something for us?" one policeman asked. "Sorry, I gave away all my chocolate bunnies to your friends at the previous 15 roadblocks," I replied.

But when I found myself about to be stuck in Lagos on the eve of national elections, I was more than ready to start greasing palms. I wasn't alone. Many Nigerians were looking to escape the predicted violence, and arriving at the airport -- five hours before my flight as advised -- I encountered a seemingly endless line of people clamoring to check in for the North American Airlines flight to New York. Rumors were circulating that people were getting bumped, and finding myself way at the back of the queue, I was looking like one of them.

Nigeria is the most difficult place I have ever worked. "If you can survive in Nigeria, you can survive anywhere," is a popular refrain among young Nigerians (and now at least one young American). I had gone to report on the growing unrest in the country's oil-producing region, the Niger Delta, and in the process I had been intimidated by thugs, harassed by police, and extorted for payment nearly every time I took out my camera to film. Tellingly, the most relaxing part of my trip was an afternoon spent in the delta creeks with dozens of young men who were armed to the teeth and stoking a rebellion.

Armed militants on a patrol boat in the Niger Delta.

Despite its oil reserves, the delta remains one of the poorest and underserved regions in Nigeria. Most live on $1 or less a day and are without power, potable water and other basic services.

In short, I felt like I'd been bodyslammed and the thought of spending another minute, let alone election weekend in an increasingly fragile country was not, well, it just wasn't happening. So when a security official offered to usher me to the front of the line for a price, I readily agreed.

A little negotiating and $20 later, I was checked in. My final memory of Nigeria is of passing through airport security. After sending my camera bag through the X-ray machine, one of the guards asked, "Journalist?"

"Yes," I hesitated.

"Report something good about Nigeria," he said.

I hate to disappoint him and the dozens of Nigerians I met who are acutely aware that 419 active scams and top ranking on Transparency International's annual list of the world's most corrupt countries, have left their nation with an image problem. But as this past week's elections demonstrated, there is perhaps no sugar sweet enough to coat the violence and swindling that pervade Nigerian politics.

As this past week's elections demonstrated, there is perhaps no sugar sweet enough to coat the violence and swindling that pervade Nigerian politics.

Marking the first time that one civilian government was to hand power to another, the elections in Africa's most populous country could have served as an example of the democratic process for the rest of the continent. Instead, election observers told the BBC that it "fell below even regional standards." Nigerians were treated to the same intimidation and ballot-box rigging that plagued voting in 1999 and 2003, the only two previous elections since the end of Nigeria's military dictatorship.

Out-going President Olusegun Obasanjo, whose party's presidential candidate Umaru Yar'Adua won more than 70 percent of the vote, chalked-up the election "charade" (as monitors called it) to the foibles of a developing African nation. ("We should not be measured by European standards," the president was recently quoted as saying.)

But apparently not all Nigerians share that view.

"Am glad to know you are back in the U.S. and safe. The elections are a fraud. So sad," a Nigerian friend emailed me last week.

Indeed, Nigerians have seen all this before, and according to Isaac Osuoka, director of Social Action Nigeria, "People are losing patience."

I met Osuoka in the Niger Delta, a place where you can say many have already run out of patience. In the past year, a growing and increasingly organized insurgency has kidnapped more than 100 foreign oil workers and attacked dozens of oil pipelines and facilities. In the world's eighth largest oil producer -- and the fifth largest supplier to the United States -- production has already been cut by 500,000 barrels a day, spelling billions of dollars in lost revenues for Nigeria and higher oil prices for the rest of us.

Pools of oil in the Niger delta.

Oil spills have caused extensive environmental damage throughout the delta. Communities blame it on aging equipment and a lack of regulations. Oil companies say that many spills are caused by saboteurs.

According to Osuoka, failed elections will only further destabilize the region.

"People are fed up with the impoverishment, the loss of livelihoods, the human rights abuses, with the contempt of the government and with the rigging of elections," he said. "They want to fight back."

The Niger Delta is a place of fantastic contrasts and corruption. Despite producing tens of billions of dollars worth of oil every year -- and 80 percent of the country's revenue -- the delta remains one of the poorest and underserved regions in Nigeria. Most live on $1 or less a day and are without power, potable water and other basic services.

"People always talk about Africa in connection with poverty, but I tell people all the time, 'Don't count my country as one of them,'" said Ibiba Don Pedro, a Nigerian journalist who has been covering the Delta for more than a decade. "Nigeria is blessed with natural resources. Oil is the resource that drives the modern world. But it's not translated into anything meaningful for the vast majority of Nigerian people."

A major reason why $400 billion in oil revenue over the last four decades hasn't translated into anything meaningful is simply corruption. Since independence, leaders have stolen or wasted more than $380 billion, according to Nuhu Ribadu, chairman of Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. The EFCC has opened investigations on 31 of Nigeria's 36 governors, including the governor of Nigeria's oil capital Rivers State, who is accused of stealing almost $1 billion.

A major reason why $400 billion in oil revenue over the last four decades hasn't translated into anything meaningful is simply corruption. Since independence, leaders have stolen or wasted more than $380 billion.

Of course, what all of this squandering of oil funds and wholesale neglect has created is growing unrest.

"We are fighting for ultimate control of our resources," Jomo Gbomo, the self-professed leader and spokesman of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), wrote to me in an email. "I believe that the situation will soon descend into a full-blown war that will last many years."

MEND is an amalgam of numerous militant groups operating in the delta. Just how united they are under MEND's umbrella is unclear. But they do enjoy popular support.

Through a local contact, I arranged to meet with a group claiming to be part of MEND.

"There will be no police or military around. You'll be safe," my contact said.

When I arrived at the designated meeting point, a small port on the creeks, a group of young boys approached my car.

"Oyibo (white man), the men are waiting for you," one said politely. "Follow me."

I had the impression that this was all going to be very clandestine, so I was amazed when I followed the boy to the dock and saw that smack in the middle of the daily activity of trade and transport there were half a dozen young men holding AK-47s and machine guns with bullet belts draped Rambo-style across their shoulders.

They were unmasked and intensely serious. But except for me, everyone else seemed completely at ease. I boarded a 20-foot craft with a small cabin at the front and twin 85 horsepower engines at the back, serious muscle in a region where most people get around in dugout canoes.

On the hour-plus ride through the creeks to the group's camp, we passed several communities built on stilts. Villagers came out and waved to the militants; some bowed.

On the hour-plus ride through the creeks to the group's camp, we passed several communities built on stilts. Villagers came out and waved to the militants; some bowed. And the driver slowed to reduce our wake every time we passed an over-laden canoe. It was all very neighborly.

Before entering the camp, I was sprinkled three times with a milky-like substance -- to cleanse me of bad spirits, I was told. Then, I was brought to the center of a large communal area where in addition to couple dozen more armed men, there were management types dressed in slacks and button-down shirts with cellphone headsets dangling from their ears.

The spokesman for the group, who went by the name Zima, introduced me to the group's leader, General Shoot At Sight. I hoped it was nothing more than a colorful nom de guerre and not a nickname he had actually earned.

After introducing myself, I was taken around to some of the local villages to see "what we are fighting for." It was the same litany of offenses I had seen on other tours around the delta, crumbling schools, no roads, no health facilities, and so on. The tour ended with four boatloads of heavily armed men racing around me in circles to demonstrate their power.

"We have decided to form a formidable body to fight for our development," Zima said.

And like many other people I met in the delta, Zima felt that an armed struggle was the logical next step after all other means had failed.

"The generation before tried to approach the government to do something positive to change their lives," he said. "They tried to adopt peaceful resolution, but the federal government designed special strategies to combat us with their forces, so we decided to resort to this type of measure."

The militants may not have been as savvy as some of the long-time activists I met in other parts of the delta -- Zima kept on referring to nearby oil rigs in the "Pacific Ocean" -- but they carry a great equalizer...their weapons.

The militants may not have been as savvy as some of the long-time activists I met in other parts of the delta -- Zima kept on referring to nearby oil rigs in the "Pacific Ocean" -- but they carry a great equalizer...their weapons.

"It is not difficult to imagine with the level of arms and ammunitions that we have seen with these militants that this will develop into a full-fledged rebellion," Osuoka, the human rights activist, said.

"People do not have any hope in the ability to change the electoral process or to bring about the desired political changes. And they're supporting alternative measures, including massive support for militant groups."

And that's what it's come down to in Nigeria; where elections are corrupt, and violence is escalating, it's catch-as-catch-can, and everyone else is running for the exits.

Darren Foster is a producer/cameraman for Current TV. He lives in San Francisco.

* * *

Read other diaries and dispatches Darren Foster has written for FRONTLINE/World.

Syria's Delicate Balancing Act

Denmark: Art and Religion Collide

Paris Riots: Voices from the ghetto

Amazon Journal

REACTIONS

(anonymous)
The unfortunate mess is that we don't hear of the other side of the story. Oil is sold daily on the black market, who buys it? The so-called western world. The oil company pays the govt. officials to write stuff off, they pay off the local chiefs of the Delta towns, and they all pocket the money. At the end of the day, the masses suffer. Do I blame the oil companies? No, it's a business, and if our govt. allows them to take
advantage of its people, then that's a shame.Oil is a big curse, what do we have to show for it? A polluted environment, the biggest health disaster is yet to surface, and any epidemiological study will show the health dangers that the people will face. It'll end up being far worse than MEND's daily kidnappings.So we have stated the obvious negatives, but it would do the story no good if the positives weren't stated as well.Look at the Nigerian Stock Exchange (average ROI of more than 31%), the Nigerian economy, our debt ratio, the privatization of the many industries and the growth of infrastructure.That said, what immediate steps can be taken to lead us towards the right direction?1) Security: ...Forget the police force for now, the military should absorb the Nigerian Police Force! Drastic I know, but it's an immediate step. They should shoot on command, this was very successful with the gendarmes in the old Ivorian govt (pre crisis). You see folks stealing, you shoot, no questions asked. You see MEND and militants on boat, you shoot, area boys rioting, stealing and raping, you shoot! 2) Fix the roads! What is the highest cause of deaths in Nigeria? Motor accidents!! It's hard getting from one end of the country to another.3) Pay the civil servants! The ministries aren't functioning because the workers don't care! The regular worker doesn't get paid, unless you are a senior level officer who is getting money under the table, from the contract jobs that aren't completed.4) Healthcare! The Ministry of Health is a joke, everyone expected Mr Yar'adua to appoint someone capable of making a difference, but unfortunately the credentials of the nominees to date show none with sufficient health background. Then again this is Nigeria, so if we are lucky, a lawyer or politician will be made Minister of health. All sarcasm aside, simple things: we need functioning govt hospitals aka general hospitals. We need simple equipment like incubators (yes that's a rarity in this day and age), and we need to make sure the employed doctors and nurses don't steal them. Then again if we paid them sufficient income, maybe they wouldn't feel the need to steal to feed their families.
We can make this longer and add things like Electricity but I think the average Nigerian has learned to manage without, and has their generator handy to get the job done. The above mentioned will be able to move the country ahead, and allow the regular Nigerian a chance to be a part of the new growing Nigerian economy.

Frank Lucas - lagos, lagos
NIgeria is a [messed] up country and is always going to be like that. I praise journalists such as Darren Foster for showing the world how the country Nigeria really is, a Dump.
I advise those who can leave the country to seek a better life to do so now. Don't wait to be killed by the police or militants or the government. Thanks for reading this.

(anonymous)
http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x41afh_fire-in-the-delta_musicPlease help us to save the Niger Delta environment and people.

G Odum - Washington, DC
My fellow Nigerians, if you do not see the upcoming collapse of our country in the near future, then you are to blame.I was in Nigeria a few months, in the east, and I got the sense that our country is in deep trouble. The amounts of $$$ being stolen by our "elected" officials is mindboggling. No king can starve his kingdom without his people turning against him. I was damn near killed by policemen because I told them I didn't have the N20,000.00 to pay them off with. On my way back to DC, I had to bribe the check-in attendants to check in my CARRY ON. The security guard by the terminal arrested me because my Nigerian passport wasn't properly stamped when I flew into the country.And now Yar'Adua won a "free" election, meanwhile my friends and family in Nigeria told me stories of ballot stuffing. Nigeria is a complete joke.

Suzanne Wood - Seattle, Washington
I lived in Johannesburg, South Africa for 3 years and Western Union set up businesses in many locations with major advertising. But Western Union pulled out after 6 months due to the Nigerians trading monies at exchange rates 6 times a day. After apartheid ended, floods of people came to South Africa from everywhere including Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and most of all, Nigeria. The
Nigerians had a reputation for being sharp, sometimes crooked, businessmen.

Houston, Tx
Corruption, how can we have such double standards in a world where the president of the World Bank and senators are guilty of corruption? Corrupt Politicians are not unique to Nigeria, and can be found all over the world, including the west. A policeman who asks for gift, is this corrupt? He would be happy for a few niara, to help buy some food or a pack of cigarettes. He sees a westerner, and only knows how comparatively well off we are!!!!. After all he is also serving you, by keeping the bandits at bay. And a policeman's life is cheap in Africa.

Kyle Connaughton - Portland, OR
Whatever. This is fantastic. I haven't read anything yet, about Nigeria, that painted the delta rebels in a neutral light. If there's film of the trip, this should be good documentary.

FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
For those living in the San Francisco Bay Area who would like to know more about Nigerian oil politics and the Niger Delta, we recommend a trip to the Marsh Theater in San Francisco to see Dan Hoyle's one-man show, "Tings Dey Happen." Hoyle's 90-minute performance recreates a wide array of characters, including oil workers and rebels, who he met and interviewed during his ten months in Nigeria in 2005 and 2006 as a Fulbright scholar.

David Adewumi - Lemont, PA
In his entire trip to Nigeria, apparently Mr. Foster saw nothing good. This being of course, one of the "happiest countries" in the world. Mr. Foster must open his eyes and see both sides to the coin. He reports about the same thing Western Media always reports about. The corruption surrounding the Oil Economy...My dad was in the country during election times, and although he said there were some problems, it was not as bad as the Western Media made it look. In fact, he stated that from the reports he saw back in the US, it looked like two completely different countries.It is simple, the US and Western world cares for Nigeria for one thing: Oil. Yet they are surprised their greedy demands for it have spawned corruption. The only time the media will ever report about Africa's most populous country is if it will affect their exportation of oil. It is the only reason, he, or the majority of Americans will ever care about Nigeria.Shame on them.

(anonymous)
Very interesting to observe the level of support from the local population [for the rebels]. Nigerian media are notoriously bad at conveying this.

Island Park, NY
What an amazing story. We need more journalist like this...

EDUARDO VAN ZELLER - CASCAIS, PORTUGAL
Great reporting from an inspired pro takes us on a roller coaster ride through hell on earth. It doesn't come any better.