RAY SUAREZ: Tensions and violence have been rising in Nigeria as Shell Oil has sought the rights to drill more widely for more oil in the Niger River Delta region. NPR's Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep is back from a reporting trip in the region. He joins me now, Steve welcome.
STEVE INSKEEP: Good to be here.
RAY SUAREZ: With oil at 67 bucks a barrel, why aren't these great times for Nigeria and the oil industry there?
STEVE INSKEEP: Well, to some degree it is a good time for Nigeria and the oil industry; they're getting windfall profits. A lot of money is flowing to Nigeria; a lot of money is flowing to oil companies -- not just Shell - but Chevron, Exxon/Mobile, and a number of others that are drilling there.
What makes it not such a great time is that for the last several decades violence has been building off and on in the Niger River Delta, which is a swampland area where a lot of the oil is and where we spent a lot of our reporting time over this summer, because you have a very lucrative industry, which is living right next to very, very poor people and there is been a lot of conflict over time, a lot of mistrust built up between residents and the companies.
People feel that they have been cheated; people feel that their rights have been violated; they end up protesting against the companies or in some cases attacking the companies. The companies end up -- have to be protected by the military. And you end up with a very confused and deadly situation.
RAY SUAREZ: Well why hasn't that wealth coming out of the ground benefited the people of the Delta region?
STEVE INSKEEP: Well, it depends who you ask. The oil companies will say first off that they don't employ that many people, and so there are millions of people who would like a job in Nigeria; there's only tens of thousands who can work for the oil companies. That's part of the explanation; there is something to that.
Another part of the explanation is that money paid to Nigeria's government in taxes - and the Nigerian Government will admit this -- a lot of the money over the years has been stolen.
Nigeria has a tremendous corruption problem, and the money that's disappeared is probably in the billions -- not the millions -- over the years -- perhaps the tens of billions according to some people's estimates, and so you have a situation where in many parts of the oil-producing area you don't really have much of a functioning government.
There aren't any roads in many areas; there aren't good schools in many areas; many places don't even have electricity; many places don't have telephone lines, although cell phones are now spreading through independent companies.
And so you have a situation where people are aware of the outside world because the outside world is sitting right next to them; there is a giant oil terminal or an oil well there, and yet they know that they're not part of the outside world; they're not gaining from the outside world, and that leads to a great deal of frustration.
RAY SUAREZ: Not gaining but also feeling themselves burdened -- don't they -- by environmental concerns, fouling of the groundwater, that kind of thing?
STEVE INSKEEP: Yeah. Shell in its 2004 report - Shell is the largest producer in Nigeria, but not the only one - Shell acknowledged more than 200 oil spills last year alone. Thousands of barrels of oil were spilled in the water and there have been many oil spills over the years. And that has contributed, by many people's accounts, to environmental degradation there.
There are other problems as well. People raise concerns about that and they also raise concerns simply about dealing with the government in that area because the face of the government to many people is a police officer or a soldier or sailor who is there fundamentally to guard an oil installation and not to help the people, or protect the people.
RAY SUAREZ: So there is a feeling that the government has taken sides in this triangle and it's with the companies and not with the people who live there?
STEVE INSKEEP: Yeah. It gets extraordinarily complicated. You have various ethnic groups in the Delta and tribal groups and different villages and individuals, many, many different groups, and it is often felt that the oil companies have taken sides, that they have gone about a divide and rule practice as some people will call it.
And consequently, people when they get frustrated, when there is an ethnic militia or an ethnic group that is going to engage in violence, they'll often turn it against oil companies, which they will see as perfectly justified, even though the oil companies will find it an outrageous disruption; and we as Americans experience this as a cutoff of some little slice of the oil that the United States gets from Nigeria.
We get 1.2 million barrels a day from Nigeria; it's the fifth largest supplier of oil to the United States - it's a significant amount of oil. Every day there is some more than 100,000 barrels, 140,000 from one company, as a matter of fact, that doesn't get out of Nigeria because of violence over the last couple of years and some days that's a much higher number.
RAY SUAREZ: What kind of -- what forms does this violence take; who is doing what and to whom?
STEVE INSKEEP: It depends on the situation. In some cases -- and there is a case history that we've reviewed, there are a number of different case histories -- in some cases you simply have people who live next to an oil facility, who feel they have been cheated, who feel that they're actually worse off for the facility being there because of pollution and other problems - who feel they're not benefiting and they go and they protest.
There's a giant Chevron oil terminal called Escravos, named after the river nearby -- an old Portuguese word meaning slaves -- which suggests the history of the place a little bit. That terminal in 2002 and again in 2005 was invaded by residents from nearby villages who simply felt that they were not gaining anything from Chevron.
Chevron is the closest approximation to a government in this remote area; they don't see a lot of state or federal authorities other than people associated with Chevron; they don't get any benefit from the taxes that Chevron pays or they don't see any benefit from the taxes that Chevron pays and so they expect Chevron to do something for them, to provide community development or to provide jobs.
They invade the terminal; they shut it down; Chevron makes promises; people feel the promises aren't kept; they come back again. That's one way that there's violence.
There are also these ethnic conflicts; there was a major one in 2003 revolving around elections in that country. There was one group that felt that another group was having the election rigged in their favor and so they struck out. And they battled with Nigeria's military to some degree and they also attacked oil facilities because that was a way that they could strike back at the government.
There are other kinds of violence as well. We did a case history in our reporting of a couple of villages -- actually tiny kingdoms, ancient kingdoms -- who disputed who owned a bit of oil land.
The question who was got paid a little bit of money for the oil that was discovered on that land. They ended up fighting over it; a number of people were murdered. The military came in and essentially, by some people's account, settled matters by burning one of the villages. The military denies that the burning was intentional but, in any event, we went and visited -- a great number of buildings were destroyed, a number of people were killed.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you mentioned that there is no evidence of the government in many of these places. Does the oil company become -- in effect -- the government, and how do they respond to these challenges? What did they tell you about what they're trying to do in that part of Nigeria?
STEVE INSKEEP: We spoke to a Chevron executive named Chuck Taylor who said -- who acknowledged we have to become the government. He acknowledged that in many people's eyes we are the government because we're the only part -- we're the only thing that's visible. And it's a very remote swamp; it's very hard to move around and there is some truth to that, and so they acknowledge that they need to provide some kind of community development.
And each of the oil companies will have showcase instances in which they provided some community development. Here's a great school; here's a hospital; here are other things that we have done. There are other instances in which oil companies have to acknowledge they have made promises that haven't been kept.
They will promise, for example -- in a village near the Chevron Terminal there is erosion of the land, which is blamed on the way that Chevron has managed its land. Whether that's fair or not, Chevron has promised to fix it by building some new housing on some new land. It hasn't been done yet, and Chevron has its own reasons why that hasn't been done -- they'll say because the situation is too unstable and there's been too much violence.
So each company is trying to do something but the question is: Are they doing something that's just public relations or that's too small to make a regional difference in a region of millions of people, or are they really going to do something that could change the situation? And that's a very open question I think.
RAY SUAREZ: Is the series finished?
STEVE INSKEEP: No. Not quite.
RAY SUAREZ: Okay. So they can listen to the past reports at NPR.org -
STEVE INSKEEP: That's correct.
RAY SUAREZ: -- and you have got some other ones coming up on Morning Edition?
STEVE INSKEEP: One more coming up on Friday.
RAY SUAREZ: Steve Inskeep, thanks.
STEVE INSKEEP: Ray, thank you.