Originally published in Pambazuka.

The 20 April explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig has given rise to a terrible ecological disaster, proving devastating for wildlife, ecosystems and people’s livelihoods across much of the Gulf of Mexico. The explosion claimed the lives of 11 workers, and an estimated 200,000 gallons per day of oil has been spilling out of the damaged rig despite BP’s efforts to contain the environmental mess.[1]

With the Obama administration keen to react swiftly to the disaster, there is also an important political mess to be cleaned up, and BP has been quick to offer to ‘pay compensation for legitimate claims for property damage, personal injury and commercial losses’ as a corporate damage-limitation policy.[2] With the memories of Haiti’s earthquake and Louisiana’s Hurricane Katrina still fresh, this region is tragically no stranger to devastating social and environmental catastrophes, something that will not have been lost on a Democratic government keen not to repeat the dubious dilly-dallying of the Bush administration in the wake of Katrina. Indeed, President Obama has been forthright in stressing BP’s obligation to bear all costs associated with the spill, asserting ‘BP is responsible for this leak; BP will be paying the bill.’


While people of course deserve to have their livelihoods safeguarded effectively no matter where they live in the world, the bullish reaction of the Obama administration towards BP and Deepwater Horizon presents a sharp contrast with the lack of organisational protection available to people in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region in the face of another oil giant, Shell. On the one hand you have the leader of a super-power (himself acutely aware of the expectations of the US public) forcefully underlining multinational responsibilities in full glare of the global media, while on the other you have a region completely devoid of the political will to safeguard local people.

While the US government can cause a big stir through its political institutions and talk tough to BP, non-violent protestors in the Niger Delta expressing entirely legitimate grievances are treated with contempt and even murdered as military police leap to defend a lucrative oil infrastructure in service to Shell and Nigeria’s elites. As the global media draws attention to the effect of the BP oil spill on Louisiana’s commercial fishing industry and the state’s precarious wetlands, Niger Deltans face total yearly spills of up to 14,000 tons,[3] all the while conscious of the huge wealth being derived from their environment with no resulting benefits in the shape of housing, medical facilities or decent roads despite some US$700 billion in revenue.[4] Perhaps most infamously, Shell was also accused in a 1995 US lawsuit of involvement in the assassinations of environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and the ‘Ogoni Nine’ at the time of the Abacha military regime,[5] a suit leading to an out-of-court settlement of US$15.5 million but no admission of liability on the company’s part.[6] Compare this to the recent experience of the US’s south, with BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward commenting: ‘We will absolutely be paying for the clean-up operation. There is no doubt about that. It’s our responsibility‚ we accept it fully.’[7] In much the same vein, Deepwater Horizon has prompted US senators’ calls to make oil companies liable for up to US$10 billion for the cost of a spill.[8]


In light of the immediate reparations available to the US in the wake of the BP spill, the contrast with the Nigerian example seemingly demonstrates the higher value placed on human life and existence in a richer part of the world. The asymmetrical power relations behind the ultimate way in which local people are treated illustrate markedly different political contexts, one in which a multinational gets told in no uncertain terms to buck up its ideas, and another where a company is alleged to collude with federal forces in actively silencing local voices. In essence, while in the US there is political capital in having a pop at the oil industry, in Nigeria this results in the industry having a pop at you. Furthermore, it also illustrates the importance for oil companies of making sure their safety equipment is top-notch when operating in close proximity to richer, more powerful regions of the world where the financial and public-image consequences of a spill are so much bigger, as well as the potential commercial unattractiveness of such regions as a result.

Perhaps a cruel irony behind all this is that rather than providing another example of the general precariousness of humanity’s over-reliance on oil exploitation and fossil-fuel extraction, the consequences of the US spill will likely simply be greater pressure on oil-rich, poorer parts of the world without adequate organisational and institutional protection for local people and environments. With anti-oil sentiment strong in the US, high-profile political figures are keen to respond to the catastrophe in a manner in tune with public opinion, such as Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger’s decision to u-turn on expanded drilling in his state: ‘You turn on the TV and see this enormous disaster; you say to yourself, why would we want to take on that kind of risk?’[9]


It’s not hard to envisage some of the potential consequences of this heightened US aversion to domestic oil production. As the world’s largest per capita consumer of fossil fuels, the US has to get its oil from somewhere, and with its authorities and business sector wary of over-reliance on the ‘unstable’ Middle East, attention is increasingly turning towards the African continent for supply. Reports that Shell’s profits in Nigeria are slim notwithstanding,[10] Africa’s list of emerging oil producers includes Angola, Gabon, Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea (and potentially Ghana and Uganda), all of whom are playing an increasingly prominent role in the global oil sector and whose societies are characterised by the restriction of oil money to an elite few. The diverse make-up of the oil sectors within each of these countries aside, the absence of adequate protective check-and-balances and mechanisms to redistribute the financial gains from oil simply amplifies the scope for further environmental catastrophes, social injustice and the repression of rights, representation and protest.

If the US and the rest of the Western world is keen not to play host to risky oil extraction, then the pressure increases in environments in which multinationals and governmental structures of limited accountability are able to grab natural resources and marginalise local people, giving rise to more of the injustice witnessed in the Niger Delta in contexts in which effective institutional safeguards do not exist. Naturally the composition of the oil sector in Africa at large is a complicated picture, but regardless of whether you’re looking at state-run companies like Angola’s Sonangol or the operations of foreign multinationals, the same seeds for potential social exploitation and inequality remain.

When it comes to US attempts to shore up the supply of African oil, the AFRICOM (African Command) militarisation initiative enters the fray. AFRICOM is a force operating by US officials’ own admission in direct support of US designs on energy from Africa, as indicated by member of the House of Representatives Ed Royce: ‘It’s clearly in our national interest to diversify our energy supply, especially given the turbulent political climate in key parts of the world today. The expansion of energy production in Africa matches to that interest…'[11] As part of broader efforts to achieve ‘security’ within the context of the global ‘war on terror’, the budget behind the AFRICOM programme rose from US$50 million in the 2007 fiscal year to US$310 million in 2009. While AFRICOM commander General E. Ward underlines the support for Africa’s ‘development’ provided by a securitisation programme, Ba Karang argues that AFRICOM is simply a pro-US military, pro-energy initiative dressed up in the cloak of an Islamic fundamentalist threat.[12]


Reaction to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has highlighted sharp contrasts in the protection and rights afforded local populations and environments in close proximity to oil-producing facilities in different parts of the world. While the full might of the government of the world’s super-power has moved to bring BP to heel under a global media spotlight, Nigerians in the Niger Delta continue to suffer environmental degradation, a complete lack of benefits from oil extraction and outright repression in an environment devoid of effective protective mechanisms.

In the wake of a deep environmental catastrophe in the US and increasing reticence towards reliance on Middle Eastern oil, rather than emphasising the inherent, universal precariousness of oil and the need for solidarity behind effective regulation around the world, Deepwater Horizon may well accentuate the pressures on oil extraction in African countries lacking governments with the political will to stand up for their populations or even operate in their people’s best interests. While the US has been able to seek swift compensation for the effects of a major spill, the momentum behind an anti-domestic oil reaction belies the country’s high consumption of fossil fuels. This oil will have to come from somewhere, and with the US, multinationals and African state-run oil companies alike eyeing up the continent’s rich supply, the lack of protection for ordinary African people may well give rise to other examples of seemingly perennial injustice like the Niger Delta.

Alex Free is assistant editor of Pambazuka News.