The cruel inequalities of corporate-driven globalisation have claimed their latest victims in the hundreds of people burned to death on Boxing Day as they tried to scoop up oil from a broken pipeline in Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria. In the world’s seventh largest oil producing nation, the country’s poor cannot afford to buy fuel at market prices and in desperation risk their lives in search of oil. The oil pipeline from Tuesday’s incident ran through one of the city’s poor suburbs and when it was vandalised by oil thieves, thousands of local residents ran to grab as much of the precious fuel as possible. Then came the explosion. In the past decade, some 2,000 people have been killed in similar accidents. A blast in May left 300 people dead. In 2003, at least 225 were killed by a pipeline inferno. Nigeria derives 90% of its total annual income from oil exports yet despite the country’s oil riches, a majority of Nigerians live on less than a dollar a day. According to Amnesty International, Nigeria "has not provided enough essential services, nor built the social and physical infrastructure in large parts of the country, necessary to ensure a minimum acceptable level of the rights to health, education, and access to drinking water, and an adequate standard of living". Fuel shortages are common because a succession of corrupt military dictatorships and civilian governments have let refining plants fall into decay. So crude oil is exported and refined oil imported.
The residents in the Niger Delta, where Shell and other oil corporations pump the oil, suffer the most appalling living conditions. They live in squalor, with hardly any services. The land is heavily polluted by decades of ruthless oil exploration. Desperation has forced militias to kidnap oil workers and sabotage facilities in order to try and get a fairer share of the country’s wealth. In 1995, the Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and either others who had campaigned for the Ogoni people in the Delta, were executed by a military tribunal on trumped-up charges. Shell was complicit in the judicial murders and refused to intervene in order to protect its oil contracts. Meanwhile, as the Nigerians suffer, Shell continues to prosper at the expense of other people – as well as the environment. Earlier this year, soaring oil prices helped Shell report a record annual profit for a UK-listed company of £13.1 billion – up nearly a third on the previous year. And in November it started pumping oil from a huge new field off the Nigerian coast. While transnationals like Shell and the tame Obasanjo regime in Nigeria are in charge, the wealth will continue to flow into the pockets of shareholders and ordinary people will die in infernos.
Paul Feldman, communications editor