One can’t help feeling sorry for Shell, or other such multinationals, sometimes. There you are, trying to be a good Big Oil company, paying proper salaries and taxes and royalties (well, maybe not enough to the liking of some, but paying a lot nevertheless, especially if you include the bribes) and still they blame you for everything, from pollution to corruption and unemployment and lack of perspectives, not just for the Niger Delta region but for the entire country.

Then they vandalise your pipelines and come to you for more money for a ‘clean up contract’. Then they blackmail you into financing health and water and electricity projects, and then they abandon or sabotage those projects.  According to a report by Emmanuel Mayah in ZAM Magazine in 2011, Italian oil company AGIP provided the village of Omoku with electricity once, but had to stop doing so after the local politico-business mafia told them to. The group of local VIP’s was making good money from selling generators to people desperate for light and heat. They could not have foreigners giving out energy for free.

The narrative of guilt and victimhood is a bit racist

Of course all this started with colonialism and plunder and crude exploitation. But things have changed a little since those days. Local people have proven that they don’t all sit around in endless suffering, patiently waiting for good-hearted activists in the colonial countries to force ‘their’ oil multinationals to make up for past crimes and make things right.  This narrative of guilt and victimhood, bandied about by the likes of Dutch-Nigerian activist ‘Comrade’ Sunny Ofehe, together with his merry band of Dutch sympathisers, is as lucrative as it is, let’s face it, a bit racist. In this narrative, local people have no agency at all. It is up to ‘white saviours’ to come and rescue them from the white villains.

Among those who point at the role played by Nigerian warlords, mafia-type businessmen and political leaders in the current mess are Nigerian investigative journalists. Nnamdi Onyeuma does it again, in this issue of ZAM Chronicle. “Locals of the Niger Delta see oil as their birth right”, he writes, and shows how everybody-who-is-anybody in the area in some way makes good money from oil. How the cleverest of these have become multi-millionnaires from large-scale oil theft. They bunker the oil, ship it and sell it illegally, evading tax, leaving more and more pollution and devastation in their wake. They command militias, engage in kidnapping of oil workers (or any VIP who dares to enter ‘their’ region), buy up local politicians and inspire terror in a population that is forced to serve these ‘Big Men’ and drink polluted water.

Militias and warlords build empires on the ticket of 'community protests'

The water will forever remain polluted, because, as soon as a spill is cleaned up, someone will immediately create another one, because of the money that can be made from protests and demands for tenders and contracts around it.

Where there is lawlessness, the biggest men will make the rules and bend everyone else to their will. Public services will not be delivered, the weak will not be defended and nobody will maintain schools, hospitals or play grounds, let alone the environment. Tax moneys will disappear into individuals’ pockets.

Anti 'Big Oil' protests overlook local forces and project 'white saviourism' on Nigeria

To remedy this situation, some serious state building will be required. Activists cannot expect a foreign oil company to provide to pay tax to an absent government and then also to take on the role of the government by providing needed services to all. Even if a company would agree to do this, how would it maintain law and order, rein in local ‘strong man’ rule and ensure that services are maintained to the benefit of all the people?  It would need to run everything, from the police force, to the courts, to the fire brigade. To demand all this is clearly absurd.

The question for those who stand in solidarity with the people of the Niger Delta is how to support, from the outside, struggles waged by Nigerian civil society for public service delivery and social justice. A good start would be to acknowledge that the Nigerian state is failing the Niger Delta, just like it is failing many other regions in the country.  Local activists from all these regions have asked for increased outside pressure on their government. It is time that these calls should be heeded.