THE MAGAZINE

Crude Oil and Corruption

By Robert Elliott

Deep in the bush of the Niger Delta is the small community of Ibaa. It is reached by packed reddish-dirt tracks that wind through the scrub and palm trees covering the low-lying alluvial plain. Ibaa is the site of a manifold—a connector for intersecting oil pipelines—controlled by the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC), the country’s dominant oil and gas company. The remote manifold was once enclosed by a retangular solid cinder-block wall some three meters high, but one whole side of it has been destroyed by the township’s residents. The townspeople were enraged by Shell’s placement of armed military personnel at the site during maintenance work. They responded by leveling roughly 20 meters of the wall while armed with nothing more than shovels, picks, and clubs.

Community anger at being cut out of the riches pulled from the ground in the Niger Delta by foreign oil companies is at the heart of the current chaos engulfing Africa’s most populous country. Insurgents attack oil facilities to pressure the multinationals and the government to let some of the crude windfall trickle down into the community; there has been a rash of kidnappings, bombings, pipeline shutdowns, and lost crude production.

“It’s like a war,” says Sekobe Afohron, a team leader on Shell’s pipeline right-of-way (ROW) surveillance squad.

Compounding the malignant situation is the constant theft of crude from secluded sections of the pipeline network, and the usual upheaval associated with presidential elections and their aftermath. These multiple threats create a challenging security environment for the oil companies doing business there.

Along with intensified security measures to protect personnel in dodgy places such as Port Harcourt and Lagos, Shell is stepping up efforts to guard its pipeline network against attacks and “bunkering,” or the robbery of oil directly from pipes. The company is running a pilot program that features a community relations push, the installation of surveillance technology, and human intelligence to try to mitigate losses and sooth the turbulence currently gripping its business environment. To understand the context of those efforts, it helps first to understand the region’s historical and cultural background.

 

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