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Published: February 2007

Nigerian Oil

Nigerian Oil

Curse of the Black Gold

Hope and betrayal on the Niger Delta

By Tom O'Neill
National Geographic staff
Photograph by Ed Kashi

Oil fouls everything in southern Nigeria. It spills from the pipelines, poisoning soil and water. It stains the hands of politicians and generals, who siphon off its profits. It taints the ambitions of the young, who will try anything to scoop up a share of the liquid riches—fire a gun, sabotage a pipeline, kidnap a foreigner.

Nigeria had all the makings of an uplifting tale: poor African nation blessed with enormous sudden wealth. Visions of prosperity rose with the same force as the oil that first gushed from the Niger Delta's marshy ground in 1956. The world market craved delta crude, a "sweet," low-sulfur liquid called Bonny Light, easily refined into gasoline and diesel. By the mid-1970s, Nigeria had joined OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries), and the government's budget bulged with petrodollars.

Everything looked possible—but everything went wrong.

Dense, garbage-heaped slums stretch for miles. Choking black smoke from an open-air slaughterhouse rolls over housetops. Streets are cratered with potholes and ruts. Vicious gangs roam school grounds. Peddlers and beggars rush up to vehicles stalled in gas lines. This is Port Harcourt, Nigeria's oil hub, capital of Rivers state, smack-dab in the middle of oil reserves bigger than the United States' and Mexico's combined. Port Harcourt should gleam; instead, it rots.

Beyond the city, within the labyrinth of creeks, rivers, and pipeline channels that vein the delta—one of the world's largest wetlands—exists a netherworld. Villages and towns cling to the banks, little more than heaps of mud-walled huts and rusty shacks. Groups of hungry, half-naked children and sullen, idle adults wander dirt paths. There is no electricity, no clean water, no medicine, no schools. Fishing nets hang dry; dugout canoes sit unused on muddy banks. Decades of oil spills, acid rain from gas flares, and the stripping away of mangroves for pipelines have killed off fish.

Nigeria has been subverted by the very thing that gave it promise—oil, which accounts for 95 percent of the country's export earnings and 80 percent of its revenue. In 1960, agricultural products such as palm oil and cacao beans made up nearly all Nigeria's exports; today, they barely register as trade items, and Africa's most populous country, with 130 million people, has gone from being self-sufficient in food to importing more than it produces. Because its refineries are constantly breaking down, oil-rich Nigeria must also import the bulk of its fuel. But even then, gas stations are often closed for want of supply. A recent United Nations report shows that in quality of life, Nigeria rates below all other major oil nations, from Libya to Indonesia. Its annual per capita income of $1,400 is less than that of Senegal, which exports mainly fish and nuts. The World Bank categorizes Nigeria as a "fragile state," beset by risk of armed conflict, epidemic disease, and failed governance.

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