Deadly Oil Skirmish Scars Nigerian Town A dispute over who deserved money from an oil company ended with a government attack on the town of Odioma, Nigeria, that left the community in tatters. Some residents were killed and others made homeless.
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Deadly Oil Skirmish Scars Nigerian Town

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Deadly Oil Skirmish Scars Nigerian Town

Deadly Oil Skirmish Scars Nigerian Town

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

In an oil-rich part of Nigeria, there's a town in ruins.

Going past the concrete shell of a building.

Chief NOEL IGELBEARY(ph) (Local Leader): That's--as we go around, you'll be able to see things for yourself.

INSKEEP: Some residents were killed this year and others made homeless in a dispute over an oil field. We're passing burned-out buildings with a local leader, Noel Igelbeary.

(Soundbite of gate being opened)

Chief IGELBEARY: This building belonged to my late uncle.

INSKEEP: This is a two-story stone building. It's an imposing...

Chief IGELBEARY: Two-story building and was destroyed by the army.

INSKEEP: Odioma, Nigeria, is a case study of what sometimes goes wrong when Western economies depend on the world's poorest places.

(Soundbite of people walking)

INSKEEP: We're visiting as part of our series on Africa's biggest energy supplier. Nigeria sends 1.2 million barrels of oil per day to the United States. That high-quality oil is especially likely to end up in your gas tank, and Nigeria's exports are growing. The biggest producer, Shell, has been drilling for decades in the lowlands of the Niger River Delta. Shell's constant problem is avoiding clashes between a modern industry and a traditional society.

(Soundbite of rain)

INSKEEP: You start to learn about the Odioma fire by visiting a simple house on a rainy day. That's where we found an African king. He's one of Nigeria's many traditional leaders with pedigrees that go back centuries.

Highness CABRI GEORGE OMIYA(ph) (Odioma): My name, sir, Cabri George Omiya.

INSKEEP: The old man's full title is Highness Cabri George Omiya, Agoni 21st(ph) of the kingdom of Odioma. Despite the grand title, he wears simple clothes and clutches a cane made of steel pipe. He talks about his tiny kingdom, the ruined town of Odioma, plus some surrounding land. The trouble started on the border between his kingdom and the next one over. Royal Dutch Shell paid for the right to drill on property that both kingdoms claimed.

Highness OMIYA: You see, that place, they found oil, and that place belonged to my community and especially one of my great-great uncles that founded the place.

INSKEEP: You believe that that money should rightly have gone to you and to your kingdom.

Highness OMIYA: Rightly should have come to me. The dues that would be paid--land dues should rightly come to my domain.

INSKEEP: Shell officials paid land dues to the other kingdom. They say they didn't know about Odioma's rival claim. And what happened next is a familiar story to Bill Knight. He's seen the results of the Delta's violence for years.

Mr. BILL KNIGHT (Oil Company Consultant): The scent of all these things is always oil. I mean, it wasn't the direct cause, but it's there under the surface of everything, because all this conflict is about who's getting any benefits that are going.

INSKEEP: Bill Knight does consulting work for oil companies and directs a community development organization.

Mr. KNIGHT: These are poor people. They feel cheated. The level of anger is rising over the years as they're disappointed more and more. Shell is operating nearby. This gives rise to a dispute between the two communities. Some people get killed. The authorities send in their military personnel. They wipe out a town, and that's that.

INSKEEP: This has happened more than once.

Mr. KNIGHT: Yeah. Yeah. It's happened a lot.

INSKEEP: The sequence of events is complicated enough that it's worth repeating Bill Knight's summary with more detail.

Mr. KNIGHT: Shell is operating nearby. This gives rise to a dispute between the two communities.

INSKEEP: In this place, the land dispute the king was describing. In a place without clear Western-style property records, a land deal can be a time bomb.

Mr. KNIGHT: Some people get killed.

INSKEEP: Not just any people. Early this year, somebody attacked an entire boatload of people. The targets included government officials. The state Information Minister, Oronto Douglas, told us they'd been sent to defuse the crisis.

Mr. ORONTO DOUGLAS (State Information Minister): And the four government functionaries were killed, together with the other people, and including the pregnant woman.

INSKEEP: The murder of a total of 11 people was blamed on a gang from Odioma, which leads to the next step in Bill Knight's summary, the government's response.

Mr. KNIGHT: The authorities send in their military personnel.

INSKEEP: Police couldn't arrest the gang leader, so the military sent in a force that regularly puts down unrest in the oil region. Its mission is called Operation Restore Hope.

Mr. KNIGHT: They wipe out a town, and that's that.

INSKEEP: When the troops came to Odioma, the murder suspects escaped. The rest of the town did not.

Grass growing in the shell of a building.

(Soundbite of people; children playing)

INSKEEP: Children playing in one of the houses that survived.

We met some of the homeless survivors who now sleep on the floor of Odioma's town hall.

(Soundbite of person singing in a foreign language)

INSKEEP: That's where we found a woman named Amama Ubet Natos(ph). The baby on her hip is one of her two daughters. Her other daughter, Aladeen(ph), was six years old when the shootings started.

Ms. AMAMA UBET NATOS: (Through Translator) I ran away with my baby, but I lost track of Aladeen. Later when I came back from hiding, I found her burned to death.

INSKEEP: Residents content 17 people were killed as the town burned in February. We couldn't verify a precise number of dead, but no one questions the widespread destruction. Authorities have been investigating who's responsible. Shell executive Chris Finlayson told us it's not his company.

Mr. CHRIS FINLAYSON (Shell Executive): The actions that were carried out between the communities and, thereafter, the response of the military, we had no role in, we had no pre-knowledge of, and we wouldn't have had because we had no assets on the ground which required protection.

INSKEEP: Why do you think that that situation went so very wrong?

Mr. FINLAYSON: I don't know. Some of the splits in between Delta communities are very deep and very bitter.

INSKEEP: Given those bitter relations, the military commander of Operation Restore Hope says his troops did the right thing. Brigadier General Elias Zamani says gang members fired on his troops as they approached Odioma.

Brigadier General ELIAS ZAMANI: Our troops had to defend themselves, and the deployment was successful.

INSKEEP: Much of the village of Odioma was burned.

Brig. Gen. ZAMANI: That's true. That's true.

INSKEEP: How did that happen?

Brig. Gen. ZAMANI: You see, a lot of oil was stored in drums inside these houses.

INSKEEP: General Zamani says Odioma residents were oil thieves and their stolen oil drums caught fire by accident during the shooting. The man who guided through Odioma, Chief Noel Igelbeary, says petroleum was involved in the fire, but Nigerian soldiers poured it.

Chief IGELBEARY: As they arrived, they started pouring fuel on the house and...

INSKEEP: Pouring fuel.

Chief IGELBEARY: Fuel.

INSKEEP: You saw them pouring fuel.

Chief IGELBEARY: I saw them. We saw them. It was they who set--who poured petrol on our houses and set fire on them.

(Soundbite of hammering)

INSKEEP: A larger question is whether the oil industry, which so many of us depend on, fueled a chain of deadly events. Two years ago, Shell consultants said the company was paying for land in ways seen as unfair. The warning came in a larger report on Shell's security strategy. That report said that several Shell policies contribute to the Delta's violence, and the consultants warned that without big changes, the giant company could be driven out of the Delta oil fields by 2008. Shell's Chris Finlayson says the company has since improved the way it communicates with communities, and he argues that Nigerians need to cooperate with their country's most lucrative industry.

Mr. FINLAYSON: It remains absolutely critical not just to America, not just to oil companies, but also to the continued well-being and livelihood of the nation, so we don't have an option of saying, `Oh, well, should we be doing that or not?' We just have to--all parties have to work in good spirits to try and find solutions to these long-term problems, I think.

INSKEEP: One problem is how to spend oil money so that it buys goodwill instead of destruction.

(Soundbite of person singing in a foreign language)

INSKEEP: Photos of Odioma and a link to the Shell report are at Tomorrow, what Nigerian investigators say about corruption and Halliburton.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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