Johann Hari: Our cry for cheap oil is crude and deadly

The Niger Delta should now be an oasis of riches. But the people live with nothing

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When you cry for cheaper oil, do you know what you are really asking for? Gordon Brown has just shown us. He has unwittingly exposed the pipeline that runs from your petrol station to the poisoned people of the Niger Delta. The more you howl for cheap oil, the more they will be Shell-shocked into submission.

To understand, you need to know the story of the Niger Delta, a once lush land of mangrove swamps at the base of Nigeria. In the late 1950s, in the final days of British imperial rule, Shell's local subsidiary discovered it lay on top of vast pools of oil. Britain immediately became its number one user, with the US close behind. In the long decades since, more than $200bn worth of oil and gas has been pumped from beneath the Delta people's feet.

So you would imagine the Niger Delta must now be an oasis of riches, with its 30m people bathing in wealth. But no: they live with nothing and die by the age of 40. While the lifeblood of twenty-first century techno-life is pumped from their land, they live in the Stone Age, with no schools, no hospitals and barely any electricity. They have felt three effects from the petrol. Their land has been poisoned by oil spills; the fish they lived off have been turned into stunted, toxic rarities; and when they ask for compensation, they are shot at.

Here's just one everyday story about how that feels, unusually well documented because some journalists happened to be there. In October 1998, there was a leak of raw petroleum near one Delta village. Somehow – a stray cigarette, perhaps – a spark hit it, and a huge fireball whooshed up to incinerate over 700 people.

Three years later, the journalist Greg Campbell went back to see some of the victims. They had received no medical treatment. Christiana Akpode, a 24-year-old mother, could barely walk; her legs were forced into a permanent kneel. Campbell explained: "Her legs are hard to look at: from the shin to the knee, her legs are little more than red and purple scabs bleeding white pus. She scratches this section incessantly. Her days are spent warding away flies from the open wounds." As the journalist left, she pleaded: "You should kill me."

The people of the Niger Delta have not watched this destruction of their homeland – for us – passively. They signed petitions, went to the oil barges to ask for a fair share of the proceeds, and refused to co-operate with the oil companies. The response? According to Human Rights Watch, the Nigerian military – hungry for its own hefty cut of the cash – beat, tortured or killed them, sometimes with the active help of some of the oil companies.

For example, in 1998, more than 100 ordinary villagers went to one of Chevron's barges to ask peacefully to speak to the company's managing director. They were told to wait.

They saw helicopters approaching, and assumed they were Chevron spokespeople – until the gunfire began. Two of them were shot dead. Others were taken away and tortured. The rest managed to flee. A Chevron spokesman admitted the corporation flew in the Nigerian soldiers who did the shooting – and that the protestors they murdered were unarmed.

Peaceful protests had been swelling in popularity since the early 1990s – so the movement's leaders were seized. The head of the local Internal Security Task Force, Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Okuntimo, made clear why, in a 1994 memo that was later leaked: "Shell operations are still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken," he wrote, including "wasting targets ... especially vocal individuals." (Shell claims the memo is fake, and if it is real they find it "abhorrent".) One of the arrested leaders, the playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa, said: "This is it – they are going to execute us. For Shell." In his final plea before he was hanged, he asked: "Why should the people on oil-bearing land be tortured?"

After that, silence. The people were too terrified to act. But two years ago they tried a new tactic. Non-violent resistance got them massacred, so some turned to violent resistance. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend) emerged from the mangrove swamps to vandalise oil pipelines and kidnap oil industry workers. "We are not communists or even revolutionaries," their spokesman explained. "We are just extremely bitter ... We are people who would rather be with our families raising our children, sending them to school. We want all this to be over, but what future do our children have?"

Mend has issued three simple demands. It wants $1.5bn in compensation already awarded to it by the courts for damage to the environment; a 50 per cent claim on all oil pumped out of their land; and the release of their captured leaders. That's it. A former oil worker hostage of Mend told Vanity Fair: "Their grievances are legitimate ... To be out in the swamp with no water or electricity, of course they're upset. They are looking through our fence at golf courses and tennis courts where the floodlights are on at midnight [when] they are without electricity for days."

Mend has so much support in the Deltas that it has now been able to disrupt oil pumping by 30 percent. This shooting up of the pipelines is one of the main reasons why oil prices have shot up across the world. There are two possible responses now. The first is to meet Mend and the Delta's demands: let the people have a fair share of their own oil profits. The second is to violently suppress the population with a renewed mass terror.

Enter Gordon Brown. Last week, he offered Britain's help to achieve the second option. He offered British troops to "train" Nigeria's "security forces" so they can "restore order" and get the oil flowing fast again.

Why did he choose this? Because compromise would take time and – if the people of the Delta really got to keep a share of the profits – it would cost. Oil prices here won't come down. That's no good: he is being screamed at by us to deliver cheap oil, whatever the human cost, today, tomorrow, and forever. He is reacting to pressure from you. Heroin addicts will rob grannies for their next fix; oil addicts like us will plunder Africa and the Middle East.

No doubt Brown will say the British soldiers would also provide human rights training to Nigerian soldiers. But the reason Nigerian soldiers are there is to suppress the local people so their oil can be seized. How do you slather human rights training on top of a mission like that?

An old woman from the Delta tries, in the new American documentary Sweet Crude, to talk directly to you. She says: "I'd like people all over the world to realise there's a segment of humanity suffering as a result of oil production – ordinary men, women, children. They should think about them and not think simply of energy. Think of us as people. That's more important than anything."

But while we are unrepentant junkies, howling for cheap petrol, will we be able to hear her?

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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