The attention of the world has been focused on the Gulf of Mexico, where more than 100 million gallons of oil have leaked into the waters since April 20. It is a disaster of epic proportions to Americans, but the people of Nigeria are all too well acquainted with this kind of environmental catastrophe. As the New York Times reports, unchecked oil has daily poured into the Niger Delta for the past 50 years. And no one is really talking about it. 

Experts believe that as much as 546 million gallons of oil has been spilled over several decades. Now, the attention focused on the Gulf of Mexico has left many Nigerians wondering why no one has come to their aid. Claytus Kanyie, a local official, spoke to the NY Times while standing among dead, oily mangroves outside Bodo, Nigeria. According to Kanyie, “President Obama is worried about that (Gulf) one … Nobody is worried about this one. The aquatic life of our people is dying off. There used to be shrimp. There are no longer any shrimp.” Many of Nigeria’s inhabitants earn their keep off the land — despite the fact that much of the land is covered in oil. 

Nigeria has long been a major producer of oil for Africa, and pipes have been laid through its country for years. But the pipes have aged and bursting is now common. Still, there is a debate about who is to blame for the spills. Caroline Wittgen is a spokeswoman for Shell in Lago. As she told the NY Times, most of the spills have been the result of sabotage or theft. According to Wittgen, “We do not believe that we behave irresponsibly, but we do operate in a unique environment where security and lawlessness are major problems.”

This “lawlessness” has turned Nigeria into a literal battleground for environmentalists. In 1995, environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa — who diligently campaigned on a nonviolent platform of eco-reform —was hanged by a military tribunal with eight other members of the Ogoni ethnic minority. Critics contend that Nigeria's chaos has been supported by Western governments and big oil companies that benefit from the crude oil extraction in the Delta. As Global Issues reports, Shell Oil has even been accused of paying off people to disrupt nonviolent protests. And just last month, guards at the Exxon Mobil plant beat female protestors at their gates.

Experts believe that Nigeria could be restored to a clean state if the right reforms were enacted. But politics and strife continue to haunt the area. And in the meantime, oil flows freely into Nigeria.

For further reading: