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Oil fire symbolizes woes in Nigeria's destitute villages

Long-neglected areas let blazes burn unless they get compensation from multinationals they say have ruined their land.

September 16, 2007|Heidi Vogt | Associated Press

KEGBARA DERE, NIGERIA — The fire burned strong for 45 days and 45 nights, blanketing the village with ash and torching the young cassava plants in Ada Baniba's field. As she weeded, the flames flared out of the leaking oil pipeline behind her.

It wasn't that no one could put the fire out. It was that no one would -- not the oil company that owned the pipeline, not the government and not the villagers breathing the fumes.

The tale of Kegbara Dere's fire shows just how desperate the long-neglected communities of Nigeria's oil-rich river delta have become.

The average Nigerian still survives on less than $2 a day, despite the country's $20 billion rise in oil exports to the United States over the last five years. And so Kegbara Dere villagers saw the fire less as an environmental crisis than as a negotiating tool -- risking their health, land and even lives to grab their bit of the spoils from the multinational oil companies that rule the region.

Such fires are common -- Royal Dutch Shell PLC said it was hit by more than 16 fires in Nigeria between August 2006 and June 2007. At least six of those fires were on the Trans-Niger pipeline, which runs underneath Kegbara Dere. Pipeline explosions have killed hundreds of Nigerians in past years, including more than 400 last year in the main city of Lagos.

Oil firms blame criminals who tap the line to steal crude, while villagers argue that aged pipes rupture on their own. But in the case of Kegbara Dere, it was village youths who confessed to sabotaging the line, and it was village leaders who refused to let the fire be extinguished without a payout.

Angry residents

When the fire burst out in the fields, it didn't surprise Monday Komene. He had heard a few days earlier that some of his friends planned to cut the pipe to wring money out of Shell.

It takes planning and serious tools to sabotage an oil pipeline. Shell's Trans-Niger line is 6 feet below ground, with walls more than a quarter-inch thick.

But anger gives strength, and the roughly 1 million people of Ogoniland -- the area that includes Kegbara Dere -- are angry. This was one of the first places foreign companies drilled for oil in the 1950s, and they left the land riddled with polluted waterways and half-cleaned-up spills. No one can plant cassava any more in a large field soaked with oil from a 1972 wellhead explosion.

Oil companies continue production in the rest of the delta, making Nigeria the fifth-largest supplier of oil to the United States. But here in Ogoniland, residents ran Shell out in 1993, leaving behind the pipeline and the pollution.

The story of the latest fire in Kegbara Dere goes back to early May, when Komene and 39 other young men closed off pipe valves for six days to extract money from Shell. The closure cut output by about 170,000 barrels a day. The pressure from the stopped-up pipes was so intense that the ground shook.

The rest of the village banded together to reopen the valves. Shell, in its turn, invited the youths involved to a training session on environmental cleanup in a fancy hotel. They expected lucrative cleanup contracts to follow. None did.

So the young men, calling themselves "Militant/Commando 2000," sent a letter to Shell in early June warning "the situation would be bad" if the company failed to give them contracts. When no contracts came, the fire started.

"They promise that they are going to give us some contracts. They have not paid anything," Komene muttered as he sat slumped in a chair.

Youth leader Amstel Gbrakpor said the boys were wrong to cut the pipes. But he said villagers now wanted 5 million naira (about $40,000) to let Shell put out the fire and repair the leak, as reparation for their earlier work on the valves.

"We want that fire to be extinguished. But they will do what we want them to do," Gbrakpor said in his headquarters, a room with Jesus posters and worn, low-slung couches circling a coffee table on which stood a bottle of brandy.

Village ruler Baridi Gberesuu agreed, saying Shell had failed to clean up past spills and fires properly despite its promises.

And so the fire raged on, and took the cassava, the yam, the coconut, and finally, Barikuma Sunday's 75-year-old father.

He was near the line when it exploded. He developed a cough that never got better and died a few weeks ago.

"This fire killed my father," Sunday spat out, as he watched the smoke near the blackened orange tree. "It burned all the things we had planted."

Sunday, 30, and his mother and younger siblings stopped sleeping in their house at night because the smoke was too overwhelming.

On the nearby road, smoke billowed overhead as a young girl in an orange dress ran barefoot through a puddle of oil and water.

Shell defends inaction

Far from the black smoke, in the commercial towers of Lagos, the fire was still a problem for Shell. An oil company in Nigeria doesn't need any more bad blood.

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