Niger Delta, the price of oil and the class struggle

The price of crude oil has broken through the $50 barrier. A series of events have contributed to this, the latest being the crisis in the Niger Delta in Nigeria, where Ijaw rebels are threatening to attack oil pipelines. These events are merely the extreme expression of a more widespread crisis that Nigeria is facing.

On Tuesday the price of oil on the New York market hit $50.47. In Singapore it was selling at $50.18. This had an immediate effect on the Asian stock markets where shares fell sharply, especially those of air and auto companies. The Yen fell sharply and the dollar also did not do to well. OPEC, the organisation that gathers most of the major oil producing countries of the world has decided to increase daily output by a million barrels a day in an attempt to bring the price down to more “reasonable” levels.

However, OPEC chairman, Purnomo Yusgiantoro has had to admit that, “OPEC can do nothing to bring down the price of crude oil” and then went on to add that “the high price of oil could provoke a recession.” Even the most optimistic calculations indicate that at the very least if the price of oil remains above $40 for a substantial amount of time this could reduce economic growth in the advanced capitalist by up to half a percent. Considering the slow rate of development of the economy in some of the advanced countries, especially the so-called “Eurozone”, this could have serious consequences for the overall global economy.

At the beginning of this year crude oil was selling in New York for $34, and even at that level it was considered high. Several factors are coming together to provoke such a sharp increase in the price of oil. Iraqi oil is not flowing as it should. Far from solving the problem of oil supplies, Iraq has added to it. This is the irony the US imperialists are facing. There is also the crisis the main Russian oil company Yukos has been going through recently. The recent hurricanes that have hit the Caribbean have stooped oil refineries there from functioning. China is also sucking in huge amounts of oil as its economy continues to boom. These are all factors that contribute to the present crisis. But the two main contributing factors are the impasse in Iraq and the developing crisis in Nigeria. Hurricanes will pass. The Russian oil industry will continue to pump out oil. In fact Russia is doing its best to up production to offset the shortages from other parts of the world. The crisis in Iraq will not be so short lived. In fact it could get worse.

But what seems to have sparked off the latest hike, which has pushed the price of oil in some markets over the $50 barrier, are the latest events in Nigeria. Nigeria is a major oil producer, ranked fifth or sixth in the world. Africa is becoming ever more important, especially for the USA. Over the next few years Africa is expected to provide the USA with 25% of its oil needs! Already Nigeria provides 2.3 million barrels of crude oil per day. So although all eyes have been on Iraq and the Middle East, what is happening in Nigeria is becoming ever more important for the strategists of capitalism.

A new, armed grouping, calling itself the People’s Volunteer Force of the Niger Delta has recently declared “a total war against the Nigerian state”. This is an armed group of Ijaws. The Ijaws are one of the tribal groups that inhabit the Niger Delta region. The rebels have aimed their anger at the foreign oil companies operating in the region. They accuse companies such as Shell and Agip of having “collaborated with the Nigerian state in acts of genocide against our people.”

They have called on the accused companies to stop all operations and have warned all foreigners to leave the area by tomorrow, Friday. The leader of the Volunteer Force, Mujahid Dokubo Asari, has said that their struggle will continue until they achieve “self-determination for the Ijaw people.”

These people have been branded as terrorists by the Nigerian regime, and tanks, planes, helicopters and thousands of troops have been carrying a de facto war for some time now. The area is too important for the Nigerian regime to let go of. The Ijaw people have been pounded into the ground in order to guarantee the continued flow of oil to the imperialist masters. The problem for the western media is that the Ijaws are Christians. So there can be no talk of “Islamic terrorism” or “Al-Qaeda” here. In fact among many of the Nigerian state officials who have made millions, and continue to oppress these people, are Muslims. Maybe that is why the plight of the Ijaws very rarely gets onto people’s TV screens in the West!

The irony of the Niger Delta region is that while it is literally floating on oil its people are among the poorest in Nigeria. And that is saying something, for Nigeria is one of the poorest countries in the world. Port Harcourt is one immense mass of slum dwellings, where people are still using candles to see at night. Unemployment is at astronomical levels. The discovery of oil in this region has brought no benefits to the local people. On the contrary it has actually worsened their living conditions. The rivers have been polluted. The fish in the local rivers used to be one of the main sources of food for the poor. Now that has gone. Agricultural land has also been heavily polluted and can no longer be used to grow food.

Life for the mass of the people in Delta State has become desperate. But the people at the top have only been concerned with one thing: maintaining military control of the area – at all costs! They have terrorised the local people. Terrible massacres have taken place, with thousands of people losing their lives.

Oil was discovered in Nigeria back in 1956. Since then Nigeria has made something like $400 billion. This could have not only solved all the problems of Nigeria, but of the whole of black, sub-Saharan Africa! The Nigerian people could easily be among the richest in the world. Instead the money has been stashed away by greedy officials. The people have not see a cent of this immense wealth.

While all this has been going on the foreign oil companies, those who have benefited the most, have continued to back the Nigerian elite, the so-called Nigerian “ruling class”. This ruling class in 44 years of independence has been totally incapable of developing Nigeria. They have played no progressive role whatsoever. They are merely tools in the hands of the imperialists. Their job is to hold down the Nigerian masses and make sure the wealth flows out of the country and into the hands of the imperialists. In exchange they get to take a share of the loot.

It is the terrible condition of the masses in Delta State that has led over the recent years to a spate of attacks on the oil companies, on their pipelines and on their technicians and managers. The youth organised resistance groups to fight back. Part of their actions involved the kidnapping of workers of the oil companies. The response of the regime has always been – and continues to be – absolutely ruthless. It would send in the troops and butcher hundreds in response to one kidnapping.

The oil companies are now claiming innocence, but it is common knowledge that often private militias have been financed by these oil companies to carry their dirty work for them. They have also been involved in backing one small ethnic group against another to quell the rebellions. Thus what from outside may seem inexplicable ethnic conflict, has a logic to it. The western media like people in the advanced countries to think that all this is a reflection of the uncivilised, backward, tribal society of black Africa. It is nothing of the kind!

What seems to have sparked off the recent conflict was the killing of hundreds of people, accused of supporting the rebels. The rebels have accused some of the foreign oil companies of being behind these killings. They seem to have passed on information about the rebels to some of their local friends who then went in and did the dirty work. This would not be the first time that such a thing has happened.

The present threats have forced Shell to close one of its plants. Last week it reduced output by millions of barrels and evacuated 235 of its workers. Other oil companies are keeping a careful eye on developments and preparing to do the same as Shell if necessary. In reality what is happening is that the Nigerian army is stepping up its operations and the oil companies have strengthened their armed guards to make sure production continues as much as possible.

The problem of these rebels is that they are no match for the Nigerian army. They have very few arms. At best they can be seen as an annoying local problem by the powers that be. They will continue to be crushed, burnt out of their villages, bombed and drowned in blood. The flow of oil is too important for the “civilised” western imperialists to be worried about the methods of the Nigerian army and of the private pro-government militias. Nigerian oil is literally steeped in the blood of the poor.

What is happening in the Niger Delta region is the result of the desperation of a very poor people who see no way out. But their destiny is tightly linked to that of the other peoples that make up the Nigerian Federation. Nigeria is a country of 120 million people, which has over 120 languages and many, many ethnic groups, some large like the Yorubas, Hausas and Igbos, and some small like the Ijaws. Their enemies are the present Obasanjo regime, the Nigerian ruling class and their imperialist backers.

What is need is a common struggle of all Nigerian workers, peasants and poor, against the common enemy. While the Ijaws are in revolt, there is a spate of struggle breaking out all over Nigeria. There are strikes of the teachers, Airways workers, health workers, and a feeling of intense anger developing among the workers across the whole of Nigeria. The students are involved in struggles against the policies of the government, such as draconian hikes in university fees. And, more importantly, over the past few years there have been several powerful general strikes.

The situation in the Delta region is only an extreme expression of the general situation facing the workers of Nigeria. The task is to bring together all the various sectors involved in struggle and make it into one mass movement against the government. That is the task of the leadership of the Nigerian labour movement.

Unless the labour movement puts itself at the head of the nation and gives a lead the situation could be a disastrous one. The Marxists in Nigeria are attempting to give the workers and youth an alternative perspective. If the workers mobilised all their forces and gathered around them all the poor and oppressed the present regime would not be able to last a day. If the workers of Nigeria take power, the wealth is there and all the problems of all the various peoples of Nigeria could be solved. It would also be the signal to the workers of the rest of Africa.