May 22, 2006
“Thieves,” “vandals,” “These people steal; they’re greedy.” This is what Nigerian government and public health officials had to say about the 200 and some Nigerians who died when a gasoline pipeline exploded, igniting fires that quickly spread across the fuel slick and literally burned to death everyone nearby. The bodies were charred so badly they couldn’t be identified by family members and were buried in a mass grave.
The disaster happened last week in Abuja, a fishing village 30 miles from Lagos, a modern city and Nigeria’s commercial center.
Most Nigerians living in villages and farms are extremely poor. Two-thirds of the Nigerian population live on less than a dollar a day. Life expectancy averages only 47 years. When impoverished villagers saw gasoline leaking from a pipeline that ran through their village, they brought small jerrycans to collect it.
The government says there were vandals who tapped the pipeline to re-sell fuel and make a profit. But the majority were poor villagers, desperate for fuel. Even the small-time vandals who bring tools to crack open the pipeline are poor. The misery the population lives in is what pushes them to take such risks.
Tapping pipelines is a common practice in Nigeria, and tolerated by local police who often take their cut from the practice.
A network of pipelines runs through villages and farms and the lines are hardly covered or buried. Instead they are exposed ... making it hazardous and an accident waiting to happen, as well as easy targets for tapping.
There have been similar accidents in recent years. In 2004 a pipeline explosion near Lagos caused the death of 50 people. The worst was in 1998 in southern Nigeria where between 700 and 1000 people were killed.
Speaking of thieves and stealing, let’s set the record straight. Who are the big-time thieves? The real criminals? Hardly the Nigerian masses. It’s the top Nigerian government officials who get rich from the cut given to them by the foreign oil companies. In 2005, some 450 million dollars was “found” in bank accounts in Switzerland. The former dictator, Sani Abacha, who died in 1998, had stolen it. But the real beneficiaries of this oil wealth are the oil barons from the rich countries who siphon the oil out of Nigeria to be sold on the world market. The largest oil companies are installed in Nigeria, which is the fifth largest oil exporter in the world, to make profits off of Nigeria’s oil.
Oil-rich Nigeria brings enormous wealth to the imperialist and capitalist owners of oil production, while the Nigerian people, with gasoline and oil produced literally in their own backyards and villages, remain severely impoverished.
The profits of the oil companies are made in part with dramas such as the one which just took place. Behind these billions of dollars, there are cadavers found charred to the bone near pipelines, the bodies of poor people who fight to scratch out a little change in order to try to survive.