Legal Oil, Ethical Oil and Profiteering in the Niger Delta and the Canadian North

In this guest blog post, Professor Anna Zalik of York University Canada explores how governments and multinationals criminalise protest and gloss over the environmental injustices of oil extraction.

Q: What does the Canadian Government’s fury at opponents of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline have to do with the Nigerian ‘legaloil’ campaign?

A: Both positions are about justifying private profits and criminalizing protest.

The Nigerian government raised fuel prices on 1 January 2012, an act that led to a national strike and widespread protest among a mass movement, at times identifying as Occupy Nigeria. For about a decade the oil multinationals in Nigeria have tacitly endorsed a campaign, supported through industry consultants, to describe their production as “legal”. This use of the term ‘legal’ aimed  to counter the call for ‘resource control’ among a youth insurgency movement which partly supported itself off the trade in contraband oil. Like a range of social and environmental rights organizations in Nigeria and internationally, the youth insurgency in the Delta rose from opposition to the social and ecological  injustices that secured private-industry contracts to lift Nigerian oil.  During the height of the Ogoni movement and following Ken Saro Wiwa’s judicial murder in 1995, there was widespread consensus that the partnership between the Nigerian State and the multinational oil industry was ‘unjust’ regardless of whether or not it was ‘legal’.

In the aftermath of the Saro Wiwa’s execution, the Niger Deltan movements became increasingly militant. Escalations in the ‘oil war’ in the Niger Delta from 2004 onward were accompanied by a campaign by the oil industry operating in Nigeria to reframe their activities as socially-responsible and to label resistance movements criminal. In contrast to the sympathetic portrayal of the Ogoni uprising in the 1990s, or the 2002 “Women’s sit-in” against Chevron (in which a group of women threatened to disrobe on a platform), armed militia activity in the Delta came to be depicted internationally as a kind of ‘competitive thuggery’.

Part of the strategy for criminalizing protest involved the transnational oil companies pathologizing Niger Deltan unarmed protest not only externally and internationally, but also in the minds of those most subject to the ravages of oil extraction. Some residents of the Delta’s riverine region would refer to any facility takeover or shutdown as ‘violence’, a view promoted by industry in its emphasis on avoiding work stoppages and outlawing demonstrations. Mainstream media and policy analysts played a role in this criminalization, through the use of terms like terrorism to describe the deepening ungovernability of the region. Ultimately, if a key tactic of unarmed resistance movements – like blockades – became known as ‘violent’ protest, civil disobedience – which garnered international sympathy -would become an ineffective strategy: it is unsurprising that the Niger Deltan resistance movements became increasingly radicalised.

The web site Legaloil.com promotes the discursive and material criminalization of the oil bunkering trade in the Nigerian context – equating it with conflict diamonds. The legaloil website was established in 2002-3 when control of the contraband trade was said to have slipped increasingly out of the hands of the military and oil industry employees that previously directed it, into those of the armed youth that formerly served as their henchmen. Legaloil.com functions as a directly ‘global’ intervention that presents data concerning bunkered shipments (the source of which is hard to verify or monitor, but becomes ‘real’ once presented as graphs and tables), tracks threats and attacks on installations, and endorses chemical fingerprinting as means to distinguish between licit and ‘illicit’ oil. The site also seeks to present its data, and its proposals, as legitimated by Nigerian sources. Indeed, to be successful internationally, the ‘legal oil’ label requires reshaping the way exploitation in the Niger Delta is understood locally and globally so that ‘abusive’ relations of extraction come to be associated with bunkering activities, rather than the (state-sanctioned) operations of multinational oil companies so criticized in the 1990s.

Yet despite such efforts, the armed strategy of the Niger Deltan insurgency was partially successful in transferring resources to its leadership, although not to the average Niger Deltan or Nigerian.  The Deltan insurgency has been subdued since the  rise to the presidency of a Niger Deltan, Goodluck Jonathan, an outcome that would have been unthinkable a decade earlier. But as international attention to resistance in the Delta waned, so has international attention to corporate malpractice there. In the past month, Shell and Chevron operations in Nigeria have seen two major ‘accidents’, neither of which have received much attention in the global media.  Unfortunately, despite such business-as-usual in terms of the oil industry’s effects, some former insurgent leaders in fact supported Jonathan in critiquing the mass protests against the removal of fuel subsidies. Key Niger Deltan activists have endorsed Occupy Nigeria, however.

The Canadian government has endorsed a parallel campaign to Legaloil.com so as to whitewash the tar sands, in reaction to a transnational movement opposing its social and ecological impacts. The Harper government has relied on Ezra Levant (Canada’s answer to Rush Limbaugh) and his poorly informed, orientalist book to try to rebrand the tar sands as Ethical OilThis campaign persists despite serious accidents whose costs are absorbed by Canada’s Indigenous people. A recent example is the oil spill on Lubicon territory in Alberta last May which was hushed up in the national media just days before the federal election.

Opposition to Canadian tar sands expansion, as in the case of support for Niger Deltan environmental rights groups in the 1990s, is both domestic and international. Western Canadian aboriginal groups, social justice and environmental movements have come out in droves to speak against the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline in hearings, acts that Canada’s government has labeled tainted by ‘foreign money’.  This week, a staff person of a far-from-radical Canadian environmental NGO signed a sworn affidavit concerning how the Canadian Prime Minister’s Office had described them as an ‘enemy of the people’ to their main funder. Opponents to tar sands expansion, it would seem, are increasingly “illegal”, according to Harper’s government.

Ultimately the protesters in Canada, like the Nigerian mass movement calling for a repeal of the fuel price hikes, call for a combination of resource and ecological sovereignty. They demand that restrictions on, and distribution of, oil and gas industry profits are made in the name of the public justice. They protest the ‘legally’ mandated extractive profiteering, of private industry-state partnerships in oil, gas and mining – profiteering which is increasingly understood as corporate theft of common property.



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