The frosty relationship between oil companies in Nigeria and their host communities reared up its head again in the Niger Delta region lately when over 1,000 junior contract workers of Chevron Nigeria Limited (CNL) were held hostage for five days in the Escravos Gas-To-Liquids (EGTL) Camp in Ugborodo, Warri South-West Local Government Area, Delta State, by protesting community workers employed by local contractors. The workers, who locked down the company for five days, were reportedly at loggerheads with Chevron’s management over the alleged non-payment of their pay-off after the successful completion of the project. It took the intervention of security agencies dispatched to the camp by federal authorities to secure the release of the ‘hostages’.
While we commend the authorities for a successful rescue mission with no loss of life, the victory over the protesters seems a pyrrhic one because the underlying conditions that led to their action have probably not been addressed. It is, however, important to stress that the disparity in the objective material conditions of host communities and oil workers would be a permanent source of friction between them. We recognize the damaging effects of oil production on the environment, just as we deprecate the seeming lack of concern to the plight of citizens who dwell in oil-producing areas in the country. It is no longer news that they are mostly shut out from the wealth and privileges that oil exploration confers on people with similar status in other oil regions of the world. We dare say that most measures, policies and frameworks that government put in place to ameliorate the sickening negligence of the people of oil-producing Niger Delta of Nigeria are mere tokenism. For instance, the creation of the Oil and Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission (OMPADEC) and its successor Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), by the Federal Government, has served more significantly to feather the nests of political appointees and their economic valves.
While the oil companies, with their massive capital, technology and official protection, may proclaim to be socially responsible corporate citizens, what they offer to their hosts in terms of social infrastructural support, cannot sufficiently compensate for the losses and despoliation they inflict on their areas of operations. Development spending by the oil companies has definitely brought schools, clinics and other infrastructure to remote parts of the country that might otherwise be far more marginalized by the Nigerian government; but many of these projects are inappropriate for the needs of some of the communities where they are sited, while others are incomplete or shoddily carried out. Again, even though the oil companies operating in Nigeria maintain that their activities are conducted in line with best environmental standards, it is sad to note that the Nigerian environmental laws, which are in most respect comparable to their international equivalents, are poorly enforced.
In a damning report few years ago, Human Rights Watch (HRW), had put in perspective the underhand deals that usually characterize the so-called oil firms’ Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) support, stressing that contractors to the oil industry, mostly traditional rulers or those with close links to the government, make large chunks of money. HRW alleges that large scale corruption trails the award of contracts by oil companies; and that the latter’s top shots also benefit. Although a minority of politicians, traditional rulers and contractors have become rich on the spoils of oil, and hence support the oil industry’s activities even when they are inhuman, majority of the people from the minority ethnic groups of the oil producing areas still remained impoverished. By the same token, the anticipated benefits of links to the oil industry have exacerbated conflicts within and among oil producing communities. We are therefore, not surprised that many host communities are restive. Many of them are under military siege in order to guarantee ‘peace’ and security in their domains.
But the cost of all these frictions to the host communities and their governments, on the one hand, and negligent oil companies, on the other, can scarcely be quantified. Governments must ensure that contractual obligations owed host communities are fulfilled. Oil companies should also be alive to their CSR, while host communities should strive to moderate their demands in view of the prevailing socio-economic and political realities. More importantly, the oil companies, being principal stakeholders in the relationship between local contractors and their workers, should show sufficient interest in how ad hoc workers are treated.