Oil at any cost

December 21, 2006

Traveling through Africa by plane, a visitor gets the impression of a continent on the make. Seats are jammed with businessmen, mostly from elsewhere, hustling to tap into Africa's extraordinary wealth of natural resources.

Closer to the ground, though, it's easy to see many, if not most, of the people who own these resources are getting no benefit. They live in wretched conditions of appalling poverty, deprived even of the former beauty of their surroundings because of environmental damage.

After 50 years of such exploitation in the Niger Delta, young men are taking up arms and fighting back. As movingly chronicled in a two-part series this week by Sun foreign correspondent Scott Calvert and photographer Andr? F. Chung, the abundance of oil in the delta has brought riches to oil companies and corrupt government leaders but has proved a curse to folks whose homes have been destroyed by careless oil extraction.

FOR THE RECORD - A reference to combustion engines in a Wednesday editorial should have said "internal combustion engines." The Sun regrets the error.

The international community and the United States, in particular, ignore this combustible development at their peril. Nigeria is the 12th-largest producer of crude oil in the world, and supplies nearly a 10th of U.S. oil exports. Already this year, militants plying the Niger Delta's endangered creeks have forced a 20 percent to 25 percent reduction in output by taking hostages, attacking pipelines and killing security personnel.

Solutions aren't simple. What's required is a restructuring of the Nigerian government to more equitably spread oil wealth, invest more power with local communities, build infrastructure to deliver utilities and other services, clean up the environment and lay the groundwork for a far broader economy that will provide jobs.

Efforts in this direction attempted over the years have turned oil companies into quasi-government agencies, which often just passed money around - sometimes in the form of ill-considered or unfinished construction projects. Such responses only fed corruption and frustration.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo has also launched more recent reforms, but much more transparency and decentralization of decision-making are needed to quell the impatience and help create livable, sustainable communities.

The United States is by no means alone in its contribution to the plundering of the Niger Delta. Yet the tragedy there serves as another poignant reminder of how much the world has sacrificed in blood and treasure to keep the hydrogen combustion engine on the road.

Unless major steps are taken to clean up the mess that oil gluttony has caused, the militants of the Niger Delta might just force a conservation regime of their own.

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