Baird: We Don't Hear About Africa's Oil Spills

Men walk in an oil slick covering a creek near Bodo City in Nigeria in June Sunday Alamba / AP

It was hard to believe BP when it announced oil had stopped gushing into the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday, July 15. It had taken 87 days. There was relief but little jubilation: it will take many years to clean the shores and the birds, and for the sea to begin to repair itself from the onslaught of poisonous oil. Surely we can no longer call it a “spill”—it seems too light and trite a word.

What’s even more troubling is that in Nigeria, the country that has arguably suffered most from oil drilling, oil “accidents”—large and small—occur almost weekly, and we hear little about it. A lethal combination of sloppiness, corruption, weak regulation, and lack of accountability has meant that each year since the 1960s, there has been a spill the size of the Exxon Valdez’s into the Niger Delta. Large purple slicks cover once fertile fields, and rivers are clogged with oil leaked decades ago. It has been called the “black tide”: a stain of thick, gooey oil that has oozed over vast tracts of land and poisoned the air for millions of Africans. In some areas fish and birds have disappeared: the swamps are silent.

Americans consume a quarter of the world’s oil—and 10 percent of the oil we consume comes from Nigeria. Why are we not worried and angry about this? Or at least demanding global accountability from companies we support? Especially now that we can see how destructive it is for those who depend on the sea for their livelihood, how foul the impact is, and how devastating the results of poor decisions and ill-equipped response teams are.

Many Nigerians watched, amazed, as Americans berated BP for the Deepwater Horizon spill, then saw progress: our president visited the site and demanded immediate action and compensation. Not so in Africa. According to a group of independent experts, between 9 million and 13 million barrels of oil have been spilled in the Niger Delta since drilling began in 1958. Cleanups have been halfhearted, and compensation has been paltry. The Nigerian government estimates that 7,000 “spills,” large and small, occurred between 1970 and 2000. Locals complain of sore eyes, breathing problems, and lesions on their skin. It’s sickening stuff: a 2009 Amnesty International report found many have lost basic human rights—health, access to food, clean water, and an ability to work. Today about 2,000 oil-polluted sites still need cleaning up.

photos--the-worst-man-made-environmental-disasters-image7 The world's worst man-made environmental disasters. View photo gallery. Joseph Eid / AFP-Getty Images

There are many reasons this has occurred: sabotage, faulty equipment, corroded infrastructure. The regulations are weak, rarely enforced, and there are few punitive measures to ensure that spills are managed, monitored, and cleaned up. The oil companies are, effectively, asked to self-regulate. The new Nigerian president, aptly named Goodluck Jonathan, has promised to hold them accountable, but the regulatory agencies are toothless, weakened by decades of rule by corrupt dictators who acted in concert with oil companies and siphoned off much of the oil wealth (80 percent of the state’s revenue comes from oil). The money that has come from oil drilling in Nigeria—$600 billion so far—has gone to very few; most Nigerians live in extreme poverty.

So this has been happening, in Africa, for decades, as our motors purr and air conditioners hum, and we have barely blinked. As Prof. Rebecca Bratspies from CUNY School of Law says, “Problems associated with oil production are usually invisible to those of us who consume vast quantities. We don’t see how dirty it is. [The gulf] is a more extreme version of daily events in Nigeria, where the oil companies have had a complete and total disregard for the environmental implications of their actions.”

Obama asked that $20 billion be set aside to cover cleanup costs in the gulf. Will it be enough? How much would companies like Shell and ExxonMobil have to pay if Africa were well regulated and proper compensation demanded for the loss of livelihoods, illness, and damage to the environment?

This is the perfect time to assess oil-industry practices. America should lead a push to ensure global scrutiny and monitoring of oil drilling, on- and offshore. It’s messy and will never be entirely safe, but why should we accept different standards for countries with less money and clout? Global companies should develop adequate global response and compensation mechanisms.

One simple but clever idea from Bratspies is that we, through worldwide coordination, ensure that oil companies cannot drill unless they have the proven technology and capacity to respond to leaks, saboteurs, and explosions. If we made it a requirement, it would lead to a “tremendous spur in innovation in clean-up technology.” That’s something every country would benefit from, rich or poor.

Julia Baird is a Deputy Editor of Newsweek. Follow her on Twitter at

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