A Tale of Two Oil Spills

by Nwachukwu Egbunike

It is well known that a boil on one’s nose is more painful to the afflicted than an earthquake which happens thousands of miles away, killing thousands of people – Ken Saro-Wiwa

I cannot understand the sensational media attention paid to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. While the whole world seems to focus on the most recent despoliation across the Atlantic, I weep about a similar situation at home. In the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, the abuse has been on for more than half a century and nothing has been done about it.

Unfortunately, oil spillage has morphed to a regular occurrence, is hardly resolved and no one (government, oil companies or residents) have been held accountable. In the Niger Delta, between 1976 and 1998 alone, Platform claims that, “over 2.5 million barrels of oil have been split into the environment; and that is only spills officially recorded by the Department of Petroleum Resources.” Consequently, the flora and fauna were flayed, fish disappeared from meals because the water is safe no longer and the air is filled with fumes.

Yet in America, BP’s irresponsibility has been unfolded by a letter before Congress which shows that in the haste of concluding operations that were 40 days behind schedule, BP chose a “design with few barriers to preventing a surge of gas that triggered the accident on 20 April.” This unethical slyness intended “to save the company time and expense” resulted in the loss of lives and the worst oil spill that the US has ever experienced.

Barrack Obama, President of the US, confronted this disaster with the responsibility it demands. In an address from the Oval Office, Obama made three key demands as restitution for the BP adventure in cutting corners. First was that BP should take full responsibility for their recklessness by compensating the victims (the workers and business owners). The second was the immediate crafting of a “long-term plan to restore the unique beauty and bounty” of the region. And lastly, a commitment that goes beyond the present crisis by preventing a reoccurrence.

Obama’s speech was no mere palliatives. His threat moved the Carl-Henric Svanberg, BP chair and other top management staff to prostrate in Washington with apologies and a $20 billion compensation for those who were affected.

While the Niger Delta has become a muddle of blame-shifting between the oil companies and the locals, yet the irresponsibility of the entire system shines without the seasoning of justice. It is obvious that due lack of a maintenance culture, infrastructure dilapidates, over-ground pipes get ruptured, the tribe of politico-entrepreneurs grow fat from oil wells, financial opacity in the industry and the claim of the oil companies that local people sabotage oil installations, makes it difficult to appropriate blames accordingly. Nonetheless, the US oil spill has shown how a government should act. Also the vibrancy of America’s civil society and the press made the incident a global agenda.

Also the impact that personal ethical actions or inactions can have was glaring in the BP oil spill. People must subscribe to a means of conduct and live by it. It is not enough to expect government or oil firms to ensure strict provisions when individuals in these organisations lack personal integrity. As such, it’s difficult to fault Carolyn Moynihan’s assertion that, “all the oaths, regulations and incentives in the world are useless without individuals who have solid ethical convictions and experience in living them.”

What a tale of two spills, a stark contrast of responsibility and irresponsibility, of justice and injustice. The only similarity lies in the spill of unethical conduct.

3 Comments

  1. Nice Write and I’m in agreement.

    But I think the BP accident is a good omen for Nigeria, because somehow we most time try to follow the Us, especially when it will be of benefit to us (politicians) as in this case, $20billion in compensation is no mean deal, our politicians will now be scheming on how to get a quarter of that….stay tuned

    Reply

  2. I really like the piece on PhD for sale; good work. On the oil spill write up, ithough you were attempting to refocus our attention on the Niger Delta disaster but in the end you said more about BP and America. There is a huge tendency for social critics and journalists to lament on the excesses of the political class (that’s alright by me) but recent research in ethnographic studies suggests that social news such as the PhD one makes more news. The field of political communication, to my view, is saturated.

    Reply

    1. Hi Victor, thanks for your nice comments. My aim with the Oil Spill was to draw inferences from the American intervention and by so doing show how little or nothing is done in Nigeria. Besides, I also wanted to highlight the similarities of both situation, that whenever an ethical holiday is taken, we end up with a mess – be it in US or Naija.

      Perharps I did not close the gap by dwelling more on the country, but I could do no much without relating what has been done beyond the Atlantic. Thanks anyway for your critical perspective. I’ll keep that in mind. However, with the unfortunate climate at home, I doubt if the last has been heard about political stories. It’s the eternal responsibility of a writer to serve as a the social conscience of the people. And in Nigeria, unfortunately, our political class is either deaf or entirely clueless. Someone has to remind them that they are being watched.

      Reply

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