DEAD fish wash up on the once-fertile shores of creeks around Bodo, a town in the Niger delta, that are covered with crude oil more than six years after two massive spills. Locals have only now received compensation from Shell, the oil firm responsible for the leaks. For the first time in half a decade, fishermen have cash to start businesses, repair their houses and send children to school. But most other villagers in this Ogoniland region of the delta wish Nigeria had never struck oil at all. “Look,” says the chief of a tiny town called B-Dere, just a few miles from Bodo. He gestures to the deathly-black banks still bearing the marks of the slicks. “There is nothing to drink, nowhere to fish. What good has come from it?”
As Nigerians head to the polls in presidential elections on March 28th the oil industry—Africa’s largest—will permeate the vote. The cash it provides has greased Nigerian politics for decades. Gross mismanagement and corruption in the industry are the causes of much of the inequality and discontent with the ruling party in an economy that is not just Africa’s largest but that ought to also be one of its wealthiest. Fixing Nigeria’s oil industry will have to be the main priority of whoever wins the election, whether that is the current president, Goodluck Jonathan, or his main rival, Muhammadu Buhari.
Nigeria pumps something like 2m barrels of oil a day. These account for most of its exports and about 70% of government revenues. But official figures are as murky as its polluted creeks. Volumes are recorded only at export terminals rather than at the wellhead, says Celestine AkpoBari of the Port Harcourt-based advocacy group, Social Action. Were a proper tally kept, he says, corruption would be exposed on a scale that would shock even the most cynical Nigerian.
It seems likely that more than 100,000 barrels of crude are stolen (or “bunkered” in the local parlance) every day, at a cost to the state and investors of billions of dollars a year. Politicians, oil workers and security forces are said to be behind the complex cartels that steal, illegally refine and sell crude oil. They have amassed almost unimaginable wealth in a country where poverty is still rife.
Oil’s taint has seeped into almost all levels of government and business. Yet the central problem is found in the petroleum ministry, which wields vast unaccountable power. The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), a state-owned behemoth, is responsible for all aspects of the industry, from exploration to production and regulation. It is among the most secretive oil groups in the world, and is “accountable to no one”, says Inemo Samiama, country head of the Stakeholder Democracy Network, a non-profit group.
In 2013 the former governor of the central bank, Lamido Sanusi, alleged that $20 billion in oil revenues was missing from state coffers. He was fired for his troubles soon after. The government has since commissioned an investigation by PWC, an auditing firm. But officials have only released a few pages of the extensive report and have claimed they show that a mere $1.5 billion was missing.
Even where cash has not been nicked, it has often been squandered. Take the Excess Crude Account (ECA), a sovereign-wealth fund intended to cushion Nigeria’s budget against falling oil prices. Most of it was spent over the past two years, despite oil prices being relatively high for most of that period.
The industry itself is in as sorry a state as the government’s finances. Although oil practically gushes from the ground in parts of the delta, oil output has been stagnant for years and billions of dollars of investment are stalled because of uncertainty over a new law for the industry.
This is holding back Nigeria’s economy almost across the board. Because the industry has failed to build the infrastructure to pipe gas to domestic consumers such as power plants, much of it is simply flared and burned: Britain reckons that some $800m worth of Nigeria’s gas a year goes up in smoke. The country is also chronically short of fuel even though it has four state-owned oil refineries. Because of poor maintenance and ageing equipment they operate at well below capacity, forcing Nigeria to import about 70% of the fuel it needs. There is little incentive for reform since the government pays hefty subsidies to NNPC to keep on importing.
A new government, whatever its stripes, will have its work cut out reforming the industry and preventing a revival of militancy in the delta. But a starting point should be to halt subsidies for fuel imports. At a stroke that would undercut a major source of corruption and crime (both on land and at sea) that spills into neighbouring countries, the destination for smuggled consignments of cheap Nigerian fuel. It should also take a close look at NNPC, which should not be allowed both to participate in the market and regulate it. Some of its assets could be privatised. The ruling party and opposition are considering both.
With regulatory certainty, local refining would be ready to take off—it has already attracted investment from Aliko Dangote, a Nigerian businessman with interests from cement to sugar. Another business waiting to boom, given the right regulations and infrastructure, is power generation, which is stymied by a lack of gas.
For communities in Ogoniland, the most pressing problem is cleaning up. Shell has promised to mop up the mess around Bodo, though the process has yet to start. Compensation is one thing, Bodo residents say, but what they really want is their livelihood back.