In the colonial era, it was the official purpose of imperial power to extract wealth from the administered territories. In the post-colonial period, the methods are better disguised. When oil companies misbehave in Nigeria or elsewhere, they are protected by the power of their home countries. Do not mess with the companies, they are told by the US and Europe.
Indeed, one of the largest bribes (a reputed US$180 million) paid in recent times in Nigeria was by Halliburton, a company tightly intertwined with US political power. (Former US vice president Dick Cheney went from being Halliburton’s chief executive to the vice presidency.)
Last year, the UN Environment Program (UNEP) issued a remarkable report on Ogoniland, a major ethnic homeland in the Niger Delta that has been at the epicenter of conflict between local communities and international oil. The report was as scathing as it was scientifically clear. Despite many past promises of a cleanup, Ogoniland remains in environmental agony, impoverished and sickened by the oil industry.
UNEP also offered clear and detailed recommendations, including emergency measures to ensure safe drinking water; cleanup activities targeting the mangroves and soils; public health studies to identify and counteract the consequences of pollution; and a new regulatory framework.
The world’s governments have recently agreed to move to a new framework for sustainable development, declaring their intention to adopt Sustainable Development Goals at the Rio+20 Summit in June. The goals offer a critical opportunity for the world to set clear, compelling standards for government and corporate behavior. Many major companies, including in the oil industry, have expressed their readiness to support sustainable development goals.
Cleaning up the Niger Delta would provide the strongest possible example of a new age of accountability. Shell, Chevron, ExxonMobil and other major oil companies should step forward and help to fund the necessary cleanup, ushering in a new era of responsibility.
The Nigerian government’s own accountability is on the line as well. It is heartening that several Nigerian senators have recently been at the forefront of efforts to strengthen the rule of law in the oil sector.
The cleanup of the Niger Delta provides an ideal opportunity for Nigeria, the oil industry and the international community to show convincingly that a new age has dawned. From now on, sustainable development must not be a mere slogan, but rather an operational approach to global governance and wellbeing, on a strained and crowded planet.
Jeffrey Sachs is professor of sustainable development, professor of health policy and management, and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is also special adviser to the UN secretary-general on the Millennium Development Goals.
Copyright: Project Syndicate