OJOBO, Nigeria -- There are seven freshly dug graves in this Niger Delta village. Local leaders say they contain the remains of protesters who died violently last month when they attempted to mount a protest at an oil rig operated by the Shell Petroleum Development Co. of Nigeria, the region's largest oil firm.
According to the villagers, more than 100 men traveled by motorboat down a creek toward the rig, where they gathered on a barge and sent leaders to demand a meeting with company officials to discuss languishing development projects.
An oil spill that caught fire left the creek near Gior Neebee's village polluted and lifeless.
(Photos Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)
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Instead, they said, army troops appeared in three boats and opened fire on the barge. Stanley Pakemi, a survivor, said the soldiers detained him for more than two days and whipped him repeatedly with wires. Now, like many delta residents, he said he was ready to see Shell and the other oil companies leave.
"If this is the way they are going to treat us, I don't want them here," said Pakemi, 28, who rose limply from his bed in a village hospital to reveal deep gashes healing on his arms and back.
Spokesman for Shell and the Nigerian army disputed these accounts, saying they knew of no deaths in the Nov. 20 incident. Simon Buerk, a Shell spokesman, said that violence broke out after one of the protesters attempted to disarm a soldier and that 17 people were injured in the clash. He said the company was reopening an investigation into the incident.
What is beyond dispute, however, is the volatility of the delta region as Nigerians scramble for a share of oil wealth. In villages across the region, frustration at the persistence of poverty within sight of vast wealth is boiling over, leading to bloody clashes, calls for revolution and more than 1,000 deaths a year, according to a report prepared for Shell by consultants.
While surging oil prices have swollen government accounts and business profits in Nigeria and across the continent, the boom has offered few benefits to people living near the wells, while damaging the environment and giving rise to violent struggles among competing groups, say residents and watchdog groups.
Ojobo, located amid oil reserves worth many millions of dollars, has neither paved roads nor power. Toilets are latrines built over the creek, and a community well, built by an oil company, produces no water.
Nigeria is the United States' fifth-largest supplier of foreign oil and the largest oil producer in Africa. The industry generates billions of dollars a year for the Nigerian government, which owns all oil rights in the country and has a majority interest in every oil company operating here, including its joint venture with Royal Dutch/Shell Group.
Oil is so central to Nigerian identity that an image of an offshore rig appears on the 500 naira bill, the nation's largest denomination.
Yet there is little evidence that prosperity is reaching the people of the Niger Delta. Although its largest city, Port Harcourt, has foreign-owned hotels and a busy prostitution trade, the inhabitants of villages throughout the vast region of mangrove swamps and twisting waterways struggle to survive at subsistence levels.
At the same time, violence is increasing in a region already awash in weapons and riven by tribal tensions. Militias controlled by community leaders attack one another with often deadly results, and assaults on civilians by the army and police are common, according to human rights groups and residents.
Armed gangs also thrive, stealing hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil straight from the delta's pipelines each day. Less sophisticated criminals cut into the pipelines with hacksaws, creating cleanup work for local contractors. Of the 221 oil spills reported by Shell last year, two-thirds were the result of sabotage, the company said.
The Shell consultants' report said conditions were deteriorating so rapidly that the company might have to move all of its operations offshore by 2009. The report, by WAC Global Services, also concluded that Shell was in part responsible for the rampant violence and criminality in the Niger Delta.