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Nigeria's Oil Fuels Anger, Bloodshed

"It is clear that [Shell] is part of Niger Delta conflict dynamics and that its social license to operate is fast eroding," said the report, copies of which have been obtained by The Washington Post and other news organizations.

Shell officials dispute that conclusion, saying they remain welcome in the region and intend to stay. Yet they acknowledge a legacy of flawed efforts to promote community development, despite investments that reached $84 million last year alone. "We are oil and gas people. We are not really strong in development," said Basil Omiyi, the top Shell official in Nigeria. He added, "If the government was doing their role properly, we would have to do much, much, much less."

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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The consultants' report also found that Shell and government officials rarely responded to peaceful complaints, such as protests or letter-writing campaigns, generally paying high-level attention to the demands of disgruntled people only after attacks, threats and kidnappings.

Molori College, 70, a resident of Ojobo who said his son was killed in the oil rig clash, said Shell should pay him 500 million naira -- more than $3.5 million. "Let Shell come and compensate me," he said.

One militant leader in the delta, Moujahid Dokubo-Asari, has called for the region's secession as the only way to gain control of the oil wealth it contains. In September, he declared war on the region's oil companies, interrupting flows for several days and sending world oil prices above $50 a barrel.

The result was direct talks with Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and other senior government officials in Abuja, the capital. A tentative peace deal has been reached and negotiations continue, but Dokubo-Asari, who says he commands thousands of men, warns he could shut off the delta's oil flow by making a few strategic phone calls.

"The Nigerian state has deliberately impoverished our people," said Dokubo-Asari, a descendant of a prosperous family of slave traders, as he traveled with a reporter on a tour of the delta. "It is only violence that makes the tyrant listen."

Caught in the middle of these struggles are people like Gior Neebee, a small woman in her thirties, with tightly coiled braids and diagonal tribal scars slashed into each cheek.

After a day of fishing in October, she was paddling her canoe back to her village in the northern delta when she saw a plume of black smoke rising near the two-room cinder-block house where she had left her three children.

Neebee paddled frantically, jumped out and found the children safe. But in those few moments, flames began consuming her canoe. It was one of her few possessions, worth more than six months' wages for the average Nigerian.

The oil-spill fire, which Shell blamed on sabotage, left the creek with a stench of oil. Today the banks are black, the creek bottom dead, the water without fish and shimmering with a greasy rainbow sheen. The palm trees look like giant charred matchsticks.

Neebee's family must now carry buckets of water from a tap nearly a mile away. For food, she paddles a borrowed canoe several hours to another river to collect periwinkle -- shellfish about the size of her thumb -- to feed her family and sell at a nearby market. She earns about $1.50 a day.

To her, the oil coursing through the delta has become a curse.

"Look at the kind of clothes I'm wearing," she said, gesturing in disgust to the piece of yellow cloth wrapped around her body. "Look at the environment I live in. . . . For myself and my children, it's like the world ended."

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