A villager dips his hand in the polluted water near of the village of Ikrama, where a shell pipeline is leaking. June 11, 2010.

Nigera is Africa’s main crude oil producer. It is also the country which counts the most oil spills in the world. The Niger Delta, once an ecological sanctuary, has become a no-fishing zone because of the slicks that permanently poison its waters.

In May, when all eyes were on the oil gushing from a ruptured BP in the Gulf of Mexico, a spill at the other end of the world went virtually unnoticed. The story of ruptured wells and pipelines is a sadly familiar one in Nigeria, where Amnesty International, estimates that over 9 million barrels of oil have poured into the Niger delta over the last 50 years.

Although this figure is dwarfed by the estimated 30 million barrels of the BP spill, environmentalist groups in Niger are concerned by the media attention granted to one eco-disaster over another, longstanding one.

Shell Nigeria, the country’s most important oil company, has been blamed for the permanent damage caused to the delta. But the company retorts that most of the leaks were caused by saboteurs and opposition rebels, notably the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), nicknamed the "Robin Hoods" of the Delta.

Nigeria is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and environmental groups have pointed to the fact that the government is the main shareholder in most local oil consortiums. Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria’s new president, has pledged to put a stop to the near-permanent slick in the Delta.

A spill flowing from Shell equippment in Udo Adah Ikot, Nigeria, in 2008.  

Village of Peremabiri, Nigeria, February 11, 2009.

A leak still burining along the Agip pipeline in Angiama. April 16, 2009.

Angiama villages take ERA members to soiled marshlands on April 16, 2009.

All photos taken by members of environmental NGO ERA.

"The West has closed its eyes for 50 years because the damage is located in Africa"

Khalifa Dikwa is a political science professor in a university in north-east Nigeria.

The saboteurs are groups of troubled youths, often junkies, who only understand the language of money. They’ve been driven to what they are because the oil companies and Nigera have done nothing to preserve the Niger Delta’s people and eco-system

Nothing is done for jobs, education, water purification, public transport or communications. Corruption is absolutely rampant.

The West has said nothing for the past 50 years because the damages caused by the spills are in Africa. Western government are prepared to close their eyes on a number of things if it’s in their financial interest. Here we say that the West is the mother of the 3 Ds: Disease, Disaster and Death."

"The leaks are mostly caused by equipment failures"

Nmimmo Bassey is the head of the environmentalist group ERAction-Friends of the Earth in Nigeria. . His work was documented in the film "Poison Fire".

Since 1958, the history of oil companies in Nigeria has been tainted with chronic spills and pollution. There are on average 300 leaks and spills each year, and we’ve counted 2,400 polluted sites that have not been properly decontaminated.

There have been dozens of large-scale disasters, but to name just the lastest one, a rusty Exxon-Mobile pipeline cracked open on May 1st in the state of Akwa Ibom (south of the country). In one week, the equivalent of 28,570 barrels gushed from the ruptured pipe. When locals organized a protest near the spill site, they were harassed and manhandled by members of the secret security service.

It’s clear to us that the leaks are mostly caused by equipment failures and rusty pipes. Most pipelines in Nigera were built over 30 years ago and are very poorly maintained. The lines that aren’t underground aren’t protected at all.

So far, the government hasn’t been enforcing existing regulations. Companies like Shell are engaged in intense lobbying campaigns to avoid tighter legislation on infrastructure security. These companies have all have close ties with the government authorities, and are seldom punished for acts of negligence that would be severely punished in Europe.

The spills have caused irreversible damage to rivers and mangroves in the region. Fish stocks have been heavily depleted because of the pollution. Former fishermen now depend on imported fish to feed their families. The slicks have also caused extremely toxic waves of red algae in the mangroves. Except that here, there has been no media attention or financial compensation. With the reported poor oil spill response plans and drilling methods, it means that we are really sitting on an explosive situation. It is horrible.