Nigeria's Oil Spill and the Missing White Girl

Some incidents get more attention than others because of race or location. Nigeria's 50-year environmental disaster belatedly gets noticed.

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While Nigeria's oil tragedy is a front-page story now, four years ago a study compiled by the World Wildlife Fund UK, the World Conservation Union and representatives from the Nigerian Conservation Foundation concluded that the Niger delta was one of the five most polluted spots on the planet.

Nigeria is not the only African country that has suffered environmental devastation because of oil spills. The multinational oil company Trafigura was caught dumping tons of toxic oil waste in the Ivory Coast in 2006, sickening tens of thousands of West African men, women and children, and devastating swaths of the coast around Abidjan. Two dozen people died. The company has offered to pay around $45 million to the approximately 30,000 individuals who were affected. The company is currently facing trial for breaking Dutch import and export laws.

While American protesters are focused on Alaska, the Chad-Cameroon Oil Pipeline project has been operational--and environmentally costly--for years. In 2007, a deadly spill in Kribi devastated local fishing grounds and villages, uprooting residents and disrupting the livelihood of thousands.

None of this means that Americans should pay less attention to the ongoing devastation in the Gulf of Mexico--the analogous missing white girl. Far from it: We should pay more and closer attention to the material issues of extracting oil from wherever it exists--in Africa, in Alaska, deep underwater in the Gulf of Mexico. Can we bear the environmental risks of oil use? Can we continue to turn a blind eye to disruption in Nigeria and elsewhere now that we have seen the devastation firsthand off the coast of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida? Should photographs of oily birds on American beaches move readers more than thousands of acres of devastation across the globe?

Political slogans help Americans evade the hard truths of oil production. Nobody who drives a gas-powered vehicle can honestly malign Sarah Palin's admittedly tone-deaf comment ''drill, baby, drill'' unless he or she is also an environmental engineer focused on safety regulations to ensure that disasters in Nigeria, Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, Alaska or the Gulf of Mexico do not continue to happen.

Hollis Robbins is a professor of humanities at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University and teaches African-American poetry and poetics at the Center for Africana Studies.

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