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.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that in the news media one missing white girl equals half a dozen dead black girls or 100 dead Muslims or 1,000 Africans with AIDS. The missing white girl will always get front-page coverage while death and disease striking men and women of color will be relegated to the inside pages, below the fold. Wikipedia even has an entry for it: Missing white woman syndrome.

It’s a sad fact that this rule applies also to American oil spills. While everyone is now aware of the massive leak off the coast of Louisiana, in the Gulf of Mexico, only now is the U.S. news media beginning to notice in print the 50 years of environmental devastation inflicted in Nigeria. According to the Times story, oil spills equal to the Exxon Valdez spill have occurred every year for the past five decades.

”The oil spews from rusted and aging pipes, unchecked by what analysts say is ineffectual or collusive regulation, and abetted by deficient maintenance and sabotage,” the Times article said. “In the face of this black tide is an infrequent protest–soldiers guarding an Exxon Mobil site beat women who were demonstrating last month, according to witnesses–but mostly resentful resignation.”

”Small children swim in the polluted estuary here, fishermen take their skiffs out ever farther–there’s nothing we can catch here,” said Pius Doron, perched anxiously over his boat–and market women trudge through oily streams.

”There is Shell oil on my body,” said Hannah Baage, emerging from Gio Creek with a machete to cut the cassava stalks balanced on her head.”

”President Obama is worried about that one,” Claytus Kanyie, a local official, said of the gulf spill, standing among dead mangroves in the soft oily muck outside Bodo. ”Nobody is worried about this one. The aquatic life of our people is dying off. There used be shrimp. There are no longer any shrimp.”

Nigeria supplies 40 percent of all the crude oil imported by the United States. With over 600 oil fields, the Niger delta is the world capital of oil pollution. But the oil fields have taken a toll on local residents: There is little access to clean water; life expectancy has fallen to about 40 years over the past two generations.

A U.N. Environmental Program study began systematic inspections of the Nigerian catastrophe in December 2009. The numbers were gloomy. The ”officially recorded” oil spills between 1976 and 1998 came to over 2.5 million barrels of spilled into the Niger Delta ecosystem from extraction performed by oil companies including Shell, ExxonMobil, Total and Elf. These companies have taken profits while local communities live in the wasteland–including pollution caused by nonstop gas flaring–a sight kept far offshore in the current cleanup activity in the Gulf of Mexico.