Gordon Brown has a new idea about how to “make poverty history” in time for the G-8 summit in Scotland. With Washington so far refusing to double its aid to Africa by 2015, the British Chancellor is appealing to the “richer oil-producing states” of the Middle East to fill the funding gap. “Oil wealth urged to save Africa,” reads the headline in London’s Observer.
Here is a better idea: Instead of Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth being used to “save Africa,” how about if Africa’s oil wealth was used to save Africa–along with its gas, diamond, gold, platinum, chromium, ferroalloy and coal wealth?
With all this noblesse oblige focused on saving Africa from its misery, it seems like a good time to remember someone else who tried to make poverty history: Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was killed ten years ago this November by the Nigerian government, along with eight other Ogoni activists, sentenced to death by hanging. Their crime was daring to insist that Nigeria was not poor at all but rich, and that it was political decisions made in the interests of Western multinational corporations that kept its people in desperate poverty. Saro-Wiwa gave his life to the idea that the vast oil wealth of the Niger Delta must leave behind more than polluted rivers, charred farmland, rancid air and crumbling schools. He asked not for charity, pity or “relief” but for justice.
The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People demanded that Shell compensate the people from whose land it had pumped roughly $30 billion worth of oil since the 1950s. The company turned to the government for help, and the Nigerian military turned its guns on demonstrators. Before his state-ordered hanging, Saro-Wiwa told the tribunal, “I and my colleagues are not the only ones on trial. Shell is here on trial…. The company has, indeed, ducked this particular trial, but its day will surely come.”
Ten years later, 70 percent of Nigerians still live on less than $1 a day and Shell is still making superprofits. Equatorial Guinea, which has a major oil deal with ExxonMobil, “got to keep a mere 12 percent of the oil revenues in the first year of its contract,” according to a 60 Minutes report–a share so low it would have been scandalous even at the height of colonial oil pillage.
This is what keeps Africa poor: not a lack of political will but the tremendous profitability of the current arrangement. Sub-Saharan Africa, the poorest place on earth, is also its most profitable investment destination: It offers, according to the World Bank’s 2003 Global Development Finance report, “the highest returns on foreign direct investment of any region in the world.” Africa is poor because its investors and its creditors are so unspeakably rich.
The idea for which Saro-Wiwa died fighting–that the resources of the land should be used to benefit the people of that land–lies at the heart of every anticolonial struggle in history, from the Boston Tea Party to Iran’s turfing of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in Abadan. This idea has been declared dead by the European Union’s Constitution, by the National Security Strategy of the United States of America (which describes “free trade” not only as an economic policy but a “moral principle”) and by countless trade agreements. And yet it simply refuses to die.