Saturday, July 17, 2010

Corporate Irresponsibility, Extraction, And The Nigerian Oil Spill

The world recently watched a minute-by-minute play on the oil spill in the Gulf, but the inhabitants of the Niger-Delta region in Nigeria have been watching minute-by-minute oil spills for the past 40 years. As the world watches every single step taken by BP to clear up the oil spill, the Nigerians watch  rivers already flowing with oil due to lack of any clean up effort, giving the Gulf region a precedent of the damage that can occur, and leaving them little room to speculate about what may lay ahead for the Gulf. Large oil producing MNC's like Shell, have been spilling oil in the region with little regard for the environmental guidelines. According to the BBC, there were over 7,000 spills, large and small, between 1970 and 2000 which amounts to an estimated 13 million barrels of oil. According to News Desk article,  'Niger Delta Oil Spills Dwarf BP, Exxon Valdez Catastrophies',  Idris Musa, head of Nigeria’s oil spill response agency, said "an additional 2,405 spills by all major oil companies in the region have occurred since 2006." The discovery of oil in this region has been a nightmare for the 31 million living in the area. This has caused the pollution of water, land and air in this region. The Ogoni are the dominant ethnic group that live here and over the years, they have watched their fisheries depleted in the oil-rich area, catapulting them in to a life of hunger, disease and poverty. Although human rights groups and Nigerians have protested about the disregard of enviomental guidelines here, little improvements have been achieved. Shell, for example, has blamed sabotage for the oil spills and denied responsibility.

The oil spills in this area are a result of a mixed combination of  factors including an aging oil infrastructure, corroding pipes, and sabotage by thieves or rebel groups. Whilst Shell may not be responsible for every single oil spill, instead of making attempts to clean up the environment,  they have been using evasive tactics when it comes to Nigeria. Shell, which controls the majority of the oil industry in Nigeria, defends itself by claiming that 85% of spills are caused by sabotage instead of corroded pipelines and poor infrastructure. It seems like corporate social responsibility for Shell, is confined to select geographical locations -  Niger-Delta is not one of them. Nigerians that have resorted to protesting against the company and the government but have been met by paid armed Shell employees, and by a government clamp down, labelling protesters as mere rebels. A womens protest group protesting Exxon, was once met with armed gaurds who beat and assulted the protesters. In fact, the Niger-Delta conflict that arose in the 1990's centers around the struggle between the Ogonis and Ijaw people and the oil companies. They feel that they are being exploited and also want to see oil profit trickle down to their communities. Although, many regard their plight  and the civil war in Nigeria to inter-ethnic ('tribal') conflict over control of resources, their struggle is not simply about 'warring tribes' that dislike eachother fighting for oil. According to Walter Rodney in his book, 'How Europe Underdeveloped Africa' " accept such a contention would mean extending the definition of tribe, to cover Shell Oil and Gulf Oil!" In what some term, 'blood oil', there are definitive corporate roots in the development of the oil spills and oil crisis. In spite of a boycott by activists against Shell, and a call from the US and UN for the company to correct its wrongs, it also seems like there is more talk than action and the poor, as usual, will lose out.

While it’s easy to lay blame only on Shell and MNCs, we need to consider the role that the Nigerian government has played in branding the Niger-Delta area as a place for oil extraction and not oil investment.  Nigeria is a member of OPEC, and one of the top oil producing countries. Nigeria is the fifth largest exporter of oil to the United States and the largest producer in Africa. The government gets about 80% of its profits from oil. It turns a blind eye to the wrong doings of Shell, and in exchange, Shell keeps the governments purses filled with oil money. In  a blatant display of loyalties, Nigerian government went as far as hiring a former Shell employee as the minister that overseas the oil sector. With recent progress, it makes, one wonders what image or brand Nigeria is trying to portray to the world about itself and its people. The stereotypical Nigeria or the new Nigeria under Goodluck Jonathan, that's trying to shake and rebrand its negative reputation and leave it behind them. The President, incidentally, is of Ijaw ethnicity, born in the Niger-Delta and has been able to stabilise the area in terms of attacks so far. He also has a degree in zoology and has worked for the environmental protection department. Hopefully, these factors and his desire to maintain good international relations (particulary with the Obama administration), will spark an interest in cleaning up, both politically and environmentally, the Niger-Delta crisis.

The rebranding of Nigeria began a few years back through the launch of the the Nigeria Image Project in 2004.  It was taken a step further in 2009 with a campaign to rebrand Nigeria. According to Robin Sanders of Galaxy television, the aim is to "not only aimed at improving Nigeria's image in the international community, but to position her as a good destination for tourism and investment in Sub-Saharan African." In the controversial documentary, "Welcome to Lagos", the Nigerian government is shown making progress towards trying to rebrand itself as a government concerned about the welfare of its people. They are seen cleaning up the streets for Lagos from loiterers, landscaping the city, implementing a sanitation and 'clean up' day once a month, and razing shanty towns which they cite as a breeding ground for crime and disease. Its actions in the Niger-Delta  region the past few years however, are a sharp contradiction from the country that its trying to become. A government needs to put its people first, and send out the message that it thinks all of its people deserve clean air, water, and land. Only when the Nigerian government is able to send a consistent and paternalistic  message through actions that protect its people from the big oil companies, only then it can truly realise the transformation that it seeks as a rebranded nation. Only then can we truly say that we see an image change in the country, a new Nigeria. Right now, Shell enjoys an extractive relationship with Nigeria, making other areas of development investment challenging.  One cant attract long lasting foreign direct investment with a system of extraction. The manner in which Nigeria is letting Shell treat its people is also the manner in which other people will treat Nigeria as a nation.

In a surprising  move though, the government did slap Shell with a fine of over $100 million in punitive damages for oil spill damages in Rivers State, Nigeria, which Shell has been violently protesting, claiming that such a fine will effect its future $40b  investments in the area. Claims which are ludicrous since that amount is really minuscule in comparison to the profits oil companies gain. The amount of money BP is spending for the Gulf oil spill fund alone is $300b dollars, an amount which people criticized BP for because it pales in comparison to the profits it earns. Shell should be prepared to shell  out more for its consistent history of abuses and violations in the area. The oil industry is very lucrative and 'black gold' is a commodity that the world relies on. Oil producing countries, in essence, are in a position where they can make demands on the companies that rely on oil. Cleaning up after an oil spill is a  socially and environmentally responsible demand to make and the Nigerian government should begin make better efforts. The chances of MNCs actually pulling out of the country are very slim since its a lucrative commodity.What we must do now is sit and watch to see if this fine will be paid or if the case will disappear in the system. It is also important to note that in spite of all the revenues earned by oil, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), is unable to meet all its financial obligations which indicates that some of the oil revenues have also somehow disappeared in the system.

Since the Nigerian oil crisis can be seen as a precedent to the damage and abuses caused by oil companies, we also hope that other countries take heed and learn from it. American media attention is certainly keeping BP honest in the Gulf but unless  there is this type of pressure, many coporations will continue to neglect enviromental law for profits. They will continue to place profits over people.  They will continue to let pipes erode, spills to occur, and people to suffer... It certainly is the right time for Nigeria to move forward in making demands from the oil companies. Uganda is going to be an oil producing country in the next 5 years and may become an unwelcome competitor for Nigeria. It will also provide the oil companies with alternatives. I only hope that Uganda take the necessary precautions so that they don't create another Niger-Delta crisis in Uganda. Uganda will need to make an effort to brand its oil sector as investment and not extraction through greater controls. The discovery of oil should be able to uplift a country in to wealth and not impoverish it. With Libya, we have seen it taking several decades before their oil money has really began to create wealth in the country and trickle down. Under Gaddafi's new course for Libya, many of the recent public works and infrastructure developments have been long overdue. In certain aspects, for countries like Malawi, where their is evidence of oil but also where oil in Lake Malawi has not been fully explored, it may be a blessing in disguise. None of the Malawian Presidents have made oil drilling in Lake Malawi central to their economic goals perhaps its diverse population of Cichlids has been the lakes saviour. What will be the saviour for the crisis in Niger-Delta? Perhaps, the discovery of new energy sources.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

African Citizenship for African-Americans

Presidents from 12 African nations and private sector African American leaders began considering a proposal to grant dual citizenship to African-Americans in hopes of increasing  investment and interest in Africa at a summit in Abuja, Nigeria in 2006. The event was hosted by the Sullivan Foundation and included  former US President Bill Clinton and World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz. The summit considered granting either: Africa-wide citizenship through the African Union, Regional African citizenship, or individual country citizenship. Since that summit, there has been other campaigns by African Americans for African countries to allow dual citizenship on grounds that they are members of the diaspora and originally from Africa. They feel it will help them gain a better sense of cultural identity, thus healing the wounds of separation from Africa and giving an opportunity for mutual collaboration. African Americans, under this plan, would be allowed to travel freely to African, own property, and start businesses.

In  past discussions, problems arose over identifying which countries African Americans could legitimately lay citizenship claims to. However, since technologies have improved, DNA testing has allowed several African-Americans to trace there roots back to select countries. In Teresa Watanabe's article, 'Called back to African by DNA', she highlights how celebrities like Isaiah Washington , have traced back their roots to Africa and are contributing to their ancestral lands. Isaiah became a citizen of Sierra Leone, after finding that he is a decedent of the Mende ethnic group and has since been contributing towards the development of the country. Likewise, many other Americans are seeking their African roots: Chris Rock- Cameroon, Whoopi Goldberg - Guinea Bissau,  and Oprah - Liberia (Kpelle ethnicity). The brothers that made up the 80's band, "The boys", moved to the Gambia a few years back and now operate music studios from Gambia . Under their new name, Suns of Light, they continue to produce music for both US (New Kids on the Block, Akon) and Gambian artists from their studio that is based in Gambia. They hope to promote Gambian music overseas (Interview: A Chat With 'Suns of Light'). Despite many calls from African Americans to have dual citizenship offered to them, many African countries have not taken any extra steps towards this other than encouraging such a move. 

Allowing dual citizenship would provide a sense of ancestral identity for African-Americans. It will also increase ties and trade between America and that respective country. In the sense of nation branding, it would make Africans appear warm, friendly, accepting and sympathetic towards the history of African-Americans. It would also be beneficial in carrying African culture to America using American born citizens. Oprah's much publicized school in South Africa may have been built in South Africa in part, due to her belief that she was of Zulu origin. As a celebrity, she has helped bolster the image of South Africa  through her link with the school. No amount of advertising money can buy they type of publicity she brought for South Africa in choosing to build her school in that country. Even for the non-celebrities, people with dual citizenship can influence their families, churches, employers etc.. to invest, visit or work with a particular country. These dual citizens would help promote culture and development. In essence, it sounds like this would be a win-win situation.

So far, Ghana is the only country that legally allows for dual citizenship for African-Americans. Currently, there are an estimated 5,000 African-Americans living in Ghana. Other countries have been more hesitant. Perhaps, this is a more difficult move for those African countries that do not allow for dual nationality for their owned citizens that acquire citizenship in another country, or are born abroad to citizens. Perhaps landlocked countries that had fewer slaves feel that there is less linkage to African-Americans or perhaps there is the larger question involved as Anor, editor of Asante magazine aptly notes, "Just because your genetics show you came from a place, should that mean you can lay claim to that group of people or place now?".

With Africa being the cradle of the humanity, essentially, anyone in the world could lay claims to African citizenship. Yes, some may feel inclined to dispute these distant claims using color lines, but does color define what it is to be African? Whilst I understand the plight for African-Americans in terms of self identity, I feel that African countries should tread cautiously in providing citizenship to large numbers of people that are distantly linked to the continent. One needs to consider the current image of Africa in the Americas. For example, a large number of African-American still have the 'Tarzan' image of Africa, and want little do do with the continent. Whilst some do not hold these perceptions, they are so pervasive to the point that they may inadvertently manifest in later dealing with Africa. Whilst we hope that African-Americans that discover their roots will have the desire to help improve the situation of their newly found cousins, we cannot assume that every African-American has good intentions and need to take protective measures.

If there is to be any dual citizenship, what I would propose, is to take the route of India. India's diaspora is widespread and includes many Indians living abroad that have been in foreign land for generations. What they have done is introduced a new status quite like dual citizenship only with more limited privileges than what one would normally associate with dual citizenship. Like in the case of African-Americans, many Indians living abroad are many generations removed from India. In South Africa for example, the people of Indian origin have been there since the late 19th century and early 20th century. In the 1800's many were sent to South Africa to work on the plantations as indentured servants (many involuntarily and on life contracts). South Africa hosts the largest population of Indians outside of India (about 1 million) and in some cities, like Durban, they are the largest ethnic minority (See: Indian South Africans). Given India's situation, it would be problematic for India to incorporate that many people of Indian origin in to their already large population as full citizens. Instead, the government of India decided to grant the status of Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) as a way to tap in their diaspora.  Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) of certain category who migrated from India and acquired citizenship of a foreign country other than Pakistan and Bangladesh, are eligible for grant of OCI. It is commonly known as ‘Dual Citizenship’ but Indian constitution technically does not allow dual citizenship. It is more similar to a 'special status' visa. Their benefits include: life long multiple entry, multiple purpose visas, exemption from reporting to Police authorities for any length of stay in India; and the right to work, study, visit, or own property (except in the acquisition of certain agricultural or plantation properties). People that hold OCI status may not vote or hold Indian passports. They may also not occupy constitutional posts such as President, Vice President, Judge of the Supreme Court or legislative posts (See: Passport and Citizenship - Dual Nationality)

In drawing parallels with India, in Africa's case, African-Americans living in the U.S are also several generations removed, and also did not migrate purely from their own free will. A status similar to OCI would be suitable and perhaps more palatable for African leaders rather then conceding dual nationality with the same rights as a citizen. I will call the new proposed status 'Overseas Citizenship of Africa (OCA)'. Like the India's version, and OCA status would not concede the right to vote, change legislation, or hold high ranking government posts.It would make provision for multiple entry, land ownership (with restrictions), and the right to work, study or visit for an undisclosed period of time. It will hence facilitate trade, cultural sharing, and mutual understanding without the fear that exists in granting full citizenship rights to large groups of wealthy, and perhaps politically or culturally influential people (African-Americans are collectively the wealthiest population of black people). It would, in essence provide most of the benefits African-Americans are seeking from Africa, and it would provide Africa with most of the benefits they seek from the African-American diaspora.
Perhaps the biggest divergence from the Indian version that Africa may face with this level of integration, would be the language barrier. Unlike our Indian counterparts, Indians in the diaspora still largely speak or at least understand their mother tongue. African-Americans do not. Since language is a reflection of ones culture, I believe a requirement should be included that stipulates that person applying for OCA status, be required to speak at least one African language at the basic level. According to anthropological theory, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that language determines culture, and thought process. It would be beneficial for African-Americans to thus understand the language so that they can better understand the culture. If citizenship is granted at the local level, than it should be the predominant language of that country that is required. If it is regionally based, than it should be a language of that region. At AU level, then any language should suffice.
Since the discussions of dual nationality for African-Americans started a few years back, I am sure that it will be a while before other African countries follow in the footsteps of Ghana. There are other factors that way in the minds of African leaders that prevent them from moving this forward. A major one would be justifying granting this type of status to African-Americans for countries that do not allow for dual citizenship for their own nationals that acquire foreign citizenship, nor for foreign born children to citizens. In this brave new highly globalized world, I feel that African leaders should be able to make bold decisions that are not carbon copies of western citizenship and immigration laws. A form of OCA status may be the way forward for brand Africa.

Monday, July 5, 2010

President Obiang of Equatorial Guiniea to Rebrand himself

A few days ago, the president of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogomet briefly with Anti-apartheid activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Cape Town, South Africa. They discussed various issues concerning Africa and perhaps, touched on religion.  He went in to the meeting a caterpillar, and half-an-hour later, emerged a butterfly, outlining to the world a 10 year plan for Guinea-Conakry that would lift that country out of poverty, propagating it to new democratic heights. Guinea-Conakry, as it is sometimes know to distinguish it self from Guinea-Bissau, is the only Spanish-speaking country in Africa. It is also the host of the 2011 African Union meeting which will bring the leaders of Africa to its back yard. So whats in Obiang's back yard?

According to Slate author, Peter Maass, Obiang's back yard includes a three decade rule, corruption, repression, and oil money that did not trickle down to the masses. Their have also been rumours of spending-The situation in Guinea-Conakry has contributed to a mass exodus of Guineans migrating to Spain over the past few years. Arguably, Maas claims that Obiang is the worst dictator in Africa's history, surpassing that of the notorious Robert Mugabe. Yet, we rarely here about this man nor about oil-rich Equatorial Guinea. Perhaps, its because Equatorial Guinea lacks the drama of the land dispute issue in Zimbabwe that sent millions of white Africans to flee Zimbabwe, paving the way for land redistribution that  captivates western audiences who are still recovering from the discovery of white Africans. Media hardly reports about the on-goings of this small central African nation. Well, now this President who has gone virtually undetected by Western Media wants to put his country on the map, spread his wings and fly. He wants to distance himself from his current image as a corrupt, oppressive leader and become a progressive peoples president.

Obiang is so committed to rebranding himself and his country that, according to New York Times by Celia Dugger in African Leader Hires Adviser and Seeks an Image Change, he has hired an American lobbyist, Lanny J Davis, to help him with his image. He has entered in to a one year, $1 Million  contract with Davis, who has an extensive network in D.C and has worked with high profile clients like Bill Clinton. So it was in Cape Town last week, in front of heads of states,  including Bill Clinton himself, that Obiang announced his New Deal for Equatorial Guinea. This new path includes transparency and a goal to be  'just like the U.S'.

Yet this move has been met with much criticism. Cynics argue firstly, that a leopard can not change his spots. Secondly, that he has not accepted blame for all the human rights abuses and Third, that $1M is a hefty price tag for a nation where people live for less than a dollar a day. Is it possible that in his later years, he wants to be remembered as a hero to his people and not villain? Is it possible that he just wants prosperity for his country? Perhaps, their was a touch of Obama mania (yes we can!) or an instance of divine intervention as he met with the Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Every once in a while, we see caterpillars emerge out of their cocoons as butterflies. I believe that if this president has made change a part of his agenda, we should give him the benefit of the doubt until he proves us wrong. I say to the nay sayers, perhaps quite idealistically, that people have the capacity to change sans, civil war. In recent history, we have seen other leaders in Africa like Banda (Malawi) and Gaddafi (Libya) embrace transformation.

My VisionIn examining Libya, Gaddafi has taken active steps in paving a new road for Libya-literally. He is building super highways and improving the infrastructure for his people, and has set out on a pan-Africanist mission of uniting Africa under one banner. He has attempted to rebrand himself, going as far as admitting fault for the Pan-Am airways hijacking that he previously denied, in order to make amends with the rest of the world. Few in the west though are impressed by Gaddafis new image, and shake his hands at arms length. Although Libya is still under Gaddafis rule, I think it is important for us to accept these achievements. In Malawi's case, under political pressure, self proclaimed 'life President' Banda, stepped down in the 90's, to allow for multi-party elections. It is important to note that he was not re-elected. Banda, perhaps due to his old age, let Malawi change from a one party state to a multi-party state after being the sole president from 1964. So contrary to popular belief, change by African heads of state is possible, regardless of motivation.

If the first step in solving a problem is admitting that there is a problem in the first place, than in Obiangs case, that's part of the problem. Vehemently denying all allegations that have plagued his presidency, makes for a less convincing platform of change. According to the advice from his new image consultant needs to admit to a few wrong-doings, and as his new advisor has told him, win elections by a slim majority instead of a large majority.  Thus far, he is allowing  the Red Cross to come in and investigate human right abuses as a start, but many still doubt his sincerity. Davis has come under criticism too for accepting this role and being a 'stooge' to the president. Both Davis and Obiang are being criticised for taking advantage of the people of the country since his salary is coming from their government. On this matter, I would like to point out that whilst one should never take advantage of ones people, there shouldn't be an expectation of a discounted price because his client is African. Davis is working in his professional capacity. If that's the price that he charged Bill Clinton, than that is what his services are worth. Also, in the long run, if spending that 1 million dollars, is an investment in to Guinea's future in terms of building networks that will lead to favorable development projects, then it is money well spent.

The idea that African leaders should somehow be immune to spending money on items with high tag prices is a delicate one. I understand that in some instances, a leader will spend money on premium products while money could be used by the poor, but I also understand that in a socially stratified capitalist society, their is always going to be those that have, and those that do not. This is not to say I condone the wanton spending habits of some leaders, but to say that, unless Davis offers a 'developing country discount' for his services, for what Obiang wants to achieve, that is the going rate.  I recall an incident where South Africa was hosting several heads of state at a state dinner a few years ago. On the menu where lobsters, shrimp etc.. The media began to report on the lavish nature of the event due to the menu choice in light of the poverty in Africa. What they failed to do was to adjust for South African standard of living since South Africa enjoys ample access to water, the cost of a lavish dinner for head of state in S.A would nowhere be the same as it would overseas. Yes, it is more expensive than an ordinary dinner but since South Africa was hosting foreign dignitaries and heads of state, they had to make a menu befitting of the guests. Let us keep this in perspective by highlighting that Washington DC is also home to one of the highest population of homeless people in Washington D.C. yet, when the President holds his state dinner, we do not hear, in the same news story that, 'Washington DC is also home to thousands of starving Americans', yet we somehow think it is acceptable for them to mention a state dinner in South Africa and comment on the poor in that country.

No one can predict if this latest move by Obiang will be a move that will benefit the country in the long run or if K street can help him rebrand his image. In addition to Davis, Obiang has hired PR firm, Qorvis Communications and a security firm to help guard areas of national aquatic resources. We should help the people of that country by creating a less hostile environment for presidents in Africa seeking change and giving them room to come out of their cocoon's and let the change manifest. Rome was not built in a day, and we can not expect Obiang to change over night. Understandably,  with his past record, he also has personal interests that he has an invested interest in safeguarding. Obiang cannot change his past record, and the world should not forget it either but, if Obiang is committed to change and is taking steps towards this, than we should be enablers of Equatorial Guinea's change.