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January 03, 2006

Theodore Dalrymple remembers Ken Saro-Wiwa - and asks, if unearned income from oil has done so much harm to Nigeria, will increased unearned aid flows not do similar harm to Africa as a whole?

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Nigerian oil - and the huge revenues they have brought to the Nigerian government - have been as much a curse as a blessing to the country. These revenues have brought little benefit to the Nigerian people - Theodore Dalrymple recalls how Ken Saro-Wiwa would describe how the Ogoni people had suffered for oil. This causes Theodore Dalrymple to ask, if the unearned income from oil have done so much harm to Nigeria, will increased unearned aid flows not do similar harm to Africa as a whole?

When I read that an oil pipeline in eastern Nigeria had been blown up just before Christmas by political activists, killing at least eight people, I could not help but recall my visits to that part of the country. I became friendly with Ken Saro-Wiwa, the writer who was later hanged (at the fifth attempt) during the dictatorship of the late and unlamented Sani Abachi.

Saro-Wiwa was a member of the Ogoni tribe, a small ethnic group inhabiting the delta region from which most of Nigeria's oil was extracted. His people had benefited very little from the wealth that flowed from Ogoniland, he said; on the contrary, the environment had been degraded to the point that traditional activities such as fishing were no longer possible, and the Ogoni lived in perpetual light, their night-time illuminated everywhere by gas flares from the wells. Not so much as a school had been built with the billions of dollars paid in royalties by Shell to the Federal Government, according to Saro-Wiwa; he therefore started a political movement to obtain restitution from both the government and Shell Oil for the Ogoni people. Things were so bad, he said, that they could get no worse.

I remember discussing this with him. Surely he, who had lived through the Nigerian civil war (he had supported the Federal side, not believing that the Ogoni would fare well under Igbo rule), realised that things were very rarely so bad they could get no worse. Therefore, I said, those who wanted to improve things had always to bear in mind that they might make them worse as well. I didn't really believe in the possibility of political activism in Nigeria that would not lead to corruption and violence, but I didn't succeed in convincing Saro-Wiwa of this. It was better to do something than nothing, he said, though he suspected very early on that the regime would kill him in the end - something which, wrongly as it turned out, I did not myself believe.

The lesson of oil in Nigeria is one that proponents of more aid to Africa ought to heed more closely. Oil has been as much a curse for Nigeria as a blessing. It has brought the country huge revenues, of course: to such an extent that one Nigerian minister famously (or infamously) claimed that Nigeria's problem was not how to make money, but how to spend it. In the sense that the money from oil was entirely unearned, at least by Nigerians, it represented foreign aid on a scale unimaginable elsewhere.

But are Nigerians better off than they would have been without it? This may be doubted. Of course, there are prestige projects, such as the Federal capital, Abuja, to show for it, but the productive value of such an investment - a spanking new capital for politicians and bureaucrats that is likely to deteriorate horribly the moment the oil wells stop gushing - is not self-evident.

Nigeria's economic dependence on oil is almost complete. Oil generates 95 per cent of Nigeria's foreign exchange, and remittances of expatriate Nigerians much of the rest. It is hardly surprising in the circumstances that ambitious Nigerians - at least those who stay in the country - are concerned mainly to accrue enough political influence to get their hands on some of the loot.

Oil in Nigeria has corrupted even the census. Since oil revenue is doled out by the central government to the states according to the size of their population (after it has taken its own very considerable cut, of course), every state has an interest in inflating the size of its population.

Lack of capital has not been Nigeria's problem. Indeed, there are very few countries in Africa in which natural resources that bring large sums of foreign exchange have helped to develop the country in any way. On the contrary, they have first promoted and then prolonged civil war as often as not. Where foreign aid has become a kind of natural resource, as it has in Sudan, it plays the same role as diamonds or oil elsewhere.

As the late Lord Bauer pointed out, lack of money is not the cause of poverty - it is poverty. But if a lack of money had prevented people from improving their lot, then mankind would still be living in the caves: unless you believe that investment capital first arrived from outer space, as the astronomer Fred Hoyle believed that life on earth had arrived.

It follows, I think, that the principal obstacles to development in Africa are internal. Aid is neither necessary nor sufficient for such development to take place: and, if it arrives in sufficiently large quantities, it is likely to have the deforming effect that oil has had in Nigeria, or diamonds in Sierra Leone. This is bad news for all those who want to prove their virtue and compassion by giving away other people's money.

Partisans of aid assert that they can avoid its deforming effects by directing it carefully to those who will most benefit from it, but I very much doubt it. No aid worker can ever know a country and its culture as well as its own people - who in my experience are able to outwit any foreigner when it comes to the malversation of funds. Low cunning is, after all, the weapon of the weak and subordinate. The idea that one can direct aid as a good archer aims his arrow seems to me ridiculous, as well as disrespectful of the capacities of the weak and subordinate.

If oil has been as much a blessing as a curse for Nigeria, increasing the stakes in the competition for political power, does it follow that the destruction of oil pipelines is the way forward for the country? No: the sudden withdrawal of funds would plunge the country into the economic and political equivalent of delirium tremens. Nor can it even be said that if Nigeria had never had oil, its situation would be better that it is. The record of African countries without great natural resources is no better than that of those with such resources. But without oil and the easy money it brought, I doubt whether Ken Saro-Wiwa would have been hanged.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and recently retired as a doctor.


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I sometimes work in Nigeria. There I met someone involved in building a cement factory which would presumbly generate employment and tax revenues in addition to cement. For it to operate near capacity, some 2,000 or more lorries a day needed to roll over a barely paved road, the only road for many miles if you could call it a road at all rather than a track. Extending the undercapitalised railway was out of the question. So to create any new jobs in an impoverished area, the cement lorries would destroy the closest thing that they had to a road.

Without infrastructure, much economic development is rendered impossible. Hence it seems that Nigeria's problems are not caused by too much money, but rather by too much money ill-spent -- in Nigeria's case on a newbuilt capitol and filling the foreign bank accounts of its leaders.

Posted by: s j masty at January 4, 2006 09:28 AM
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