Meet Big Oil’s Big Men in Nigeria and Ghana

Masked rebels in the oil-rich Niger Delta of Nigeria. Credit: Big Men

Companies have been taking oil out of Nigeria for nearly half a century, making it one of the wealthier nations in Africa.

But the wealth is not well-distributed. What should have been a boon for Nigerians has left out most of them. Corruption, domestic and foreign, a series of coups and the concentration of oil wealth has actually undermined progress and development. At least half of all Nigerians live in poverty.

In the oil-rich Niger Delta of Nigeria, some have taken up arms to steal from and sabotage the oil pipelines. It has made for a continuously insecure situation in the region and a burgeoning health disaster caused by oil spills, both intentional and accidental.

A new documentary film, Big Men, explores if the ‘resource curse,’ will repeat itself elsewhere in Africa.

Other African nations already have had experiences somewhat similar to Nigeria. The citizens’ hope that follows the discovery of oil frequently loses out to the realities of competition and corruption. The ‘resource curse’ applies as much to coltan in the Democratic Republic of Congo and diamonds in Angola as it does to Nigeria’s oil.

That’s why some were immediately worried when a small US oil company discovered oil in the ocean off the coast of south Ghana. The Dallas-based Kosmos Energy tapped into some 3 billion barrels in 2007. The company had negotiated a favorable contract with the government of Ghana that would give them exclusive drilling rights for finding such a field.

At that time filmmaker Rachel Boynton was looking for a new project. Her documentary, Our Brand is Crisis, provided a look inside the workings of politics through the political consulting firm Greenberg Carville Shrum’s work in the 2002 Bolivian election.

“I was feeling very ambitious. I wanted something very big and very difficult,” she said to Humanosphere.

Oil was a subject that leapt out to Boynton because of the public clamoring over the price of oil surpassing $100 a barrel. She learned that West Africa was one of the frontiers for oil and flew out to Nigeria to learn more about the rebels she was hearing about in news reports.

“I thought to myself, ‘There has got to be a story there,'” she said. “So, I traveled back and forth for 2 years with the premise that everyone is connected.”

While connecting and filming with some of the rebels along the Niger Delta, Boynton was thinking about the industry at large. She used her time back in the US to poke around, eventually connecting with Brian Maxted, one of the co-founders of Kosmos Energy.

The small company was exploring for oil in parts of Africa where other companies were not focused. Companies like Kosmos make a bet on the windfall earnings from the discovery of oil. The associated risk is considered to be worth the possible reward. That worked out for Kosmos in Ghana.

The privately-held company that made a major oil discovery was the perfect point of focus for Boynton’s camera. The years of filming that ensued have come together in the film Big Men.

The remarkable access that seems at times to be entirely unfettered takes viewers into the world of an oil company trying to maintain its negotiated deal that is in flux after the election of John Atta Mills, the leader of the opposition National Democratic Congress, to president of Ghana. The questions about how oil will impact Ghana are raised while the state of Nigeria’s oil conflicts are laid bare.

“Usually people come at the story with the oil industry with a bone to pick, and certainly there are plenty bones to pick when it comes to natural resources in the third world,” said Boynton.

“I am interested in the deeper human impulses that are involved.”

While leaders from Kosmos worry about the potential dissolution of their oil deal, rebels in Nigeria are fighting to survive. They are surrounded by oil, but are not seeing their lives get any better. The mask-wearing men are a lesson in how badly things can go wrong.

What emerges is the connection between seemingly disparate people in both Nigeria and Ghana, respectively. Underlying is the desire, as one of the Nigerian rebels puts it, to be a big man. Each group acts to protect their own self interest, which at times is in conflict with the interests of others. Tension is palpable throughout the film as the stories progress and new challenges emerge for everyone involved.

“This is not a film about a place,” said Boynton.

“It is film about how the system works and how we are connected. Everyone fundamentally is looking out for their own.”

While there is no overt judgement in the documentary, Boynton says that she does carry through a strong point of view in the film. She admits that she views things as very complicated, when addressing a subject, which is evident in watching the film. It is intentionally present, meaning that more questions are raised than answered.

“The movie makes a very compelling case that the problems in Nigeria are what everyone wants to avoid and that the pressures of a lottery win really bring out the worst in individuals,” said Todd Moss of the Center for Global Development to Humanosphere (he wrote a review of the movie last week, here).

Moss is the author of the recent book Oil to Cash: Fighting the Resource Curse through Cash Transfers. It describes how places like Norway and Alaska are examples of how natural resources do not have to be a curse for countries.

Alaska stands out for its transparent system of sharing the profits from oil extracted in the state. Residents can go to a state-run dashboard to see just how much money was made each year, how much they should expect to get and where the money is being spent.

The transparent system helps Alaskans hold the state government accountable and encourages greater civic participation as a result.

“Fishermen will will talk about where the money comes from for the state budget,” remarked Moss. “It is a really remarkable tool.”

Ghana will need to develop policies that will ensure that the riches realized through the oil will benefit the whole of the country, while not alienating the oil companies that are extracting the oil from the ground. Moss said he is a bit concerned about Ghana because of the way companies are being treated.

“Ghana cannot develop those oil fields on their own,” he said. “The government has shown it will squeeze foreign investors as much as possible once the payout happens. I think that is not a good signal.”

Big Men is rolling out in US cities for the next two months. It can already be seen in Washington DC, New York and elsewhere.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.