Meet the Nigerian Governor Who Is Sitting on Billions of Barrels of Oil

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
Jan. 2 2014 11:38 PM

Delta Force

You don’t know the governor of Nigeria’s Rivers State. But he is sitting on billions of barrels of oil and aspires to much more.

(Continued from Page 1)

Amaechi arrives three hours late to a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new water purification system in Eleme district on the outskirts of the city. Oil multinational Royal Dutch Shell, which has been accused a legal battle that made its way all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 of polluting groundwater in the area with toxic benzene, has sponsored the cleanup as part of its corporate social responsibility campaign.

Governor Amaechi cuts the ribbon at the unveiling ceremony for a new water purification plant funded by Shell, flanked by government officials and representatives of Shell Nigeria.
Amaechi cuts the ribbon at the unveiling ceremony for a new water purification plant funded by Shell, flanked by government officials and representatives of Shell Nigeria.

Courtesy of Adrienne Klasa

Despite the late arrival, the streets are thronged with Amaechi’s supporters, still enthusiastic in the muggy heat. As the convoy pulls in, the supporters wave placards bearing slogans not about water issues or Shell, but in support of Amaechi himself: “Amaechi is a symbol of a true statesman,” “Come rain or shine Amaechi can sleep with two eyes closed!,” “Eleme people are behind all his aspirations.” I sense that along with the local news media, I’m being given a show.

The governor uses an oversized pair of scissors to cut a blue ribbon festooned around the new water tap. A bewildered child is produced from somewhere in the crowd, given a cup of water, and told to drink. Amaechi goes next, taking an exaggerated sip. “Tastes like …  nothing!” he says dramatically with a twinkle to the cameras. The crowd cheers. To be sure, cleaning up the poisoned groundwater in Eleme is an important achievement—yet this project will only reach about 20 percent of those affected. Shell’s representative, meanwhile, wants it made absolutely clear that the company’s involvement is a mark of the company’s benevolence, not an admission of guilt.

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Projects like this are but one part of the governor’s wide-ranging development agenda, which Amaechi trumpets constantly. Under his government, money has been directed into creating an industrial zone and programs to train and supply farmers. New schools dot the district, easily identified by their mustard-yellow buildings and green tin roofs. India’s largest education contractor, Educomp Solutions Limited, has been hired to run 24 model secondary schools around the state.

When we visit one such school, the governor lounges with a proprietary air in a plush red seat in the new 1,000-person capacity auditorium. Educomp Africa’s CEO Shantaram Hegdekatte is present and eager to impress his benefactor. “This will be the most advanced school in Nigeria, probably even Africa,” he assures us as we are ushered through the well-appointed science labs and teaching rooms equipped with laptops and digital projectors. Amaechi jokes he will rescind Educomp’s contract if the school doesn’t also produce the highest test scores. Everyone laughs, but nobody doubts he means it. Contracts here are like favors—easily granted and easily withdrawn.

Governor Amaechi poses with top students and staff at one of the model secondary schools built by his administration. The schools are run by Indian education contractor Educomp Ltd.
Amaechi poses with top students and staff at one of the model secondary schools built by his administration. The schools are run by Indian education contractor Educomp.

Courtesy of Adrienne Klasa

The governor is keen to pitch his development agenda as the main approach to fighting militancy. Unemployment and underdevelopment outside of the oil sector remain a problem, leading many desperate young men to turn to a life of violence and crime. “The solution is social security,” Amaechi asserts. “We take on poverty by creating employment.”

The bullish poverty line is a constant Amaechi refrain, but the fact that he stands accused of pocketing $150 million undercuts his credibility as a champion of social welfare. While his projects certainly look impressive, measuring their impact on development is difficult. Nigerian statistics at the federal level are notoriously patchy and inaccurate, and independent assessments of Rivers State from development agencies are non-existent. It’s simply too dangerous for nongovernmental organizations to operate there.

The kidnapping situation in the delta has improved since the height of the crisis in 2009. That year, former President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua instituted a blanket amnesty program for militants. In exchange for laying down their arms, ex-militants received a government stipend of more than $400 per month—a substantial sum in Nigeria. The program is still in place today, but many don’t see it as a sustainable solution. Amaechi opposes the program, pitting him against the federal government and Jonathan.

“I have been against [the program] from the beginning,” he says. “You don’t reward crime. You punish crime. These gentleman have not been found guilty by any court, so you can’t even call them criminals.”

While Amaechi and his advisers are keen to play up a drop in kidnappings, Port Harcourt’s security problems are far from resolved. Oil theft has become the new focus for criminal networks. A 2013 Chatham House study shows that Nigeria loses 100,000 barrels a day, or nearly 5 percent of its total output, to theft. Militants and criminal gangs tap pipelines in the marshy creeks of the delta, siphon off oil into boats, and then load it onto tankers once it reaches the coast. The operation is so large and so elaborate that the Chatham House study concluded that “top Nigerian officials” as well as “corrupt members of the security forces were actively involved.”

When asked about theft, the governor is keen to shift blame onto his adversaries in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. “The federal government is supposed to protect the pipelines, and protect oil. That is a federal mandate,” he declares.

But theft isn’t only a problem for oil profits: The holes criminal groups punch in the pipelines are left open, allowing crude to seep out and contaminate the surrounding areas. And while politicians equivocate on the responsibility, the human and environmental costs of pipeline leaks are very real. 

Local residents detailed to me the consequences of drinking and bathing in benzine-spiked water over the years: skin conditions, birth deformities, cancers. “Because of the gas flares in the area, you cannot breathe good air and the water is also polluted,” Kaizer, a 90-year-old community leader, tells me. I came to a street where new filtered tap lines—sponsored by Shell—haven’t been installed. Two girls wash and collect water from a pump. The smell of benzine wafts up from the water trough.

The last time I see the governor is out the window of his study after our final interview. Our time is cut short. He has to leave to catch a plane to Abuja, then on to Europe to join his wife and family. The gravel courtyard below crawls with attendants and security officers milling among the half dozen black Land Rovers. Oga comes charging out the front door, his suit as immaculate as ever. Within seconds the convoy pulls out, leaving behind a cloud of dust in a vast, gray expanse.

Adrienne Klasa is a freelance journalist currently based in London. Reach her at www.adrienneklasa.com or @adriennklasa.

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