Nigeria: The Hidden Cost of Corruption
Who are the biggest victims of widespread bribery?
BY SAM KENNEDY
APRIL 24, 2009
If any company knew how to get business done in Nigeria's Niger Delta, it was Willbros Group. The Texas contractor had been laying pipe through the Delta's mangrove forests since shortly after the discovery of oil there 50 years ago. And so it is telling that in February 2005, Jim Bob Brown, head of Willbros' Nigerian operations, showed up in the teeming tropical city of Lagos to hand off a suitcase filled with $1 million in cash.
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So rampant is corruption in Nigeria that the list of those recently accused of engaging in bribery there includes a U.S. Congressman (indicted after $90,000 of marked money was found in tinfoil-wrapped bundles in his freezer) and a Fortune 500 energy company (then run by soon-to-be Vice President Dick Cheney). Indeed, the Berlin-based group Transparency International has consistently ranked Nigeria among the world's most corrupt countries.
Much of the shady business takes place in or is related to the Delta -- a part of Nigeria that has earned an unfortunate superlative of its own: one of the five most-polluted spots on Earth, according to a recent assessment by a team of international experts. Up to 50 times as much oil as that of the Exxon Valdez disaster has been spilled there over the past 50 years -- one Valdez a year. And flaring -- how oil companies get rid of unwanted gas, a byproduct of drilling -- is blamed for making rain so acidic that corrugated iron roofs quickly turn to rust.
Even so, pollution is not the top concern for the average Delta inhabitant. Hunger is. Nigeria supplies one-tenth of the United States' oil, more than Iraq and Kuwait combined, yielding billions of dollars in oil revenue every year. Yet in the Delta most people survive on less than a dollar a day, well below the World Bank's threshold for extreme poverty.
Jim Bob Brown probably didn't think of their desperation as he let go of that suitcase. Nor, it seems, did the government officials who pocketed its contents. But it is not mere coincidence that one of the word's most corrupt places is also one of its most polluted -- and one that, despite a wealth of oil and natural gas, can barely feed itself. If bribe money has bought anything in the Delta, it is a culture of pervasive, profound neglect.